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Don Van Vliet (born Don Glen Vliet on January 15, 1941) is an Americanmarker musician and painter, best known by the pseudonym Captain Beefheart. His musical work was mainly conducted with a rotating assembly of musicians called The Magic Band, which was active between the mid-1960s and the early 1980s. Van Vliet was chiefly a singer and harmonica player, occasionally playing saxophone, bass clarinet and keyboards. His compositions are characterized by their odd mixtures of shifting time signatures and by their surreal lyrics, while Van Vliet himself is noted for his dictatorial approach to his musicians and for his enigmatic relationship with the public.

The Magic Band's early output was rooted in blues but soon began to draw on additional influences. 1969's Trout Mask Replica takes cues from free jazz and contemporary experimental composition. Frustrated with a lack of commercial success, and fed up with Van Vliet's paranoia and dictatorial nature, the group disbanded in 1974. After a brief flirtation with more conventional rock music — resulting in two albums that he has since disowned — Van Vliet formed a new Magic Band with a group of younger musicians and produced three albums that revisited the eccentricities of his earlier work. Van Vliet's music attracted a devoted following and his influence on fellow musicians, particularly those of the punk and New Wave movements, has been described as "incalculable."

Van Vliet retired from music in the early 1980s to devote himself to painting and he has since made few public appearances. His interest in art dates back to a childhood talent for sculpture. His work—which has been described as neo-primitive and abstract-expressionist—has been exhibited in several countries.

Early life

Van Vliet's father, Glen Alonzo Vliet, was a service station owner and later a Helms Bakery delivery van driver. Glen was originally from Kansas and of Dutch ancestry. Don's mother, Willie Sue (Warfield) Vliet, was from Arkansas. At a young age, Van Vliet demonstrated prodigious painting and sculpting talents, in spite of describing his working class family as lacking interest in art, and he was noticed by Augustinio Rodriguez, who invited Van Vliet to sculpt with him on a weekly television show. Van Vliet claims his parents discouraged his interest in sculpture, turning away several scholarship offers and through their moving from the Los Angeles area to the more remote town of Lancastermarker. Van Vliet remained interested in art; his paintings, often reminiscent of Franz Kline's, were later featured on several of his own albums.

Vliet's earliest musical work was with local groups such as The Omens and The Blackouts. While attending Antelope Valley High Schoolmarker in Lancaster, Van Vliet met fellow teenager Frank Zappa. Van Vliet is portrayed in both The Real Frank Zappa Book and Barry Miles' biography Zappa as a bit spoiled at this stage of his life, spending most of his time locked up in his room with Frank Zappa, listening to records, and demanding that his mother bring him a Pepsi. His parents tolerated such behavior under the belief that their child was truly gifted. Zappa and Van Vliet began collaborating on pop song parodies and a movie script called Captain Beefheart vs. the Grunt People, the first appearance of the Beefheart name. It came from a term used by his Uncle Alan. Alan had a habit of exposing himself to Don's girlfriend, Laurie. Alan would urinate with the bathroom door open and, if she was walking by, mumble about his penis, saying "Ahh, what a beauty! It looks just like a big, fine beef heart." In a 1970 interview with Rolling Stone, Van Vliet requests "don't ask me why or how" he and Zappa came up with the name. He would later claim in an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman that the name referred to "a beef in my heart against this society."

Van Vliet enrolled at Antelope Valley Junior College as an art major, but decided to leave the following year. After managing a Kinney's shoe store, Van Vliet relocated to Rancho Cucamongamarker, Californiamarker to reconnect with Zappa, who inspired Van Vliet's entry into music performing. Van Vliet was quite shy but eventually able to imitate the deep voice of blues singer Howlin' Wolf. He eventually grew comfortable with public performance, and after learning to play the harmonica, began playing at dances and small clubs in Southern California.

