Captain Beefhart died aged sixty-nine on 17th December 2010 from complications of multiple sclerosis at a hospital in Arcata, California, U.S.A. just weeks short of his seventieth birthday. The Michael Werner Gallery, which represented his painting output, described him as "a complex and influential figure in the visual and performing arts" and "one of the most original recording artists of his time". The cause was named as . Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan commented on his death, praising him: "Wondrous, secret ... and profound, he was a diviner of the highest order.
Captain Beefhart was born Don Glen Vliet on 15th January 1941 in Glendale, California, U.S.A. to Glen Alonzo Vliet, a service station owner of Dutch ancestry from Kansas, and Willie Sue Vliet (née Warfield), who was from Arkansas. He claimed to have as an ancestor Peter van Vliet, a Dutch painter who knew Rembrandt. He also claimed that he was related to adventurer and author Richard Halliburton and the cowboy actor Slim Pickens, and said that he remembered being born.
He began painting and sculpting at age three. His subjects reflected his "obsession" with animals, particularly dinosaurs, fish, African mammals and lemurs. At the age of nine he won a children's sculpting competition organised for the Los Angeles Zoo in Griffith Park by a local tutor, Agostinho Rodrigues. Local newspaper cuttings of his junior sculpting achievements can be found reproduced in the Splinters book, included in the Riding Some Kind of Unusual Skull Sleigh boxed CD work, released in 2004. The sprawling park, with its zoo and observatory, had a strong influence on young Captain Beefhart, as it was a short distance from his home on Waverly Drive. The track "Observatory Crest" on Bluejeans & Moonbeams reflects this continued interest. A portrait photo of the school-age Captain Beefhart can be seen on the front of the lyric sheet within the first issue of the US release of the album Trout Mask Replica.
For some time during the 1950s Captain Beefhart worked as an apprentice with Rodrigues, who considered him a child prodigy. He made claim to have been a lecturer at the Barnsdall Art Institute in Los Angeles at the age of eleven, although it is likely he simply gave a form of artistic dissertation. Accounts of Captain Beefhart's precocious achievement in art often include his statement that he sculpted on a weekly television show. He claimed that his parents discouraged his interest in sculpture, based upon their perception of artists as "queer". They declined several scholarship offers, including one from the local Knudsen Creamery to travel to Europe with six years' paid tuition to study marble sculpture. Captain Beefhart later admitted personal hesitation to take the scholarship based upon the bitterness of his parents' discouragement.
Captain Beefhart's artistic enthusiasm became so fervent, he claimed that his parents were forced to feed him through the door in the room where he sculpted. When he was thirteen the family moved from the Los Angeles area to the more remote farming town of Lancaster, near the Mojave Desert, where there was a growing aerospace industry and testing plant that would become Edwards Air Force Base. It was an environment that would greatly influence him creatively from then on.Captain Beefhart remained interested in art; several of his paintings, often reminiscent of Franz Kline's, were later used as front covers for his music albums. Meanwhile, he developed his taste and interest in music, listening "intensively" to the Delta blues of Son House and Robert Johnson, jazz artists such as Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor, and the Chicago blues of Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters. During his early teenage years, Captain Beefhart would sometimes socialize with members of local bands such as the Omens and the Blackouts, although his interests were still focused upon an art career. The Omens' guitarists Alexis Snouffer and Jerry Handley would later become founders of "the Magic Band" and the Blackouts' drummer, Frank Zappa, would later capture Captain Beefhart's vocal capabilities on record for the first time. This first known recording, when he was simply "Don Vliet", is "Lost In A Whirlpool" – one of Zappa's early "field recordings" made in his college classroom with brother Bobby on guitar. It is featured on Zappa's posthumously released The Lost Episodes (1996).
