Don Van Vliet (born January 15, 1941 in Glendale, California), is a musician and painter, best known under the pseudonym Captain Beefheart.
Vliet's output is rooted in blues music and rock music, but his idiosyncratic, diverse approach largely defies classification. Much of his work was conducted with a rotating assembly of musicians called the "Magic Band".
Among the most important of "Underground Rock" musicians, Captain Beefheart's legacy is one of poor record sales, critical aclaim, and a devoted following. His many admirers include Beck, Tom Waits, Woody Allen, PJ Harvey, David Lynch, David Byrne of Talking Heads, Michael Balzary (a.k.a. Flea), Matt Groening and Devo.
Vliet's music has been vastly influential. BBC disk jockey John Peel has stated, "If there has ever been such a thing as a genius in the history of popular music, it's Beefheart ... I heard echoes of his music in some of the records I listened to last week and I'll hear more echoes in records that I listen to this week."  (http://www.beefheart.com/zigzag/articles/genius.htm)
Vliet demonstrated prodigious painting and sculpting talents at a young age--earning the praise of Augustinio Rodriguez--but claims his parents turned away several scholarship offers. His paintings were later featured on several of his own albums.
A teenage friendship with Frank Zappa led to some collaborations over the years, though this relationship was subject to peaks and troughs. Their collaborative work can be found on the 1975 album Bongo Fury, along with Zappa rarity collections The Lost Episodes and Mystery Disc.
Vliet was reportedly quite shy, but able to imitate the deep voice of blues singer Howlin' Wolf. Eventually growing comfortable performing, he learned harmonica, and played around southern California, at dances and small clubs.
Beefheart had previously worked with local groups such as The Omens and The Blackouts and formed the Magic Band in 1964 with guitarists Alex St. Clair and Doug Moon, bass guitarist Jerry Handley and drummer Paul Blakely.
Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band signed to A&M Records and released a successful single, a version of Bo Diddley's "Diddy Wah Diddy". Their first album, however, was rejected by the label as being too negative and uncommercial. Moon and Blakely were replaced by Antennae Jimmy Semens and John 'Drumbo' French respectively, as well as adding Ry Cooder (guitarist) and released their remixed album, Safe as Milk.
These early recordings in the late 1960's were fairly conventional blues rock with touches of psychedelic music, and gave only hints of the unique music to come.
Meanwhile, Beefheart's childhood friend, Frank Zappa, formed Straight Records and signed Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band, which had added Zoot Horn Rollo (guitarist), Rockette Morton (bassist) and Mascara Snake (bass clarinetist), resulting in the landmark 1969 album Trout Mask Replica.
Trout Mask Replica
Regarded by many fans as Beefheart's masterpiece, Trout Mask Replica was--and remains--one of the strangest, most difficult albums in rock music history. The group rehearsed Vliet's difficult compositions for eight months, living communally in conditions drummer John French described as cultlike.
The 28 songs on Trout Mask Replica drew on blues music, Bo Diddley, free jazz, sea shanties and much more, but the relentless practice blended the music into an iconoclastic whole of conflicting tempi, harsh slide guitar, loping drumming, and honking saxophone.
Vliet's vocals ranged from growling blues singing to frenzied falsetto to laconic, casual ramblings. His lyrics often seem impenetrably strange and nonsensical, but closer examination reveals complex poetic use of wordplay, metaphor and all manner of references: music history, American and international politics, the shoah, Steve Reich, gospel music, conformity and much more.
(Matt Groening has stated his first thought upon hearing Trout Mask Replica was that it was annoying, difficult and pretentious, but so unique that he could not stop listening to it. He now lists the album as one of his favorites.)
Lick My Decals Off, Baby (1970) continued in a similar experimental vein, although the two 1972 follow ups, The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot, were much more commercial. The Magic Band left Beefheart and formed Mallard. Beefheart formed a new Magic Band and released Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans & Moonbeams; neither album was critically well received. However, Shiny Beast (1978) was largely regarded as bringing the group back to form, featuring once again the innovative and eccentric style of the earlier albums. The excellent Doc At the Radar Station (1980) helped establish Beefheart's late resurgence as possibly the most consistently creative period of his musical career. In this period, Beefheart made several appearances on David Letterman's program, and performed on Saturday Night Live.
After Ice Cream for Crow (1982), Beefheart retired from music and became a critically acclaimed painter.
In recent years, Vliet has become somewhat reclusive and abandoned music, stating he can make far more money painting. His artwork is as extreme and innovative as was his music, and commands high prices, as well as comparisons to Pablo Picasso and Franz Kline.
Vliet currently lives in Northern California, and is reportedly suffering from multiple sclerosis or a similar condition.
Beefheart has been the subject of at least one documentary: the BBC's 1994 The Artist Formerly Known As Captain Beefheart.
Safe as Milk (1967)
Strictly Personal (1968)
Trout Mask Replica (1969)
Lick My Decals off, Baby (1970)
Mirror Man (1970)
Clear Spot (1972)
The Spotlight Kid (1972)
Bluejeans & Moonbeams (1974)
Unconditionally Guaranteed (1974)
Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (1978)
Doc at the Radar Station (1980)
Ice Cream for Crow (1982)