Captain Beefheart, a.k.a. Don Van Vliet, dies at 69

Captain-BeefheartImage Credit: Jan Persson/Redferns/Getty ImagesAvant-garde rock legend and visual artist Don Van Vliet, who performed under the name Captain Beefheart, passed away today at age 69. A representative of New York City’s Michael Werner Gallery, which showed his paintings, confirms the sad news to EW. Van Vliet died of complications from multiple sclerosis at a hospital in Northern California this morning.

Born in California in 1941, Van Vliet dubbed himself Captain Beefheart and began experimenting with eccentric rock’n’roll sounds in the mid-1960s. His first two releases with the Magic Band drew positive notice from some connoisseurs but failed to connect with the wider public. Van Vliet next forged a close creative partnership with Frank Zappa, a former high school classmate, who signed Beefheart to his Straight Records and produced 1969’s Trout Mask Replica. While the bizarre double album was not a major commercial success, it quickly became a cultural landmark. Van Vliet effectively redefined the frontiers of popular music, singing snatches of surreal imagery in disturbing tones over music that drew on blues, jazz, psychedelia, and a thousand other subgenres. Trout Mask Replica is still cited today as an essential art-rock document.

Van Vliet continued recording as Captain Beefheart with a rotating group of Magic Band members through 1982. (Read about his five best albums.) In later years, he shifted his primary focus to creating visual art, a world in which he won some acclaim. The Michael Werner Gallery displayed his work for decades, with their most recent Van Vliet show occurring in 2007. Earlier this month, one of Van Vliet’s paintings was reportedly being offered at an asking price of $40,000.

Please join the Music Mix in sending our condolences to Van Vliet’s family and friends.

(Follow the Music Mix on Twitter: @EWMusicMix.)

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Comments (318 total) Add your comment
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  • Gill Rockatansky

    Very sad news indeed, he changed the way I looked at music.

    • Tracy Murray

      Definitely , I admit I wasn’t much of a fan , but I had a lot of respect and admiration for him .

      • ks

        He was ecentric, As an artist he was amazing and in some respects ahead of his time. Truly sad news

    • Purnell

      Just listened to Frownland two days ago after a fight with my wife. You have to stretch a bit to dig his music but it’s worth the effort.

      • Steve

        Great music and was great

    • Smalltown Rivers

      You could look at his music.
      His lyrics painted pictures.

      • Themuddman

        That is sooo thru. Anyone who has listened to Zappa/Beefheart Bongo Fury knows what a drive-in restaurant in Hollywood looks like!

      • Don Digg

        I was just listening to Bongo Fury this week, sad coincidence. “I wish I had a pair of bongos!”

    • Beefheart Blows

      Wow, hopefully Phil Spector will get such a glowing obit which ignores what a horrible person he was to all of his collaborators. If you people would bother to put down the bongs and do a bit of research, you would learn that Don Van Vliet treated his “Magic Band” like garbage, with some going so far as to compare it to the way that Manson brainwashed his followers. Ike Turner must be rolling over in his grave wondering why Entertainment Weekly didn’t ignore all the times he beat Tina. And to top it all off, Captain Beefheart albums are nearly unlistenable. At least this EW article brought all the clueless music snobs together in one pathetic place to reminisce about some of the worst music ever written.

      • jmann

        Interestingly enough, I’d most certainly like to be standing behind you when you single-handedly put Mcdonald’s restaurants out of business.

      • beefheart rules

        I don’t know if this a troll attempt or you really believe what you spouted. It’s true he was eccentric and different and had a problem dealing with people. His genius and originality cannot be denied and I say this as a lifelong fan. It takes a bit of training to listen to his music , but it is an infinitely rewarding experience if you take the time. Trout Mask Replica still stands out as a truly unique and original work. The blending of blues, jazz, rock and everything else under the sun is unparalleled. Unlistenable? For the casual listener, maybe. For the music aficionado(oh, yeah, snob), it is truly music for the ages and still listenable to this day. When the historians look back on this era, Beefheart’s albums will be considered landmarks of a truly original artist.

