Sunday, December 19, 2010

Captain Beefheart Passes On

Legendary rock musician Captain Beefheart passed on December 17, 2010. The cause was complications from multiple sclerosis.

Captain Beefheart was born Don Vliet in Glendale, California on January 15, 1941. While young he exhibited a gift for sculpture, so much so that he was offered several scholarships. Unfortunately, his parents were not particularly supportive of his artistic talents and turned down every scholarship offer. It was when he was thirteen that his family moved from Glendale to the town of Lancaster, California. There he met a classmate with similar tastes as he had by the name of Frank Zappa. He began to play with local bands, including The Omens and The Blackouts (the latter group featuring Mr. Zappa on drums). It would be at Mr. Zappa's suggestion that Don Vliet would become Don Van Vliet. Frank Zappa and Don Vliet would work on an unfinished rock opera, I Was a Teenage Maltshop. They also built sets and wrote part of a script entitled Captain Beefheart Vs. The Grunt People.

In 1965 Don Vliet changed his name to Don Van Vliet. It was also in 1965 that Don Van Vliet became Captain Beefheart, forming the quintet Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. The name would soon be changed to Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band. By late 1965 the band was signed by A&M Records to record two singles. It was in 1967 that Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band released their first album, Safe as Milk. While very blues oriented, Safe as Milk featured the surreal lyrics and jerkiness that would become part and parcel of Captain Beefheart's style. Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band would fully plunge themselves into experimental music with their critically acclaimed 1969 album Trout Mask Replica, which blended blues, jazz, and many other genres. It would later influence both post punk and alternative rock.

Their 1970 album, Lick My Decals Off, Baby, would go deeper into experimentation. Indeed, much of the album was created through improvisation. To promote Lick My Decals Off, Baby, Captain Beefheart created a television commercial and promotional film with surreal, non sequitur imagery. The suggestiveness of the album's title and the surreality of the commercial's imagery kept if off the air, but it would eventually find its way into the Museum of Modern Art. It has since been remembered as an important milestone in music video.

Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band would drift away from experimentation and by their 1973 album Clear Spot they were performing fairly straight forward blues. With the 1974 album Unconditionally Guaranteed, raked over the coal by critics, the whole band would quit. Captain Beefheart recorded the 1975 album Bongo Fury with Frank Zappa. He also formed a new Magic Band, which would record four more albums. With the 1978 album Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) Captain Beefheart returned to experimentation. His last two albums, Doc at the Radar Station (1980) and Ice Cream for Crow also contained a good deal of experimentation. Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band would even shoot a video for the song "Ice Cream for Crow," which was rejected by MTV as being "too weird."

Don Van Vliet then retired from music to concentrate on his painting. He would establish a long association with the Michael Werner Gallery. Like his music, Mr. Van Vliet's art was a mixture of different genres, from modernism to abstract expressionism to primitivism.

While I did not like every single piece of music Captain Beefheart recorded, I must confess that I always admired him. In an era when many music artists were satisfied with producing commercially acceptable music, Captain Beefheart showed a willingness to experiment. His ground breaking work on his first four albums would prove a lasting influence on a diverse range of artists, including Tom Waits, The Sex Pistols, Talking Heads, Devo, and The White Stripes. Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band proved a lasting impact on both post punk and alternative rock. Captain Beefheart was very much a pioneer who sacrificed monetary success for breaking new ground in rock 'n' roll.

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