Don Van Vliet
(1941 - 2010)
Don (Captain Beefheart) Van Vliet was active/lived in California, New York. Don Van Vliet is known for abstract form painting.
Don Van Vliet
Biography from the Archives of askART
DON VAN VLIET, 'CAPTAIN BEEFHEART', DIES AT 69
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The New York Times, Obituary, December 18,2010, by Ben Ratliff
Don Van Vliet, an artist of protean creativity who was known as Captain
Beefheart during his days as an influential rock musician and who later
led a reclusive life as a painter, died Friday. He was 69 and lived in
The cause was complications of multiple sclerosis, said Gordon
VeneKlasen, a partner at the Michael Werner gallery in New York, where
Mr. Van Vliet had shown his art, many of them abstract, colorful oils,
since 1985. The gallery said he died in a hospital in Northern
Captain Beefheart's music career stretched from 1966 to 1982, and from
straight rhythm and blues by way of the early Rolling Stones to music
that sounded like a strange uncle of post-punk. He is probably best
known for "Trout Mask Replica," a double album from 1969 with his Magic
A bolt-from-the-blue collection of precise, careening, surrealist songs
with clashing meters, brightly imagistic poetry and raw blues shouting,
"Trout Mask Replica" had particular resonance with the punk and new
wave generation to come a decade later, influencing bands like Devo,
the Residents, Pere Ubu and the Fall.
Mr. Van Vliet's life story is caked 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
The facts, or those most often stated, are that he 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."
He enrolled at Antelope Valley Junior College to study art in 1959 but
dropped out after one semester. By the early 1960s he had started
spending time in Cucamonga, Calif., in Zappa's studio. The two
men worked on what was perhaps the first rock opera (still unperformed
and unpublished), "I Was a Teenage Maltshop," and built sets and wrote
some of the script for a film to be titled "Captain Beefheart vs. the
The origins of Mr. Van Vliet's stage name are unclear, but he told
interviewers later in life that he used it because he had "a beef in my
heart against this society."
By 1965 a quintet called Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band (the
"his" was later changed to "the") was born. By the end of the year the
band was playing at teenage fairs and car-club dances around Lancaster
and signed by A&M Records to record two singles.
The guitarist Ry Cooder, then a young blues fanatic whose skill was
much admired by Mr. Van Vliet, served as pro forma musical director for
the next record, "Safe as Milk" (1967), which showed the band working
on something different: a rhythmically jerky style, with stuttering
melodies. The next album, "Strictly Personal" (1968), went even further
in the direction of rhythmic originality.
It was "Trout Mask Replica" that earned Mr. Van Vliet his biggest mark.
And it was the making of that album that provided some of the most
durable myths about Mr. Van Vliet as an imperious, uncompromising
The musicians lived together in a house in Woodland Hills, in the San
Fernando Valley; what money there was for food and rent was supplied by
Mr. Van Vliet's mother, Sue, and the parents of Bill Harkleroad, the
band's guitarist (whom Mr. Van Vliet renamed Zoot Horn Rollo). One
persistent myth has it that Mr. Van Vliet, who had no formal ability at
any instrument, sat at the piano, turned on tapes and spontaneously
composed most of the record in a single marathon eight-and-a-half-hour
What really happened, according to later accounts, was that his
drummer, John French (whose stage name was Drumbo), transcribed and
arranged music as Mr. Van Vliet whistled, sang or played it on the
piano, and the band learned the wobbly, intricately arranged songs
through Mr. French's transcriptions.
"Trout Mask" offers solo vocal turns that sound like sea shanties;
intricately ordered pieces with two guitars playing dissonant lines;
and conversations with Zappa, the record's producer. But its most
recognizable feature is its staccato, perpetually disorienting melodic
Band members' accounts have described Mr. Van Vliet as tyrannical.
(Both Mr. French and Mr. Harkleroad have written memoirs with dark
details about this period.)
Mr. Van Vliet's eccentricity and his skepticism about the music
industry had much to do with why his music remained mostly a cult
obsession. His band was offered a slot at the Monterey International
Pop Music Festival in 1967, but Mr. Cooder had quit a week before, and
Mr. Van Vliet was too spooked to perform. In the following years,
when the band was at its creative peak, it played relatively few
The Magic Band's first records after "Trout Mask Replica," starting
with "Lick My Decals Off, Baby," had a more mature sound, but by "Clear
Spot," in 1973, the band had turned toward blues-rock. It later made a
few ill-conceived concessions to commercialism, and in 1974 the band
quit en masse after the critically panned "Unconditionally Guaranteed."
After a long falling-out, Mr. Van Vliet reunited with his old friend
Zappa to tour and make the album "Bongo Fury" in 1975, then assembled a
new band to record "Bat Chain Puller," which was never released because
of contractual tie-ups. Parts of it were rerecorded in 1978 for an
album released by Warner Brothers, "Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)."
When his business affairs cleared in the early 1980s, Mr. Van Vliet
made two albums for Virgin, "Doc at the Radar Station" and "Ice Cream
for Crow," with a crew of musicians who had idolized him while growing
up. The albums were enthusiastically received.
But "Ice Cream for Crow" was his last record; in 1982 he quit music to
focus on his painting and moved to Trinidad, near the Oregon border,
with his wife, Jan, who is his only survivor.
In the exhibition catalog to a show at the San Francisco Museum of
Modern Art, the museum director, John Lane, wrote of Mr. Van Vliet's
work, "His paintings — most frequently indeterminate landscapes
populated by forms of abstracted animals — are intended to effect
psychological, spiritual and magical force."
Some of the images were a continuation of his songwriting concerns,
especially those involving animals. A lot of his work dwells on the
beauty of animals, on animals acting like humans and even on humans
turning into animals. In "Wild Life," he sang, "I'm gonna go up on the
mountain and look for bears," and in "Grow Fins," an extraordinary
blues from the album "The Spotlight Kid" (1972), he threatened a
girlfriend that if she didn't love him better he would turn into a sea
Mr. Van Vliet had rarely been seen since the early 1990s and seldom at his gallery openings.
"I don't like getting out when I could be painting," he told The
Associated Press in 1991. "And when I'm painting, I don't want anybody
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