Don Van Vliet, the man known around the world as Captain Beefheart, died Friday (December 17), according to his manager. He was 69.
The cause of Van Vliet’s death was not immediately known, though several outlets were reporting it was due to complications from multiple sclerosis, which he had battled since the 1990s.
Van Vliet was an accomplished avant-garde musician and visual artist, who along with a constantly rotating crew of fellow oddballs — his handpicked “Magic Band” — bent the rules, melded genres and thoroughly weirded out much of mainstream America for nearly four decades.
The origin of his famous Captain Beefheart stage name remains somewhat cloudy (some say it came from a script he wrote with childhood friend/ rival Frank Zappa), but the impact it would have on the worlds of music and art is not. Beginning in 1967, with the release of Beefheart and the Magic Band’s seminal Safe as Milk, and rolling on through other classic bizarre gems like 1969’s Trout Mask Replica (which melded elements of blues, jazz and avant-garde spoken word and was named by Rolling Stone as the 58th Greatest Album of All Time in 2003), ’72’s bar-friendly Clear Spot and ’78’s Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), Beefheart forged a territory that was uniquely, unquestionably his — record sales (and the mainstream media) be damned.
In the process, he earned a legion of loyal followers — including Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, the White Stripes’ Jack White (who, along with his band the Dead Weather, filmed their “Treat Me Like Your Mother” video near Van Vliet’s childhood home in Lancaster, California) and “The Simpsons” creator Matt Groening — and, along with a handful of other acts, is credited with ushering in the genre we now commonly refer to as “alternative rock.”
After releasing Ice Cream for Crow in 1982, Van Vliet all but retired from the music industry (though the Magic Band would continue on without him), focusing instead on his other passion: painting. He would spend the remainder of his days living in Northern California with his wife, Jan, creating abstract-expressionist works, which showed often at New York’s Michael Werner Gallery. By the 1990s, he had largely disappeared from the public eye, save for a few appearances, most prominently in Anton Corbijn’s film “Some Yo Yo Stuff,” where he appeared to be frail and weakened.
In a statement released to Rolling Stone, the Michael Werner Gallery called Van Vliet “a complex and influential figure in the visual and performing arts” and added that his music and art will live on as his lasting legacy.
“After two decades in the spotlight as an avant-garde composer and performer, Van Vliet retired from performing to devote himself wholeheartedly to painting and drawing,” the statement read, in part. “Like his music, Van Vliet’s lush paintings are the product of a truly rare and unique vision.”
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