Van Vliet's output is rooted in blues music and rock music, but his idiosyncratic, diverse approach largely defies classification. Much of his work was conducted with a rotating assembly of musicians called the Magic Band. He was mainly a singer and in possession of an astonishing four-and-a-half octave vocal range, but Van Vliet was also a capable harmonica player, and occasionally played noisy, untrained, free jazz influenced saxophone.
Among the most important of "underground rock" musicians, Captain Beefheart's legacy is one of poor record sales, critical acclaim, and a devoted following. His many admirers include Beck, Tom Waits, Underworld, Woody Allen, PJ Harvey, Peter Christopherson of Coil, David Lynch, David Byrne of Talking Heads, Gary Lucas (one of Van Vliet's former guitarists, and a member of latest incarnation of the Magic Band, who co-wrote Jeff Buckley's 'mojo pin' and 'grace'), Mark E. Smith of The Fall, John Lydon, Jack White of The White Stripes, Michael Balzary (a.k.a. Flea), Matt Groening, John Lecki, Radiohead, Muse, Devo and Deerhoof.
Van Vliet's music has been vastly influential. BBC disc jockey John Peel stated, "If there has ever been such a thing as a genius in the history of popular music, it's Beefheart ... I heard echoes of his music in some of the records I listened to last week and I'll hear more echoes in records that I listen to this week." 
Van Vliet demonstrated prodigious painting and sculpting talents at a young age — earning the praise of Augustinio Rodriguez — but claims his parents turned away several scholarship offers. His paintings, often reminiscent of Franz Kline's, were later featured on several of his own albums.
While studying at Antelope Valley High School in Lancaster, California he met the teenage Frank Zappa. They began collaborating on pop song parodies and a movie script called Captain Beefheart vs. the Grunt People, the first appearance of the Beefheart name. Van Vliet's stage name came from a term used by his Uncle Alan. Alan had a habit of exposing himself to Don's girlfriend, Laurie. Alan would piss with the bathroom door open and, if she was walking by, mumble about his penis, saying "Ahh, what a beauty! It looks just like a big, fine beef heart.'" (Source: The Real Frank Zappa Book) Zappa and Van Vliet's friendship over the years was sometimes indistinguishable from rivalry, as musicians drifted back and forth between Van Vliet and Zappa's groups. Their collaborative work can be found on the 1975 album Bongo Fury, along with Zappa rarity collections The Lost Episodes (1996) and Mystery Disc (1996). Also notable is Beefheart's vocal on "Willie the Pimp" from Zappa's otherwise instrumental album Hot Rats (1969).
Van Vliet was reportedly quite shy, but able to imitate the deep voice of blues singer Howlin' Wolf. Eventually growing comfortable performing, he learned harmonica, and played around southern California, at dances and small clubs.
Van Vliet had previously worked with local groups such as The Omens and The Blackouts. In early 1965 he was contacted by Alex Snouffer, a local Lancaster rhythm and blues guitarist. Together they assembled the first Magic Band, and at this point Don Vliet became Don Van Vliet, whilst Alex Snouffer became Alex St Claire. Nearly all the musicians Van Vliet worked with were given stage names, which became more bizarre over the years. The first Magic Band was completed with Doug Moon (guitar), Jerry Handley (bass) and Vic Mortenson (drums — soon replaced by Paul Blakely).
Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band signed to A&M Records and released two 1966 singles, a version of Bo Diddley's "Diddy Wah Diddy" followed by "Moonchild" written by David Gates. Both were local Los Angeles hits. The band was by now beginning to play "underground" venues such as the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco.
Some time in 1966 demos of what became the Safe as Milk material were submitted to A&M. Jerry Moss (the M in A&M) reportedly didn't like the new direction and they were dropped from the label. But by the end of 1966 they were signed to Buddah Records and John French had joined as drummer. French would be the mainstay of the band until 1971, and returned twice after that (1975-77 and 1980 - he now leads the reformed Magic Band). French had the patience required to be able to translate Van Vliet's musical ideas (often expressed by whistling or banging on the piano) for the other players. In French's absence this role was taken over by Bill Harkleroad.
