January 15, 1941 - December 17, 2010
Born in Glendale, California, the name on his birth certificate was Don Glen Vliet, but he went by Don Van Vliet for most of his life. He began performing as Captain Beefheart in 1964. He died at the age of 69 from compilations related to multiple sclerosis.
Van Vliet's personality was as controversial as his music. He was known for an explosive temper and cruel treatment of his band and collaborators. Guitarist Gary Lucas, who was part of Beefheart's Magic Band, told Songfacts that he could also be a very warm and supportive figure as well.
Van Vliet was notorious for making up stories about his past, so much of the lore about him has to be taken with a healthy amount of skepticism. He claimed on at least one occasion to have been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, citing that as the reason he could be so harsh and abusive with his band.
Captain Beefheart is considered one of the most revolutionary musicians in modern history. His music combined jazz, rock, blues, and psychedelic music with experimental sounds that couldn't be categorized. To put a name on this eclectic mix of sound, people generally just call him "avant-garde."
He was a child prodigy in sculpting who won a competition held by the Los Angeles Zoo when he was nine years old. He was offered a European art scholarship, but his parents decided instead to move with him to Lancaster, California, where Von Vliet met Frank Zappa. The two collaborated artistically and maintained a sort of friendship for the rest of their lives, though the relationship was frequently volatile and strained. Zappa recorded much of Beefheart's work, including Trout Mask Replica
, an album considered by many to be Beefheart at his wild best.
Van Vliet claimed that his parents discouraged him from taking the art scholarship offer because art was "queer." The European art scholarship was one of many that they discouraged him from taking.
His music never sold much, but he's been cited as a formative influence by many musicians, artists, and critics. These include Kurt Cobain, Matt Groening, Jack White and PJ Harvey.
Tom Waits said Van Vliet's music was the reason he changed musical courses and began making his own brand of experimental music, starting with Swordfishtrombones. "Once you've heard Beefheart, it's hard to wash him out of your clothes. It stains, like coffee or blood."
The first song to get him notice was a cover of Bo Diddley's "Diddy Wah Diddy."
Van Vliet's backing band was called The Magic Band throughout his career, but the roster changed frequently, often because musicians tired of dealing with his controlling behavior and explosive anger.
Van Vliet left music for good in 1982 to start a career as an expressionist painter. This venture was much more financially successful than his music.
Captain Beefheart's second-to-last album was Ice Cream for Crow, which featured a song of the same name. Van Vliet and the band made a video for the song, but it was deemed too weird for MTV and never shown on that station. It wasn't too weird for David Letterman, invited Van Vliet to his show and played the video. During the interview portion of the program, Van Vliet said, "I don't want my MTV if they don't want my video," referring to MTV's "I want my MTV" slogan.