Captain Beefheart, born Don Vliet in 1941, is often labeled one of modern music’s true innovators, having a true impact across punk, new wave and post-rock genres.
In his teens, Vilet and his family moved to the Mojave Desert, where the teen was befriended by a young Frank Zappa. In time, Vliet taught himself saxophone and harmonica, and joined a pair of local R&B groups, the Omens and the Blackouts.
After a semester at college, he and Zappa moved to California, where they planned to shoot a film, ‘Captain Beefheart Meets the Grunt People’. As the project remained in limbo, Zappa finally moved to Los Angeles, where he founded the Mothers of Invention, whilst Vliet later returned to his native Mojave area, adopted the Beefheart name and formed the first lineup of his backing group the Magic Band with guitarists Alex St. Clair and Doug Moon, bassist Jerry Handley and drummer Paul Blakely in 1964.
In their original incarnation, the Magic Band were a blues-rock outfit who quickly signed to A&M Records, where the success of the single ‘Diddy Wah Diddy’ earned them the opportunity to record a full-length album. Comprised of Van Vliet compositions like ‘Frying Pan’, ‘Electricity’ and ‘Zig Zag Wanderer’, the rejected the completed record as "too negative," and a crushed Beefheart went into seclusion. After replacing Moon and Blakely with guitarist Antennae Jimmy Semens and drummer John "Drumbo" French, the group (fleshed out by guitarist Ry Cooder) recut the songs in 1967 as ‘Safe as Milk’.
After producer Bob Krasnow radically remixed 1968's ‘Strictly Personal’ without Beefheart's approval, he again retired. At the same time, however, Zappa formed his own label, Straight Records, and he soon approached Van Vliet with the promise of complete creative control; a deal was struck and after writing 28 songs in a nine-hour frenzy, to record the seminal 1969 double album ‘Trout Mask Replica’.
Following 1970s similarly outre ‘Lick My Decals Off, Baby’, Beefheart adopted an almost commercial sound for the 1972 releases ‘The Spotlight Kid’ and ‘Clear Spot’. Shortly thereafter, the Magic Band broke off to form Mallard, and Beefheart was dropped by his label. After a two-year layoff, he released a pair of pop-blues albums, ‘Unconditionally Guaranteed’ and ‘Bluejeans and Moonbeams’, with a new, short-lived Magic Band.
In 1982 Van Vliet again retired from music, this time for good. He returned to the desert, took up residence in a trailer and focused on painting. In 1985, he mounted the first major exhibit of his work, done in an abstract, primitive style reminiscent of Francis Bacon. Like his music, his art won wide acclaim, and some of his paintings sold for as much as $25,000. In the 1990s Van Vliet dropped completely from sight when he fell prey to multiple sclerosis.
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