Pamela Des Barres’ life changed completely when she met Victor Haydon, first cousin to Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart) and later The Mascara Snake in his Magic Band. A high school infatuation became a lifelong connection to “Uncle Vic,” an artist, provocateur, musician, and occasional troubled soul. When he died in 2018, Miss Pamela’s life changed completely again. She fondly recalls her fascinating, sometimes frustrating ‘dearest soul brother’ for PKM readers.
My dearest soul brother left the planet December 2018. The loss was so earth-shaking and calamitous for me that only now, after 16 months, I feel I can share a few tidbits about one of the most influential people in my life, Victor Haydon – The Mascara Snake.
Even though I’d been a total Elvis nut, Dion devotee, and Beatle freak — at 16, I was still languishing in what would be considered normality at Cleveland High in Reseda, California. I’d even had aspirations about waving pom-poms at our football games –I was a proud Cleveland Cavalier after all — but lacked that kind of snooty popularity. I was happily going steady with New York’s finest pompadour’ed greaser boy, the often-in-trouble Bobby Martini, while still dreaming what might be between Paul McCartney’s milky-white thighs. All was dandy in my small Valley world, and each day I stuffed by bra with silky scarves, praying the fetching fraudulence would soon become a reality.
Bobby and I had been indulging in third base antics, panting heavily in his parents’ motor home, when he was suddenly dragged back to New York. I was way ahead of my peers, making tapes full of sad songs and agonized longing, shipping them off to Brooklyn covered in sticky Yardley Slicker lip prints. He returned the favor, dousing pages of desire with his potent Jade East cologne. (I still have the letters and the ghostly tang of that Sav-On scent faintly lingers).
I was mesmerized by this fellow defying authority just to prove his iconoclastic independence.
It was early 1965 and, like a cat, I sniffed at the air, sensing the swirling change blowing in the wind, when a new boy showed up at Cleveland High, proving me right. I’d only seen boys like Victor Haydon in magazines and in my imagination, but here he was, wearing wide-wale corduroy pants, auburn hair brushing his collar, ducking out of the way of the eagle-eyed VP. It’s hard to imagine now, but the length of boys’ hair and the length of girls’ skirts were of prime importance to the stodgy Cleveland faculty. I was mesmerized by this fellow defying authority just to prove his iconoclastic independence. It was obvious that he despised being there, carrying around bundles of art supplies, holding his gaze down and away from the bustling parade of crew-cutted boys and bouffanted girls passing him in the hallways.
I’ve often said that I have no clue what made Victor approach me one morning as I gobbled coffee cake during Nutrition, but it’s safe to say that my life changed abruptly during that brief but potent interaction. He must have seen some hidden hipness down inside my Beatle boots, although my hair was still teased Patti Boyd high and sprayed to Aqua Net perfection. My Beatle friends were aghast when I began spending more time with this oddball interloper instead of the three of them, disappearing behind the history building to have my mind blown to smithereens, expanding like an electric accordion on fire. The day Victor gave me Bob Dylan’s first album and told me to check out the Rolling Stones stands as one of the most hallowed of my life. After one listen to Dylan, I was transformed – transported into a much wider world. But who was I? Victor Haydon helped me find out.
He was half a grade ahead of me, so we didn’t have any classes together, but I started cutting Home Ec to hide in the door-well where Victor sat in the last row by the door, expounding on ideas that shook me to the core. He even took hits off a marijuana joint, trying to pass it to me, which I fiercely declined, believing it led down the road to druggy disaster. He told me he was superhuman, insisting he lived in the fourth dimension, wherever that was, suggesting I read Kant, Kerouac and Kafka. He regaled me with stories about growing up with his first cousin, Don Van Vliet, seven years older, a musician he wanted me to meet who called himself Captain Beefheart. I trembled with anticipation. I shook out my teased hair, seeking out trippy clothes in thrift stores, imitating the offbeat look Victor so easily carried off. He took me out one night in his massive old Hudson Hornet to a jazz club downtown called Mother Neptune’s and as I nodded my head with the other jazzed up beatniks, I thought I must the hippest chick in La La Land.
