Don Van Vliet aka Captain Beefheart

Vocalist, poet, instrumentalist, songwriter, bandleader, sometime collaborator with his hometown pal and rival Frank Zappa, and (in his last decades) a critically acclaimed painter, Don Van Vliet, born with the name Don Glen Vliet, is known to most as Captain Beefheart. This enignmatic, controversial, and hugely influential figure has been called “too weird for the hippies” by Matt Groening (Simpsons creator and a lifelong Beefheart fan).

Exactly how weird is that? Well, have a listen to “Pachuco Cadaver” from the seminal album Trout Mask Replica (1969) and judge for yourself.

No stranger to weirdness myself, and a devoted Zappa fan, I still gotta say, after listening to Trout Mask Replica to background this post . . . I hate it. But Rolling Stone magazine ranked it 58 among the most influential albums of all time, and Matt Groening rates it a lot higher:

So, what do I know?

"A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous. Got me?"

“A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous. Got me?”

But let’s back up. Zappa and Van Vliet grew up in the Mojave desert area and listened to blues albums together. Van Vliet’s vocal talent emerged with his uncanny ability to mimic blues masters like Howling Wolf. As Captain Beefheart, he and his Magic Band first attracted attention with their spectacular cover of Bo Diddley‘s “Diddy wah Diddy” (1966) (obligatory *wink* here for Amb and Liz) which became a regional hit in Southern California:

Everything would be easy if we could just think of Beefheart as a prodigiously talented bluesman. In the Magic Band’s first album Safe as Milk (1967) he is exactly that. But Beefheart had a much more portentious artistic vision. Over several years he confined himself in a house with his band members, who were underfed, psychologically and physically abused, and either underpaid or not paid at all. With them he created that freaky synthesis of rock, blues, psychedelic, avant-garde and experimental music that would be his musical legacy.

You can think of Beefheart as a kind of musical Charles Manson, minus the murders. This period produced TMR and a handful of subsequent albums, including Lick My Decals Off, Baby (1970).

Though his band finally quit in outrage, Beefheart continued making music, but commercial success eluded him. His most famous work with Zappa is immortalized on Bongo Fury (1975). In fact, I love Beefheart’s ballad “Further Than We’ve Gone” from Bluejeans & Moonbeams (1974), an album scathingly derided as a sellout by fans and even Beefheart himself.

Once again, I’m on the wrong side of canonical judgment.

Through all of this Van Vliet was an inveterate sketcher and painter, and his artwork began attracting attention. He finally quit music entirely and became a successful, and highly reclusive, painter. “Who Do You Think You’re Fooling?” (1966) accompanies this neat tribute to his art.

Van Vliet had multiple sclerosis for many years and died in 2010 at 69. RIP, Captain.

NOTE: wdydfae will be away for several days when this post appears. Pardon for not responding to comments right away.

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15 Responses to Don Van Vliet aka Captain Beefheart

  1. Pingback: Off Time and BoFN Post Next Week | What Do You Do for an Encore?

  2. Liz says:

    what a strange duck is Capt. Beefheart. Learned plenty here and also exposed to a new artist (x2) and songs. Was like a (fun) power point presentation with the alternating copy and clips. Bonus points for using words such as “canonical” and “portentious.” Well done, Diddy!

  3. Pingback: DON VAN VLIET AKA CAPTAIN BEEFHEART « Defy The Narrative

  4. Arto says:

    Ooh, gotta love Beefheart. Orange Claw Hammer has entertained me through many a confusing evening.

  5. wdydfae says:

    Thanks! And thanks for the reminder about Orange Claw Hammer. I glancingly encountered it as I was backgrounding this, but haven’t given it a serious listen all the way through yet. I was also kind of partial to Blue Eyed Beans from Venus.

  6. Dave says:

    Fun fact: Rob and I can probably sing “Orange Claw Hammer” from beginning to end. “A quick cloud caught a piper cub’s tail, a match struck blue, on a railroad rail… an old puffhorse was just blazin’ through, and a man wore a peg leg, forever!” and so on 🙂

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  9. Pingback: Captain Befheart, “Weird Al” Yankovic, and John Lennon « Defy The Narrative

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