Wanna talk polarizing figures in the landscape of American music? You can have your say about any yahoo in the mainstream media for the last 50 years, but when you dig into the meat of things you'll find a cast of outsiders who really paved the way musically. While Frank Zappa achieved some recognition in his time, it was an early associate of his, Don Vliet who really captured the spirit of weirdness in an amalgam of jazz, blues, rock and roll, psychedelia, avant-garde excess and minimalism as well as a keen visual sense that allowed for fringe experimentation.
Taking the stage name Captain Beefheart in 1964, his friendship with Zappa predicated on competition and while it was successful in the growth of both artists, it peaked when Zappa produced Beefheart's second album, the critically acclaimed and oft-confusing Trout Mask Replica. His grasp as a multi-instrumentalist was symbiotically enhanced by his deep and expressive vocal range. Vliet never dreamed of international success and if he did, he certainly kept it to himself. Retiring from music altogether in the mid-80's, Vliet retreated to his childhood love of art and made a name for himself in the art world with his paintings and sculptures.
While his art world dabbling were initially seen as a rock and roll ego capitalizing on another genre, Vliet's work has commanded monies in the mid-twenty thousand range and was popularized by purchases from scene luminaries like Julian Schnabel. 1982's Ice Cream For Crow was his final album with his Magic Band and while his releases varied in experimentation, I for one remain a hardcore fan of his first album, Safe As Milk and their song "Yellow Brick Road" is one of my all-time faves, you can listen to it below.
Born on January 15, 1941, Vliet expired this past December 17th in Arcata, California from complications relating to multiple sclerosis, a condition that had been debilitating him since the early 90's. While his death will be mourned by the many devotees of the rock and roll genres he inspired, I find it hard to believe that he'll garner new fans. It's true that his canon is complicated and off-putting, but give it a try if you haven't. There are many rewards contained within. One for example is the fact that "wearing Beefheart goggles" will let you understand the weird.
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