Some music artists never really break through into mainstream music, but leave a legacy which transcends the ephemeral hit song. Captain Beefheart, who died on December 17th, was one such artist.
Real name Don Vliet (he became Don Van Vliet, adding the Van as a tribute to his Dad, who drove a baker’s van), Captain Beefheart’s music was championed by the late and legendary British DJ John Peel. With his distinctive holler, and growling vocal style, the Captain was influenced by the blues, but he took it far away from its original source. He also played the saxophone and the harmonica, as well as many other wind instruments.
Known as a hard taskmaster, Captain Beefheart was a friend of another eccentric musical force – Frank Zappa, and the musical influence each had on each was undeniable. Backed by the Magic Band (originally known as His Magic Band when formed in the mid-1960s), which, like similarly strange British group the Fall, consisted of an ever changing line-up, Captain Beefheart’s most famous work was the 1969 double album, Trout Mask Replica, which was produced by Zappa. The 1970 album, Lick My Decals Off, Baby, was a rare commercial success, reaching number 20 in the UK Albums Chart.
Captain Beefheart’s Music Defied Categorization
Captain Beefheart’s music flummoxed journalists desperate for a hole to fit this particularly pigeon into. His music had traces of blues, jazz, rock and psychedelia, but he never rigidly adhered to any musical rules. Throw in some heavy avant-garde touches and it’s maybe no surprise that Captain Beefheart was never going to produce a chart-friendly Sugar Sugar .
At a very young age, the young Don was admired for his creative gifts. He was offered a scholarship, at the age of 13, to go to Europe to study sculpture. As he was so young, his parents decided not to let him go. Don’s creative career was, however, to move into a new direction after he became friends at high school with Frank Zappa in Lancaster, California. Zappa and Captain Beefheart collaborated on several projects, included an unreleased rock opera. Their friendship was, as one might expect, explosive. Captain Beefheart’s next big career move was to form the Magic Band and promising young guitarist, Ry Cooder, became effectively the musical director on Captain Beefheart’s Safe as Milk album, which was released in 1967.
Becoming an accomplished abstract painter later in life (he had dropped out of art college in 1959), Captain Beefheart had ended his recording career in 1982, with the album Ice Cream for Crow. Moving to Trinidad, California, with his wife Jan, Captain Beefheart becoming a reclusive figure, happy to concentrate on his painting. Captain Beefheart possibly didn’t like people that much anyway, as his music often eulogized about the superior nature of animals over humans.
Admired by Music’s Mavericks
Captain Beefheart’s fans, apart from John Peel, included the maverick performers one might have expected, including Tom Waits and Sex Pistols/PiL frontman John Lydon. The “Beefheart” part of Captain Beefheart’s name came about because he allegedly said that he had “a beef in my heart against this society.” He also claimed that he had never read a book.
Born in Glendale, California, on January 15th, 1941, Captain Beefheart had suffered from multiple sclerosis, and, weakened by complications from the disease, he died, aged 69, in a Northern Californian hospital.
The Captain Beefheart Radar Station
New York Times: Don Van Vliet, ‘Captain Beefheart,’ Dies at 69
The Guardian: Captain Beefheart: dust blows forward and dust blows back – an appreciation