Don Van Vliet, best known as 'Captain Beefheart', dies aged 69

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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Beefheart in 1974.
Image: "Jean-Luc".

US avant-garde musician and painter Don Van Vliet — better known by the stage name Captain Beefheart — died Friday aged 69. New York's Michael Werner Gallery confirmed the cause of death as complications with multiple sclerosis, a condition Van Vliet suffered from for many years.

Born in Glendale, California on January 15, 1941, the highly experimental musician created several unique and influential albums from 1967 through to 1982, backed by a frequently changing group of musicians known as The Magic Band. His most famous album, Trout Mask Replica (1969) melded free jazz, blues-rock, and avant-garde styles to create a critically acclaimed (albeit commercially unsuccessful) work. He retired from music in 1982 to focus on painting.

Whilst none of the albums released by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, including 1967 debut album Safe as Milk, were commercially successful, his work is regularly cited as highly influential. Groups such as The Sex Pistols, Jethro Tull, Hawkwind, and Roxy Music all mention Beefheart as influencing their music.

A childhood friend of Frank Zappa, Beefheart was christened Don Glen Viet, later changing this; and, adopting the stage name of Captain Beefheart at Zappa's suggestion. Of the dozen albums produced under various lineups of the Magic Band, Trout Mask Replica is placed at number 58 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

Despite no formal training, it was under his own name and as a painter, that Van Vliet experienced his greatest commercial success. His first exhibition was in Liverpool, in 1972. In the wake of this he was advised that as a painter he would be unlikely to be taken seriously unless he abandoned his musical career.

He is survived by his wife of over 40 years, Jan Van Vliet.

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