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Since the mids, Van Vliet has carved out a niche as a painter and rarely speaks to the press. There is something distinctly gossipy about Blandford's approach to Harvey.
The way he speculates on her romantic attachments has a tabloid ring and the tone throughout the book is annoyingly conversational. In contrast, Barnes does not attempt to trawl through intimate details of Van Vliet's life. What we learn about Van Vliet's character comes from looking at his working relationships. The story of the creation of his masterpiece Trout Mask Replica is a case in point. In an atypically unguarded moment in the late '60s, Van Vliet revealed he was trying to fuse the blues of artists such as Mississippi John Hurt and Howlin' Wolf with the free jazz of the likes of Ornette Coleman.
But, according to the musicians' memories, "freedom", musical or otherwise, was not something Captain Beefheart's Magic Band had a lot of. Trout Mask Replica was rehearsed over eight months during which food and money were in short supply. The group would rehearse for up to 12 hours a day and sleep in the same room they had been playing in - while Van Vliet and his girlfriend had their own room. Part of Van Vliet's control regime all of the group members were 19 or 20 years old, considerably younger than their leader was giving his sidemen exotic names such as Zoot Horn Rollo and Antennae Jimmy Semens.
A portrait of Van Vliet emerges. Many who worked with him call him a genius, blessed with an uncommonly childlike artistic fearlessness and sense of wonder. Yet he was beset with such insecurity that his collaborators were subject to constant manipulation and seldom given the credit they deserved. Van Vliet would improvise pieces at the piano, an instrument he could not play in any traditional sense, and drummer John French would transcribe these creative emissions and arrange the pieces for the group, teaching them their parts in the process.
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For midwifing odd very odd pieces, French received no credit. One gets the sense that Barnes has invested a great deal in coming to grips with the subtleties and resonances of the Beefheart oeuvre. Blandford, meanwhile, takes his cues from album reviews and published interviews with Harvey. And should one want to find out what Harvey said about the making of a particular album, there are lengthy interview extracts here.