Captain Beefheart: a name that conjures up images of a pirate musician leading his magic band and their enchanted instruments across the precipice of normality. John Peel named him “rock’s only real genius”. His growling voice was the dictatorial force behind a body of innovative music which sits shoulder to shoulder with blues legends like Howlin’ Wolf and contemporary eccentrics such as Frank Zappa. Beefheart, or Don Van Vliet as he was baptised, is an epic presence in the world of rock n’ roll. However, aside from being an accomplished, difficult, and unpredictable musician, he was also an accomplished, difficult, and unpredictable visual artist. Having always maintained his artistic practice through creating album covers for his bands, after his formal retirement from music in 1982, Beefheart dedicated himself entirely to painting and sculpting. He turned away from the record studios and the concrete streets of the city and began creating art in the desert, a venture which not only gained him significant acclaim but also provided him – for the first time – with a relatively stable income.
Born in 1941 in Glendale, California, Don Van Vliet had a comfortable upbringing. His father was the owner of a service station and his mother was a house-wife. He and his family lived next-door to his grandparents, and, being an only child, Don received much attention and support. This encouraged him to pursue his artistic impulses which he claims first manifested themselves at the tender age of four. He stated in interviews that it was at this time that he began painting and sculpting, with his subjects taking the form of animals and dinosaurs – two things that fascinated him. He was in fact offered a scholarship to Europe on the merit of his art at the age of 13, which he turned down following his family’s decision to move to the desert. Mojave, where the Van Vliet family took up residence, became a critical force behind Don’s creativity.
‘I was born in the desert, came on up from New Orleans’ is the first line in track one of Beefheart’s debut album Safe as Milk. The desert provided Don with an extreme blank canvas. Having dropped out of school, Captain Beefheart – as he was soon to be known – spent much of his time in his house with neighbour, Frank Zappa, listening to blues, drinking pepsi and contemplating the desert. He married his surroundings with the raw creative environment that he had formed for himself which provided him with fertile soil for original growth. Focusing primarily on his music during this period, Van Vliet gained significant acclaim with his newly formed Magic Band after the release of their cover of Bo Diddly’s Diddy Wah Diddy. This began his vast, varied and troubled music career..
Despite his budding music career, Don didn’t neglect painting practice and in 1972, The Bluecoat Gallery (Liverpool) hosted Don’s first exhibition during a Magic Band UK tour. This marked Don’s gradual return to pursuing the life of an artist as a serious venture rather than an aside to his music. However, he did not receive the support that he had been used to as a child. Although individuals backed him up, including painter and film-maker Julian Schnabel (who was also his first official customer), his Bluecoat exhibition and his later solo-exhibition at the Mary Boone Gallery in New York was received by critics as being another example of a self-centred rocker turning to painting as a way to feed his ego. But Beefheart had art in his veins and, above all, cared little what the world thought about him, something which eventually paid off.
Following his association with the Michael Werner Gallery in the early 1980s, Beefheart quit music. Born from both his desire to concentrate on visual arts and a rather rocky ride within the music world (if you know Beefheart, you’ll know the stories of his dictatorial rule over his bandmates doing everything from locking them in an isolated house for days on end to being just plain erratic and cruel), his decision to pack-away music for art was welcomed by Schnabel and the Michael Werner Gallery who were keen to have Don be considered as an artist above a musician. Subsequently, Beefheart managed to create a space for himself in the art-world. Two publications were dedicated entirely to the subject of his paintings and sculptures: Stand Up To Be Discontinued (1993) and Riding Some Kind of Unusual Skull Sleigh: On The Arts Of Don Van Vliet (1999).
Much like the man himself, Beefheart’s art is bold and erratic. Something between a desert-tripping Chagall and a figurative Cy Twombly, Beefheart’s canvases play between form, colour and absence in a way which stimulates immediate engagement. With an air of aggression – but not maliciousness – and humour, Beefheart’s paintings are not far removed from his musical pieces. They have their own specific character which seems to speak of the man himself- they are somewhat rough around the edges, but plentiful in appeal and history. Photos featuring Van Vliet in front of his works capture the likeness of this complicated individual better than many others, almost as if his paintings fill in the character blanks.
Beefheart was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at the turn of the new millennium. He eventually died from complications relating to the disease in 2010, just a year short of his 70th birthday. It was the Michael Werner Gallery who made the announcement. During the period of his suffering, his art and his studio acted as a safe-haven for Beefheart who was able to spend time in tranquility but also to continue creating. Don’s death was mourned by many. Something of a legend, Beefheart is most widely praised for his music, but he is one of the few musicians who have been successful in creating a legitimate identity for themselves in other practices. He is considered an authentic artist and his works continue to attract attention and sales. Look at a Captain Beefheart painting, and you’ll get a glimpse of the exciting and complicated world of the man – the legend – himself.