He regaled me with stories about growing up with his first cousin, Don Van Vliet ….he wanted me to meet who called himself Captain Beefheart. I trembled with anticipation.
Meanwhile, back in Beatleland, things were getting touchy. My Beatle sisters turned against me, even writing a rude break-up letter which included these pronouncements: “You think you’re an individualist. But an individualist isn’t one who wears weird clothes. Pam, you try to be strange but you aren’t. You are just being a loser. Nobody likes you when you act the way you do. Personally I’d much rather go around with my crowd than with moody Victor who chops everyone down because he knows he isn’t popular…” Victor scorned the shallow concept of high school popularity, and when our mutual friend, Iva Turner, dared to interview him for her column in the school newspaper, all heck broke loose.
Here’s what Iva wrote in response: “During the public uproar over boys with long hair, I interviewed a shaggy-haired student I knew – a guy who didn’t care if his hair bothered anyone – artist and intellectual, Victor Haydon, and his close friend and fellow non-conformist, Jeff Burchell. We had a great chat on several subjects, including the idiocy of worrying about the length of a person’s hair when there was so much important stuff going on in the world. Victor was aware of all the universal angles, and so quotable. No one I’ve ever met talked like Victor. The interview was approved by my journalism teacher and went to print. The next day, I was called into the principal’s office and reprimanded for my breach of good taste in writing about such an outrageous and offensive subject. Hair. Every copy of the paper was collected and destroyed.”
When Bobby Martini came back from New York, he found an entirely different person in place of the devoted babydoll he’d left behind. I attempted to continue on with our teen romance, but he didn’t want Victor around, and took to pacing back and forth in front of Victor’s house, threatening to kick the shit out of him, seething with pissed-off confusion. I didn’t blame him, but I was headed for the fourth dimension and Bobby remained firmly ensconced in the third.
May of ’65 Vic invited me to the Fourth Annual Teen Fair at the Hollywood Palladium where Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band performed for a bunch of disinterested, square teens, while a few miles down the strip, proto-hippies were starting to wreak havoc. After the bluesy, ragged set, I stood dumbstruck in front of the towering, shaggy Captain as he proclaimed my corduroy jacket “a gas,” adding that he wished there were more people like me on the planet. He called me Pamela instead of Pam, and Pam instantly ceased to exist. I soon became President of the Beefheart Fan Club — the Valley Chapter — and never missed a show.
Very soon after this astounding meeting, the Rolling Stones came to town, so Victor and I headed to RCA hoping to meet the rowdy bunch. We met them alright and I made an ass of myself, but later that night Beefheart took us to meet Bill [Wyman] and Charlie [Watts], where we listened to Muddy Waters on scratchy vinyl, and also accompanied us to the Long Beach Arena to see the bad boys in action. I have an entire column devoted to Beefheart right here on pleasekillme.com, so take a gander at that one if you’d like more fascinating details. This column is about my dear friend, Victor Haydon, who would soon become The Mascara Snake. Suddenly I was HIP and WITH IT, albeit by proxy, but determined to live up to Vic’s expectations.
When I got my first job, Victor briefly joined me, painting boots on rubber Batman and Robin figures, and eyes on bendable Gumbys and Pokeys. It was the only real job he ever had.
Soon after I hit Hollywood at the Teen Fair, I started hitching over the hill and merged into the burgeoning hippie/flower child/freak movements, continuing to see Victor, Don and the Magic Band, marveling that I’d become close friends with such a spectacular group of kooks who’d set me on my path. When I aligned with Frank Zappa and my all-girl band the GTOs started our madcap run, I’d often see Vic at Frank’s log cabin and at the good Captain’s Whiskey a Go Go shows. He’d become a member of the band, tootling the clarinet as The Mascara Snake, famously joining his cousin on their most heralded album, Trout Mask Replica. Vic’s love of bulbous shapes, such as the lines on his Hudson Hornet, found Don shouting “fast and bulbous the Mascara Snake” on the track Pena, “Yes,” Victor responded, “bulbous also tapered… also a tin teardrop!”