      • Beefheart Blows

        I’ll clear it up for you, “beefheart rules”, I truly believe what I posted. “Eccentric and different and had a problem dealing with people”? The Magic Band had a term for Van Vliet’s abusiveness, it was called “in the barrel”, when Van Vliet would insult and berate a band member for days until the band member broke down in tears. The drummer (John “Drumbo” French) called it “cultlike”. In his 2010 book, French has recalled living on no more than a small cup of beans a day for a month. A visitor described their appearance as “cadaverous” and said that “they all looked in poor health.” Band members were restricted from leaving the house and practiced for 14 or more hours a day. Physical assaults were encouraged at times, along with verbal degradation. Beefheart spoke of studying texts on brainwashing at a public library at about this time, and appeared to be applying brainwashing techniques to his bandmembers: sleep deprivation, food deprivation, constant negative reinforcement, and rewarding bandmembers when they attacked each other or competed with each other. At one point Cotton ran from the house and escaped for a few weeks, during which time Alex Snouffer filled in for him and helped to work up “Ant Man Bee”. French, who had thrown a metal cymbal at Cotton, ran after him yelling that he too wanted to come. Cotton later returned to the house with French’s mother, who took him away for a few weeks, however he later felt compelled to return as did Cotton. Mark Boston at one point hid clothes in a field across the street, planning his own getaway. John French’s 2010 book Through the Eyes of Magic describes some of the “talks” which were initiated by his actions such as being heard playing a Frank Zappa drum part (“The Blimp”) in his drumming shed, and not having finished drum parts as quickly as Beefheart would have liked. French writes of being punched by band members, thrown into walls, kicked, punched in the face by Beefheart hard enough to draw blood, being attacked with a sharp broomstick, and eventually of Beefheart threatening to throw him out of an upper-floor window. He admits complicity in similarly attacking his bandmates during “talks” aimed at them. In the end, after the album’s recording, French was ejected from the band by Beefheart throwing him down a set of stairs with violence, telling him to “Take a walk, man” after not responding in a desired manner to a request to “play a strawberry” on the drums. Beefheart installed a hanger-on, Jeff Bruschelle, as the new Drumbo (playing on French’s drumset) and did not include French’s name anywhere on the album credits as a player or arranger. Look, “beefheart rules”, I don’t care if you want to call him unique and original, that’s fine, but to COMPLETELY IGNORE the stuff that he did, which is on a par with what Ike Turner and Phil Spector did, is just a joke. Those two musicians were equally “unique and original”, but they will also forever be known for the horrible way in which they treated people. Beefheart’s transgressions are being ignored in his obits. As for me, I am a huge music afficionado, I have nearly 30,000 songs on my iPod, stuff that dates back to the 1930s and 1940s. I freely admit, I am not a fan of jazz, I think it has no place in rock music, and for the same reason that a 30 minute jazz trumpet solo (while technically proficient) renders a rock song unlistenable, the entire Captain Beefheart discography is a similarly self-indulgent pile of feces. I have tried, over and over again, to listen to his albums because they are SUPPOSED to be so good, but they are execrable. Therefore, while I will gladly take the heat from any Beefheart fans who don’t agree with my musical opinion, the truth of Van Vliet’s poisonous personality and horrendous treatment of bandmates deserves to be mentioned.

      • Gary Gomes

        I was going to suggest that you listen to some of Beefheart’s more accessible albums like “Clear Spot” (which has NO jazz influences, a minimum of dissonances, and beautiful songs like “Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles” but it seems clear you have a mad about this guy that is better handled by a therapist than in a place where people our posting about a dead man. When I see “I am no fan of jazz and think it has no place in rock music” I am getting a perspective about purity that would leach onto anyone’s bad behavior. I am sorry that Beefheart had such a bad relationship with his band mates, but he did attract others to play with him later (French himself went back a couple of times).
        So, while I respect your right to your opinion of his music, I find it difficult to respect a person who saves all this vitriol for a man who has just passed away. I don’t like certain musical artists (like Lou Reed), but should I outlive Lou, you can bet I would keep a respectful distance from articles about his passing. Please maintain a semblance of taste and respect for the dead.

