Every obit will mention front and center his 1969 masterpiece, Trout Mask Replica; I’ll be no exception, because that’s the first one I heard as well, and it’s still, as the expression goes, “blowing my mind.” Here’s the first track, “Frownland”:
I was a relative latecomer to Van Vliet’s work—I listened to him only after I’d listened to New Wave and No Wave and Tom Waits and John Zorn and PJ Harvey—but eventually I got around to purchasing a used CD copy of TMR. (I came to it, as most people do, through Frank Zappa, who produced it.) I sat down and put it in and pressed play. Ten seconds later, I jumped up and shouted: “OF COURSE!”
Track 2, “The Dust Blows Forward ‘N The Dust Blows Back”:
Song after song, you have no idea what you’re going to hear next. Here’s the third track, “Dachau Blues”:
Van Vliet followed that with one of the most upbeat and accessible songs on the album, “Ella Guru.” (YouTube won’t let me embed that one.)
You can listen to the rest of TMR at YouTube—as well as most of his other albums, including his 1970 follow-up to TMR, Lick My Decals Off, Baby:
…and his reviled 1974 “commercial” album, Unconditionally Guaranteed:
You can also go backwards, and see what he was up to before TMR. Here’s a 1968 live version of “Sure ‘Nuff ‘n Yes I Do,” the first track from his 1967 debut, Safe as Milk:
Meanwhile, for anyone who wants to learn more about the man and his work, this 1997 BBC documentary is a great place to start:
And here’s an excerpt from a biography of Van Vliet, with a detailed focus on TMR.
Van Vliet quit making music (and being Captain Beefheart) in 1982, in order to focus on his painting; over the years, he grew increasingly reclusive. And now he’s gone. But we still have his radically innovative, uncompromising music, and we’re still learning how to live with it. We’ll be feeling his influence for decades yet.