RIP Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, 1941-2010

Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart died Friday. He was 69 and lived in Trinidad, Calif. The cause was complications of multiple sclerosis, said Gordon VeneKlasen, a partner at the Michael Werner gallery in New York, where Van Vliet has exhibited since 1985.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Johnny Rotten and Joe Strummer both cited him as a significant influence on their development, and folks as diverse as David Lynch, Anton Corbijn, Matt Groening, David Byrne, Bob Dylan and Bono have all gone on record attesting to his singular genius. I think The LAist said it best: “Trying to explain the world of Captain Beefheart to the uninitiated is a fruitless task. The music that Don Van Vliet and his shifting crew of dedicated accomplices known as the Magic Band unleashed between 1965 and 1982 defies description and confounds any attempts at drawing a valid comparison. The phrase “Beefheart-like” has come to be used as shorthand by music writers trying to describe any old thing with a bent toward oddball beats and dissonant chords, but it’s impossible to get a sense of what Beefheart is about by listening to any or all of the bands trying to live up to that description.”

Van Vliet’s best known work was 1969’s landmark Trout Mask Replica and the following year’s Lick My Decals Off, Baby. Even after forty-one years these albums are among the most out-there things you could possibly hear.

Van Vliet was a notoriously intense individual; reports from the Trout Mask band suggest a year or so during which the band were convened in a tiny house in Woodland Hills, made to practice eight hours a day, forbidden to leave the grounds or socialize, and given a single cup of soybeans each day to subsist on. Van Vliet’s larger-than-life story is riddled with half-believable tales, some of which he himself spread in Dadaist, elliptical interviews. He claimed he had never read a book and had never been to school, and answered questions with riddles. “We see the moon, don’t we?” he asked in a 1969 interview. “So it’s our eye. Animals see us, don’t they? So we’re their animals.”

Van Vliet was born on Jan. 15, 1941, in Glendale, Calif., as Don Vliet. (He added the “Van” in 1965.) His father, Glen, drove a bakery truck.

Don demonstrated artistic talent before the age of 10, especially in sculpture, and at 13 was offered a scholarship to study sculpture in Europe, but his parents forbade him. Concurrently, they moved to the Mojave Desert town of Lancaster, where one of Don’s high school friends was Frank Zappa.

His adopted vocal style came partly from Howlin’ Wolf: a deep, rough-riding moan turned up into swooped falsettos at the end of lines, pinched and bellowing and sounding as if it caused pain.

“When it comes to capturing the feeling of archaic, Delta-style blues,” Robert Palmer of The New York Times wrote in 1982, “he is the only white performer who really gets it right.”

In the mid-80’s Van Vliet turned his focused attention to visual art, and became a world renowned painter. Van Vliet’s MS was progressing, and it made any return to music and touring untenable. Anton Corbijn’s first short film, “Some Yo Yo Stuff” documented the artist’s world in the mid-90’s. Van Vliet’s voice in the film is weak and barely intelligible.

Rock’s Back Pages has made available several seminal Don Van Vliet encounters with Miles (1968), Nick Kent (1972) and Lester Bangs (1980). Plus a late sighting by Fred Mills (1996).

Don Van Vliet will be sorely missed. Anton Corbin’s film, “Some Yo Yo Stuff” is imbedded below: