25 years ago today a van traveling to Arizona for the holidays crashed and flipped over alongside route I-10 near the California border. Thrown from the vehicle was D. Boon, singer/ songwriter and founding member of the indie punk band the Minutemen. Boon broke his neck in the accident and died instantly. He was 27.
Five days ago it was announced that Don Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart) had finally succumbed to complications from multiple sclerosis and died at the age of 69. While first coming to the public’s attention in the ‘60s as the eccentric leader of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, Vliet was known for performing a hard-to-categorize mix of rock, delta blues, and avant-garde jazz. Additionally, he was recognized as a notable sculptor and abstract painter, and was also a well-known acquaintance of rock musician Frank Zappa.
Though the stories and career trajectories of the two musicians listed above could not be more different, both men were able to inspire thousands with their extraordinary bodies of work that wowed critics but never managed to reach the upper echelons of the billboard charts. Yet, despite this lack of commercial recognition, there was a sense of daring present at all times in each man’s words and music.
For D. Boon, this sense of daring meant “jamming econo” and writing short, biting, political songs with band mate and friend Mike Watt. Along with drummer George Hurley, Watt and Boon’s take on punk rock was an anomaly that somehow fit, though never quite comfortably, within the strict confines of the hardcore community. Still, for a group of males growing up in San Pedro, California during the ‘80s options were at a premium, and even rarer was a chance to express oneself with complete artistic freedom. Here, the Minutemen succeeded in spades. Whether by recording a debut for SST Records that consisted of seven songs in six and a half minutes, or by releasing their magnum opus “Double Nickels on the Dime,” a four-sided dual album response to contemporaries Husker Du that also managed to mock hard-rocker Sammy Hagar and psychedelic legends Pink Floyd, the Minutemen did things their way. How can you get any more punk rock than that?
Meanwhile, on the other side of the equation, for Vliet a sense of daring meant challenging the music establishment itself by turning audiences on their heads and making listeners question what actually constituted rock music. For instance, during the recording of 1970’s Trout Mask Replica it was rumored that Vliet had the Magic Band rehearse for 12 hours a day in a house with blacked out windows so the musicians could learn their parts by heart. Years later, the group, now equipped with a seemingly constant rotating set of members, found success on tour and even appeared on Saturday Night Live in 1980. However, after the release of “Ice Cream for Crow” in 1982 Vliet unexpectedly retired and abandoned music to embark on a career as a painter while living with his wife in the Mojave Desert. Fittingly, his influence continued to loom large and a diverse set of artists ranging from Tom Waits to Sonic Youth and more emerged over the years citing him as an inspiration and cross-generational forefather.
Though relegated to a set of discriminating, diverse cliques, fans of both Captain Beefheart and the Minutemen can commiserate today like no other time before. While D. Boon passed on in his youth over 20 years ago and the Don Van Vliet faded away recently just a few weeks shy of his 70th birthday, the memories and experience both men gave to listeners the world over remain behind. So, in honor of such spirits and their impact on the musical landscape we at the Underground leave you with the words of indie icon Steve Albini. Though Albini’s statement was written in his diary as a reaction to hearing the news of D. Boon’s death, his sentiments are universal enough to apply to Vliet as well. Enjoy:
So there’s no one left who’s been doing it since the beginning and doing it all the way right. Fuck. It’s like Buddy Holly or something. Sure it’s kind of pathetic to get all worked up over it but hell they meant it, and that means something to me…Man, what do we do now?
Answer: we survive Steve. That’s all we can do. And, we will always have our memories. Mahalo.
See D. Boon and the Minutemen perform an acoustic take on their song “Corona” here: