• Captain Beefheart pictured in 1976 Photograph: Getty Images
As a child he was a precocious artist with a keen eye for sculpture who was offered a scholarship in Europe at the age of 13. His parents would not let him go, however, and he locked himself away to work on his art while screaming at his mother to bring him cans of Pepsi.
His unusual monicker, dreamt up in collaboration with his close high school friend and fellow musician Frank Zappa, reflected his desire to stand out from the crowd right from the start.
He was often described as a surrealist, sometimes even a Dadaist, but from early on in life he also displayed a dry sense of humour. As a teenager, he worked as a door-to-door salesman, once selling a vacuum cleaner to the writer Aldous Huxley at his California home by pointing to it and declaring: "Well I assure you sir, this thing sucks."
He first started experimenting with music alongside Zappa, with whom he would later fall out, although the two were reconciled in the early 1980s. With his Magic Band, his music was daring and unconventional, with surreal lyrics and music that combined doo wop, blues, soul and folk.
"Record producers have always been certain that Don Vliet was just a hype away from the big money," a 1970 profile in Rolling Stone declared. "But Beefheart stubbornly continues what he's doing and waits patiently for everyone else to come around."
Records such as Safe As Milk and Strictly Personal, both released in the late 1960s, demonstrated his rhythmic originality and craving for experimental rock, but it was Trout Mask Replica, released in 1969 and produced by Zappa, that earned him the biggest plaudits and made him a role model as an uncompromising and ambitious musician - part of the musical firmament of the late 1960s with its angular, dissonant take on blues rock and Van Vliet's growling, surreal lyrics. Rolling Stone magazine recently ranked it number 58 on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
By shunning commercial success and a more accessible sound, Van Vliet became a role model for subsequent generations of musicians, right to the present day.
His music is cited as an influence on the rise of punk, post-punk and the new wave. Free jazz musicians and avant-garde classical composers, including John Cage, have also viewed him as a kindred spirit.
In the 1980s he made two final albums, Doc At The Radio Station and Ice Cream For Crow, with a new incarnation of the Magic Band made up of youngsters who had idolised his work growing up.
But although Ice Cream For Crow was enthusiastically received by the music press, Van Vliet was done with music. He turned full-time to art, painting in a raw expressionistic style and showing his acclaimed work widely even as he withdrew from the public eye, preferring to stay at home in California with his wife Jan, whom he married in the 1960s.
His artwork attracted high prices, but by the 1990s he was rarely seen in public, saying in 1991: "I don't like getting out when I could be painting. And when I'm painting, I don't want anybody else around."
Perhaps then it was fitting that it was the Michael Werner Gallery in New York, which handled his artwork, which made the announcement of his death, from complications arising from multiple sclerosis, with a short statement that simply said: "Don Van Vliet will be sorely missed."