Captain Beefhart had dropped out of school by that time, and spent most of his time staying at home. His girlfriend lived in the house, and his grandmother lived in the house, and his aunt and his uncle lived across the street. And his father had had a heart attack; his father drove a Helms bread truck, part of the time Don was helping out by taking over the bread truck route [and] driving up to Mojave. The rest of the time he would just sit at home and listen to rhythm and blues records, and scream at his mother to get him a Pepsi. ]
Captain Beefhart claimed that he never attended public school, alleging "half a day of kindergarten" to be the extent of his formal education and saying that "if you want to be a different fish, you've got to jump out of the school". His associates said that he only dropped out during his senior year of high school to help support the family after his father's heart attack. His graduation picture appears in the school's yearbook. ] His claims to have never attended school - and his general disavowals of education - may have been related to his experience of dyslexia which, although never officially diagnosed, was obvious to sidemen such as John French and Denny Walley, who observed his difficulty reading cue-cards on stage, and his frequent need to be read aloud to. While attending Antelope Valley High School in Lancaster, he became close friends with fellow teenager Frank Zappa, the pair bonding through their interest in Chicago blues and R&B. Captain Beefhart is portrayed in both The Real Frank Zappa Book and Barry Miles' biography Zappa as fairly spoiled at this stage of his life, the center of attention as an only child. He spent most of his time locked in his room listening to records, often with Zappa, into the early hours in the morning, eating leftover food from his father's Helms bread truck and demanding that his mother bring him a Pepsi. His parents tolerated such behavior under the belief that their child was truly gifted. Captain Beefhart's "Pepsi-moods" were ever a source of amusement to band members, leading Zappa to later write the wry tune "Why Doesn't Someone Give Him A Pepsi?" that featured on the Bongo Fury tour.
After Zappa began regular occupation at Paul Buff's PAL Studio in Cucamonga he and Captain Beefhartt began collaborating, tentatively as the Soots (pronounced "soots" [long double-o]). By the time Zappa had turned the venue into Studio Z the duo had completed some songs. These were Cheryl's Canon, Metal Man Has Won His Wings and a Howlin' Wolf styled rendition of Little Richard's Slippin' and Slidin'. Further songs, on Zappa's Mystery Disc (1996), I Was a Teen-Age Malt Shop and The Birth of Captain Beefheart also provide an insight to Zappa's "teenage movie" script titled Captain Beefheart vs. the Grunt People, the first appearances of the Beefheart name. It has been suggested this name came from a term used by Vliet's Uncle Alan who had a habit of exposing himself to Don's girlfriend, Laurie Stone. He would urinate with the bathroom door open and, if she was walking by, would mumble about his penis, saying "Ahh, what a beauty! It looks just like a big, fine beef heart". In a 1970 interview with Rolling Stone, Captain Beefhart requests "don't ask me why or how" he and Zappa came up with the name. Johnny Carson also asked him the same question to which Captain Beefhart replied that one day he was standing on the pier and saw fishermen cutting the bills off pelicans. He said it made him sad and put "a beef in his heart". Carson appeared nervous and uncomfortable interviewing Captain Beefhart and after the next commercial break Captain Beefhart was gone. He would later claim in an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman that the name referred to "a beef in my heart against this society". In the "Grunt People" draft script Beefheart and his mother play themselves, with his father played by Howlin' Wolf. Grace Slick is penned in as a "celestial seductress" and there are also roles for future Magic Band members Bill Harkleroad and Mark Boston.
Van Vliet enrolled at Antelope Valley Junior College as an art major, but decided to leave the following year. He once worked as a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman, and sold a vacuum cleaner to the writer Aldous Huxley at his home in Llano, pointing to it and declaring, "Well I assure you sir, this thing sucks." After managing a Kinney's shoe store, Captain Beefhart relocated to Rancho Cucamonga, California, to reconnect with Zappa, who inspired his entry into musical performance. Van Vliet was quite shy but was eventually able to imitate the deep voice of Howlin' Wolf with his wide vocal range. He eventually grew comfortable with public performance and, after learning to play the harmonica, began playing at dances and small clubs in Southern California.
In early 1965 Alex Snouffer, a Lancaster rhythm and blues guitarist, invited Vliet to sing with a group that he was assembling. He joined the first Magic Band and changed his name to Don Van Vliet, while Snouffer became Alex St. Clair (sometimes spelled Claire). Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band signed to A&M and released two singles in 1966. The first was a version of Bo Diddley's "Diddy Wah Diddy" that became a regional hit in Los Angeles. The followup, "Moonchild" (written by David Gates, later of the band Bread) was less well received. The band played music venues that catered to underground artists, such as the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco
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Grow Finns by Captain Beefhart