December 17, 2010 – Captain Beefheart was born Donald Glen Vliet on January 15, 1941 in Glendale California. To try and describe Don Vliet as Captain Beefheart (his musician alter ego) or Don Van Vliet (his visual artist alter ego) in normal words is almost impossible. As Captain Beefheart he became one of the most influential and most unique performers in rock history. For a more complete impression of this man’s inner workings I recommend a couple of hours on a website that is still maintained about him five years after his passing.
While attending Antelope Valley High School in Lancaster – California Desert, he became close friends with fellow teenager Frank Zappa, bonding through their interest in Chicago blues and R&B; they sporadically competed and collaborated throughout their lives, mostly as friends, sometimes as competitors and sometimes as opponents, like two geniuses on ego-trips. It’s almost uncanny that they were born within a couple of weeks of eachother, met in the desert in their teens and from there became individually two of the most avant garde musical explorers of a generation, often resulting in an exchange of ultimate “weirdness”. Yet it happened and it created 2 rock geniuses that left the music changed in a way, only matched by the Velvet Underground Greenwich Village experience in Manhattan.
Don was noted for his powerful singing voice with its wide range, while he also played the harmonica, saxophone and other wind instruments. His music blended rock, blues and psychedelia with free jazz, avant-garde and contemporary experimental composition.
His musical work was conducted with a rotating ensemble of musicians he called The Magic Band, active between 1965 and 1982, with whom he recorded 12 studio albums. The name of the band was an extension of the “Captain Beefheart” persona that Frank Zappa, Vic Mortenson and others helped him create; the idea being that Captain Beefheart was magic, and thus would have a “magic band”. He would simply drink a Pepsi, and the band would appear behind him. The original Magic Band was rhythm and blues guitarist Alex Snouffer, Doug Moon on guitar, Jerry Handley on bass, and Mortenson on drums, the latter soon replaced by Paul (P.G.) Blakely. The Magic Band still tours and has now passed the count of 40 members during the years.
Personnel of the Magic Band for Beefheart’s first album were John “Drumbo” French, Ry Cooder, Snouffer and Handley. For their album ‘Trout Mask Replica’ he locked the Magic Band in a house in Woodland Hills for eight months, continually rehearsing and reworking the songs. Virtually broke, they often had nothing but bread to eat but when they finally got into the studio, they recorded the entire double album in four and a half hours.
Their 1970’s album ‘Lick My Decals Off, Baby’ was an album with “a very coherent structure” in the Magic Band’s “most experimental and visionary stage”, it was Don’s most commercially successful in Britain, spending twenty weeks on the UK Albums Chart and peaking at number 20. In 1982, Vliet became tired of the rock and roll business culture, visibly resented by the hypocritical atmosphere that manages it and by the consumerist mechanisms that regulate it, so he abandoned music and became somewhat reclusive stating (and proving) that he could make far more money with his painting. Beefheart’s actual first exhibition had been at Liverpool’s Bluecoat Gallery during the Magic Band’s 1972 tour of the UK, but his debut exhibition as a full time painter was at the Mary Boone Gallery in New York’s Soho district in 1985.
The last recording sessions, in 1984, never saw the light of day. Captain Beefheart had disappeared forever, like an exotic animal chased back into the jungle by civilization.
Ironically, Don Vliet gave up the Captain Beefheart persona, just as the world started noticing his music. Captain Beefheart’s influence on alternative rock and the new wave of the 80s has been matched only by the Velvet Underground.
It was then that finally the critics had noticed that blues had little to do with Van Vliet’s music. Once recognized, Don Van Vliet became the rock equivalent of Vincent Van Gogh. To claim that Captain Beefheart was a blues man would be like claiming that Van Gogh was an impressionist painter, a taxonomic fact that says nothing about Van Gogh’s art, other than indicating in which section of the museum Van Gogh’s paintings were probably displayed.
After his retirement from music, he was rarely seen in public and he lived near Trinidad, California with his wife Janet “Jan” Van Vliet. Sadly by the early 1990s he had become wheelchair-bound, suffering from multiple sclerosis. One of his last public appearances was in the 1993 short documentary Some Yo Yo Stuff by Dutch filmmaker Anton Corbijn; van Vliet is a true Dutch name, so that maybe the reason why he agreed to this.
Don Van Vliet also published a book of poetry and drawings and moved back to his native California desert, where he lived on the proceeds of his paintings until his passed at age 69, on December 17, 2010.