Don Van Vliet, who became a rock legend as Captain Beefheart, died today from complications from multiple sclerosis in California. His passing was announced by the New York-based Michael Werner Gallery, which represented his work as a painter.
His Trout Mask Replica was Number 58 on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In a 1969 review, Lester Bangs called Trout “a total success, a brilliant, stunning enlargement and clarification of his art.”
“Don Van Vliet was a complex and influential figure in the visual and performing arts,” the gallery said in a statement. “He is perhaps best known as the incomparable Captain Beefheart who, together with his Magic Band, rose to prominence in the 1960s with a totally unique style of blues-inspired, experimental rock & roll. This would ultimately secure Van Vliet’s place in music history as one of the most original recording artists of his time. After two decades in the spotlight as an avant-garde composer and performer, Van Vliet retired from performing to devote himself wholeheartedly to painting and drawing. Like his music, Van Vliet’s lush paintings are the product of a truly rare and unique vision.”
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Van Vliet grew up in Glendale California. In high school he met Frank Zappa, and in 1959 he dropped out of a junior college to work with him on film and musical projects. By 1964 Zappa left for Los Angeles to form the Mothers of Invention, and Van Vliet formed Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band. A&M records signed the group, but after early blues-rock singles (including a cover of “Diddy Wah Diddy”) went nowhere, a crushed Van Vliet parted ways with the label.
Van Vliet teamed up with Ry Cooder for Captain Beefheart’s first LP, Safe as Milk, but the disc attracted few fans outside of a small cult. That cult grew slightly with the release of 1968’s Strictly Personal, but it wasn’t until Frank Zappa signed Van Vliet to Straight Records that Beefheart’s full creativity flowered. Without the limits imposed by a traditional label, Van Vliet began creating his masterpiece.
The double album Trout Mask Replica was written in an intense eight-and-a-half-hour session at the piano. In a 1970 Rolling Stone cover story, Van Vliet described the process. “Well, I’d never played piano before and I had to figure out the fingering,” he said. “I don’t spend a lot of time thinking. It just comes through me.” The album redrew the boundaries of popular music, combining avant-garde jazz, R&B, poetry and garage rock in a fantastically surreal way. “It is a masterpiece,” RS wrote in 1970. “It will probably be many years before American audiences catch up to things that happen on this totally amazing record.”
Those words proved to be prophetic. Captain Beefheart continued to release records through the 1970s, though none aptured the acclaim of Trout Mask Replica. Van Vliet retired from music after 1982’s Ice Cream Cow and began a new career as a painter. For the past three decades he was a rock and roll recluse, though unlike Sly Stone and Syd Barrett he continued to communicate with his audience through his artwork.
Van Vliet leaves behind a wife, Jan. The two were married for more than 40 years.
Andy Greene contributed to this article.