Professional music career

The Magic Band and first records

Some time after Vliet began using the "Captain Beefheart" stage moniker, during his early collaborations with Frank Zappa, Vic Mortenson and others, the character was sketched out in more fanciful detail. Mortenson explains that "Captain Beefheart was supposed to be a magical character. His thing is he would drink the Pepsi Cola and he could make magic things happen, he could appear or disappear. I told Frank, 'Hey, wouldn't it be cool if Captain Beefheart had a Magic Band, and wherever he went, if he wanted the band to appear, he would take a drink of Pepsi, and BINGO there's the band right behind him, 'jukin'?" Vliet was enamoured with the idea, and soon began inviting musicians to join the Magic Band, which became an extension of the "Captain Beefheart" persona.

In early 1965 he was contacted by Alex Snouffer, a local Lancaster rhythm and blues guitarist. Together they assembled the first professional Magic Band, and at this point Don Vliet became Don Van Vliet, whilst Alex Snouffer became Alex St. Claire (many of the musicians that Van Vliet worked with were given stage names). The first Magic Band was completed with Doug Moon (guitar), Jerry Handley (bass), and Mortenson (drums), the latter soon replaced by Paul Blakely.

Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band signed to A&M and released two 1966 singles, a version of Bo Diddley's "Diddy Wah Diddy," followed by "Moonchild," which was written by David Gates. Both were hits in Los Angeles. The band began to play music venues that catered to underground artists, such as the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco.

Sometime in 1966 demos of what became the Safe as Milk material were submitted to A&M. Jerry Moss (the "M" in A&M) reportedly described the new direction as "too negative" and they were dropped from the label. But by the end of 1966 they were signed to Buddah Records and John French had joined as drummer. French had the patience required to be able to translate Van Vliet's musical ideas (often expressed by whistling or banging on the piano) for the other players. In French's absence this role was taken over by Bill Harkleroad.

The Safe as Milk material needed much more work, and 20-year-old guitar prodigy Ry Cooder was asked to help. They began recording in spring 1967, with Richard Perry producing (his first job as producer). Cooder left shortly after recording the album, which was released in September 1967. Among those who took notice were The Beatles. John Lennon displayed two of the album's promotional bumper stickers in the sunroom at his home, and later the Beatles planned to sign Beefheart to their experimental Zapple label. (Those plans were scrapped after Allen Klein took over the group's management.)

In August, guitarist Jeff Cotton was recruited and by November the Snouffer/Cotton/Handley/French line-up began recording for the second album. It is said to have been intended to be a double album called It Comes to You in a Plain Brown Wrapper, with one disc recorded live (or live in the studio). What finally emerged in October 1968 was Strictly Personal, released on producer Bob Krasnow's Blue Thumb Records. After the album was released Van Vliet initiated through interviews a myth which alleged that the tapes of the album had been remixed by Krasnow without the band's knowledge, and further, that he had ruined it by adding modish psychedelic effects (phasing, backwards tapes, etc). The myth persisted, and is included as fact in Jason Ankeny's Allmusic biography. This was also the period in which Van Vliet furthered his own mythology through interviews. Earlier recordings of two of the Strictly Personal songs and two other songs were released by Buddah in 1971 under the title Mirror Man. The original release bore a sleeve note claiming that the material had been recorded "one night in Los Angeles in 1965". This was a ruse to circumvent possible copyright issues; the material was actually recorded in November and December 1967.

During his first trip to England in January 1968, Captain Beefheart was briefly represented by mod icon Peter Meaden, an early manager of The Who. The Captain and his band members were initially denied entry to the U.K. because of improper paperwork. After returning to Germany for a few days, the group was permitted to re-enter the U.K. By this time, they had terminated their association with Meaden. Alex St. Claire left the band in June 1968 after their return from the European tour and was replaced by teenager Bill Harkleroad. Handley also left the band a few weeks later.

