Sunday, February 16, 2014

A Termite in the Wood: Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band's Trout Mask Replica (1969)

Not every record is for its time. Some don't even care about time. In the case of the strange masterpiece, Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band's Trout Mask Replica, it doesn't even pretend to keep time. In the summer of 1969, Trout Mask came out as an abstract sound collage that followed no trend, or provided even a hint to what was dominating the rock airwaves. Rather than build on what was popular then, it seemed to anticipate the rude gesture of punk almost a decade later. But it did it without the artists involved wanting to upset, or alienate anyone. Walt Whitman wrote about the spirit that Trout Mask inherited some seventy years before it was made. "A perfect writer would make words sing, dance, kiss, do the male and female act, bear children, weep, bleed, rage, stab, steal, fire cannon, steer ships, sack cities, charge with cavalry or infantry, or do any thing, that man or woman or the natural powers can do," Whitman wrote in An American Primer. Trout Mask dances and weeps and bleeds and sacks cities by integrating free form verse, the urban blues of Howlin' Wolf, the gospel blues of Blind Willie Johnson, and the free jazz of Ornette Coleman. The record was so dissonantly original that it annoyed more people than it attracted. People even heard it in records that weren't Trout Mask. A friend of mine once bought one of John Coltrane's more wildly improvisational records (John Coltrane in Seattle) only to call me later to complain, "This isn't Coltrane. It's Beefheart!" But to understand the shock and disbelief surrounding the release of this 1969 landmark, a wildly original (and unsurpassed) experimental leap in popular music, one that defied all the reasons why we listen to popular music, you have to first consider the music already on the airwaves, or perhaps about to arrive there.

That same summer, the aching harmonies of country rock were just being fully realized when Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman of The Byrds formed The Flying Burrito Brothers with their first record, The Gilded Palace of Sin. Another Byrd. David Crosby, plus former Buffalo Springfield singer/songwriter Stephen Stills and ex-Hollie Graham Nash, brought their own gentle angst to the creation of Crosby, Stills & Nash. British chanteuse Dusty Springfield turned up in Memphis to prove that she was the best white soul singer of her time, while Memphis resident, Elvis Presley, rediscovered his own soul making a confidently crafted studio record, From Elvis in Memphis, shortly after a surprisingly successful television special. The Beatles, on the other hand, were about to acrimoniously depart from the pop stage that had built seven years earlier in Liverpool with the late summer release of Abbey Road. A ten-year-old singer from Gary, Indiana, named Michael Jackson also emerged with a mission to change R&B along with with brothers, The Jackson 5. Into this eclectic gumbo of pop metamorphosis, Trout Mask Replica appeared on the scene totally oblivious to the musical, political, and cultural environment surrounding it.

Paris Hilton knows her music

Most of the other performers that summer, who were making their shift towards either stardom or oblivion, made their moves with one eye on the audience they carried on their backs. Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band made no concessions to anyone. They came out of a hermitage, not a popular culture. They emerged from a house where they relentlessly practised the most difficult music they'd ever have to play, and they did it with sounds that nobody expected to hear. For those who did discover the record, it would polarize an already polarized culture. It repelled some just as violently as it attracted listeners. "When I first heard Trout Mask, I about puked," Rolling Stone critic Ed Ward put it (not so delicately). "What is this shit, I thought. People I met talked about it in such glowing terms – not just anybody, mind you, but people I genuinely respected when it came to their music tastes." One of those people he respected was an ambitious and talented writer named Lester Bangs. Bangs wrote about Trout Mask Replica as if the Messiah had just arrived to heal a broken nation. "Captain Beefheart, the only true dadaist in rock, has been victimized repeatedly by public incomprehension and critical authoritarianism," Bangs told Rolling Stone readers. "[His] music [derives] as much from the new free jazz and African chant rhythms as from Delta blues, the songs tended to be rattly and wayward, chattering along on weirdly jabbering high-pitched guitars and sprung rhythms."

Eliot Wald, writing a few years later in Oui, knew what Bangs had heard in Trout Mask, but he also understood what offended listeners as well. "[Lester Bangs] described [Trout Mask] as the most astounding and important work of art ever to appear on a phonograph record," he began. "However it was not to everyone's taste...Rhythms are totally unpredictable; what starts as a blues boogie may end up sounding like a surrealist waltz. Everybody seems to be playing whatever came to mind, including Beefheart, whose sax, musette and simran horn solos (played through tubes that allow him to play two instruments at the same time) swoop and dive, mirroring his incredible four-octave voice. Lyrically, it's absurdist poetry...Trout Mask Replica was not an overnight sensation." Not only was it not an overnight sensation, it took (for some people) many nights of listening to comprehend its strange power.  "The first time I heard Trout Mask, when I was fifteen years old, I thought it was the worst thing I ever heard," remembered Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons. "I said to myself, 'They're not even trying!' It was just a sloppy cacophony...About the third time, I realized they were doing it on purpose: they meant it to sound exactly this way. About the sixth or seventh time, it clicked in and I thought it was the greatest album I ever heard."

