Captain Beefheart

So which style of music is the most popular? A 2014 report in the online publication Mashable reported the music sale preferences for all of 2013. So what were the results?

‘Rock is far and away the most popular music genre among Americans purchasing music albums. More than one-third (34.8%) of all albums bought in 2013 in the U.S. were categorized as rock.’

Further ‘R&B, alternative and country were the next most popular genres, respectively. Latin, classical and jazz represented the smallest number of sales’. Not surprising Classic rock radio stations continue to thrive as baby boomers turn to music from their generation rather than embrace other genres available across the radio dial.

Don Van VlietOne of those classic rock icons is Don Van Vliet,  the American musician, singer-songwriter and artist best known by the stage name Captain Beefheart. He is one of the 1960’s and ’70’s rock icons who has had his music released on a new album ‘Sun, Zoom, Spark’ (Warner Bros. Music). His music is said to have inspired other well known artists such as the Sex Pistols and Tom Waits.

Known for his powerful singing voice Don Van Vliet was versatile with other instruments such as the harmonica and saxophone. His music typically consisted with elements of rock, blues, avant-garde and what some might call ‘experimental’ compositions. He was known to be quite demanding with his bandmates when performing. His live performances which I got the chance to see in Atlanta in 1978 not only featured his music but his art and poetry. It was one of the best music events I ever attended.

Beefheart is remembered by his reflections on life such as “The stars are matter, We’re matter, But it doesn’t matter” also “You can tell by the kindness of a dog how a human should be” and most notably “Earth…god’s golf ball.”

Vliet once said that he never went to public school, remarking that he only had a “half a day of kindergarten” and that “if you want to be a different fish, you’ve got to jump out of the school”. But friends say that he actually did attend school but dropped out of high school his senior year to help his family after his father suffered a heart attack. In his book about Captain Beefheart Graham Johnston reported  Beefheart ‘… 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.”


He began performing using the name “Captain Beefheart” in 1964 and joined the original Magic Band. Their acclaimed debut album Safe as Milk, released in 1967 on Buddah Records. Eventually they signed to Frank Zappa’s Straight Records. As producer, Zappa, a childhood friend in Lancaster California, granted Beefheart all the artistic freedom needed to record on of his most popular music releases  1969’s Trout Mask Replica, which ranks 58th in Rolling Stone magazine’s 2003 list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. He went on to record a series of music works including ‘Lick My Decals Off Baby’, ‘Safe as Milk’ and ‘Bat Chain Puller’. He was also well known for his live performances with the legendary Frank Zappa immortalized with the album ‘Bongo Fury’.

The Art

While Captain Beefheart may not have been a success in the financial sense where his music is concerned, his later creation of paintings and sketches have helped his iconic status to remain very much alive.

Van Vliet retired from music in 1982, giving only a few public appearances and spent his time in California. It was during this time he decided to pursue a career in art. In his early childhood he began to do sculpture, and over the years he continuously did sketches some paintings. After leaving the music scene Vliet became more reclusive and realized that painting was likely to be more lucrative financially. He had already had his work exhibited at Liverpool’s Bluecoat Gallery while on tour in the UK in 1972. In 1987, Van Vliet published two books featuring his poetry, paintings and sketches, Skeleton Breath and Scorpion Blush.

The Navy Blue Vicar 1987

The Navy Blue Vicar 1987

His expressionist paintings and drawings have been exhibited in art galleries and museums worldwide. Starting in the 1990’s the Michael Werner Gallery began exhibiting his paintings which today can fetch high prices in the art market. Exhibits of his paintings from the late 1990s were both at the Anton Kern and Michael Werner Galleries of New York City and received wide acclaim.

The Sacred Lick 1989

The Sacred Lick 1989

In an interview with the Associated Press in 1995 Vliet was asked about influences on his paintings, ‘So just who does influence him? Nobody, he has long maintained, although he admits admiring such painters as Vincent van Gogh and Willem de Kooning. “They’re not really an influence on me, though,” he says. “No one is. I just paint like I paint and that’s enough influence.”

Sadly, Don Van Vliet died in 2010, having suffered from multiple sclerosis for many years.

For more on the Don Van Vliet Art Collection please visit:

Article by Kevin Murphy:

© The Estate of the Artist, courtesy Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London


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