Trout Mask Replica

Critically acclaimed as Van Vliet's magnum opus, Trout Mask Replica was released in June 1969 on Frank Zappa's newly formed Straight Records label.By this time, the Magic Band had enlisted bassist Mark Boston, a friend of French and Harkleroad. Van Vliet had also begun assigning nicknames to his band members, so Harkleroad became "Zoot Horn Rollo", and Boston became "Rockette Morton", while John French assumed the name "Drumbo", and Jeff Cotton became "Antennae Jimmy Semens". The group rehearsed Van Vliet's difficult compositions for eight months, living communally in conditions drummer John French described as "cult-like". According to Vliet, the 28 songs on the album were quickly written in a number of milliseconds, though band members have stated that he worked on the compositions for roughly 3 weeks using a piano as his writing tool. It took the band about eight months to actually mold the songs into shape.

Trout Mask Replica displayed a wide variety of genres, including blues, avant-garde, experimental music, and rock. The relentless practice prior to recording blended the music into an iconoclast whole of contrapuntal tempos, featuring slide guitar, polyrhythmic drumming, and honking saxophone and bass clarinet.Van Vliet's vocals range from his signature Howlin' Wolf-inspired growl to frenzied falsetto to laconic, casual ramblings. The instrumental backing was effectively recorded live in the studio, while Van Vliet overdubbed most of the vocals in only partial synch with the music by hearing the slight sound leakage through the studio window.

Van Vliet used the ensuing publicity, particularly with a 1970 Rolling Stone interview with Langdon Winner, to promulgate a number of myths which have subsequently been quoted as fact. Winner's article stated, for instance, that neither Van Vliet nor the members of the Magic Band ever took drugs, but guitarist Bill Harkleroad later refuted this. Van Vliet claimed to have taught both Harkleroad and bassist Mark Boston to play their instruments from scratch; in fact the pair were already accomplished musicians before joining the band. Last, Van Vliet claimed to have gone a year and half without sleeping. When asked how this was possible, he replied that he only ate fruit—a typical Beefheartian non sequitur.

Critic Steve Huey of Allmusic writes that the album's influence "was felt more in spirit than in direct copycatting, as a catalyst rather than a literal musical starting point. However, its inspiring reimagining of what was possible in a rock context laid the groundwork for countless experiments in rock surrealism to follow, especially during the punk and New Wave era."

Later recordings

Lick My Decals Off, Baby (1970) continued in a similarly experimental vein. The LP sees the addition of Art Tripp III to the band, who had joined from the Mothers of Invention, playing drums and marimba. Lick My Decals Off, Baby was the first record on which the band were credited as "The Magic Band", rather than "His Magic Band"; journalist Irwin Chusid interprets this change as "a grudging concession of its members' at least semiautonomous humanity."

Beefheart in 1974
The next two records, The Spotlight Kid (simply credited to "Captain Beefheart") and Clear Spot (credited to "Captain Beefheart And The Magic Band"), both released in 1972, were much more conventional. In 1974, immediately after the recording of Unconditionally Guaranteed—an album which continued the trend towards a more commercial sound heard on several of the Clear Spot tracks—The Magic Band, which had by then coalesced around the core of Art Tripp III, Alex St. Clair, Bill Harkleroad and Rockette Morton, decided they could no longer work with Van Vliet, who was by all accounts a severe taskmaster. They left to form Mallard. Van Vliet quickly formed a new Magic Band of musicians who had no experience with his music and in fact had never heard it. Having no knowledge of the previous Magic Band style they simply improvised what they thought would go with each song, played much slicker versions that have been described as "bar band" versions of Beefheart's songs. A negative review described this incarnation of the Magic Band as the "Tragic Band," a term that has stuck over the years. The one album they recorded, Bluejeans & Moonbeams (1974) has, like its predecessor Unconditionally Guaranteed, a completely different, almost soft-rock, sound from any other Beefheart record. Neither was well received, and Beefheart later disowned both albums, asking that they not be considered part of his musical output.

