Captain Beefheart

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Captain Beefheart, Toronto, 1974

Captain Beefheart (born January 15, 1941 in Glendale , California , † December 17, 2010 in Arcata , California) was the pseudonym of Don Glen Van Vliet (born Donald Vliet), an American author , poet , composer and musician experimental Rock and blues music as well as painters . His unconventional music became known to a larger audience from the late 1960s. This was facilitated by the support and collaboration with his school friend, the guitarist and composer Frank Zappa . An essential part of Beefheart's musical work is characterized by unusual arrangements, polyrhythms , non-metric timing and often cryptic or deliberately absurd song texts. His best-known release is the double album Trout Mask Replica from 1969.


First steps

Van Vliet moved with his family to Lancaster in the Mojave Desert in 1954 , where he met the young Frank Zappa in high school . In the winter of 1958/59 he recorded the first pieces with him, of which the piece Lost in a Whirlpool came out on the 1996 Zappa album The Lost Episodes . In addition to three joint recordings from 1968/69, it also contains the song Tiger Roach , which Zappa and Beefheart recorded in 1962 or 1963 with the musicians Janschi (bass) and Vic Mortenson (drums). In 1964 he founded the Magic Band and made her debut at the Hollywood Teenage Fair in 1965 .

Early work

In the following year, the group released their first single Diddy Wah Diddy , followed shortly after by Moonchild , simple, straightforward rhythm and blues pieces that initially did not meet with approval in the music industry. The band tried to get a record deal and Beefheart signed various deals that were offered to him, which later resulted in legal problems and arduous lawsuits. Nevertheless, the band was able to release their first album Safe as Milk in 1967 on Buddah Records . Here Ry Cooder played guitar on several pieces, but also implemented subsequent changes.

The follow-up work Strictly Personal from 1968 was remixed by producer Bob Krasnow in a " psychedelic " manner. Krasnow changed it so much that Van Vliet later distanced himself from it. Only Frank Zappa's offer to move to his newly formed label Straight Records with complete creative control stopped Beefheart from pulling out.

Strictly Personal is already characterized by an unusual and complex combination of delta blues and avant-garde rock with occasional free jazz influences. In 1992, some of Krasnow's unedited takes of the recording sessions on I May Be Hungry But I Sure Ain't Weird were released , otherwise the master tapes on the album are considered lost.

It wasn't until 1971 that Mirror Man was released , actually the band's second album, which was recorded in 1967/1968. It consists of only four long pieces, of which Kandy Korn can also be found in another version on Strictly Personal . The album is clearly the “missing link” in the band's early work, as here the beginning change of the band from an idiosyncratic, but ultimately still conventional blues rock band to an experimental format becomes clear for the first time.

Trout Mask Replica

In 1969 the album Trout Mask Replica (German: "Forellenmasken-Nachbildung"), produced by Frank Zappa, was released as one of the first releases on the Straight Records label . The double album contains twenty-eight pieces of music that were recorded over the course of a year. Together with the successor Lick My Decals Off, Baby , Trout Mask Replica is considered by many critics to be a milestone in rock history and the best album by Captain Beefheart & his Magic Band . The influence of free jazz and modern classical music is stronger on these musically radical albums than on their predecessors. Beefheart himself always stated that he had no influences at all.

Most of the compositions on the album are characterized by polyrhythms and atonal harmonics and merge influences from free jazz and delta blues . The characteristic, raw sound was created by the line-up of two lead guitars , bass clarinet , several saxophones and Beefheart's rough vocals, which are only vaguely oriented to the beat of the music. The recordings for the album were made in long sessions, during which the Magic Band lived together in the same house in which the album was recorded. Beefheart insisted on recording his vocal parts without monitor headphones, so he couldn't hear the music while he sang.

The album cover of Trout Mask Replica, designed by graphic artist Cal Schenkel , also became famous: The photo on the front shows a person in front of a bright red background who holds the prepared head of a carp as a mask in front of his face, as if to raise his right hand in greeting wears a conical hat with a shuttlecock on top.

On the list of the US music magazine Rolling Stone , first published in 2003 , “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time” (German: “ The 500 greatest albums of all time ”) the album Trout Mask Replica is at number 58.

The "Tragic Band"

Captain Beefheart at a concert at Convocation Hall, Toronto, 1974
Captain Beefheart (left) with Frank Zappa at a concert in New Haven, CT

The demands that Beefheart made of the listener in these complex works with his rough voice , somewhat reminiscent of the blues singer Howlin 'Wolf , whose range extended over four and a half octaves , and his surreal lyric poetry overwhelmed the broad audience and failed to achieve commercial success . On the two albums The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot , released in 1972, he softened the conceptual rigor of their predecessors in favor of a more playful, sometimes almost conventional style. After these records did not have the hoped-for success, the Magic Band broke up and Beefheart lost his record deal.

