For nearly 30 years, Don Van Vliet led a quiet life with his wife in a small California town, devoting himself to painting until his death due to complications from multiple sclerosis on Dec. 17. During those same three decades, hardly a peep was heard from Captain Beefheart, Van Vliet’s musical alter ego and one of the most unobtrusively influential musicians of the 20th century. The “unobtrusively” is warranted because Van Vliet’s albums never sold many copies, and few musicians of note tried to sound like him – fewer still could even attempt it. But the Captain’s utter unfetteredness, free from the constraints of polite consciousness, genre boundaries and even simple Western meter, inspired untold thousands with its sui generis yawp. Despite his obscurity, music and the world in general are significantly different for his having passed through them. And that’s what our annual “People Who Died” feature is all about.
Plenty of ink was spilled and pixels lit in 2010 to memorialize the deaths of actor Dennis Hopper, singer Lena Horne, author J.D. Salinger and punk provocateur Malcolm McLaren. But not every passing of a well-known person will be universally mourned. Each year we try to focus on a handful of the recently deceased whose lives made some difference in our own, even if – especially because – their deaths didn’t bring Twitter to a halt and their legacies probably won’t inspire lavish year-end tributes elsewhere.