Wednesday, April 15, 2015

For Your Ears Only – Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island (1979)

What album would you take with you if you were isolated on a desert island? It's always been a tempting question, or a popular party staple in which you get to display your cultural credentials without giving away too much about yourself. For critics, especially those always armed with their lists of favourites, it offers a casual forum to defend your tastes, test the wits of others, plus flex some muscle by bragging about rare records that nobody else could give a fuck about. In the literal sense, the idea of the desert island has always been a bit ridiculous. (What critic would ever want to be isolated on a desert island with no access to concerts, free music, or even an outlet to express his or her persuasive views?) After all, isn't music, even in the current age of solitary streaming, best enjoyed in a communal environment. Maybe now, as music is perpetually pigeonholed by genre, we don't even need a desert island because you can retreat to one anytime you like. But the desert island seems to negate the whole purpose of music. It denies music an audience, save for that one lone fan, to test its true value. Yet this question became the subject of a 1979 book called Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island, in which twenty prominent American rock critics were asked by fellow scribe Greil Marcus to contribute an essay in response to this hypothetical request.

The very concept of the desert island was, of course, intended to be a purely metaphorical one. But was it? In his introduction to Stranded, Marcus comments, "When I began to call up people I thought would be interested and asked them that question, asked them to contribute, the response was enthusiastic, but in many cases for a reason I hadn't anticipated. 'A great idea,' said one person after another. 'I feel like I've been living on a desert island for years.'" A remark like that can lead a reader to think that, included in Stranded, there will be essays about music that can only be nurtured in isolation, in the mind and in the tastes of the writer. If you look through the selections in the book, though, the desert island invited more of a crowd than many of these writers thought. Simon Frith, a former columnist for Creem and Melody Maker, decided to bring along Beggars Banquet (1968), The Rolling Stones' exquisitely popular tribute to country blues – hardly a record you could imagine wanting to hear alone. M. Mark, the former arts editor of The Village Voice, provided a fascinating overview of the mystically dark Celtic poetry of Van Morrison. This brooding Belfast Cowboy with his wailing brogue certainly wasn't a voice made for a desert island. The late Lester Bangs, who described how Morrison's Astral Weeks (1968) actually pulled him out of the personal isolation of a horrible year, makes the opposite argument of the book.

Most of the artists cited – whether it was Tom Smucker on the transcendent gospel recordings of Thomas A. Dorsey, or Kit Rachlis on the endearingly feral sound of Neil Young's voice – were people who ultimately did reach (and intended to reach) a large audience. Even if their work originated from a private, sometimes isolated pain (like Young), their records continued to exist because their purpose was to create a bridge from those desert islands to a broader civilization – where anxious ears were yearning to listen to them. Most of the essays were private musings by intelligent critics eloquently championing their most cherished records, just as the 33 1/3 series of books which focus on the favourite albums of each writer does today. (Since he was the editor of Stranded, Greil Marcus actually got to cheat and bring a huge portion of his record collection to the island.)

The one essay in the book that did make a convincing argument was Langdon Winner's on Trout Mask Replica, an album that I did write about in the 33 1/3 series. Winner, formerly a political theorist, had written extensively about rock and roll for a variety of music magazines. He instinctively knew that this record was not one that was shaped for popular tastes, or one that an audience would (or could) embrace. He easily recognized that this is an album which actually forces the desert island experience on a listener – whether the listener wanted to retreat to one or not. He realized that Trout Mask was an endurance test for most listeners and it was a record that strongly divided and confounded more people perhaps than any other pop album. It may indeed be this attribute that made Trout Mask such an inspired choice for a desert island disc, for it was conjured in that island's sequestered spirit long before the listener took the journey there. "One reason...that Trout Mask Replica would be my personal choice for a desert island is that a desert island is possibly the only place were I could play the record without being asked by friends and neighbors to take the damned thing off," Winner wrote. Trout Mask Replica, for Winner, provided a very succinct argument for desert island listening. " Created in isolation by a renegade artist/genius/madman and his band of unquestioning disciples, hermetic almost to the point of catatonic, yet challenging in every moment of its seventy-two minute duration, Trout Mask is a record uniquely suited to years of isolated listening," Winner further explained.

Trout Mask Replica earned its desert island exile because it 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, and does it at the speed of a Cuisinart. The album is 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 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 Rocker. "I tried to break all that down on Trout Mask Replica. I made it all out of focus." It may be out of focus, but the music is never blurry.

What ultimately makes Trout Mask a bigger artistic challenge worthy of desert island status, an album designed for your ears only, is how it effortlessly tears apart the conventions of pop songwriting that automatically guarentee it a large audience. "I thought Trout Mask Replica was a very commercial album," Beefheart told Nick Kent of New Musical Express in 1974. "There was a lot of humour on that album that I thought people would pick up on." The lyrics, in particular, are written with such polymorphous glee and wit ("A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast 'n' bulbous. Got me?" is but one sample) that the record overturns any avant-garde solemnity. But the rock audience was still generally deaf to it. Defiantly original, Trout Mask Replica is a declaration of the American imagination that speaks in an unknown language, not fully comprehended, yet spoken with candour and without fear of recrimination.

For some, Trout Mask Replica is the worst record ever made and deserving of desert island status where only the devoted can cherish it. But, for others, it's a neglected masterpiece that needs to exist in a musical community where one can still come to discover its strangeness. History records both views and backs them up. But it doesn't settle a thing. This album creates the kind of fuss that leads people to ask questions about what defines great music. It's what makes Trout Mask more significant than the instant and disposable pop records that dominate the charts and disappear without ever achieving desert island status.

As music, Trout Mask Replica will continue to resonate because it forces us to hear things that can change our way of listening. In the current turbulent political climate, it's become desirable to have our views consistently confirmed, rather than letting ourselves become truly informed. With our favourite music, we sometimes seek security in its warm bosom where our own personal values and beliefs can be validated. But Beefheart's album broke those unwritten laws. "It expanded the framework of the imaginable, for the members of a generation whose own attitudes and ideas embodied a radical aspiration," wrote art critic Roberto Ohrt on Trout MaskStranded takes on a number of good records that embody radical aspirations and you can clearly understand the case writers make for each one. But Trout Mask is the only album that makes the desert island vivid in the mind.

In the same month that Trout Mask Replica was released, a celebrated astronaut named Neil Armstrong travelled where no other man had walked before, on another desert island known as the moon. As Armstrong took his one small step for mankind, viewers marvelled at the brave new world unfolding before them. Meanwhile, a group of oddball musicians in Los Angeles were about to deliver, unto an unsuspecting public, an album that could just as easily have come from Mars. Which simply goes to prove that some desert islands provide a form of shelter while others seek to deny it.

– 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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