Captain Beefheart, the noted experimental musician and painter born Don Van Vliet, died this morning in California following complications from multiple sclerosis. He was 69.
Van Vliet is best known for his 1969 album with the Magic Band, Trout Mask Replica, a work Rolling Stone recently ranked the No. 58 greatest album of all time. The record, and Beefheart's subsequent musical career, fueled the idea that rock music could be experimental and untethered to the limits of rhythm, tempo and key -- despite the fact that the skilled Van Vliet was known for a legendary five-octave vocal range. Born in California, Van Vliet found an educator and muse in Frank Zappa, who encouraged his evolution from visual artist to R&B harmonica/sax player to blues rocker to avant-garde luminary throughout the course of the Magic Band's career.
Beefheart signed to A&M on the strength of his first single, a cover of the blues standard "Diddy Wah Diddy." But the label was less than happy with the demos that went on to be released as the Magic Band's debut album, Safe as Milk. Beefheart and the band rehearsed and recorded the follow-up, Trout Mask Replica, under torrential conditions: grueling practice sessions, little personal space, and verbal abuse. The result was eventually championed by famed rock critic Lester Bangs, who called the album "a total success, a brilliant, stunning enlargement and clarification of his art."
After a long string of critically acclaimed albums throughout the '70s, with titles like Lick My Decals Off, Baby and Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) -- after a quick dip into less successful "commercial" territory with Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans and Moonbeams -- Van Vliet finally retired his ever-changing Magic Band lineup and musical guise altogether in 1982. Following a successful career as a painter, Van Vliet was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and retreated from public life altogether. His influence can still be heard across the musical spectrum, most prominently in the avant-garde blues of Tom Waits, but also in the work of recent experimental indie-rock bands such as Man Man.