Captain Beefheart, the avant-garde rock great and visual artist whose real name was Don Van Vliet, has died of complications from multiple sclerosis, according to Entertainment Weekly. He was 69 years old.
Van Vliet was both a collaborator and competitor of Frank Zappa, whom he befriended as a teenager—the two bonded over a shared love of Chicago blues and R&B—and recorded early demos with before breaking out on his own with the first iteration of The Magic Band in 1965. Like Zappa’s Mothers Of Invention, it similarly blended elements of psychedelic rock, blues, free jazz, and experimental noise into something new and surreal, an inversion of everything that rock ’n’ roll supposedly stood for. But whereas Zappa emphasized technical precision, Captain Beefheart was primal and spluttering, a seeming cacophony of disjointed guitar, off-kilter rhythms, and atonal harmonica, saxophone, and clarinet honk, overlaid with Van Vliet’s gruff Howlin’ Wolf imitation and occasional foray into gibbering falsetto. It was a gloriously abstract mess, a seemingly randomly assembled collage of ideas that was wild and liberating while also being claustrophobic and intimidating.
The idea that it was a “mess,” of course, is completely misleading: In truth, Van Vliet was one of rock’s strictest taskmasters, forcing his band to live in a communal house with blacked-out windows for eight months while recording its landmark third album Trout Mask Replica, and subjecting them to cruel emotional punishment for days at a time, like a cult leader attempting to brainwash his followers—a technique Van Vliet openly spoke about studying. However insane his methods (and there’s been plenty written on them), the result was one of the most lauded, influential, scrutinized, baffling albums ever made.
Even with decades of punk, industrial, and noise-rock between its 1969 release and now, Trout Mask Replica remains one of the most subversive things ever committed to record, a giant raspberry to convention that’s fascinating in its willingness to detour into complete indecipherability and ugliness. As John Peel once said, “If there has been anything in the history of popular music which could be described as a work of art in a way that people who are involved in other areas of art would understand, then Trout Mask Replica is probably that work.” It’s nearly impossible to listen to it without it evoking some sort of extreme reaction—and that, after all, is the best kind of art.
Following Trout Mask Replica, Captain Beefheart moved on to Lick My Decals Off, Baby, an album that some critics regarded as superior and which Van Vliet himself named as his favorite. The addition of Mothers Of Invention’s Art Tripp on marimba colored much of the composition, which remained steadfastly unconventional as ever, but seemed slightly more refined.
Beefheart’s next records would find him moving even more in a “conventional” direction: Clear Spot and especially The Spotlight Kid (credited solely to Captain Beefheart) kept things simpler and much, much slower, causing much of The Magic Band to disown Kid and Beefheart to later blame them for its failure. After everyone else walked out following 1974’s Unconditionally Guaranteed, Van Vliet formed an all-new Magic Band. Dubbed “The Tragic Band" by a reviewer—which was soon adopted by followers—the group made mostly banal, soft-rock bar-band versions of Beefheart on 1974’s Bluejeans And Moonbeams. Van Vliet eventually called both of these 1974 albums “horrible and vulgar” and encouraged fans to take them back for a refund.
After briefly touring with Zappa for 1975’s Bongo Fury, which heavily strained their personal and working relationship, Van Vliet mostly laid low, but reestablished himself with 1978’s Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) and 1980’s Doc At The Radar Station—two albums perfectly timed to appeal to the burgeoning post-punk scene. The latter especially established him as a godfather to the art-rock bands that were then dominating the musical underground, and it's arguably his best work since Trout Mask Replica.
Beefheart made one last album, 1982’s Ice Cream For Crow, before retiring from music completely, turning somewhat reclusive and focusing instead on the painting that had dominated his life since he was the age of three. Over the years he established a relationship with New York’s Michael Werner Gallery, who represented him as an artist and exhibited his works for over two decades. (It was the Michael Werner Gallery who announced his death today.) One of Van Vliet’s final public appearances was in Anton Corbijn’s 1993 short “Some Yo Yo Stuff,” in which he provides an “observation of his observations” on art, life, and anything else that popped into his unusual, nothing-else-like-it mind.