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Famous Like Me > Composer > V > Don Van Vliet

Profile of Don Van Vliet on Famous Like Me

Name: Don Van Vliet  
Also Know As:
Date of Birth: 15th January 1941
Place of Birth: Glendale, California, USA
Profession: Composer
From Wikipedia, the free Encyclopedia

Don Van Vliet (born Don Glen Vliet on January 15, 1941 in Glendale, California), is a musician and painter, best known under the pseudonym Captain Beefheart.

Vliet's output is rooted in blues music and rock music, but his idiosyncratic, diverse approach largely defies classification. Much of his work was conducted with a rotating assembly of musicians called the Magic Band. He was mainly a singer and in possession of an astonishing four-and-a-half octave vocal range, but Vliet was also a capable harmonica player, and occasionally played noisy, untrained, free jazz influenced saxophone.

Among the most important of "underground rock" musicians, Captain Beefheart's legacy is one of poor record sales, critical acclaim, and a devoted following. His many admirers include Beck, Tom Waits, Woody Allen, PJ Harvey, Peter Christopherson of Coil, David Lynch, David Byrne of Talking Heads, Gary Lucas (one of Van Vliet's former guitarists, and a member of latest incarnation of the Magic Band), Mark E. Smith of The Fall, John Lydon, Jack White of The White Stripes, Michael Balzary (a.k.a. Flea), Matt Groening, John Lecki, Radiohead, Muse and Devo.

Vliet's music has been vastly influential. 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."


Vliet demonstrated prodigious painting and sculpting talents at a young age — earning the praise of Augustinio Rodriguez — but claims his parents turned away several scholarship offers. His paintings, often reminiscent of Franz Kline's, were later featured on several of his own albums.

A teenage friendship with Frank Zappa while both were students at Antelope Valley High School in Lancaster, California led to some collaborations over the years, though this relationship was subject to peaks and troughs. Over the years, musicians would drift back and forth from 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 and Mystery Disc. Also notable is Beefheart's vocal on "Willie The Pimp" from Zappa's otherwise instrumental album Hot Rats. (1969)

Vliet was reportedly quite shy, but able to imitate the deep voice of blues singer Howlin' Wolf. Eventually growing comfortable performing, he learned harmonica, and played around southern California, at dances and small clubs.

Beefheart had previously worked with local groups such as The Omens and The Blackouts and formed the Magic Band in 1964 with guitarists Alex St. Clair and Doug Moon, bass guitarist Jerry Handley and drummer Paul Blakely.

Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band signed to A&M Records and released a successful single, a version of Bo Diddley's "Diddy Wah Diddy". Their first album, however, was rejected by the label as being too negative and uncommercial. Moon and Blakely were replaced by Antennae Jimmy Semens and John 'Drumbo' French respectively, as well as adding Ry Cooder (guitarist) and released their remixed album, Safe as Milk. In mid-1967 the band was invited to perform at the landmark Monterey International Pop Festival, but according to the liner notes to the CD re-release of Safe As Milk, Ry Cooder convinced the group not to appear, as he felt that the band was not ready for such an important showcase.

These early recordings in the late 1960s were fairly conventional blues rock with touches of psychedelic music, and gave only hints of the unique music to come. The 1968 album, Strictly Personal, does serve as a transition between the blues rock of the singles, "Safe as Milk", and the live "Mirror Man" album, and the innovative explorations to come.

Meanwhile, Beefheart's childhood friend, Frank Zappa, formed Straight Records and signed Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band, which had added Zoot Horn Rollo (guitarist), Rockette Morton (bassist) and The Mascara Snake (bass clarinetist), resulting in the landmark 1969 album Trout Mask Replica.

Trout Mask Replica

Regarded by many fans as Beefheart's masterpiece, Trout Mask Replica was — and remains — one of the strangest, most difficult albums in rock music history. The group rehearsed Vliet's difficult compositions for eight months, living communally in conditions drummer John French described as cultlike.

The 28 songs on Trout Mask Replica drew on blues music, Bo Diddley, free jazz, sea shanties and much more, but the relentless practice blended the music into an iconoclastic whole of conflicting tempi, harsh slide guitar, loping drumming, and honking saxophone and bass clarinet.

