Don Van Vliet (born Donald Glen Vliet on January 15 1941, in Glendale, California, U.S.) is an American musician and visual artist, 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 from the mid-1960s through to the early 1980s. Van Vliet was chiefly a singer and harmonica player, occasionally playing noisy, untrained free jazz-influenced saxophone 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.
Van Vliet joined the newly formed Magic Band in 1965, quickly taking over as bandleader. Their early output was rooted in blues and rock music, but Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band (as they were called, collectively) gradually adopted a more experimental approach. 1969 saw the release of their best known album, Trout Mask Replica, which was produced by Van Vliet's childhood friend Frank Zappa and is today regarded by some as a challenging but groundbreaking and influential masterpiece. Van Vliet released several more albums throughout the 1970s, but his group was beset by shifting line-ups and a lack of commercial success. Towards the end of that decade, he settled with a group of younger musicians and received acclaim for his three final albums, released between 1978 and 1982. Van Vliet's legacy is one of limited commercial success, but nonetheless one with a devoted following. Despite this lack of commercial success, his influence on musicians, especially those of the punk and new wave genres, has been described as "incalculable".
Since the end of his musical career around 1982, Van Vliet has made few public appearances, preferring a quiet life in his northern Humboldt County, California home where he has concentrated on a career in painting. His interest in art dates back to a childhood talent for sculpting, and his work—employing what has been described as a "neo-primitive abstract-expressionist aesthetic"—has received international recognition. Several of Van Vliet's former band members recently reformed as a group, and toured as The Magic Band from 2003 to 2006.
While studying at Antelope Valley High School 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 of a spoiled brat at this stage of his life, spending most of his time locked up in his room with Frank Zappa, listening to records, behavior his parents tolerated 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. Van Vliet's stage name 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 Cucamonga, California to reconnect with Zappa, who inspired Van Vliet's entry into music performing. Van Vliet was reportedly quite shy, but 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.
Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band signed to A&M Records 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 "underground" venues 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 would be the mainstay of the band until 1971, and returned twice after that (1975–77 and 1980, returning as a guitarist on the records "Doc at the Radar Station" and "Ice Cream for Crow"; he also led the reformed Magic Band). 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 finally released in September 1967.
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). In fact, this was likely Beefheart's hasty rebuttal to some negative reaction to the album from some quarters. The myth has nonetheless 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. For example, he once said in an interview that he had not slept for a year, and that he'd dreamed the whole Strictly Personal album in one 24-hour period of sleep. 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 from November–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.
The 28 songs on Trout Mask Replica draw on delta blues music, Howlin' Wolf and Hubert Sumlin, Bo Diddley, free jazz, and sea shanties, but the relentless practice blended the music into an iconoclastic 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. To some listeners his lyrics seem impenetrably strange and nonsensical, but others find that closer examination reveals complex poetic use of wordplay, metaphor and all manner of references: music history, American and international politics, the Holocaust, love and sexuality, Steve Reich, gospel music, conformity. Although the album was effectively recorded live in the studio, Van Vliet recorded much of the vocals whilst isolated from the rest of the band in a different room, only being in 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 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/New Wave era." Matt Groening has written that his first reaction to Trout Mask Replica was that it was "the worst thing [he]'d ever heard", but now lists the album as one of his favorites.
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 John French, Art Tripp III, Bill Harkleroad and Mark Boston, 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, which had a much slicker, more mainstream sound, and who therefore were referred to (by unkind fans) as the "Tragic Band". Unconditionally Guaranteed and its follow up Bluejeans & Moonbeams (1974) have a completely different, almost soft-rock sound to any other Beefheart record and neither was critically well received.
The friendship between Frank Zappa and Van Vliet over the years was sometimes indistinguishable from rivalry (Zappa had called Beefheart, a year before their collaboration on Bongo Fury, "an asshole") as musicians drifted back and forth between Van Vliet and Zappa's 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 before being given auditions.
Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (1978) was largely regarded as a return to form, featuring once again the innovative and eccentric style of the earlier albums. Doc at the Radar Station (1980) helped establish Beefheart's late resurgence as possibly the most consistently creative period of his musical career. In this period, Van Vliet made two appearances on David Letterman's television program 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.
However, even though there are many documented reports about his illness, some people close to him say that he is not sick and instead retired from painting.
Recently, he appeared on a compilation, singing a profane version of "Happy Birthday" entitled "Happy Earthday" in 2003.
Beefheart's influence on the post-punk bands was demonstrated by 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 Beefheart's 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 Beefheart'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".