The irregular rhythms, grating harmonies, and earthy, surreal lyrics of Captain Beefheart's songs and his blues-inflected seven-and-a-half-octave vocals (or, depending on who you believe, three-octave; the voice is impressive no matter what) suggest a near-chaotic improvised blend of Delta blues, avant-garde jazz, 20th-century classical music, and rock & roll. Actually, Beefheart's repertoire is a sort of modern chamber music for rock band, since he plans every note and teaches the band their parts by ear. Because it breaks so many of rock's conventions at once, Beefheart's music has always been more influential than popular, leaving its mark on Tom Waits, Sonic Youth, and other avant-garde rock performers.
A child-prodigy sculptor, Don Vliet (who reportedly had his name legally changed to Don Van Vliet by 1964) was noticed at age four by Portuguese sculptor Augustinio Rodriguez, who featured Vliet and his clay animals on his weekly television show for the next eight years. When Vliet was 13, his parents declined their son's scholarship to study art in Europe and moved the family to the California desert communities of Mojave, then Lancaster, where Vliet met the young Frank Zappa. Vliet learned to play harmonica and saxophone and played one show with local R&B band the Omens (who promptly kicked him out) before enrolling in Antelope Valley College in 1959. After one semester, he dropped out and went to Cucamonga, California, with Zappa, intending to form a band, the Soots, and make a film, Captain Beefheart Meets the Grunt People. Both projects fell through, and while Zappa went to Los Angeles to form the Mothers of Invention, Vliet returned to Lancaster and, adopting the Beefheart stage name, formed the first Magic Band in 1964.
A&M signed the group in 1964 and released its version of "Diddy Wah Diddy," which sold enough locally for A&M to commission an album. Label president Jerry Moss rejected the Van Vliet originals as "too negative." After the first in an endless series of Magic Band personnel changes, Beefheart redid the songs and recorded some new ones, on Safe As Milk, which attracted enough interest for the band to tour Europe. Shortly before a scheduled appearance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, guitarist Ry Cooder's abrupt departure forced the group to cancel.
Mirror Man was recorded in November 1967, but Buddah didn't release it until 1970, after Beefheart had left the label. Strictly Personal was recorded in 1968, but radically remixed by producer Bob Krasnow and released on his own Blue Thumb label as the band toured Europe. Van Vliet, disgusted, retired to the San Fernando Valley until Zappa, now in charge of his own Straight Records, promised him complete artistic control over his next recordings. After allegedly composing 28 songs in eight and a half hours (John "Drumbo" French, who transcribed Beefheart's piano parts for the band, says it was more like 60 to 80 hours over several months), Beefheart formed a new Magic Band and recorded Trout Mask Replica over the next year. That album and 1970's Lick My Decals Off, Baby brought Beefheart critical acclaim and, along with his appearance on Zappa's Hot Rats (1969), enough interest for a national tour. The next two albums, marginally more commercial-sounding, reached the lower echelons of the pop charts.
After a two-year hiatus, Van Vliet signed with Mercury and released two openly conventional pop-blues albums, then toured with and dissolved another Magic Band (Harkleroad, Boston, and Tripp formed Mallard, which released two mid-'70s albums; French went on to record O Solo Drumbo, plus albums with Richard Thompson and Henry Kaiser, among others). For a short time, Beefheart appeared as a vocalist with Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, including songs on 1975's Bongo Fury. In 1978 Warner Bros. re-signed him and released Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), hailed by critics as a return to Trout Mask form; Beefheart toured a somewhat more receptive new-wave circuit. Virgin sued to keep Beefheart on its roster (it had British rights to Beefheart since his Mercury period) and won ownership of Doc at the Radar Station and Ice Cream for Crow.
Beefheart's 1980 American and European tours, including a November 1980 appearance on Saturday Night Live, were his most successful to date. But after the release of Ice Cream for Crow, Van Vliet left the music business and retired to the trailer in the Mojave where he'd lived since the mid-'70s with his wife, Jan (he later moved to a house in the Northern California coastal town of Trinidad). Van Vliet devoted himself to painting and in 1985, with the help of New York postmodern painter and Beefheart fan Julian Schnabel, began exhibiting his semiabstract, primitivist canvases (some of which have adorned his album covers) at galleries in America and Europe, some of them selling for as much as $25,000. The only "new" Beefheart music to emerge was previously unreleased live and studio tracks on such reissues as Safe as Milk (1999), and anthologies like I May Be Hungry, The Dust Blows Forward, and especially the five-disc Grow Fins (which also had copious, revelatory liner notes by French detailing the band's little-known history). While there was no official word on Van Vliet's health, he looked and sounded very weak in a 1994 short documentary, Some Yo-Yo Stuff, by rock photographer and video director Anton Corbijn. He died on December 17, 2010 of complications from multiple sclerosis.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).