“Pena” from Trout Mask Replica:
Seemingly nonsensical but as always with Victor – he saw everything as pure art. Following his train of thought was always a trip to unexpected terrain.
As I pounced headfirst into groupiedom, Victor continued the artistic exploration of his marvelous mind, eventually moving into a shack hidden in an ancient redwood tree, where he insisted moss climbed his damp walls, invading his consciousness like invisible thought patterns. I got one letter from him during that solo phase insisting that I join the Vedanta Society. I didn’t hear another peep from him until my first book tour for I’m with the Band took me to Seattle.
I was the only guest on a local, hour-long afternoon TV show where I answered questions from the audience about my rock star gentlemen, evading the mean-spirited judgments I often had to smack away like toxic tennis balls. As I signed a few autographs after the show, a familiar voice rumbled behind me, “Hello Pamela.” I spun around to face Victor Haydon, totally incognito with short, neatly combed hair and black rimmed spectacles. He thought we’d been communing for the entire hour and seemed slightly downcast when I admitted I had no idea he’d been vibing me from the back row. Over cups of tea at his favorite coffee shop, Thirteen Coins, he admitted that he’d been contemplating suicide, but when he heard I’d be in town, came to the TV station instead. Kind of extreme, but that was Victor.
He’d left the wilderness to manage death metal bands and co-owned the record company, Ever Rat, with his best pal, David Portnow, a fellow I’d come to know well in the years to come. Actually, on the first page of Journals by Kurt Cobain he mentions that Vic and Dave turned down the opportunity to sign Nirvana. They were just too tame for the label.
As we conversed that evening, I slowly realized that Victor had become even more sensitive to the outside world. He carefully chose his words, like he was writing beat poetry on the spot. He looked around warily, as if he was being watched, uncomfortable on the planet and in his skin.
A few weeks later, Victor came to see me in California, instantly becoming the only uncle my son Nick would ever know. (His dad, Michael, and I are only children) We found him a vintage (tin!) teardrop trailer from a circus troupe (very bulbous!) which he pulled into my backyard and painted forest green, a private space for his visits to Santa Monica. He insisted his heritage was German, calling himself “The Purgemaster,” happily vacuuming, scouring pots and pans, announcing that the only way to keep a house clean, was “with a microscope.”
Our unparalleled conversations lasted deep into the night, and how I wish I’d taped our musings. He never let reality change his beliefs, which continued to push the walls of my consciousness further and further into the stratosphere. He had taken copious psychedelics and still saw things whirring through the air, heard sounds that only invaded his eardrums. With Victor, nothing seemed impossible — a remarkable combination of extreme shyness and sensitivity – and a bundle of curiosity about every human being that crossed his path. His troubled mind and innocent heart merged into my bloodstream and I accepted my soul brother’s quirks because I had no other choice. When he told me he enjoyed getting high on black widow spider webs, who was I to dispute him?
When he got a load of the ceramic trunks-up elephants and deco faces that lined my walls, Vic and I discovered we had the same wild passion for vintage collectibles. I started visiting him in gloomy, ever-green Seattle, long before it became tech-trendy, cruising past acres of pine trees and tipping totem poles, before plundering the gigantic thrift stores on almost every corner, open until 10 PM. After 12 hours of scouring antique malls and Goodwills, we’d head back to his ancient apartment on Queen Anne Hill to admire the spoils of the day, spreading them out on the deco carpet in front of the faux spinning fireplace where his once-plush, moth-eaten dachshund slept peacefully. He had a penchant for ceramic baby heads, which squalled and snoozed on the walls alongside his uncommonly superb paintings. Several of my fave-rave artifacts were found with Victor on our endless hunts for long ago treasures. Once we spotted a particularly divine piece of ‘40s bark cloth imprinted with sea creatures at the same moment, and had the proprietor cut the fabric in half on the spot.
