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Don Van Vliet, rock's Captain Beefheart

This obituary ran in some editions of The Inquirer on Sunday. Don Van Vliet, 69, the painter and pioneer in avant-garde rock music better known as Captain Beefheart, died Friday in California of complications from multiple sclerosis.

This obituary ran in some editions of The Inquirer on Sunday.

Don Van Vliet, 69, the painter and pioneer in avant-garde rock music better known as Captain Beefheart, died Friday in California of complications from multiple sclerosis.

At times in collaboration with his high school classmate Frank Zappa, the singer/musician and his group, the Magic Band, combined elements of blues, free jazz, and rock-and-roll in an amalgam that has influenced many new wave and punk artists, though he himself abandoned music for his first love, painting. The gravel-voiced singer had not released a recording since 1982. His first singles were issued in 1966.

Mr. Van Vliet was adept at self-promotion, and he built a partly fallacious legend around himself.

He claimed, for example, that he was not vocally influenced by Howlin' Wolf and other blues greats (clearly false); that he admired Igor Stravinsky and Ornette Coleman (clearly true); that he had, like his friend Frank Zappa, eschewed illicit drugs (untrue); that he had a vocal range of 41/2 octaves or more (debatable); and that he was psychic (your choice).

The only child of a bakery truck driver and a homemaker, Don Vliet (the affected Van came later) was born on Jan. 15, 1941, in Los Angeles - an event that he asserted he could recall.

Enthralled by art at an early age, he was discovered by a local sculptor, who featured Mr. Van Vliet from age 5 to age 8 on his educational TV show.

His family moved to Lancaster, Calif., when he was 13. He met Zappa while they were in high school, where Mr. Van Vliet taught himself to play harmonica and saxophone. (As biographer Mike Barnes says, his reed-playing was intuitive and lacked technique.) The two young men shared a love of blues and R&B.

Mr. Van Vliet briefly attended Antioch College, then took odd jobs. (He claimed to have sold a vacuum cleaner to Aldous Huxley.)

The first Magic Band was started in 1965 by guitarist Alex C. Snouffer, another former schoolmate, who sought out Mr. Van Vliet as lead vocalist. Snouffer became Alex St. Clair, and Vliet became Van Vliet.

The following year, the Magic Band secured a deal to make two singles for A&M but was subsequently dropped by the label. The group's first album, Safe as Milk on the Buddah label in 1967, featured Ry Cooder on slide guitar and Taj Mahal on washboard.

A major setback occurred when Cooder's last-minute exit forced the band to cancel an appearance at the seminal Monterey Pop Festival in 1967.

Mr. Van Vliet gave band members outlandish names such as Zoot Horn Rollo, the Mascara Snake, Antennae Jimmy Semens, and Winged Eel Fingerling.

He became known in interviews for his wordplay and aphorisms. A few examples of Beefheartian wisdom:

"There are only 40 people in the world, and five of them are hamburgers."

"Everybody's colored or else you wouldn't be able to see them."

"I'm not even here; I just stick around for my friends."

The best-known of his albums is the love-it-or-hate-it Trout Mask Replica (1969), which landed him on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1970, and which periodically winds up on that magazine's listings of the greatest albums of all time. Critic Langdon Winner's article called Mr. Van Vliet "one of the most original and gifted creators of music in America" and the Zappa-produced double-LP "truly beyond comparison in the realm of contemporary music."

This was the start of a fruitful period at Warner Bros. that later yielded the two LPs that are perhaps his most accessible: The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot. Then the magic apparently went out of the Magic Band. Mr. Van Vliet experienced a creative lull in the mid-1970s, before and after the disaffected (and unpaid) members of the Magic Band all deserted him to form their own group. Zappa rescued him by taking him on tour and making a live album, Bongo Fury.

Three more Magic Band albums followed before Mr. Van Vliet gave up music for painting, in 1982.

His abstract artworks have been exhibited in galleries and museums around the United States and Europe. Italian biographer Luca Ferrari quoted Mr. Van Vliet as saying, "I like painting better than music . . . because I can spend an entire day on a canvas, then erase it. Painting over it is really a beautiful sensation."

At the fan site, German author Roberto Ohrt is quoted on Mr. Van Vliet's artwork: "Whereas Pollock [and] de Kooning . . . positively paraded their avant garde status, the painting of this West Coast hermit seems to make an equal parade of its antimodernism."

Well-known performers who have credited Mr. Van Vliet as an influence include PJ Harvey, Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand, John Lydon, Andy Partridge of XTC, Joe Strummer of the Clash, Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, Tom Waits, and Jack White of the White Stripes.

He is survived by his wife of 40 years, Jan.