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Captain Beefheart, the child sculpting prodigy: the story of a supremely gifted artist

There are many artists that defy categorisation, but one of the most difficult to define is, without doubt, Captain Beefheart. Born Don Glen Vliet, with a gravelly and uncompromising voice, his music was a combination of jazz, blues and psychedelic rock, though, due to his genre-defying ability, many refer to his style simply as ‘avant-garde’.

Van Vliet was known to have an explosive temper and somewhat erratic behaviour. His backing group, The Magic Band, was a constantly changing lineup as its members often grew tired of Van Vliet’s treatment of them, which could be quite cruel, according to who you ask.

The music of Captain Beefheart ultimately had poor sales during Van Vliet’s career. Still, he has been credited as an influence by several musicians and artists over the years, including Kurt Cobain, Jack White and Tom Waits. Waits claimed to change his approach to music after listening to Beefheart, particularly on Swordfishtrombones, and once said: “Once you’ve heard Beefheart, it’s hard to wash him out of your clothes. It stains, like coffee or blood.”

Van Vliet started out as Captain Beefheart in 1964 but left the music industry in 1982 to focus on a new career as an expressionist painter. At that point, he was rumoured to be living in near poverty and seclusion in a small house in the San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles, and he had only made roughly 25 public appearances between 1964 and 1970. His move into painting was ultimately a more successful and profitable venture than his music had been. 

However, this move into visual art ought not to come as too much of a surprise. The truth is that Don Van Vliet was, in fact, a sculpting child prodigy. He began sculpting just aged three with a particular interest in dinosaurs, fish and mammals. It is said that Van Vliet’s parents had to push dinner under his door as he was so obsessed with his creative endeavours.

At the age of nine, Van Vliet won a children’s sculpting competition at Los Angeles Zoo. He then studied under Agostinho Rodrigues, a local tutor, with whom he performed on a weekly art television show. This exposure, combined with Van Vliet’s undeniable talent, ultimately led to several art scholarship offers at age 13, including one to travel to Europe for six years with tuition fully paid. Sadly, his parents declined this scholarship offer (and many others) because they thought art was too “queer”.

Van Vliet’s parents’ discouragement greatly affected the young artist, and he ultimately gave up his sculpture ambitions. Given his reported talent, though, the Captain Beefheart we know and love today nearly never was. 

Van Vliet’s introduction to music coincided with a newfound friendship with Frank Zappa, who he met at Antelope Valley High School as a teenager. The two would spend a lot of time listening to records together in Zappa’s room, and together, they came up with the name Captain Beefheart, though the stories of the name’s origin vary. Zappa would go on to record much of Van Vliet’s future music as Captain Beefheart, including Trout Mask Replica, which many consider to be Beefheart’s greatest work.

So Van Vliet’s artistic career twisted and turned all throughout his life. Julian Schnabel bought one of his paintings in 1985 and he went on showcase his work in a solo exhibition at the Mary Boone Gallery in New York.

Of his paintings, Van Vliet has said, “I’m trying to turn myself inside out on the canvas. I’m trying to completely bare what I think at that moment.” At the time of his death in 2010, Van Vliet’s paintings were selling for $40,000 a piece. A truly talented and arguably even genius artist, Van Vliet will now be remembered for his adeptness in several artistic disciplines.

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