      • Beefheart Blows

        Gary Gomes, what a bunch of tripe. Respect for the dead is a joke, people should have respect for the LIVING, which Don Van Vliet did not have. Perhaps you have misunderstood my words, or the words of others. Yes, I made some sarcastic comments about people who are acting as if his music was so wonderful, which bears no disrespect to the dead. Separately, I have included the words of other people who lived and worked with Van Vliet, so if you are unhappy about their words, you should take it up with them. As each of my comments have made clear, I am simply surprised by the complete absence of any discussion on why Van Vliet’s entire band abandoned him in 1974 and why he left music entirely less than a decade later. Did anyone show any “respect for the dead” to Ike Turner by ignoring the fact that he used to beat the hell out of Tina? When Phil Spector dies, will anyone show him respect by ignoring all of his horrible behavior? I’m just pointing out a simple truth, that Van Vliet’s absence from the music business for the past near-30 years has allowed everyone to forget about what a monster he was during his 15 years in the spotlight. So sorry, I didn’t realize we all had to slink around saying nothing but good things about someone simply because he died. Hey, he chose to live his life treating people horribly, maybe he should have made amends while he was still alive. Don’t blame me for mentioning the truth that was omitted from EW’s article.

      • Gary Gomes

        I am not denying that Beefheart was eccentric and developed a cult around his band–every report indicates that he was dictatorial, odd, and extremely tough to deal with. This is actually kind of old news and I am very much aware of it. Many bands did horrible things to each other. Some of the psychological pressure band members place on each other is nauseating and it sometimes spills into bizarre personal behavior. I have seen it personally. For example (emphasis added here), stories of fights among the Who and the Kinks are legendary, but they had the glue of commercial success to keep them together. Beefheart browbeat and treated his band members very badly. French went back to Beefheart a few years after 1974 (in 1978 as a matter of fact), though and the reason Beefheart left music in 1981 was because his painting career was taking off and he was told by his manager he would not be taken seriously as a painter if he were also a musician. The band broke up in 1974 for commercial as well as musical reasons; Beefheart was getting pressure to make more commercially accessible material. He had management problems throughout his career and did not enjoy a lot of commercial success even in his last years. Painting was a viable career option for him because he would enjoy commercial success and avoid life on the road as a musician, teaching music with limited communications skills. I agree what happened with the band around the time of Trout Mask was rough, and I know John French did not get the credit he deserved. However, as a music fan (nowhere near a bong, I might add), I don’t think his behavior around the time of Trout Mask and a bit later reached the levels of either Ike Turner or Phil Spector. So yeah, you set the record straight, and thanks, but that does not take away from what he accomplished. And, as far as Phil Spector being treated well in his obit…well, I never heard any stories about Don killing anyone, accidentally or on purpose, so that analogy is pretty lame.

        Bye, you can spew whatever you want; that’s is for me.

        RIP Don.

      • Bongo Fury

        The negative comments about how the band was treated, etc should be left to the ones affected, not to those sitting on the sidelines. Don’s music is not for the faint of heart, nor is it easy listening. Like Zappa, Captain Beefheart wanted to push the envelope of what was tasteful, acceptable, and accessable. He was not willing to sell out and make bubble gum albums to make a living. That my friends is the hallmark of a true artist. As an artist, it was easier for him to express himself visually, and leave the complications of coordinating his vision of a composition with others. Sorry you are sore about stuff that happened 30 years ago to other people. I feel that your attack is childish and serves no purpose other than to promote an argument. Why don’t you make political posts on sites that promote ideas you disagree with, since it seems obvious you want to argue. Pinhead.

      • Moss

        You’re an idiot.

      • vern hall

        Yes the Capt is in space now, but please dont take my Mallard albums! RIP Don.

      • Balousch

        I’ll start off by saying that I have an immense amount of respect as a true, “music aficionado,” and as active musician I’ll be the first to admit Don Van Vliet has influenced my playing greatly. It is sad to see anyone pass out of this life, even more so someone who has shown true genius in what they created. It will always be an honor to eternally have Captain Beefheart’s music in my collection. Even though I should leave it at that, some part of me wants to contribute to this discussion in hopes to tune more people into his amazing musical masterpieces.