The friendship between Frank Zappa and Van Vliet over the years was sometimes expressed in the form of rivalry as musicians drifted back and forth between Van Vliet and Zappa's respective groups. Their collaborative work can be found on the 1975 album Bongo Fury, along with Zappa rarity collections The Lost Episodes (1996) and Mystery Disc (1996). Particularly notable is Beefheart's vocal on "Willie the Pimp" from Zappa's otherwise instrumental album Hot Rats (1969).

From 1975 to 1977 there were no new records (the original version of Bat Chain Puller was recorded in 1976 but has never been released). In 1978 a completely new band was formed (consisting of Richard Redus, Jeff Moris Tepper, Bruce Fowler, Eric Drew Feldman and Robert Williams). These were from a younger generation of musicians eager to work with him and extremely capable of playing his music. In several cases they had been fans for years, and had learned his music from records.

Shiny Beast , released in 1978, was largely regarded as a return to form. Doc at the Radar Station (1980) helped establish Beefheart's late resurgence as possibly the most consistently creative period of his musical career. Released by Virgin records during the post-punk scene, the music was again accessible by a younger more receptive audience. Van Vliet said at this period, "I'm doing a non-hypnotic music to break up the catatonic state... and I think there is one right now."In this period, Van Vliet made two appearances on David Letterman's late night television program on NBC, and also performed on Saturday Night Live.The final Beefheart record, Ice Cream for Crow (1982), was recorded with Gary Lucas (who was also Van Vliet's manager), Jeff Moris Tepper, Richard Snyder and Cliff Martinez. This line-up made a video to promote the title track which was rejected by MTV for being "too weird." However, that video was included in the Letterman broadcast on NBC-TV. Soon after, Van Vliet retired from music and established a new career as a painter.

Current life and painting

Van Vliet currently lives in Northern California. In the mid 1980s, he became somewhat reclusive and abandoned music, stating he could make far more money painting. He was initially dismissed by some critics as "another rock musician dabbling in art for ego's sake". Over the years, however, his work began receiving positive attention. His artwork, like his music, has been seen as extreme and innovative, it commands high prices and some have compared it to the work of Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline.

In the early 1980s Van Vliet established an association with Michael Werner Gallery. Eric Feldman stated later in an interview that at that time Michael Werner told Van Vliet he would need to stop playing music if he wanted to be respected as a painter. Gordon Veneklasen, one of the gallery's directors in 1995 described Van Vliet as an "incredible painter" whose work "doesn't really look like anybody else's work but his own." Van Vliet has been described as a modernist primitivist and an abstract expressionist. Morgan Falconer of Artforum concurs mentioning both a "neo-primitivist aesthetic" and further stating that his work is influenced by the CoBrA painters. The resemblance to the CoBrA painters is also recognized by art critic Roberto Ohrt.

According to Dr. John Lane, director of Museum of Modern Artmarker, San Franciscomarker, in the 1990s, although Van Vliet's work has associations with mainstream abstract expressionist painting, more importantly he is a self-taught artist and his painting "has that same kind of edge the music has." Van Vliet has stated of his own work, "I'm trying to turn myself inside out on the canvas. I'm trying to completely bare what I think at that moment" and has stated of precedent influences that there are none. "I just paint like I paint and that's enough influence."

Exhibits in 2007 of his paintings through the late 1990s at both the Anton Kern and Michael Werner Galleries of New York City received favorable reviews. Falconer stated the recent exhibitions show "evidence of a serious, committed artist." Van Vliet stopped painting in the late 1990s. Around that time, it became publicly known that Van Vliet had become wheelchair-bound and was suffering from a debilitating long-term illness.

In 2003 Van Vliet appeared on the compilation album Where We Live: Stand for What You Stand On: A Benefit CD for EarthJustice singing a version of "Happy Birthday To You" retitled "Happy Earthday". The track is 35 seconds long and was recorded over the telephone.


