Looking Back at Captain Beefheart

by Don R. Aldridge, July 2010

According to the half-dozen or so dedicated-to-the-point-of-delirium fan websites one surfs on the internet today, the bizarre 1960’s avant-garde rock icon Captain Beefheart is: a paranormal savant with a four-octave vocal range; a primitive artisan who didn’t attend a day of school after the age of five; a musical genius who slapped music on vinyl the way Jackson Pollock did paint to canvas.

Captain Beefheart was born Don Glen Vliet on January 15, 1941, to Glen Alonzo and Willie Sue Vliet in Glendale, California. He attended public schools in Glendale and Mojave, California and Antelope Valley High School in Lancaster, California until 1959, when he dropped out and became a salesman at Kenney Shoes. He later sold vacuum cleaners and cars. He changed his surname to Van Vliet in the 1960s.

In Lancaster, Van Vliet met Frank Zappa and formed what would become a 30-year love-hate relationship, and with him originated the Beefheart brand; in high school they experimented with backmasking and other transitional music techniques, recording their earliest works.

The mythology—much of it self-perpetuated—around Van Vliet is an ongoing saga that reaches almost Twilight Zone-like proportions. The Beefheart legend is resplendent with “firsthand” accounts in which Van Vliet uses mystical powers to levitate objects, uses mystical powers to control traffic and prophesies telephone calls seconds before they occur.

But the greatest Captain Beefheart mystery has always been, Where is Don Van Vliet? Exhaustive e-zine articles have been penned on the icon’s whereabouts since he walked away from spotlight in the mid 1980s.

The truth, as with most things Beefheart, is simpler than many of his fans can seemingly accept. At various times Van Vliet has reported his domiciles as being in the desert of Arizona, and the Caribbean, both embroideries of the actual truth: he has lived in the desert but not the Arizona desert, and in Trinidad but not in the Caribbean.

Over the course of the Magic Band era and beyond, Van Vliet returned periodically to the Lancaster of his youth. Off and on, into the 1980s, depending on his circumstances, he could be found popping up at his mother’s mobile home on 30th Street East. In 1984, Van Vliet moved his mother to live with him and his wife, Jan, in their home in Trinidad, on California’s northern coast, where he remains today.

Sometime after that move Van Vliet became afflicted with an ailment that has been variously described a Muscular Sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and a stroke. Whatever the cause, the condition has left the artist speech impaired and wheelchair bound.

Regardless of one’s viewpoint as to Captain Beefheart’s talent as a rock musician, without question his music has influenced a diverse range of musical artists including the Beatles, Sex Pistols, The Clash and Tom Waits, and extends into other areas of fine arts to David Lynch, Matt Groening and many others.

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