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Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet)

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Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet), protopunk, gravel-voiced singer of enigmatic lyrics; b. Glen-dale, Calif., Jan. 15, 1941. Captain Beefheart moved with his family to the desert town of Lancaster, Calif., at age 13 and became friends with Frank Zappa in high school. Teaching himself harmonica and saxophone, Beefheart performed with several R&B bands before forming the first edition of His Magic Band in 1964. Gaining a reputation in area desert towns, the group recorded Bo Diddley’s “Diddy Wah Diddy” for A&M Records, and the single became a regional hit. However, material for a first album was rejected by A&M as “too negative,” and Van Vliet retreated to Lancaster. By 1965, he had assembled a new Magic Band with lead guitarist Ry Cooder and drummer John French to rerecord the material for Buddah Records, which released it as Safe As Milk . Winning considerable critical acclaim in the United States and Europe, the album spurred a successful tour of Europe in early 1966.

With the departure of Cooder, Beefheart’s band was crippled, since the lead guitar parts, complex and erratic, were personally taught by Van Vliet over long periods of time. Nonetheless, with new guitarist Jeff Cotton, sessions for the next album began in April 1968. The album was ultimately released in altered form as Strictly Personal . Most of the album’s contents were later reissued in unaltered form as I May Be Hungry but I Sure Ain’t Weird in 1992. Mirror Man, also recorded in 1968, was not issued until 1970.

A disappointed Van Vliet subsequently accepted Zappa’s offer to make a new album, free of all artistic restrictions, for Zappa’s Straight Records. Following Van Vliet’s lead, the members of the reorganized Magic Band took on bizarre names: guitarist-flutist Bill Harkle-road became Zoot Horn Rollo; guitarist Jeff Cotton became Antennae Jimmy Semens; and bassist Mark Boston became Rockette Morton. Joining them was an unidentified drummer (John French, known as Drumbo) and the Mascara Snake on vocals and clarinet. Trout Mask Replica, produced by Zappa, was hailed as one of the most advanced concepts in rock music but proved a commercial failure.

Beefheart subsequently performed the vocals on “Willie the Pimp” for Zappa’s album Hot Rats, and switched his own group to Reprise for Lick My Decals Off, Baby . In 1971, they made one of their infrequent tours of the U.S. to befuddled fans. Art Tripp (also known as Ed Marimba) was added on drums and marimba for The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot . Moving to Mercury Records, the band recorded the softer and more accessible Unconditionally Guaranteed . Thereafter, the band quit and Beefheart recorded Bluejeans and Moonbeams with session musicians.

On May 20 and 21, 1975, Beefheart recorded Bongo Fury with Zappa and the Mothers at the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, Tex. By 1976, Beefheart had assembled a new Magic Band for occasional club appearances. During 1977 and 1978, the group successfully toured Europe and played sold-out engagements at N.Y.‘s Bottom Line and Hollywood’s Roxy. Subsequent album releases were Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), Doc at the Radar Station (hailed as perhaps the best of Beefheart’s later career), and Ice Cream for Crow . The group successfully toured Europe and the U.S. in 1980, but disbanded in 1982. Van Vliet, an accomplished artist for many years, retired from music in 1985 to pursue painting as a full-time profession. He has since exhibited his works at galleries in the U.S. and Europe, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1989.

An early associate of both Zappa and Cooder, Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band played a curious mix of delta blues, rock ‘n’ roll and avant-garde jazz that explored the farthest reaches of rock music in the 1960s and 1970s. The band’s unique sound, passed over by all but the most progressive of fans, was characterized by Beefheart’s incredible voice (growling and gravelly, yet with a range of more than four octaves), intricate arrangements, enigmatic lyrics (generally written by Beefheart), and early use of the theremin, an electronic instrument. Perhaps best known for 1969’s Trout Mask Replica, Beefheart and His Magic Band are an acknowledged influence on punk and new wave music.

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