Van Vliet has been the subject of at least one documentary, the BBC's 1997 The Artist Formerly Known As Captain Beefheart. There also exists a DVD of a short 10 minute film entitled "Some Yo Yo Stuff: An Observation of the Observations of Don Van Vliet," made by Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn. Some of his recent sounds and noises were captured on his guitarist Moris Tepper's 2002 album Moth to Mouth and on 2004's Head Off. The Magic Band, fronted by John French, with Denny Walley, Mark Boston and Gary Lucas, reformed without Van Vliet in 2003; and in 2005 toured the UK, playing a selection of small venues. Former band members had recorded as Mallard during the 1970s.


BBC disc jockey John Peel stated, "If there has ever been such a thing as a genius in the history of popular music, it's Beefheart... I heard echoes of his music in some of the records I listened to last week and I'll hear more echoes in records that I listen to this week." Many artists have cited Van Vliet as an influence, beginning with the Edgar Broughton Band, who covered "Dropout Boogie" (mixed with The Shadows' "Apache") as early as 1970. More notable were those emerging during the early days of punk rock, such as the Clash and John Lydon of the Sex Pistols. Tom Waits' shift in artistic direction, starting with 1983's Swordfishtrombones, was, Waits claims, a result of his wife introducing him to Van Vliet's music.

The White Stripes have released a 7'' single, Party of Special Things To Do, containing Beefheart's "Party of Special Things to Do," "China Pig," and "Ashtray Heart."

Van Vliet's influence on the post-punk bands was demonstrated by Magazine's recording of "I Love You You Big Dummy" in 1978 and the tribute album Fast 'n' Bulbous - A Tribute to Captain Beefheart in 1988, featuring the likes of Sonic Youth, The Membranes, and XTC. More recently, Franz Ferdinand cited Beefheart's 1980 album Doc At The Radar Station as a strong influence on their second LP, You Could Have It So Much Better. Punk rockers The Minutemen (1980–1985) were great fans of his music, and were arguably among the few to effectively synthesize his music with their own, especially in their early output, which featured disjointed guitar and irregular, galloping rhythms—Mike Watt's basslines with the group were often very reminiscent of the bass guitar work in Van Vliet's bands. Michael Azerrad describes early Minutemen as "highly caffeinated Captain Beefheart running down James Brown tunes", and notes that Beefheart was the group's "idol". British alternative rock band Placebo briefly named themselves Ashtray Heart, after the track on Doc at the Radar Station. The newest album from Placebo, Battle for the Sun, also contains a track called "Ashtray Heart."

Guitarist John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers has also cited Van Vliet as a prominent influence on the band's 1991 album Blood Sugar Sex Magik as well as his debut solo album Niandra Lades and Usually Just a T-Shirt (1994) and stated that during his drug induced absence, after leaving the Red Hot Chili Peppers, he "would paint and listen to Trout Mask Replica."

Joan Osborne covered Beefheart's "(His) Eyes are a Blue Million Miles," which appears on "Early Recordings." She cites Van Vliet as one of her influences.

Van Vliet is often cited as a strong influence within the Math Rock genre.



Further reading

  • Van Vliet, Don (Captain Beefheart), 'Skeleton Breath, Scorpion Blush' (all poems in English, preface in German and English). Bern-Berlin: Gachnang & Springer, 1987. ISBN 978-3-906127-15-6
  • Azerrad, Michael, Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From the American Indie Underground 1981–1991 Little Brown, 2001
  • Barnes, Mike (2000). Captain Beefheart. Quartet Books. ISBN 1-84449-412-8.
  • Courtier, Kevin (2007). Trout Mask Replica. New York: Continuum. ISBN 0-8264-2781-2
  • Harkleroad, Bill (1998). Lunar Notes: Zoot Horn Rollo's Captain Beefheart Experience. Interlink Publishing. ISBN 0-946719-21-7.
  • Delville, Michel & Norris, Andrew (2005). Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, and the Secret History of Maximalism. Cambrdige: Salt Publishing. ISBN 1-84471-059-9.
  • Miles, Barry (2004). Frank Zappa. Atlantic Books. ISBN 1843540916

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