The Safe as Milk material needed much more work, and the 20-year-old Ry Cooder was asked to help. They began recording in Spring 1967, with Richard Perry producing (his first job as producer). Cooder did not hang around long after the album was recorded. The album was finally released in September 1967.
In August guitarist Jeff Cotton was recruited (he became Antennae Jimmy Semens). The Snouffer/Cotton/Handley/French line-up began recording for the second album around November. It was intended to be a double album called It Comes to You in a Plain Brown Wrapper with one disc recorded live (or live in the studio). What finally emerged in October 1968 was Strictly Personal. After the album was released Van Vliet, in interviews, constructed a myth which alleged that the tapes of the album had been remixed by Bob Krasnow without the band's knowledge, and further, that he had ruined it by adding modish psychedelic effects (phasing, backwards tapes, etc). In fact this was likely Beefheart's hasty rebuttal to some negative reaction to the album from some quarters, but the myth has persisted. This was also the time when Van Vliet started creating his own myth, for example, by saying in an interview that having not slept for a year, he'd dreamed the whole Strictly Personal album in one 24 hour sleep. (The second, "live" part of the planned double was released in 1971 under the title Mirror Man).
In 1969 Frank Zappa, formed Straight Records and signed Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band, which by then had added Zoot Horn Rollo (guitarist, real name Bill Harkleroad) and Rockette Morton (bassist, real name Mark Boston). The third album, released in November 1969, was the landmark Trout Mask Replica.
Trout Mask Replica
Regarded by many fans as Van Vliet's masterpiece, Trout Mask Replica was — and remains — one of the strangest, most difficult albums in rock music history. The group rehearsed Van Vliet's difficult compositions for eight months, living communally in conditions drummer John French described as cultlike.
The 28 songs on Trout Mask Replica drew on blues music, Bo Diddley, free jazz, sea shanties and much more, but the relentless practice blended the music into an iconoclastic whole of conflicting tempi, harsh slide guitar, loping drumming, and honking saxophone and bass clarinet.
Van Vliet's vocals ranged from growling blues singing to frenzied falsetto to laconic, casual ramblings. His lyrics often seem impenetrably strange and nonsensical, but closer examination reveals complex poetic use of wordplay, metaphor and all manner of references: music history, American and international politics, the Holocaust, Steve Reich, gospel music, conformity and much more. Perhaps due to Van Vliet's talent as a painter, many of the songs in this and subsequent works contain a vivid visual narrative.
Although the album was effectively recorded live, Van Vliet apparently recorded much of the vocals whilst isolated from the rest of the band in a different room, only being in partial synch with the music by hearing the slight sound leakage from the other room.
(Matt Groening has stated his first thought upon hearing Trout Mask Replica was that it was annoying, difficult and pretentious, but so unique that he could not stop listening to it. He now lists the album as one of his favorites.)
Critic Steve Huey writes that the album's influence "was felt more in spirit than in direct copycatting, as a catalyst rather than a literal musical starting point. However, its inspiring reimagining of what was possible in a rock context laid the groundwork for countless future experiments in rock surrealism, especially during the punk/new wave era." 
Lick My Decals Off, Baby (1970) continued in a similar experimental vein — by then Art Tripp III had joined (from the Mothers of Invention). He played drums and marimba. The next two records, The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot, both released in 1972, were much more conventional. In 1974, immediately after the recording of Unconditionally Guaranteed, The Magic Band, which had by then coalesced around the core of John French, Art Tripp III, Bill Karkleroad and Mark Boston, decided they could no longer work with Van Vliet, who was by all accounts a severe taskmaster. They left to form Mallard. Van Vliet quickly formed a new Magic Band, which had a much slicker, more mainstream sound, and who therefore were referred to (by unkind fans) as the Tragic Band. Unconditionally Guaranteed and its follow up Bluejeans & Moonbeams (1974) have a completely different, almost soft-rock sound to any other Beefheart record and neither was critically well received.
From 1975 to 1977 there were no new records (the original version of Bat Chain Puller was recorded in 1976 but has never been released). In 1978 a completely new band was formed (consisting of Richard Redus, Jeff Moris Tepper, Bruce Fowler, Eric Drew Feldman and Robert Williams). These were from a younger generation of musicians eager to work with him and extremely capable of playing his music. In several cases they had been fans for years, and had learned his music from records before being given auditions.
Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (1978) was largely regarded as a return to form, featuring once again the innovative and eccentric style of the earlier albums. Doc at the Radar Station (1980) helped establish Beefheart's late resurgence as possibly the most consistently creative period of his musical career. In this period, Van Vliet made several appearances on David Letterman's program, and performed on Saturday Night Live. The final Beefheart record, Ice Cream for Crow (1982), was recorded with Gary Lucas (who was also Van Vliet's manager), Jeff Moris Tepper, Richard Snyder and Cliff Martinez. This line-up made a video to promote the title track which was rejected by MTV. Soon after, Van Vliet retired from music and established a new career as a painter.
In recent years, Van Vliet has become somewhat reclusive and abandoned music, stating he can make far more money painting. His artwork is as extreme and innovative as was his music, and commands high prices, as well as comparisons to Pablo Picasso and Franz Kline. Some of his recent sounds and noises were captured on his guitarist Moris Tepper's album Moth to Mouth.
Van Vliet currently lives in Northern California, and is reportedly suffering from multiple sclerosis or a similar condition. He has never made any statement about his health condition. The Magic Band, fronted by John French, with Denny Whalley, Mark Boston and Gary Lucas, reformed without Van Vliet in 2003.
Many bands (such as the Clash) have claimed a Beefheart influence, although few have truly been able to assimilate Van Vliet's idiosyncratic approach. Tom Waits's shift in artistic direction, starting with Swordfishtrombones, is said to be due to his wife introducing him to Beefheart's music. Punk rockers The Minutemen were great fans of Beefheart's music, and were arguably among the few to effectively synthesize his music with their own, especially in their early output, which featured disjointed guitar and irregular, galloping rhythms.
Many musicians who have worked with Captain Beefheart consider it to be the formative experience of their lives as musicians (despite the rigours of Beefheart's unorthodox methods). Some of these alumni have subsequently found collaborators who also seem to have been touched with Beefheart's creative spirit. After Beefheart left the music business, Eric Drew Feldman played with Snakefinger, Pere Ubu, P. J. Harvey and Frank Black. Gary Lucas played guitar and collaborated with Jeff Buckley.
In 2000, The White Stripes released a limited (1300 copies) red-and-white 7" vinyl disc on Sub Pop records' Singles Club. The disc contained covers of 3 Captain Beefheart songs: The Party Of Special Things To Do, China Pig, and Ashtray Heart.
Beefheart has been the subject of at least one documentary: the BBC's 1994 The Artist Formerly Known As Captain Beefheart. There is also a DVD of a short 10 minute film available entitled, "Some Yo Yo Stuff: An Observation of the Observations of Don Van Vliet."
- Safe as Milk (1967)
- Strictly Personal (1968)
- Trout Mask Replica (1969)
- Lick My Decals Off, Baby (1970)
- Mirror Man (1971)
- The Spotlight Kid (1972)
- Clear Spot (1972)
- Unconditionally Guaranteed (1974)
- Bluejeans & Moonbeams (1974)
- Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (1978)
- Doc at the Radar Station (1980)
- Ice Cream for Crow (1982)
- Barnes, Mike (2000). Captain Beefheart. Quartet Books. ISBN 1844494128.
- Bill Harkleroad (1998). Lunar Notes: Zoot Horn Rollo's Captain Beefheart Experience. Interlink Publishing. ISBN 0946719217.
- Michel Delville and Andrew Norris, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, and the Secret History of Maximalism. Cambrdige: Salt Publishing, 2005.
- The Captain Beefheart Radar Station (a fan site; perhaps the most comprehensive source for Van Vliet's music, art and influence)
- Reviews of Captain Beefheart albums by George Starostinda:Captain Beefheart