Vliet's vocals ranged from growling blues singing to frenzied falsetto to laconic, casual ramblings. His lyrics often seem impenetrably strange and nonsensical, but closer examination reveals complex poetic use of wordplay, metaphor and all manner of references: music history, American and international politics, the Holocaust, Steve Reich, gospel music, conformity and much more. Perhaps due to Vliet's talent as a painter, many of the songs in this and subsequent works contain a vivid visual narrative.

Although the album was effectively recorded live, Vliet apparently 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 from the other room.

(Matt Groening has stated his first thought upon hearing Trout Mask Replica was that it was annoying, difficult and pretentious, but so unique that he could not stop listening to it. He now lists the album as one of his favorites.)

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 future experiments in rock surrealism, especially during the punk/new wave era."

Later music

Lick My Decals Off, Baby (1970) continued in a similar experimental vein, although the two 1972 follow ups, The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot, were much more commercial. The Magic Band left Beefheart and formed Mallard. Beefheart formed a new Magic Band and released Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans & Moonbeams; neither album was critically well received.

In the late 1970s, Captain Beefheart found that there was a younger generation of musicians eager to work with him and capable of playing his music. In several cases they had learned his music from records before being given auditions. Keyboard player and bassist Eric Drew Feldman (who joined in 1976), guitarist Jeff Moris Tepper (who joined in 1975 or 1976), drummer Robert Williams (who joined in 1977), and guitarist Gary Lucas (who appeared on the last two Beefheart records and was also Beefheart's manager), had been Beefheart fans since their teens.

Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (1978) was largely regarded as bringing the group back to form after the lacklustre releases of the early 1970s, featuring once again the innovative and eccentric style of the earlier albums. The excellent 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, Beefheart made several appearances on David Letterman's program, and performed on Saturday Night Live.

After Ice Cream for Crow (1982), Beefheart retired from music and became a critically acclaimed painter.

In recent years, Vliet has become somewhat reclusive and abandoned music, stating he can make far more money painting. His artwork is as extreme and innovative as was his music, and commands high prices, as well as comparisons to Pablo Picasso and Franz Kline. Some of his recent sounds and noises were captured on his guitarist Moris Tepper's album Moth to Mouth.

Vliet currently lives in Northern California, and is reportedly suffering from multiple sclerosis or a similar condition.

The Magic Band, fronted by John French, reformed without Beefheart in 2003.


Many bands (such as the Clash) have claimed a Beefheart influence, although few have truly been able to assimilate Beefheart's idiosyncratic approach. Tom Waits's shift in artistic direction, starting with Swordfishtrombones, is said to be due to his wife introducing him to Beefheart's music. Punk rockers The Minutemen 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.

Many musicians who have worked with Captain Beefheart consider it to be the formative experience of their lives as musicians (despite the rigours of Beefheart's unorthodox methods). Some of these alumni have subsequently found collaborators who also seem to have been touched with Beefheart's creative spirit. After Beefheart left the music business, Eric Drew Feldman played with Snakefinger, Pere Ubu, P. J. Harvey and Frank Black. Gary Lucas played guitar and collaborated with Jeff Buckley.

In 2000, The White Stripes released a limited (1300 copies) red-and-white 7" vinyl disc on Sub Pop records' Singles Club. The disc contained covers of 3 Captain Beefheart songs: The Party Of Special Things To Do, China Pig, and Ashtray Heart.


Beefheart has been the subject of at least one documentary: the BBC's 1994 The Artist Formerly Known As Captain Beefheart. There is also a DVD of a short 10 minute film available entitled, "Some Yo Yo Stuff: An Observation of the Observations of Don van Vliet."


  • Safe as Milk (1967)
  • Strictly Personal (1968)
  • Trout Mask Replica (1969)
  • Lick My Decals Off, Baby (1970)
  • Mirror Man (1971)
  • The Spotlight Kid (1972)
  • Clear Spot (1972)
  • Unconditionally Guaranteed (1974)
  • Bluejeans & Moonbeams (1974)
  • Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (1978)
  • Doc at the Radar Station (1980)
  • Ice Cream for Crow (1982)

This content from Wikipedia is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article Don Van Vliet