Joe Strummer of The Clash
The greatest album ever heard? In 1987, Rolling Stone did list it as #33 in their Top 100 Best Rock Albums issue, describing it as "rock's most visionary album." As visionary as Trout Mask is, it's influence in the years to follow its release was not as straightforward as other significant pop artists. As critic Steve Huey remarked, "[T]he influence of Trout Mask Replica was felt more in spirit than in direct copycatting, as a catalyst rather than a literal musical starting point." That spirit, which stretched itself down many winding pathways, proved Beefheart right when he pronounced one day that everyone drinks from the same pond. One such drinker from that pond was John Graham Mellor, a middle-class grave digger, who would be reborn as Joe Strummer. Years before he dreamed of making a dent in the rock conglomerate with The Clash, Strummer told critic Greil Marcus, "When I was sixteen, [Trout Mask Replica] was the only record I listened to  for a year." "The Clash have taken Beefheart's aesthetic of scorched vocals, guitar discords, melody reversals, and rhythmic conflict and made the whole seem anything but avant-garde: in their hands that aesthetic speaks with clarity and immediacy, a demand you have to accept or refuse," Marcus wrote in New West. That either/or ultimatum, which became the standard provocation offered by punk in the late Seventies, wasn't exactly the stand that Trout Mask took when it appeared in 1969. Beefheart held a more ambiguous position than punk itself offered. Trout Mask Replica was an inhabitor of the pond, possessing those who perhaps wished to be different fish in it.

Another artist transformed was Mark Mothersbaugh, the founder of the synth-punk band Devo. Formed in Akron, Ohio, in 1972, by two Kent State art students, Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale came upon the notion of a "devolving" American society out of the ashes of the fatal shootings of the four students at Kent State by the National Guard. In their mind, mankind was regressing, becoming rigid in its thinking and more authoritarian in attitude. Devo mirrored that world in their music with robotic rhythms and nerdish demeanour. "Beefheart was a major influence on Devo as far as direction goes," Mothersbaugh explained in 1978. "Trout Mask Replica...there's so many people that were affected by that album that he probably doesn't even know about, a silent movement of people." That movement of people seemed silent only because the record, nurtured in isolation, inspired a quiet need to be unique. So its spirit became shared subliminally among a scattering of diverse voices in a wilderness. One such individual was Lora Logic (Sara Whitby), formerly of the punk band X-Ray Spex, who found the post-punk ensemble Essential Logic in 1978. In her song, "Aerosol Burns," from Fanfare in the Garden, her voice bursts forth like Björk on steroids as she breaks the song's title into spit consonants and vowels. While twisting her saxophone into squeaks curling around the broken sounds, Logic marries some of the raw power of punk honed in earlier bands to Beefheart's style of intricately shifting melodies. But Lora Logic wasn't the only woman inspired by the wilderness of Beefheart's music. Polly Jean Harvey was born in England the year Trout Mask was released. She taught herself guitar by listening to her parents' Beefheart albums. When she recorded her debut, Dry, in 1992, she integrated the primal charge of punk with the raw texture of the blues. With a wry humour, like Beefheart, she savaged pop convention with a frankness that set her apart from the more self-conscious brooding of Sinéad O'Connor.

Lora Logic
One of the more obvious figures drinking from the same pond is Tom Waits, who began as melancholic singer/songwriter sitting at the piano bellowing heartache and longing as if he were Hoagy Carmichael reborn as a beatnik. With a raspy growl, Waits spent the Seventies depicting the lives of hipster lowlifes in songs like "Bad Liver and a Broken Heart" and "Heartattack and Vine." In 1983, he moved from Asylum Records to Island, after firing his manager and producer, then dramatically changed his recording approach with Swordfishtrombones. His new songs ("Underground," "16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought Six") took on the shape of audio poems, or maybe short stories cured in the percolating dreamscape of the unconscious, in which even his voice became part of the grain of the song. An existential Harry Parch, Waits would include (among the standard bass guitars, pianos, and drums) utilitarian devices like brake drums, metal aunglongs, and buzz saws. He ingested the rough surface of Beefheart's music without surrendering to its primal power. As highly imaginative and riveting as Waits's music is, it is still the music of a very sane man playing in the shadows. On later records, Rain Dogs (1985), Frank's Wild Years (1987), and the terrific Mule Variations (1999), he remade the blues and gospel with the same sonic eclecticism Beefheart put into Trout Mask Replica. But he did it by acting the part of a different fish rather than becoming one. Which is why Tom Waits, as wonderfully innovative as he is, won't scare people away from their stereos.

There are many other contemporary groups that have tried to unlock the mystery of Trout Mask's radioactive appeal and replicate it. The underground post-punk Scottish band, Nectarine No. 9, on their 1994 album Guitar Thieves, drew from the dissonant well of Albert Ayler and Vic Goddard & The Subway Sect to create, what one critic called, "a melancholy elegance." Groups were also popping up naming themselves after Trout Mask songs like Sweet Sweet Bulbs, Bill's Corpse and Dali's Car. A number of female rock bands put together a tribute disc in 2005 called Mama Kangaroos: Woman of Philadelphia Sing Captain Beefheart where a great number of the tracks, including the Dadaist sea shanty, "Orange Claw Hammer," was among them. But music wasn't the only area infiltrated by Trout Mask. In 1997, novelist Robert Rankin wrote an absurdest autobiography titled Sprout Mask Replica. The front jacket is a facsimile of the album cover, featuring a man in a fedora with a sprout face wearing a suit and tie with slogan buttons all over his jacket. The book is an elliptical tale filled with short anecdotes about Rankin's mythical ancestors. While one group, the Crombies, eats metal, Rankin himself is portrayed as a man with the power of a chaos butterfly (as insect of transformation out of Trout Mask's "Pena"). Like Beefheart's record, Rankin isn't interested in telling a formal story. The narrative is told through many threads, some leading down paranoid trails to conspiracy theories. Rankin draws inspiration from the record by making the characters aware that they are in a book, just as Beefheart consistently made the listener aware that they were listening to a record. For an album that few people cared to listen to in 1969, Trout Mask Replica found its way, like a termite through wood, into the unconsciousness of the culture at large.

- Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.                

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