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Captain Beefheart dies at 69

Musician, painter influenced generation of artists with his avant-garde style

Musician and painter Captain Beefheart, the cavern-voiced singer, songwriter, harp player and saxophonist whose Magic Band became a key influence on rock avant gardists of all stripes, died Friday near Trinidad, Calif., of complications from multiple sclerosis. He was 69.

Beefheart — who was born Don Vliet, and called himself Don Van Vliet in homage to artist Vincent Van Gogh — had retired from music in 1982 to concentrate on painting.

Originally the leader of one of L.A.’s most formidable blues-rock bands during the ’60s, Beefheart took a hard left musically into dissonant, rhythmically obtuse, lyrically obscure material.

His two-LP, 28-song magnum opus “Trout Mask Replica,” produced by Beefheart’s high school buddy and kindred musical soul Frank Zappa and released in 1969 on Zappa’s Straight label, is widely considered a one-of-a-kind landmark of avant rock.

He continued to record prolifically for Warner Bros., Mercury and Virgin through the early ’80s, crafting demanding, dizzyingly original albums that had a profound impact on such latter-day performers as Public Image Ltd, Pere Ubu, Sonic Youth, Tom Waits, Nirvana and Beck.

Born in Glendale, Calif., on Jan. 15, 1941, Vliet was raised in Lancaster, where he was befriended by Zappa at age 15. The pair shared a love of doo-wop and blues, and collaborated on some amateur recordings; Vliet obtained his professional sobriquet from the title of an unmade Zappa film, “Captain Beefheart vs. the Grunt People.”

Dropping out of Antelope Valley Junior College after a single semester, Beefheart formed the first iteration of his Magic Band in 1965. The group was originally a straight-ahead blues band; Beefheart’s distinctive vocal style was borrowed from such blues progenitors as Howlin’ Wolf and Blind Willie Johnson.

Signed to A&M Records after an April 1965 performance at the Teenage Fair at the Hollywood Palladium, the Magic Band bowed with a relatively faithful cover of Bo Diddley’s “Diddy Wah Diddy” produced by David Gates, later of the soft-rock band Bread.

Beefheart was swiftly dropped by A&M after demos for a full-length album were submitted to the label, and Buddah Records ended up releasing “Safe as Milk” in 1967. That album — which featured guitarist Ry Cooder, purloined from the blues-rock band the Rising Sons — juxtaposed blues like Robert Pete Williams’ “Grown So Ugly” to wailing, askew origilike “Abba Zabba” and “Electricity.” Cooder soon exited, despairing of the band’s radical move away from blues and Beefheart’s increasingly bizarre behavior.

A mammoth collection, envisioned as a two-LP set called “It Comes to You in a Plain Brown Wrapper,” was pared down and splashed with production gimmickry by producer Bob Krasnow and released on his Blue Thumb imprint as “Strictly Personal” in 1968.

Most of the members of the Magic Band mutinied after they were stranded without money in France after a performance at the Midem music conference. Beefheart enlisted two Lancaster musicians, guitarist Bill Harkleroad (whom he renamed “Zoot Horn Rollo”) and bassist Mark Boston (“Rockette Morton”), who joined guitarist Jeff Cotton (“Antenna Jimmy Semens”), bass clarinetist Victor Hayden (Beefheart’s cousin, dubbed “The Mascara Snake”) and drummer John French (“Drumbo”) in a Woodland Hills house.

There, the impoverished and often starving Magic Band was drilled for months on the execution of Beefheart’s new compositions, with what drummer John French later called “a truly cult-like mixture of brainwashing, intimidation, and coercion.” Ultimately recorded primarily in one four-hour session by Zappa, “Trout Mask Replica” boggled listeners with its gnarled mix of herky-jerky rhythms, dithering contrapuntal guitars and Beefheart’s blurting saxophone playing (reminiscent of the work of his idol, Rahsaan Roland Kirk) and roaring lyrical spew.

Beefheart and ever-shifting lineups of the Magic Band went on to cut more readily accessible but still dense and challenging albums — Lick My Decals Off, Baby,” “The Spotlight Kid,” “Clear Spot” — for Warner Bros.’ Reprise imprint from 1970-72.

The Magic Band’s new management attempted to steer Beefheart in a more “commercial” direction; the almost universally reviled Mercury album “Unconditionally Guaranteed” (1974) spurred the defection of Beefheart’s musicians, and he completed its sequel “Bluejeans and Moonbeams” with a cadre of L.A. players tartly dubbed “the Tragic Band” by fans.

After a two-year studio layoff — during which he would tour, briefly and stormily, with Zappa — Beefheart returned to form with new editions of the Magic Band, which included such sympathetic players as guitarists Gary Lucas and Jeff Moris Tepper, keyboardist Eric Drew Feldman and drummers Cliff Martinez and Robert Williams. He capped his recording career with “Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)” (1978), “Doc at the Radar Station” (1980) and “Ice Cream For Crow” (1982).

By the mid-1980s, Beefheart retired to paint for the rest of his life. His colorful canvases were shown in well-received gallery shows and museum exhibitions around the world.

Charter members of the Magic Band — some of whom had played in the post-Beefheart unit Mallard — regrouped (largely at the instigation of mega-fan and “The Simpsons” creator Matt Groening) — for a pair of albums comprising remakes of their old material in 2003 and 2005.

Beefheart is survived by his wife of more than 40 years, Jan.

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