The music world is a little less surreal this week. Don Van Vliet, better known to fans as Captain Beefheart, died from complications tied to multiple sclerosis in California on Friday. He was 69 years old. Beefheart is survived by his wife of forty years, Jan Van Vliet -- and by a musical legacy that's dazzling in its ambition, breadth and sheer weirdness.
With his constantly shifting troupe of musicians he called the Magic Band, Beefheart released twelve albums from 1967 to 1982, works that defy simple categorization. They run the gamut from the vintage rhythm and blues sounds of 1967's Safe as Milk to the avant-garde, art-rock experiments of his seminal work, 1969's Trout Mask Replica.
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Don Van Vliet was born on January 15, 1941, in Glendale, Calif. He spent his teen years in Lancaster, a dusty town in the Mojave Desert that offered little in the way of music or culture. Nevertheless, Van Vliet developed an early love for the rhythm and blues of the 1950s, artists like Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters. Van Vliet would swap R&B 45s with his high-school pal, Frank Zappa, and the raw, driving sound of those records would help mold his approach to vocals, harmonica and saxophone.
By the time Van Vliet took on the moniker Captain Beefheart in 1964, his range of influences had expanded to include the burgeoning avant-garde jazz scene. When Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band released Safe As Milk on Buddah Records in 1967, Van Vliet had fused his diverse palette of influences into a sound that was defiant and chaotic. Songs like "Electricity" and "Zig Zag Wanderer" combined psychedelic fuzz tones with Van Vliet's blues-informed vocals and harmonica, the music pushed toward the avant-garde while paying homage to the blues.
Two years later, Captain Beefheart's commitment to abstraction deepened with Trout Mask Replica. Produced by Zappa and released on his Straight record label, the album reveled in experimentation. Songs like "Moonlight on Vermont" and "Pena" offered a dizzying mixture of sounds and contours, mixing piercing slide guitar, disorienting contrapuntal beats and Beefheart's unique brand of poetry.
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Beefheart would release ten more albums with different ensembles during the next thirteen years, along with Bongo Fury, a collaborative album with Frank Zappa. Records like 1971's Mirror Man and 1980's Doc at the Radar Station offered similar strains of R&B, avant-garde jazz and free-form poetry. But Trout Mask Replica remained Van Vliet's most acclaimed and enduring work. Its mixture of discord and purpose seemed to capture Beefheart's mad genius, a brilliance that will be sorely missed.