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Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, 1941-2010

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“I don’t like hypnotics. I’m doing a non-hypnotic music, to break up the catatonic state. And I think there is one, right now.” - Don Van Vliet to Paul Moyer, 1980

Trying to explain the world of Captain Beefheart to the uninitiated is a fruitless task. The music that Don Van Vliet and his shifting crew of dedicated accomplices known as the Magic Band unleashed between 1965 and 1982 defies description and confounds any attempts at drawing a valid comparison. The phrase “Beefheart-like” has come to be used as shorthand by music writers trying to describe any old thing with a bent toward oddball beats and dissonant chords, but it’s impossible to get a sense of what Beefheart is about by listening to any or all of the bands trying to live up to that description.

Van Vliet played a lot of very different music in those years, ranging from semi-traditional blues-rock to lyrical singer-songwriter chestnuts to lengthy jam-band improvisations. But at his most far-left, as on 1969’s landmark Trout Mask Replica and the following year’s Lick My Decals Off, Baby, he was the closest thing rock has ever had to an Ornette Coleman figure, someone who came in and radically altered the landscape by replacing the music’s standard harmonics and getting rid of repetitive beats, creating an utterly alien sounding racket that rocked like hell.