I have to admit being helped along by Vic’s Ritalin stash, which he insisted was some sort of smart drug from Germany that grew new brain cells. Really?! I enjoyed the feeling so much I sought out this Germanic remedy only to find out it didn’t exist, and Vic sheepishly had to come clean. At this point he’d been taking Ritalin for over 20 years for ADD (he had many letters after his name) and was thoroughly addicted.
He embellished and fibbed constantly, believing his vivid, tall tales had actually happened. A few of my favorites took place outside Lancaster in the desert: He and his cousin, Don, had three otherworldly experiences together. They saw a massive, 50-foot neon blue lady tromping through the tumbleweeds. They witnessed the Lord Jesus climb out of a spaceship, his throbbing heart visibly aglow, and one baking evening they heard a loud wailing and discovered a tiny swaddled baby on the side of the road with a full set of adult teeth in his head. Needless to say, they left the infant where he lay. Every time he regaled people with these tales, eyes wide and unblinking, he was right THERE again, amazed by his fantastical luck.
When he wasn’t hiding from humanity, Vic was the great inquisitor, and no one was a stranger. He enjoyed nicknaming people. My friend Doug Feiger was ‘Douggles,’ photographer Richard Creamer was ‘Rich Cream.’ And for some reason I was often ‘Sandy’, ‘Sandra’ and ‘Palms.’ I called him ‘Vixen,’ ‘Haydie’ and ‘Vixie.’
I was so thunderstruck by Vic’s art, reflecting perfectly what lurked inside his mysterious mind, that I sought out the gallery in Santa Monica where his cousin had shown. The exhibit would be a big deal indeed, and he went back to Seattle, promising to have 26 paintings called The Alphabet Series done in time for the opening. He had three months to complete the series, and if it weren’t for David Portnow, the show would not have gone on.
“I wanted to be excited for him,” Dave told me, “but when I heard the exhibit would be called The Alphabet series, I panicked. That sounded like 26 paintings! He did complete A – Man with an Adz – but I knew at best he’d finish maybe three or four, so I let him know he only had 3 days per letter. But when I got there on the third day, he hadn’t even finished the letter B. ‘You can’t rush art’ he stated, so I tore up the unfinished painting, and he was in shock. But three days later, he’d completed B.” Thank you, Dave.
The exhibit was a huge success and Victor gave me two of the series — Q for Queen Bee and F for Faith, which adorn my walls to this day. The LA show was followed by another in New York at the prestigious The Time is Always Now gallery in Soho, which of course I flew in for, taking my son Nick and his friend, Craig, along to marvel at Uncle Vic’s mad genius. Vic stayed in Manhattan for awhile, entertaining the elite, painting for them on cue, while they applauded and plied him with piles of cocaine – something he definitely didn’t need. But he was so distressed by the state of the world, the only way Vic wanted to go was UP. He often created his art with headphones, soothing himself with Coltrane, but also listening to My Dying Bride, Agony Column and Poison Idea — the hardest of hardcore doom bands — painting angelic children in troublesome situations, the seeming dichotomy reflecting the anarchy in his head.
His softest spot was for children, especially David Portnow’s five kids. Dave named his first daughter Victoria and said that Vic was so overwhelmed and touched by the honor that he sobbed for hours. When it came to courtship, Vic was on a solo flight, so distraught when his one relationship ended (with Shirley Temple’s daughter, no less) he swore off romance forever, maintaining that the heartbreaking loss felt like he’d been murdered.
My beloved brother unraveled off and on, wept openly and often over terrible things he had no control over. He abhorred the news and preferred to live in a bubble of innocent vintage images, eating cookies and candy, downing gallons of Shasta cola, no matter how hard I plied him with healthy meals. He suffered with painful gout and ruined his teeth with Nerds, often keeping his sugary cache mixed into his endless Ritalin stash.
Somehow he always seemed to find doctors who were huge Beefheart fans, and Victor had an endless supply, sometimes garnering 700 or 800 little pink pills a month. He insisted the Mellencroft brand from Germany were the best and he sought them out, traipsing through Rite Aids and Walgreens like he was panning for pharmaceutical gold.
