For many music fans, Van Vliet epitomized the psychedelic California music underground of the '60s and '70s. His distinctive blend of careening delta blues, avant-garde jazzisms and polyrhythmic rock was like no other, influencing contemporary artists like Tom Waits and The White Stripes as well as many other punk, New Wave and experimental musicians of the 20th Century. Early on, his coarse singing voice was deep and growly -- much akin to Howlin’ Wolf and notable for its multi-octave range. He also played harmonica and saxophone.
Born Don Glen Vliet on January 15, 1941 in Glendale, California, he showed unusual talent as a sculptor at a very early age before turning to music as a teenager. Scoring a regional hit with a grungy version of Bo Diddley’s “Diddy Wah Diddy” in 1966 as Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, Vliet bounced between several different record labels and presided over a rotating series of intense young backing musicians, including celebrated guitarists like Ry Cooder and Gary Lucas.
A mercurial personality who was alternately loved and loathed by the musicians who lived, toured and recorded with him, Van Vliet made a dozen studio albums between 1967 and 1982, including his famously confounding and highly influential double LP from 1969, Trout Mask Replica -- which was produced and released by Frank Zappa, an early supporter who he’d known since their junior high school days in Lancaster, California. Notorious for his volatile nature, Van Vliet sustained a love/hate relationship with Zappa and was estranged from the guitarist for substantial periods of time. The two did reconcile before Zappa’s own death in 1993.
Vliet was also portrayed as a rough, autocratic frontman who dealt with his supporting musicians like a tyrannical cult leader, demanding complete submission to his complex mission and punishing his loyal minions both verbally and physically when they failed to measure up to his exacting standards. A savvy mythmaker who continually exaggerated and distorted odd facts about his life and his work in interviews, Van Vliet was a consummate wordsmith who rechristened his early bandmates with powerfully iconic nicknames like Drumbo (drummer John French), Rockette Morton (bassist Mark Boston), and The Mascara Snake (cousin Victor Hayden).
While his music career was far from a commercial success, Captain Beefheart’s recordings do constitute an amazing body of work with many highlights and a couple clunkers to boot. Albums like 1972’s The Spotlight Kid show him making nuanced and worthwhile concessions towards commerciality without sacrificing his unique vision, while lesser recordings like Bluejeans and Moonbeams were later disavowed by the artist himself. Still, as Captain Beefheart, Don Van Vliet was a popular performer in the United States and the UK for years, receiving ringing endorsements from tastemakers like Rolling Stone Magazine, the BBC’s radio personality John Peel, Simpsons creator Matt Groening, artist/filmmaker Julian Schnabel and many others.
After retiring from the music business in 1982, Van Vliet focused exclusively on the visual arts, achieving a fair level of acclaim for his primitive-impressionist abstracts (using mostly oils), and has had successful exhibits of his paintings at the Anton Kern and Michael Werner Galleries in NYC. He also became extremely reclusive during this time, declining most interview requests and staying far removed from the pubic eye. The debilitating effects of muscular sclerosis left him wheelchair-bound in the later 90s, but he continued to paint and draw until his death. Many respected art critics have acclaimed these works in recent times, with his some of his paintings fetching between $20,000 and $50,000. An American original, Don Van Vliet put his distinctive stamp on everything he created, especially his own bizarre persona. He is survived by his wife of many years, Janet Van Vliet.