Saturday, December 18, 2010

Music From the Other Side of the Fence: Remembering Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart) 1941-2010

Avant-garde artist and musician Don Van Vliet, otherwise known as Captain Beefheart, died early Friday at the age of 69 after a long battle with multiple sclerosis. The news was broken by the Michael Werner Art Gallery, which exhibited his abstract paintings after he left the music business in the early 1980s. With a gravel voice and a musical style that blended jazz, blues and abstract expressionist rock into a surreal blend, Captain Beefheart was hardly popular but he was one of the most original voices in popular music.

I first discovered him in 1969 through my love of the music of Frank Zappa. Zappa would produce Beefheart's atonal masterpiece Trout Mask Replica. Although quite a contentious album, this 1969 two-record set had far ranging influence in both punk and alternative rock. Back in 2007, I was fortunate enough to have written a chapbook on Trout Mask Replica for the Continuum Press 33 1/3 music series. As a way of paying tribute to Beefheart, here are some edited passages from that book - which is still available at better bookstores:

Trout Mask Replica is an album so assured in its isolated world-view that no matter how much it might alienate potential listeners, it still demands to be heard on its own terms. Yet unlike most commercial pop, Beefheart doesn't write songs to seduce an audience. We're not asked to identify with him in this music for his songs don't represent a conventional baring of the artist's soul. Beefheart instead invites us to experience Trout Mask Replica, rather than telling us what to experience. So whoever you choose to share this strident and peculiar record with you're always going to be on your own with it. Which is why Trout Mask Replica embodied the punk aesthetic eight years before it happened in the UK with The Sex Pistols. If the sixties hippie culture was clannish, punks were solitary.

In time, though, Trout Mask would quite naturally inspire countless other artists - from The Clash to P.J. Harvey - in finding their own sound, their own voice and to show them how to walk comfortably alone in the world. Yet the record doesn't provide a map to guide you in finding your way in this world, the way other great pop records can. This album was about discovering yourself as an alien. If pop music provides a utopian spirit for audiences to share, Beefheart's utopia is the true definition of the word - nowhere - a desert island of the mind. Or as he once described it, music from the other side of the fence.

Trout Mask Replica has a way of spurning simple, or easy categorization, Throughout its twenty-eight tracks, the album mixes and combines various genres of music, including Delta blues, free jazz and expressionist lyricism. It's a scrapbook collection of songs and poems, impishly acted out with Dadaist abandon and jack-in-the-box hijinks, performed with jagged rhythms and sharp conflicting atonal melodies. Ultimately, the record comes to raise important questions about just what constitutes musical entertainment and what an audience's relationship might be to it. "People like to hear music in tune because they hear it in tune all the time," Beefheart once told Robert Carey of the New York Reader. "I tried to break that all down on Trout Mask Replica. I made it all out of focus." It may be out of focus, but the music is never blurry. Whether it's the pure erotic sensuality of the passionate wet sex in "Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish"; or the abstract a capella recitation of "The Dust Blows Forward 'n the Dust Blows Back," which seems to conjure up a Walt Whitman poem after it has been soaked in hillbilly booze; or "Dachau Blues," where the horror of the Holocaust gets dipped in an abstract rendering of apocalyptic gospel, Beefheart openly welcomes listeners to hear him rail against a world that is often at odds with his own distinct brand of humanism.

However, Beefheart's most radical move, with the firm assistance of drummer John French who transcribed and taught the music to the band, was to remove from his compositions the security of harmony ("the mother's heartbeat" according to Beefheart), where we traditionally seek a warm spot in the songs we come to love. There may be no lulling melodies to draw us into the musical canvas of Trout Mask but that doesn't mean that melodies don't exist. It's just that these spiky and jagged themes are quickly gone before we can catch them on first listen. The fleeting let's-try-it-on inventiveness of the compositions, in fact, come across with a shocking ebullience. As a listening experience, Trout Mask Replica is the story of an artist who finds himself at his most liberated. It is a tale of one who refuses the comforts of security, yet still continues to dream of a world where man and beast can commingle in harmony. In staking that territory, from a musical standpoint, Beefheart doesn't rely on the lovely pop hooks that we ache to hear as listeners. The freedom Trout Mask offers is freedom from the familiar - the very element that often makes an album a hit, or at least, a mass audience favourite.

Stan Brakhage's Mothlight
Although Trout Mask Replica is generally considered a landmark avant-garde rock record, it's essential to note that Beefheart and The Magic Band didn't set out to make an art statement like the Dadaists. Declarations always have a clearly defined purpose, a political intent that fixes them in time. It then makes for easy explanations and pigeonholing, too. For example, when Lou Reed made Metal Machine Music in 1975, a two-record assault featuring nothing but sonic feedback, he clearly intended to outrage fans and annoy his record company. Trout Mask doesn't set out to deliberately anger anyone, even if it ultimately does, because Beefheart sincerely wants to entertain us. The record is also not in the adventurous cast of filmmaker Stan Brakhage, who decorated the film frame in Mothlight (1963), by pasting moth's wings onto film stock and then running it through an optical printer therefore making us aware of cinema's tactile qualities. Nor is Beefheart's record in the same world as Andy Warhol, when he extended the epic form of film-making in the somnambulistic Empire (1965), where we lay witness to a static shot of the Empire State Building for twenty-four hours. Beefheart's effort is the exact opposite of minimalist art, it's as maximalist as music can get. Yet what ultimately makes Trout Mask a bigger artistic challenge than any of those other departures from convention is that, while it effortlessly tears apart the conventions of songwriting, it attempts it within the commercial world of pop.

Captain Beefheart & Frank Zappa

Most great albums do create myths around them and Trout Mask Replica is no different. Many rock critics (including Beefheart himself) tried to diminish Frank Zappa's role as producer on this record. But those claims, specious as they are, seem to come out of a pathological dislike of Zappa in favor of a romantic idealization of Beefheart as the hermit genius. Anyone who cares to truly listen to Trout Mask can feel the abiding spirit of both men on it. Those particularly familiar with Zappa's music, especially Uncle Meat, will hear the conceptual shape that Zappa, as the producer, gave to the production of the music on Trout Mask Replica.

In the end, Trout Mask Replica is a full expression of one American artist's quest for total freedom. But it is also an expression of the tyranny of freedom. When you find yourself becoming the person you want to be, doing exactly what you want to do, sometimes freedom can't be sustained. For Beefheart, his earlier records (Safe as Milk, Strictly Personal) designed an intricate blueprint that tilted him towards Trout Mask, where he acquired the autonomy to remake rock & roll by breaking every rule in the genre. Yet even as the record caught his yearning for a new world, it was delivered with a foreboding force that stripped the ground out from under him. Whether the subsequent records were good or bad, Beefheart really had nowhere to turn after Trout Mask Replica. He could either refine the sound of it (Lick My Decals Off, Baby), define it for commercial consumption (Clear Spot), attempt to recreate it (Bat Chain Puller), or escape it (Bluejeans and Moonbeams). Once you find freedom, you often have to confront the fact that you can never really keep it. "Men are freest when they are most unconscious of freedom," D.H. Lawrence once wrote of Americans. "The shout is a rattling of chains, always was." Beefheart's rattling of chains became the living drama of Trout Mask Replica. Beefheart's brand of freedom, in fact, raised the stakes of personal liberty for the man who envisioned it, the band who created it, and the stunned audience that would soon discover it.

Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Beginning in January 2011, Courrier will be presenting a lecture series on Film Noir at the Revue Cinema in Toronto (see

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