He kept painting and drawing, often staying up for days, and lived in and out of reality. Already in some netherworld most of the time, he suddenly decided he was being observed by various people in his Queen Anne neighborhood. I often had to talk him down on the phone as he insisted the couple above him were listening in to his quiet life, swearing he could hear the ‘30s bakelite stethoscope moving across the ceiling. Sometimes he swore it was a high-tech military device and he could hear it beeping. When I asked why they’d be interested in a broke artist, he stated they were obsessed with his cousin, Captain Beefheart, and wanted to interrogate him. He saw the family across the road peering at him through the blinds and was so fearful that he started subletting his place, staying with Dave, or in another friend’s funky basement, or at my house in Marina del Rey, which he considered his safe haven.
He often created his art with headphones, soothing himself with Coltrane, but also listening to My Dying Bride, Agony Column and Poison Idea — the hardest of hardcore doom bands — painting angelic children in troublesome situations, the seeming dichotomy reflecting the anarchy in his head.
Vic enjoyed the perfect beachy weather, often sitting for hours in the breeze, working intently on his art, usually adding bees to many of his pieces, so concerned they were becoming endangered. He’d disappear into the garage where he always had a vintage metal fan twisting back and forth, listening to the messages spewing from another dimension along with the cool air. The voices told him scary things and beautiful things and he took the messages from beyond to heart, nodding intently.
Due to his horrific diet and massive Ritalin intake, Vic’s health started to deteriorate. During one of his hospital stints for kidney failure, Vic called me shrieking in a panic about the tiny Latina lady cleaning the floor of his hospital room. He said she’d looked up from her mopping, stared him down and sneered, “Diablo. Diablo. DIABLO.” He couldn’t sleep that night, expecting the devil to sneak in and steal his soul.
When his beloved 91-year old mother, Charlene, passed away, Victor was disconsolate and inconsolable. She had allowed Victor to be Victor, accepting his quirks and foibles, assisting him throughout his life while giving him the space he required – along with a monthly stipend he so desperately needed. We drove to San Diego to gather her belongings, but he couldn’t even look at any of the precious photo albums, bent over and weeping almost the entire day. He was an adored only child, like his cousin Don, and I think it’s a crime that neither of them had the emotional capability to procreate. When Don died of MS not long after Charlene, Vic’s level of misery quadrupled and I wasn’t sure he’d be able to climb out of his deep pit of despair. He stopped painting but continued to draw with feverish abandon, attacking the paper with his black sharpies, creating some very dark work indeed. Even though he never got over those profound losses, Victor continued to express his fury, confusion and unholy angst by creating art.
His life got even more difficult when his Seattle shrink got busted for doling out so much chemical dependence, and after forty years, Vic found himself on a constant search to keep going up, up and away. Speed, cocaine, dabs, it didn’t matter, as long as he could stay in the altered state he’d grown so used to. At 70 years old, he delivered drugs, he traded his art, he begged, pleaded and cajoled. Almost everything took a backseat to his lifelong addiction.
When I had to sell my Marina house, I thought Vic would come apart at his tattered seams. He’d slowly but surely sequestered his most precious personal items in the nooks and crannies of my closets and attics, and I needed him to pack it all up for the move. I can still see him sitting forlornly amidst his belongings, looking totally lost, partially unhinged, hollow-eyed and bereft, when the new owner showed up with the keys. He promised to get a storage space, but couldn’t afford it, and he wound up cramming his possessions into a Rubbermaid shed in my Reseda backyard.
Perhaps his difficult teen years in the Valley made him avoid my new Reseda neighborhood, or the loss of his favorite balmy sanctuary, but he didn’t come back to California again. We stayed in touch on the phone, sometimes from a hospital in Seattle where he was recovering from various ailments, sometimes from his beaten-up Volvo, careening through dangerous areas carrying dangerous substances. He stayed close with the Portnow family and had been spending time with Dave’s two sons (he was godfather to all Dave’s kids) before heading out to the bus stop to meet his fate. It was dusk and while he ambled to the corner, a van streaked out of nowhere and slammed Vic to the ground, where his head hit the pavement. His backpack burst, spewing Shasta soda, sugar cookies and Ritalin tablets all over the ground.