Beefheart went to Great Britain for two years, where they released the albums Unconditionally Guaranteed (1974) and Bluejeans And Moonbeams (1974) with a new Magic Band, some of which fans called "Tragic Band" . Many critics saw it as his worst work, as it diluted his unmistakable style into powerless pop blues. Captain Beefheart returned to the USA. He met his old friend Frank Zappa again, and on the tour in 1975 they made their live album Bongo Fury . His appearance here fits the ironic-cynical style and the expressive joy of playing Zappa.

Late work

In 1976 he produced Bat Chain Puller , which was initially unreleased as an album. After he got a new contract with Virgin Records in 1978 , some of the tracks appeared on Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) . Stylistically, the work was a return to its roots, an eccentric blend of blues rock and avant-garde .

Doc at Radar Station , published in 1980, brings the basic elements of his work - the blues, an expressive-absurd lyric, complex guitar and rhythm arrangements and strange, almost atonal compositions - together again in the typical way for Beefheart.

In 1982 his last album, Ice Cream For Crow, was released, which again has more conventional arrangements and was interpreted as a late commitment to the blues. The penultimate track The Thousandth And Tenth Day Of The Human Totem Pole is interpreted as a first and last pessimistic comment by the captain on human civilization. In 1984 there were more recordings, but they were not released. After that, no new music by Captain Beefheart was released, and he stopped performing as a musician.

The general recognition of the potential of his music began only with the end of his music career. In particular, young punk and new wave bands such as Devo , Pere Ubu , The Fall , Public Image Ltd. and many others were inspired by him. This recognition grew over the years and in retrospect he is seen as one of the most important musicians in rock history, one of the first to push rock to its musical limits.

End of career, new beginning and withdrawal

Don Van Vliet drew the ultimate conclusion from this last disappointment and ended his career as a musician in 1985. He retired to the Mojave Desert with his wife and made painting his profession. Because of his drawing skills, he was considered a child prodigy in his childhood and was even offered a scholarship in Europe in the early 1950s, which his parents turned down.

This decision paid off for Van Vliet, because as a painter he was able to make a better living from his work, which at times reminds one of the COBRA group and others interested in “primitive” art, than from his work as a musician. Some of his paintings fetched prices in excess of $ 100,000. At the beginning of the 1990s, Don Van Vliet withdrew completely from the public. It has been suggested, despite claims to the contrary, that this was due to a disease with multiple sclerosis . In 2004 he lived in Trinidad , California . Vliet died on December 17, 2010 in Northern California after a complication from multiple sclerosis.

Band members

  • 1964: Guitar: Alex St. Clair and Doug Moon . Bass: Jerry Handley . Drums: Paul Blakely .
  • 1967: Guitar: Alex St. Clair and Antennae Jimmy Semens (born Jeff Cotton ). Bass: Jerry Handley . Drums: John "Drumbo" French . Ry Cooder accompanies some tracks on the album Safe as Milk .
  • 1969: Guitar: Antennae Jimmy Semens (born as Jeff Cotton), Zoot Horn Rollo (born as Bill Harkleroad). Bass: Rockette Morton ( Mark Boston ). Drums: John "Drumbo" French. Bass clarinet: The Mascara Snake ( Victor Hayden ).
  • 1970: Guitar: Zoot Horn Rollo (Bill Harkleroad), other sources ("Captain Beefheart Electricity") also mention Doog Moon and Jeff Cotton. Bass: Rockette Morton (Mark Boston). Bass clarinet: The Mascara Snake. Drums: John French and Art Tripp (as Ed Marimba ), who also played percussion.
  • 1972: Guitar: Zoot Horn Rollo and Winged Eel Fingerling (Elliott Ingber). Bass: Rockette Morton and Oréjon ( Roy Estrada ). Drums: John French, Art Tripp (as Ted Cactus and Ed Marimba ), Rhys Clark.
  • 1978: Guitar: Jeff Morris Tepper, Richard Redus. Keyboards: Eric Drew Feldmann. Trumpet: Bruce Fowler . Drums: Robert Williams. Percussion: Art Tripp (Ed Marimba) .
  • 1980: Guitar: Jeff Morris Tepper, Gary Lucas , John French, keyboards: Eric Drew Feldmann, trombone: Bruce Fowler. Drums: Robert Williams, John French. Bass: John French.
  • 1982: Guitar: Jeff Morris Tepper, Gary Lucas. Keyboards: Eric Drew Feldmann. Bass and Marimba: Richard Midnight Hatsize Snyder. Drums: Cliff Martinez .

