The weekend got off to a sad start with news of the passing of Captain Beefheart (aka Don Van Vliet) on Friday (Dec. 17). Vliet had struggled with Multiple Sclerosis in recent years and it was widely known that he had been in poor health for some time. But the news has still rocked the music word and the wider arts scene, which serves as a testament to the huge reach of Vliet’s art, both in the music and visual arts fields.
“I’m in shock at the moment. He was one of my greatest musical heroes and one of the most powerful and distinctive vocalist/lyricist/composers of the last century,” writes Brad Laner on the Dangerous Minds site. The news of Vliet’s death was originally passed on by the Michael Werner Gallery in New York, who represented him in his later days as a painter, and paid their own tribute by calling him “the product of a truly rare and unique vision.”
Among the newer crop of musicians, many took to Twitter to express their sadness at the news. Billy Bragg said “There was only ever one Captain Beefheart. So long, Don” while Zola Jesus said “My heart is heavy for you” and Alex Kapranos from Franz Ferdinand wrote that Vliet had “very much” influenced his band. “Bon voyage, good captain. We’ve lost a true original,” continued Laner, which is just about the most accurate summary of all.
Here, we pay tribute to Vliet’s music with a series of video clips, including a documentary by John Peel which is worth seeking out on YouTube in full. It’s unquestionable that Vliet was a singular talent in the music world, but he was also one of the few artists who knew when his time was up, choosing to move onto other pastures and resisting a shift back into the music world with a dignity that many musicians on the current reunion gravy train could learn from. Furthermore, his music bucks the ”difficult” rep that is often attached to it—spend a little time with him and you’ll hear true pop expression shackled to unconventional structure, which only reveals more and more depth after decades of play.