        I am well aware of the, “crimes against humanity,” Van Vliet has committed; I have no idea what else to call them, as attempting to brainwash and control the actions of another living soul is a terrible sin. If you disregard his actions that you have no control over, and focus entirely on what kind of experiences and/or knowledge you can gain through his life; you definitely are in for a treat.

        I was born in the mid-to-late eighties (so I’m probably the young one here), and thus I never got the chance to see him live. Luckily for me, my father (the person who gave me the best foundation in music and math a person could ask for) is an avid fan of Vliet. I’ll never forget hearing Beefheart’s music for the first time, way back in 1990 when I was a wee lad. My mom was yelling from across the house, “Turn that crud down!” as it was not

      • Balousch

        until the past couple years that she gained the proper ear to listen to his music with appreciation (or really any heavily psychedelic music as I define it in my head). However I was truly enthralled, I thought I just was introduced to my first modern band (as I was ≈3-years old, and didn’t understand the human perspective of linear time yet). I grew up thus far in life listening to bands such as: The Grateful Dead / Traffic / Beatles / Miles Davis / and hundreds more; but after hearing Beefheart’s mighty roar from the album Strictly Personal, I would of bet everything that it was just released, due to the fact I never heard anything remotely like it. (I guess I know understand why rock was so alien to the grandparent generation of the 1940’s-1950’s). Funnily enough, I actually believed for ≈5-years after then, that Captain Beefheart was the newest artist of the time. Of course this changed as soon as I grew old enough to seek information out on the internet. I guess what I’ve been trying to say through this story, is that I truly believe that Don Van Vliet was one of the very few artists who was born decades before the time his music could be truly appreciated. From my perspective some of the best underground music of today is finally just now catching up to what Beefheart started (and no not that cruddy rave techno stuff where the so called artist, IE: DJ, just hits the play button for another bands song, and puts in a, “whoop-de-whoop,” noise every so often to make it sound slightly different

        At here I end my short, abridged, but true story of my interaction with Captain Beefheart. It is now up to you to continue this via your own life experiences and make choices for yourself

      • scootter

        gomes , if you don’t ‘like ‘ jazz music ,it is no surprise you don’t understand beefhearts music too complicated for you !

  • Martin Craig

    One of the true greats of post-WW2 music. Fabulous onstage and on record. Fast and bulbous, tight also! R.I.P., Captain.

  • Carl Howard

    Van Vliet’s gone… Sun Ra’s long gone… all the proclaimers of righteous space testimony are gone. All the counterbalance to pop music fascism is gone.

    • Danzr Von Thai

      So it seems… unless you would count rock archivist & fart aficionado Jim Dawson out in Hollyweed ?

    • Purnell

      Sun Ra was a great one also. Thanks for bringing his name up.

    • Smalltown Rivers

      You speak for me also.

    • Gary Gomes

      I met Ra in 1973–a very interesting guy and actually a real sweetheart. Very funny–another guy who had a cult band, by the way. But a very interesting guy. Like Beefheart, he did not go into his more dissonant stuff right away-some of his early recordings, like some of Beefheart’s early records, are pretty tame compared to what came later. And they both synthesized the outside and “inside” stuff later. Some interesting similarities….

  • johnafter909

    I had a few of his LPs. Admittedly I enjoyed his more mainstream efforts like “Click Clack” and the Clear Spot” album . But, back in my college days, even Clear Spot would clear out a room when placed on the turntable. If there were chicks in the room and you wanted them to stay, the Captain was avoided at all costs, lol. With his departure from this astral plane, I hope Mr. Zoot Horn Rollo will, in his memory, hit that long lunar note…and let it float.

    • randy

      Maybe you should have played “Safe as milk” they woulda loved it, anyways I dont think the captain had anything to do with the chicks leaving your room..

      • Chupie

        Do you have a ponytail?

      • johnafter909

        At the time, late 70s, if it wasn’t Hotel California, F Mac’s Rumour or Night Moves, the chicks didn’t want to know about it. But you probably have a point; I was lucky to have the chicks for the duration of a joint!

    • SHIC

      I’m a chick. Play me some Beefheart in college and I was that much closer to putting out.