Meaning and quotes

  • "When Beefheart made pop, it sounded like avant-garde, when he made avant-garde, like a radio play, when he made a radio play, it was a song." ( Carl Ludwig Reichert )
  • If anyone in the world of rock music really deserves to be labeled as a genius, I think that he could be it. ”( John Peel )
    • (German: "If anyone in the world of rock music really deserves to be called a genius, then I think it could be him")
  • Captain Beefheart is the most important musician to rise in the Sixties, far more significant and far-reaching than the Beatles; as important for all music as Ornette Coleman was for jazz, as Leadbelly was for the blues. "( Lester Bangs )
    • (German: "Captain Beefheart is the most important musician that the sixties produced, far more important and far-reaching than the Beatles; as important for any music as Ornette Coleman was for jazz and Leadbelly for the blues.")
  • The White Stripes covered three of his songs, Party of Special Things to Do , China Pig and Ashtray Heart, and released them as a single on the well-known indie label Sub Pop in 2000 .
  • The Kills almost always close their live shows with a cover version of Captain Beefheart's Drop Out Boogie .
  • Bat Chain Puller was included on The Wire's legendary wirelist "100 Records That Set the World on Fire (While No One Was Listening)" .


  • 1959-1969 The Early Years
  • 1965 The Legendary A&M Sessions (1965 singles, later released together as an album)
  • 1967 Safe as Milk (UK: silversilver)
  • 1967 Mirror Man (remastered with bonus tracks as The Mirror Man Sessions , only released in 1971)
  • 1968 Strictly Personal
  • 1969 Trout Mask Replica (UK:goldgold)
  • 1970 Lick My Decals Off, Baby
  • 1972 The Spotlight Kid (only available on CD in combination with Clear Spot )
  • 1972 Clear Spot (only available on CD in combination with The Spotlight Kid )
  • 1974 Unconditionally Guaranteed
  • 1974 blue jeans & moonbeams
  • 1976 bat chain puller
  • 1978 Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)
  • 1980 Doc At the Radar Station
  • 1982 Ice Cream For Crow
  • 1983 Top Secret
  • 1992 I May Be Hungry But I Sure Ain't Weird (recordings from 1967–1969)
  • 1999 Grow Fins: Rarities 1965–1982
  • 2003 Railroadism - Live In The USA 72-81
  • 2005 Prime Quality Beaf
  • 2010 Amsterdam '80
  • 2012 Diddy Wah Diddy


  • 1985: “Don Van Vliet. Pictures and Drawings ”, Galerie Michael Werner , Cologne
  • 1985: "Don Van Vliet", Mary Boone / Michael Werner Gallery, New York
  • 1987: Galerie Brinkmann, Amsterdam
  • 1988: Galerie Lelong, Zurich
  • 1988: “Don Van Vliet. New Work ", San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco
  • 1990: “Don Van Vliet. New Pictures 1989–1990 ”, Galerie Michael Werner, Cologne
  • 1990: “Don Van Vliet. New Paintings and Drawings ", Fred Hoffman Gallery, Santa Monica
  • 1991: Kunsthallen Brandts Klaedefabrik, Odense, Denmark
  • 1993-1994: “Don Van Vliet. Stand up to be discontinued ", Bielefelder Kunstverein, Bielefeld (on to Odense, Brighton, Gothenburg)
  • 1994: “Don Van Vliet, Pictures and Drawings”, Daniel Blau Gallery, Munich
  • 1995: “God's Empty Socks and Other Paintings by Don Van Vliet”, Michael Werner Gallery, New York
  • 1995: "Don Van Vliet", Galleri Stefan Andersson, Umedalen / Umeå, Sweden
  • 1995: "Don Van Vliet", Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art, Cleveland (OH)
  • 1996: “Don Van Vliet. Works from the 70s and 80s ”, Galerie Michael Werner, Cologne
  • 1998: “Don Van Vliet. Recent Paintings “, Knoedler & Company, New York
  • 2000: "Don Van Vliet", Lowe Gallery, Atlanta
  • 2001: “Don Van Vliet. Paintings from the Eighties ”, Michael Werner Gallery, New York
  • 2001: “Don Van Vliet. Works on Paper “, Fleisher / Ollman Gallery, Philadelphia
  • 2002: Barbican Center, London

