Perfect Sound Forever

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band
Trout Mask Replica
by Uncle Fester
(February 1999)

In 1974, Trout Mask Replica was my favorite record album. I would sit cross-legged on the deep shag carpeting of the basement floor, slide open the door of the gigantic fifties model stereo-TV console, and flip through the albums. Are You Experienced? was too intense, Superfly too creepy, the banana album (Velvet Underground & Nico) too terrifying, and Blonde On Blonde too boring. I didn’t get the Virgin Fugs album, but it still intrigued me. I was immediately drawn to the bright red cover of Trout Mask Replica, with a man in a goofy fish mask of alluring neon colors. Captain Beefheart was one word different from Captain Kangaroo, and other comical names were listed, like Drumbo, Zoot Horn Rollo and Rockette Morton. The sounds were strange and somewhat jarring, but it was the words, the funny nonsensical words that would come out of seemingly a dozen different voices, all cartoonish in their own way.

For the same reason that my uncle found the album difficult, frustrating and annoying, I found it funny and entertaining. I believed it was a children’s record. And who’s to say it wasn’t? I was five years old, and Trout Mask Replica was my favorite record. It was made just for me. The White Album had some songs I liked, but it didn’t hold my attention. And it certainly blew away my Winnie the Pooh and Jungle Book records. I loved to confound my grandparents and playmates with snippets like "A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast ‘n’ bulbous, got me?" They never got me. Did I even get me? It didn’t matter. To an adult it might sound vaguely sexual. But really it was just the sound of the words. After that quote, one can hear the good Captain giggling to himself and saying, "I love those words." So did I.

Perhaps for the same reason that James Joyce admitted, if read aloud to a child, ULYSSES would be better understood by the child than the adult. Did Joyce and Beefheart have children in mind when they created their works? Probably not. But perhaps in their efforts to create something startlingly new, they tapped into some of the imagination they all but lost since childhood. Like Guy Debord did with dada in the '20’s, they ended up with a simulation of what it might have felt like when you just learned to talk. Language was new, and all words sounded strange, and felt funny when you said them. It was new and fun to play with. By all accounts, Beefheart has done much to extend this sensation. Beefheart recalled that when he was five, he refused to go to school for fear that they would ruin his mind. The double album’s labels featured a picture of young Don, no older than seven, as if it was an homage to his five-year-old creativity. He liked to say that he got musicians who never played before. To get them past the ‘I’ consciousness, you know? That endless ‘me, me, me’. Or do-re-mi, whatever that stuff is. While they were actually trained musicians, he did force them to unlearn some things and play in a completely different way, as if they were children learning new instruments.

On the other hand, I could be completely mistaken. I might have totally misunderstood Captain Beefheart’s inspiration and his intentions. It wouldn’t be the first time. He has been misunderstood in so many ways. In Lester Bangs’ review for the 26th July 1969 edition of Rolling Stone, he noted how cirtics saw the Magic Band as a blues band led astray by trendiness and commercialism. Whereas Bangs saw the free jazz of Pharaoh Sanders, Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler as Beefheart’s muse, exemplified by "Hair Pie Bake One." Others feel that his dadaism is simply a cynically self-conscious schtick to get attention. It is true that some self-mythologizing had to be involved, just like other genuine musical visionaries who insist they were born on Saturn (Sun Ra), talk to aliens and ghosts (Lee Perry) or simply created their own funky universe (George Clinton).

Beefheart insisted that he composed Trout Mask Replica in its entirety on a piano in the Magic Band’s communal rental house in Cunoga Park, San Fernando Valley in one eight hour stretch. While I believe his basic eccentricity is completely natural, it seems that his michievous elusiveness in response to interviewers asking for an explanation of his music hints that the beauty in an album like TMR is that it leaves a thousand ways people can misinterpret it to their own satisfaction. The album is a sneaky, clever changeling, adapting itself to an incredible variety of contexts. By the time I was ten, I thought I had outgrown Trout Mask Replica, it being a children’s record. I was ready for "adult" music, like (ahem) Queen and ELO. It wasn’t until just before starting high school that I discovered the first edition of the Trouser Press Record Guide, which revealed that Captain Beefheart is "one of rock’s genuine geniuses" and his music is "avant-garde." And it wasn’t until I was in college that I truly became obsessed with Captain Beefheart’s music.

TMR has repeatedly been hailed as Beefheart’s masterpiece, one of the greatest albums of the rock era. It usually the only Beefheart album to show up in critics polls. But it’s no longer my favorite album. Beefheart himself said his favorite was 1970’s concisely powerful Lick Off My Decals, Baby. I feel he ended his music career at a peak with Ice Cream For Crow. But it was all about time in place. In 1969, the seemingly unlimited potential of The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix was about to grind to a halt and rock was getting ready to settle into the conservatism of classic stadium masturbationism, and bloat into cumbersome prog rock. With TMR, Beefheart blew things wide open.

The album itself feels like it’s about to break apart at the seams, bursting with seemingly diametric differences. The music is utterly new, yet steeped in tradition. The lyrics are non-sensical yet intellectual. The musicianship sounds spasmodic, yet is precisely disciplined. The emotions are playful yet also have a gentle sadness. Everything seems to be directed towards disorientation. The beautiful alliteration and repetition is hallucinatory. The odd time signatures and frenzied changes lend a feeling of vertigo. The tracks do not flow. The entire sound is lopsided ­ with much more happening in one channel than the other if you played with the balance. "Tits tits the blimp the blimp / The mother ship The mother ship" It’s a laughing gas bomb sent from the mothership to make earthlings have fun again or go insane trying.

Books can be written on the minute details of every song and lyric. But the overall impression is that Trout Mask Replica is Captain Beefhearts first success at truly revealing his personality and his soul. While to some he doesn’t even seem human, he has a remarkably compassionate feeling for humanity. And his empathy for the mother earth and its critters continued through the rest of his recording career, and on to his painting career. Trout Mask Replica may be fragmentory, but it is a complete, successful work. What will never be complete is the pleasure of us, the listeners in continuing to play with it and listen to it in endlessly new times and settings.

Also see the editor's misbegotten re-appraisal of Trout Mask Replica

See the rest of the Beefheart tribute

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER