The multi-genre fusion experimentalist Captain Beefheart (born Don Van Vliet) was born on 15 January 1941 in suburban Glendale, California, where his father drove a baker’s van. He was an only child, and his grandparents lived next door.
His family indulged his artistic talents – he was sculpting from the age of four – and as a teenager, he discovered the blues along with childhood friend Frank Zappa, who was to remain a friend, and rival, throughout his life.
Together, in Lancaster, California, in the Mojave Desert, Zappa and Van Vliet came up with the name Captain Beefheart (from the title of an unmade Zappa film, Captain Beefheart vs. the Grunt People) and the latter formed a blues band, His Magic Band, in the mid-1960s.
Though the band’s title remained with Beefheart over two decades, the band’s membership was to change frequently.
The group was originally a straight-ahead blues band with Beefheart’s distinctive vocal style borrowed from such blues progenitors as Howlin’ Wolf and Blind Willie Johnson.
Signed to A&M Records after an April 1965 performance at the Teenage Fair at the Hollywood Palladium, the Magic Band bowed with a relatively faithful cover of Bo Diddley‘s Diddy Wah Diddy produced by David Gates, later of the soft-rock band Bread.
Beefheart steered his Magic Band through Delta blues boogaloo and acid freak out on their debut album, Safe As Milk (1967).
Arranged by 19-year-old musical director Ry Cooder (who also played slide) the album was marked by odd rhythms and spasmodic beats, with Zig Zag Wanderer hinting at the full flowering of Van Vliet’s vision on Trout Mask Replica (1969).
Van Vliet wrote all 28 songs for art rock masterpiece Trout Mask Replica during an eight-and-a-half hour piano session. Especially impressive given that he had never previously played the instrument!
For pre-production, he gave his Magic Band silly names (guitarist Jeff Cotton became Antennae Jimmy Semens) before rehearsing them at a suburban LA house for eight months under a regime of starvation and sleep deprivation.
Recalling the experiment while writing a 1998 memoir prompted guitarist Billy ‘Zoot Horn Rollo’ Harkleroad to run out onto his lawn and vomit.
The album was produced by Frank Zappa who gave his friend full artistic rein.” If it had been produced by any professional, famous producer,” Zappa said later, “there could have been a number of suicides involved.”
Lack of financial success caused guitarist Alex St Claire (real name Alexis Clair Snouffer) to leave the band in 1968, but he returned for the exhilarating 1973 tour and the lacklustre Unconditionally Guaranteed album.
Ultimately – despite a couple of spells in rehab – Alex was unable to win his long battle against alcohol. His body was discovered in his apartment in January 2006. The exact circumstances of his death were unclear.
After 1982’s Ice Cream For Crow album, Van Vliet retired from the music business to concentrate on painting and sculpting in his Mojave desert home. He died in December 2010 in California, from complications from multiple sclerosis. He was 69.
Artists like Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Oasis, Red Hot Chili Peppers and The White Stripes are among those who have cited him as an influence.
Don Van Vliet
Alex St Claire
John ‘Drumbo’ French
Jeff ‘Antennae Jimmy Semens’ Cotton
Bill ‘Zoot Horn Rollo’ Harkleroad
Brass, guitar, flute
Mark ‘Rockette Morton’ Boston
Victor ‘The Mascara Snake’ Hayden
Art ‘Ed Marimba’ Tripp
Roy ‘Orejon’ Estrada
Mark Mercello Keyboards
Eric Drew Feldman