      RIP, Captain.

      • Mitch

        Chicks are weirder now:)

      • johnafter909

        Well, in Charleston, SC, late 70s, cool chicks like you were like unicorns: mythical, elusive & presumed not to exist.

      • heresbruce

        You’re weird… and i like it!!!

      • Danzr Von Thai

        eh… your college wasn’t West Virginia University by any chance ?

      • tinydanza

        Agreed! Some women like GOOD music.

      • Neil Bostock

        I wish I’d known you in college…

    • Laura

      That was funny, lovely, and smart.

    • Purnell

      I’ve tried to locate the Clear Spot album as I was told it’s similar to music I make. How do I get it?

      • Smalltown Rivers

        It’s available on C.D. with the Spotlight Kid.
        2 for 1.

    • jimmynog

      I always found Jethro Tull to be the ultimate clear-the-room-of-chicks agent.

      • pete zolli

        King Crimson. Hands-down.

      • John Eccleston

        The first time i saw the capt was in 72 at the bickershaw festival England i became an instant fan he was awesome same year i saw Jethro Tull my other favourite band ive just recently found out Ian Anderson is a fan of the capt theres not many greats left now R.I.P Don Van Vliet.

    • ChaosByDesign

      THe year CLear Spot came out I was hanging at the beach…..I thought it was so profound, I carried the clear sleeve and album with me constantly….and wondered why chicks could not see I too was a genius… is really quite funny now

  • peeps

    ‘Clear Spot’ was one of the first records I ever bought. Loved him.
    Thanks Capt.! RIP xo

  • Circuit Ben

    My hero is gone, and I am lost.

    Goodbye Captain.

    • alex

      thats exactly how i feel.

      • DGI

        Like you, there are many for whom this is a very personal loss. He was a hero in every dimension. I listen to him every day. What more can be said?

    • BabyGorilla

      Me too. I never met the man personally but I can’t stop crying. I love his music so much that it feels like I’ve a very close friend.

      • BabyGorilla

        correction…like I’ve lost a very close friend

  • bongobeardy

    thanks for the music.

    • Smalltown Rivers

      Bongo Fury!

  • Matt

    no more “Tropical Hotdog Nights” :-(

  • Vin

    RIP Captain, you gave us one hell of a show.

  • Cary

    A genius bandleader, incredible personality, alive like no one I’ve ever encountered. He will be greatly, greatly missed.

    Just listened to Trout Mask Replica last night. Feeling pretty devastated.

    “The dust blows forward ‘n the dust blows back.”

  • Ssarzen

    Rip captain
    One of the biggest influences ever for me and others.

  • Mark

    What?? no mention of his collaborations with Frank Zappa. RIP Captain Beefheart

    • Waits Fan

      Did you read the article? Here’s the Zappa mention: Van Vliet next forged a close creative partnership with Frank Zappa, a former high school classmate, who signed Beefheart to his Straight Records and produced 1969′s Trout Mask Replica. “

      • tinydanza

        Then Zappa screwed him out of royalties for most of his career, even when he was sick and living in a trailer in Death Valley. Zappa betrayed Beefheart for money and left instructions in his will to never turn the rights to Beefheart’s catalog back over to him. Z may be a legend, but he’s a legendary jerk, too.

  • outside agitator

    “time is space-a-turnin'”…great line. adios mi Capitan…

  • skippy

    “If there were chicks in the room and you wanted them to stay, The Captain was avoided…” Thats why they arent really our equals(Sorry handfull of cool chicks). The pop charts, club culture and reality TV are proof of what happens when you give women money and let them dictate terms. FLAME ON!

    • lbjack

      You’re right — Suzy Creamcheese rules. Mainly ’cause there aren’t enough guys left — thanks to wars and dope — with the cojones to keep them in their place.

    • Danzr Von Thai

      What politically incorrect dinosaur range did you wander in from; once tampons and diet Coke hit the market shelves…

    • Stick

      You speak the ugly truth, Skippy.

    • myrv gryphon

      Couldn’t have said it better!!!!!

    • Artie


  • MassRocker

    R.I.P. Captain…

    • Love Bone

      RIP and BestInterracialDating

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