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(Soundbite of music)

GUY RAZ, host:

RAZ: That's the music of Don Van Vliet, the avant-garde musician better known as Captain Beefheart. Yesterday morning, after suffering from multiple sclerosis for years, he died. He was 69 years old.

Thirteen years after releasing his landmark record "Trout Mask Replica," Captain Beefheart left the music industry to dedicate himself to painting. Here's a track from his last album, 1982's "Ice Cream for Crow."

(Soundbite of music)

CAPTAIN BEEFHEART: (Singing) The pasture is tense. The pasture is tense. No, you got the wrong idea. No, you got the wrong intent.

RAZ: Rick Karr reports that despite a troubled life, Captain Beefheart had an immense musical impact.

RICK KARR: Don Van Vliet was one of those musicians who sold fewer records than his best-known fans - among them Tom Waits and members of R.E.M., New Order, and dozens of other equally influential rock acts. The late British D.J. John Peel said Van Vliet was possibly the only true genius that rock had ever produced.

Film composer Mark Mothersbaugh, a founding member of the band Devo, says he'll remember Captain Beefheart as one of the all-time greats.

Mr. MARK MOTHERSBAUGH (Film Composer; Founding Member, Devo): The Beatles and the Rolling Stones would definitely be in that group of what turned me on about music. But I have to say that he made me want to be an artist and, you know, I have to thank him for that.

KARR: Beefheart was born Don Vliet in a Los Angeles suburb. He added the Van to his name later. He was an only child and an art prodigy. A local television show featured him making animal sculptures as a child. When he was 13, his family moved to the Mojave Desert, where he befriended the young Frank Zappa. A few years later, Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band scored a regional hit with a cover of a Willie Dixon tune.

(Soundbite of song, "Diddy Wah Diddy")

CAPTAIN BEEFHEART AND THE MAGIC BAND: (Singing) I got a gal in diddy wah diddy. Ain't no town and it ain't no city.

KARR: Pretty soon, Van Vliet started writing material for his band. In a 1980 interview with the BBC, he said he was a composer, not a songwriter. He showed each musician the precise part that he wanted to hear.

Mr. DON "CAPTAIN BEEFHEART" VAN VLIET (Musician): I play the drums. I play the guitar. I play the piano. I want it exactly the way I want it. Exactly.

KARR: In 1967, the Magic Band's record label convinced teenage guitar prodigy Ry Cooder to join. The band won an invitation to the Monterey Pop Festival just after it recorded its debut album.

(Soundbite of music)

KARR: But Van Vliet's erratic behavior quickly drove Cooder and another member from the band. The remaining musicians skipped the historic festival, and the album sank without a trace.

But Beefheart was freed from commercial expectations. He found new members and set out in a more avant-garde direction. Years later, he said he'd never wanted to make regular rock and roll.

Mr. VAN VLIET: That mama heartbeat, that bom-bom-bom, it's so boring, it's so banal. I mean, it's so hypnotic. I don't want to hypnotize anybody. I just want to play. I mean, I want things to change like the patterns and shadows that fall from the sun.

(Soundbite of music)

KARR: Van Vliet drove his new musicians hard. He sat at the piano and played complex, discordant parts. Drummer John French transcribed them note-for-note, then taught them to the others. They all lived together in a house in Los Angeles, short on cash and food.

In a 1999 interview with NPR, guitarist Bill Harkleroad said the atmosphere was oppressive and cult-like.

Mr. BILL HARKLEROAD (Guitarist): He was our hero because of what we thought of him before we got into the band. And he was very much aware of sleep deprivation, food deprivation. And we went through a lot of emotional things -bashing - physical bashing, even, too.

KARR: But the album that emerged from that period, "Trout Mask Replica," produced by Van Vliet's old friend Frank Zappa, remains an acknowledged masterpiece of avant-garde rock.

(Soundbite of song, "Ant Man Bee")

CAPTAIN BEEFHEART: (Singing) White ants running. Black ants crawling. Yellow ants dreaming. Brown ants longing. All those people longing to be free. Uhuru ant man bee.

KARR: Neither "Trout Mask" nor Beefheart's follow-up releases sold well. Again, the band disintegrated. Late in the 1970s, as Van Vliet rehearsed with yet another lineup of the Magic Band, Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh met his hero.

Mr. MOTHERSBAUGH: Everybody in the band complained about what a pain in the ass he was, but they all took care of him, and they all respected him. And they were all - kind of like babysitters of this child that they all loved but that frustrated the heck out of them.

KARR: Around that time, doctors diagnosed Van Vliet's illness. By 1982, he'd stopped making music and returned to his first love: visual art. His paintings were stark depictions of human and animal forms, frequently against a white background, influenced by the desert landscape. The paintings sold well, but Van Vliet withdrew from public life.

In 1993, fans caught a final glimpse of the artist, who was by then seriously ill. A short film by photographer and video maker Anton Corbijn showed the sharp edges in Van Vliet's personality softened by illness.

(Soundbite of film, "Don Van Vliet: Some Yoyo Stuff")

Mr. VAN VLIET: The way I keep in touch with the world is very gingerly because the world touches too hard.

KARR: Don Van Vliet's admirers might hear irony in that statement. They'll remember a visionary whose work always pushed back against the world and what it expects of its artists.

For NPR News, I'm Rick Karr.

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