Victor was in the hospital for almost a week before he was expelled for lack of insurance. He wanted out of there anyway, trapped and raging, his head in flames with pain. Dave and his kids had cleaned his apartment, which had become a filthy sty the former Purgemaster wouldn’t have tolerated, but he’d only been home for a few hours before the bleeding in his brain killed him. When Dave called me with the news, I bawled like a baby left alone in the desert.
I tried to make sense but was a dithering mess during my few words at his eulogy in Seattle. Our friend Iva was able to beautifully put into words the specialness of Victor: “Riding down the street in the car with him, every tree, flower, person and crack in the sidewalk received his attention and commentary. His mind never stopped whirling. No dot of paint on his canvas or his shirt was too small not to have a story attached to it. Nothing was insignificant to Victor. He was among us and separate, and not completely at ease with either one. His double life exhausted him at times. That inner struggle is expressed in his art, even in the most mellow paintings. The brush was not simply extension of his hand, it was the hand, the brain, the body, the pain, the love, the hope, the intensity of being human and being Victor.”
Perfectly Victor Haydon: a provocateur, performance artist and a squalling toddler all rolled into one spectacular maniac.
No one viewed our tremulous, topsy-turvy world the way Victor did and, thankfully, much of what he saw and imagined remains behind on canvas and paper. Dave and I were stunned when we were finally able to go through the belongings Vic had stashed in both of our abodes. I wound up with his baby albums, booties and blankets, family photos, a couple of massive paintings I didn’t know existed (Meate Dreams of an Octopus was the original painting for Trout Mask Replica) and thousands of drawings. Dave has several album covers Vic painted, various paintings, also thousands of drawings, and we both discovered portraits of Victor by his cousin, Don Van Vliet. Mine is signed to Charlene.
I asked Dave for an amusing Victor tale to end my column on an amusing note (so many to choose from!). He told me about the time Vic decided it would be a good idea to get some frogs for Dave’s aquarium, along with worms for their meals. Dave came home from work one evening, opened the fridge and discovered thousands of worms squirming within. “I was in a very pissed off mood and yelled ‘Victor! What have you done?’ He reached into the icebox, pulled out a handful of worms and started eating. ‘They’re fucking harmless, Dave,’ he said, with a smile. I told him to get the fuck away from me and slammed the door to my room. A few minutes later, I heard him screaming, “The worms are biting me. They’re eating me from the inside out!’ To calm Vic down, I called the emergency room. “I’m with a child who just ate a bunch of worms and he says they’re biting him.’ The ride to the hospital was agonizing and traumatic with Vic screaming, ‘They’re taking over my body!’ When we got there, the nurse said ‘This is the child who ate the worms?’ Vic was really acting up, ‘Please PLEASE! They’re eating me alive!!’ The staff tried to hide their giggles, but they put him in a wheelchair and rolled him inside to calm him down. They asked if they should call me to pick him up and I said ‘No, tell him he can fucking walk home,’ and I left to deal with my humanity. As for Vic, it was a normal everyday occurrence and he showed no shame. But he learned the errors of his judgment when I made him purchase me a new fridge.”
Perfectly Victor Haydon: a provocateur, performance artist and a squalling toddler all rolled into one spectacular maniac. How I miss him every single moment.
There’s a ragged hole in my universe, but I like to imagine Vic climbing aboard Jesus’s bulbous spaceship along with the neon blue lady, carrying the infant with the full set of adult teeth, on his way to meet his devoted mother, Charlene, and his esteemed cousin, Don.
During Vic’s eulogy, Dave passed around the box of Vic’s ashes, suggesting his loved ones take a little snort (which some did) but I chose to rub my little pinch of Victor Haydon on my third eye and thank him for sticking around the planet as long as he could bear it.