ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Avant-garde rock legend and visual artist Don Van Vliet, who performed under the name Captain Beefheart, passed away today at age 69. A representative of New York City’s Michael Werner Gallery, which hosted several shows of his paintings, confirms the sad news to EW. Van Vliet died of complications from multiple sclerosis at a hospital in Northern California this morning. MORE
ROCK SNOB ENCYCLOPEDIA: CAPTAIN BEEFHEART, blues-braying Tasmanian Devil, industrial-strength surrealist, poet, painter, visionary, charlatan. Of all the people waving the freak flag in the ’60s, Captain Beefheart and the revolving-door personnel of his Magic Band waved it the highest and the weirdest. Stirring together the primal, blacksnake moan of Delta trance-blues and the free-jazz headfuck of John Coltrane and Charles Mingus in the burbling psychedelic cauldron of West Coast pop experimentalism of the mid-’60s, Beefheart’s music was the stuff of spells and incantations, fire-walking and levitation. The title alone of “Making Love to a Vampire With a Monkey on My Knee” gives you an idea of the kind of evil hoodoo these cats conjured.
Riding on the wave of post-acid weirdness that was turning pop music on its ear in those days, Beefheart (his mother knew him as Don Van Vliet) and his Magic Band swept into Los Angeles, hard and mean from years on the bar band/car club circuit, like a combustible Santa Ana wind. Channeling the muddy Mississippi growl of Howlin’ Wolf, Beefheart was in full possession of a shiver-inducing lupine howl second only to “Baby Please Don’t Go”-period Van Morrison. Early on a fairly straight-up Nuggets-style garage-punk outfit that snared a regional hit with a cover of Bo Diddley’s “Diddy Wah Diddy” in 1966, the Magic Band quickly morphed into something much more feral and fractured.
1967’s Safe as Milk remains the ideal starting point for Beefheart beginners, with all the trademarks of his sound pitched in perfect tandem: proto-garage snarl, menacing blues, Martian poetry, exotic rhythms and extra-terrestrial sound effects. Thirty-four years later, it remains an eminently lickable psych lollipop. Purists point to Trout Mask Replica as the pinnacle of the Captain’s canon, though only a small percentage of those who sing its praises actually listen to it for pleasure. Harsh, cryptic and moving sideways, backward and upside down all at once, Trout Mask‘s free-jazz-skronk-as-interpreted-by-rock-instruments remains a forbidding totem of post-hippie hieroglyphics. Those who manage to break its code are granted entry to a secret society of blissed-out noiseniks where, legend has it, they are privy to all manner of esoteric knowledge (the ability to fly or make yourself disappear completely, that kind of thing).
Like nearly every artist deemed worthy of rock-snob adulation, the Captain would sell few records in his time, but his influence would reverberate loudly through the course of post-’60s rock history: the corrosive blare of punk, the affected weirdness of New Wave and just about every noisy, art-damaged indie rock outfit of note in the last 30 years. In 1982, having released 12 albums in the course of 22 years, Beefheart retired from music altogether, turned his creative energies to oil painting and disappeared into a desert hermitage in the Mojave. While his canvasses fetch top dollar on the art market, he remains a walking question mark. Refusing all requests for interviews, Beefheart has managed to keep the facts of his daily existence hermetically sealed from fans and media alike for going on 30 years. Though rumored to be suffering some mysterious ailment that’s left him wasted and near death, Beefheart does communicate regularly with one person from the outside world: PJ Harvey. — JONATHAN VALANIA
ROLLING STONE: “Uh oh, the phone,” Captain Beefheart mumbled as he placed his tarnished soprano saxophone in its case. “I have to answer the telephone.” It was a very peculiar thing to say. The phone had not rung. Beefheart walked quickly from his place by the upright piano across the dimly lit living room to the cushion where the telephone lay. He waited. After ten seconds of stony silence it finally rang. None of the half dozen or so persons in the room seemed at all astounded by what had just happened. In the world of Captain Beefheart, the extraordinary is the rule. MORE