The Music and Art of Don Van Vliet, a.k.a Captain Beefheart
Captain Beefheart, the stage name of one born Don Glen Vliet, later changed to Don Van Vliet (pronounced Vleet), was a sculptor turned musician turned painter. Best known as an avant-garde rock musician, Don Van Vliet was at the height of his career in the early 70s. You say you’ve never heard of him? On the day of his death in 2010, Rolling Stones magazine, on Twitter, referred to him as “The Legendary Don Van Vliet.” The fact is, the legend of Captain Beefheart had more to do with his influence on music in the decades that followed his music career, than it did with his life as a performer.
Childhood to Teen Years and Meeting Frank Zappa
Don Van Vliet, January 15, 1941 to December 17, 2010, was born and raised in California. As a child, Vliet was considered to be a child-prodigy sculptor and at age four caught the attention of Augustinio Rodriguez, a Portuguese sculptor and host of a weekly television show. For eight years Rodriguez featured clay animals on his shows which had been sculpted by Vliet. At age thirteen, Vliet received a scholarship to study art in Europe, an offer his parents declined. The family moved from town to town in the California desert, finally settling in Lancaster, where Vliet met Frank Zappa.
The Beginning of Two Careers, Vliet and Zappa
The two young men had a volatile relationship which also was mutually beneficial as they worked together and competed in musical endeavors. Vliet learned to play the harmonica and saxophone and joined a local R&B band known as the Omens. The band kicked him out after his first performance. Vliet then enrolled in Antelope Valley College in 1959, but dropped out after one semester to accompany Zappa to Cucamonga, California with hopes of starting a band and making a film which was to be called Captain Beefheart Meets the Grunt People. Neither project materialized and Vliet returned to Lancaster while Zappa went to L.A. to form the band Mothers of Invention.
Upon returning to Lancaster, Vliet adopted his stage name Captain Beefheart and formed the first Magic Band. In the mid 60s, Vliet and Ry Cooder worked together in the Magic Band with limited public acclaim. They finally gained regional attention in 1965 with their cover of Bo Diddley's "Diddy Wah Diddy.”
Bandstand Dances to Beefheart, plus phone interview with Don Van Vliet
Discography of Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band:
- Safe as Milk 1967
- Strictly Personal 1968
- Trout Mask Replica 1969
- Lick My Decals Off, Baby 1970
- Clear Spot 1972
- The Spotlight Kid 1972
- Bongo Fury 1975
- Shiny Beast 1978
- Doc at the Radar Station 1980
- Ice Cream for Crow 1982
- Bat Chain Puller 2012 (Recorded in 1976)
Captain Beefheart & Magic Band - Sure 'nuff 'n Yes I do - Midem Festival Cannes, France
Early Albums and the 1969 Release of Trout Mask Replica
The first album of Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band, Safe as Milk, was with A&M as was the cover single, Diddy Wah Diddy. They switched to Buddah Records for the album Strictly Personal. The band was not having the success Vliet anticipated, so in 1969 they joined with Frank Zappa’s Straight Records. Zappa produced the next album and gave Vliet complete artistic freedom with the music. The album was called Trout Mask Replica. In 2003, Rolling Stones placed it at number 58 on their list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
In a 1970 Rolling Stone interview,Vliet spoke of the writing of the music for Trout Mask Replica. "Well, I'd never played piano before and I had to figure out the fingering .... I don't spend a lot of time thinking. It [the music] just comes through me." Rolling Stone, in 1970, wrote, "It is a masterpiece .... It will probably be many years before American audiences catch up to things that happen on this totally amazing record." Trout Mask Replica proved to be the high point of Vliet’s and the Magic Band’s recording career.
Retirement, Painting and Poetry
In 1982, Vliet retired from making music and began a new career as a painter. While his art has been compared to Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Antonin Artaud, Francis Bacon, Vincent van Gogh and Mark Rothko, his paintings, like his songs, were his own creations. The art and music of Captain Beefheart are strikingly similar. At first glance they both seem to be random and incoherent, but given a chance, a trace of order can be seen and appreciated. Here are a few of Vliet’s paintings, chosen at random.
The Artwork of Don Van Vliet--Six ThumbnailsClick thumbnail to view full-size
The Musical Influence of Don Van Vliet
Regarding Vliet’s influence on music in the years following his career, John Peel of BBC radio fame, had the following to say in 1997, “"If there has ever been such a thing as a genius in the history of popular music, it's Beefheart... I heard echoes of his music in some of the records I listened to last week and I'll hear more echoes in records that I listen to this week." Here is a list of just some of the artists and groups who claim to have been influenced by the music of Captain Beefheart.
- James Brown
- John Cale of The Velvet Underground,
- Sex Pistols
- Public Image Ltd.
- Edgar Broughton Band
- Apache Drop Out
- The Kills
- Little Feat
- Laurie Anderson
- The Residents
- Henry Cow
- The Clash
- John Lydon
- David Byrne of Talking Heads
- The Bongos
- The B-52s
Tom Waits on the passing of Don Van Vliet
He was like the scout on a wagon train. He was the one who goes ahead and shows the way. He was a demanding bandleader, a transcendental composer (with emphasis on the dental), up there with Ornette [Coleman], Sun Ra and Miles [Davis]. He drew in the air with a burnt stick. He described the indescribable. He’s an underground stream and a big yellow blimp.
I will miss talking to him on the phone. We would describe what we saw out of our windows. He was a rememberer. He was the only one who thought to bring matches. He’s the alpha and the omega. The high water mark. He’s gone and he won’t be back.
Tom Waits on the influence of Captain Beefheart
Another music legend and 2011 inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Tom Waits, had the following to say about the music of Captain Beefheart, “Once you've heard Beefheart it's hard to wash him out of your clothes. It stains, like coffee or blood." Waits’s own music underwent an artistic shift with the release of his 1983 album, Swordfish Trombones. The change, he says, was a result of his wife Kathleen Brennan introducing him to Van Vliet's music.
Where Would Music Be Today if There Had Been No Captain Beefheart?
So next time you want to have a relaxing evening with music playing in the background, put on some Beefheart. At least you can try to relax. Otherwise, ponder all the music you have enjoyed over the years that would never have been written had Vliet’s parents allowed him, at age thirteen, to accept that scholarship to study art in Europe.
© 2013 Chris Mills