Don Van Vliet, avant-garde rocker who performed as Captain Beefheart, dies at 69

Don Van Vliet, who performed as Captain Beefheart, in 1980. Critics lavished him with praise.
Don Van Vliet, who performed as Captain Beefheart, in 1980. Critics lavished him with praise. (James M. Thresher/the Washington Post)
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 18, 2010; 7:37 PM

Don Van Vliet, whose avant-garde rock-and-roll recordings and performances under the name Captain Beefheart in the 1960s and 1970s made him a cult favorite and a powerful influence on later generations of musicians, died Dec. 17 at a hospital near his home in Trinidad, Calif. He was 69 and had multiple sclerosis.

With no training as a singer or composer, Mr. Van Vliet produced boldly original music that was a potent mix of blues, proto-punk, avant-garde jazz and electronic experimentation, topped with absurdly surreal lyrics.

Under the name Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, he was active as a musician from the mid-1960s until 1982, when he retired to a reclusive life as a painter. He was sometimes linked with Frank Zappa, a high school classmate who produced Captain Beefheart's most influential album, "Trout Mask Replica," in 1969. Rolling Stone magazine ranked the record No. 58 on its list of the 500 greatest rock-and-roll albums of all time.

"For those won over by 'Trout Mask Replica,' " critic Kurt Loder wrote, "run-of-the-mill rock & roll would never again seem quite sufficient."

As Captain Beefheart, Mr. Van Vliet was also an early pioneer in music videos, creating his first in 1970. With his guttural, growling voice, he sometimes performed with Zappa and sang the memorable lead vocal on Zappa's 1969 song "Willie the Pimp."

At the peak of his fame in the late 1970s and early 1980s, top rock and jazz musicians flocked to Captain Beefheart concerts, and critics lavished him with praise.

The late rock critic Lester Bangs pronounced Captain Beefheart "one of the giants of 20th-century music, certainly of the postwar era."

Yet, he often had disagreements with Zappa and other musicians that isolated him for years at a time. He could be a tyrant toward members of his band, rehearsing them 12 to 14 hours a day for months on end until he reached the desired state of chaotic perfection.

Mr. Van Vliet's lyrics and song titles owed a great deal to surreal poetry. Try as they might, his fans hard a difficult time analyzing such lines as these from "Abba Zabba" on the 1966 album "Safe as Milk":

Mother say son, she say son, you can't lose, with the stuff you use

Abba Zabba go-zoom Babbette baboon

Run, run, monsoon, Indian dream, tiger moon

Despite critical acclaim, Mr. Van Vliet's albums sold poorly, and he harbored resentment toward the music industry.

"For my whole life they've repeated to me that I was a genius," he said in the early 1980s. "But in the meantime, they've also taught the public that my music is too difficult to listen to."

But over time, many people did begin to listen, and the freewheeling music of Captain Beefheart became an inspiration to such diverse musicians and groups as Tom Waits, Talking Heads, the Clash, Devo, Pere Ubu, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the White Stripes.

Rock critic Greil Marcus wrote that without Captain Beefheart "punk might never have come into being and certainly would never have sustained itself past 1977."

In 1980, Newsweek magazine declared: "During the past fifteen years, [Captain Beefheart] has composed and performed some of the most astonishing music in the history of rock 'n' roll."

Donald Glen Vliet was born Jan. 15, 1941, in Glendale, Calif., and grew up in the desert town of Lancaster, Calif.

He often fabricated stories of his childhood and falsely claimed to have quit kindergarten after half a day. He was three weeks younger than Zappa, with whom he shared a love of Delta blues music and late-night rock-and-roll broadcast from stations just across the Mexican border.

In his 20s, he added "Van" to his name and began performing under the stage name Captain Beefheart because, as he put it, "I had a beef in my heart against the world."

He taught himself to play the harmonica and saxophone and developed a remarkably expressive singing style with a wide vocal range. When he recorded his 1966 album, "Safe as Milk" (featuring Ry Cooder on guitar), his tortured singing and shrieking was said to have ruined a $1,200 microphone. Years later, Rolling Stone would hail the recording as "one of the forgotten classics of rock and roll history."

After his final album, "Ice Cream for Crow," in 1982, Mr. Van Vliet retreated to Northern California to paint under his real name. His canvases, which often featured landscapes populated by surreal animals, sold in New York galleries for up to $50,000.

As the musical reputation of Captain Beefheart continued to grow, Mr. Van Vliet turned silent and gave his final interview in the early 1990s. He painted constantly, with only his cat and his wife of 40 years, Jan Van Vliet, as his surviving companions.

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