His prodigious musical evolution was no less impressive. It was only 16 months from the blues-based, pretty conventional sound of Safe As Milk to the long-form avant blues of Mirror Man to the fractured Trout Mask Replica, a peerless creation even after 41 years. The blues and free jazz were obvious influences, but Van Vliet was listening to and incorporating everything: a guitar lick on "Abba Zaba" was lifted directly from a Ravi Shankar album, and he quotes Steve Reich's 1966 experimental tape piece "Come Out" repeatedly on "Moonlight on Vermont". Combined with Don's surreal poetry and wordplay and sometimes confounding rhythmic sense, it was an instantly recognizable, personal sound. There's no denying the valuable contributions to that sound made by a long line of players who comprised the Magic Band. But it's also evident from the cohesiveness of all his LP's, despite a revolving door of band members, that the Captain was clearly at the helm.
Trout Mask Replica is obviously the iconic album, and probably stands with his final two albums (Doc at the Radar Station and Ice Cream for Crow) as the most intense. They define the "Beefheart style" at its most undiluted and confrontational. But there was much more to the Captain than that. At the other end of the spectrum are the relatively straightforward Safe As Milk or the Ted Templeman-produced Clear Spot. "Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles" is a love song, pure and simple. "Orange Claw Hammer" is a tender sea shanty about a sailor meeting his daughter (check out the Grow Fins version with Frank Zappa on guitar) and "Harry Irene" is a pretty, strange ballad with a whistling outro Bing Crosby would have been proud of. Each album has its own sound and except for the lackluster and/or ill-conceived Andy Dimartino productions (Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans & Moonbeams), they're all great albums.
Don never abandoned painting though, and following 1982's Ice Cream for Crow he walked away from music to paint full-time. Apparently, he was told that he would need to quit music in order to be taken seriously as a painter, so he did. If measured strictly financially, he was probably more successful as a painter than as a musician. But in both painting and music, Don Van Vliet was a singular visionary talent whose works will resonate for generations to come. Thank you, Don.
"Diddy Wah Diddy" (his first single)
"Ice Rose/Harry Irene/You Know You're a Man"
"Orange Claw Hammer" (with Frank Zappa)
"Big Eyed Beans from Venus"
"Ice Cream for Crow"
A gallery of his paintings