Poems and pictures

  • Don Van Vliet: Skeleton Breath, Scorpion Blush . Verlag Gachnang & Springer, Bern / Berlin 1987, ISBN 978-3-906127-15-6 . (Poetry book, foreword: AR Penck , translation from English: Catherine Schelbert)
  • Don Van Vliet. New Work, in association with Michael Werner Gallery, (catalog on the occasion of the exhibition at Knoedler & Company, New York, November 11 - December 5, 1998), New York: Knoedler & Company, (1998)
  • Don Van Vliet, [with a poem by Don Van Vliet], (catalog for the exhibition "Don Van Vliet. Works from the 70s and 80s" in the Michael Werner Gallery, Cologne, June 22nd - July 27th, 1996), Cologne: Michael Werner, (1996)
  • Don Van Vliet. Stand Up to Be Discontinued, Bielefelder Kunstverein, Museum Waldhof, texts by Andreas Beaugrand, Karsten Ohrt, Jessica Rutherford, Paolo Bianchi, Luca Ferrari, Diedrich Diederichsen, Roberto Ohrt, AR Penck, hardcover with CD, Ostfildern: Cantz, (1993)
  • New Work: Don Van Vliet (Text: Bohn R. Lane), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, (1988)
  • Don Van Vliet. Nine pictures, (Text: Wilfried Dickhoff), Galerie Michael Werner, Cologne (1988)
  • Don Van Vliet. Ten Pictures, (Text: AR Penck), Galerie Michael Werner, Cologne (1987)
  • Don Van Vliet. Six pictures, (Text: AR Penck) Galerie Michael Werner, Cologne, (1985)


  • In Stephen King's novel Christine , protagonist Dennis Guilder's deceased cat is named after Captain Beefheart. In the German translation, however, this becomes "Captain Rinderherz". Her successor also bears the name of a successful musician: Screamin 'Jay Hawkins .
  • The Dutch DJ and producer named Don Diablo after Captain Beefheart.


  • Riding Some Kind of Unusual Skull Sleigh - Don Van Vliet, 2003.
  • Mike Barnes: Captain Beefheart: The Biography , 2002, ISBN 0-8154-1190-1 .
  • Ken Brooks: Captain Beefheart: A Tin Teardrop , Agenda Ltd. 2000, ISBN 1-899882-11-1 .
  • Kevin Courrier: Trout Mask Replica (in the book series "33 1/3" about influential LPs in music history) Continuum New York / London 2007, ISBN 0-8264-2781-2 .
  • Luca Ferrari: Pearls before swine, pearl ai porci. Ice cream for crows, gelato ai corvi. A tribute to the art of Captain Beefheart . Ed. by Gigi Marinoni, with CD Single Poetry reading by Don Van Vliet . Sonic Book, Rome 1996.
  • Ben Watson: Frank Zappa - the Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play . Quartet Books, London 1994, ISBN 0-7043-7066-2 .
  • Colin David Webb: Guaranteed unusual ... The life of Captain Beefheart . Sonnentanz-Verlag, Augsburg 1990, ISBN 3-926794-06-2 .
  • John French: Beefheart: Through the Eyes of Magic. London 2010.


  • Diedrich Diederichsen : The Southern California Conspiracy. Abysses - 880 pages of reconstructed madness: John "Drumbo" French writes about Captain Beefheart's Magic Band . In: taz , August 7, 2010

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Simon Vozick-Levinson: Captain Beefheart, aka Don Van Vliet, dies at 69. In: Music Mix. Entertainment Weekly, accessed December 17, 2010 .
  2. ^ Watson: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play . Chapter on the making of Trout Mask Replica , p. 153-156 .
  3. ^ The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In: "Rolling Stone" website. Retrieved October 10, 2008 .
  4. Dirty Champagne. In: Artnet. Retrieved February 9, 2011 .
  5. Don Van Vliet. Biography. In: Artnet. Retrieved February 9, 2011 .
  6. Rock legend, Captain Beefheart is dead. In: Spiegel Online. December 18, 2010, accessed December 19, 2010 .
  7. ^ Carl Ludwig Reichert: Blues - history and stories . Deutscher Taschenbuch-Verlag, Munich 2001, ISBN 3-423-24259-0 , pp. 184 .
  8. Music Sales Awards: UK
  9. Don Diablo: "Freddie Mercury is my hero" - Interview Michiel Veenstra. 5 Essential Tracks, November 26, 2017, accessed October 10, 2018 .