Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band
Trout Mask Replica
by Jason Gross
I originally wrote this as a chapter in a book that Jim DeRogatis has been putting together called KILL YOUR IDOLS. The whole idea behind this was that it was going to be the flipside of Greil Marcus' STRANDED- instead of writers praising their favorite records, they were supposed to go after what they thought were the most over-rated records. Of course, there's a lot of records more deserving of this fate than TMR but I thought that it was pretty over-praised and just taken for granted that it was a 'masterpiece' (with all due respect to Langdon Winner's great essay in STRANDED about it).
Special thanks to Justin Sherrill who used a different version of this article for his Home Page Replica web site.
The only thing worse than a goddamn slobbering idiot pledging eternal love to something is a slobbering idiot who screams that the same thing is a rotten piece of shit. Love and hate aren't the same thing unless you think that your mate giving you a backhand is the same as getting a backrub. In the same way, cutting a cherished idol down to size is a good way to make a name for yourself and only proves what a petty moron you really are if you have to do that. After saying all of this, there's no doubt in my mind that there's a dirty secret going around- Trout Mask Replica is no great work of art and most everyone really knows this. Don Van Vliet's respect is well-earned but there's no respect in saying that the emperor's got a brand new bag when he's really got his birthday suit on.
"THE PAST SURE IS TENSE"
Painter/poet/singer/songwriter/sculptor Don Van Vliet started out in California, dodging an art scholarship and a career selling vacuums and shoes to play in rock bands with his buddy Frank Zappa in the early '60's. After Zappa formed the Mothers, Beefheart made his own Magic Band and got a rep, doing shows with the likes of Van Morrison and the Doors. After winning a battle of the bands and getting a two single deal from A&M Records, David Gates (the lame-brain behind Bread) produced a local hit with him of a Bo Diddley song but the company didn't want anything else to do with his "bleak" lyrics. After releasing his first album Safe As Milk in '67 (where his voice cracked a microphone), he had to drop of out the Monterey Pop Festival at the last minute when Ry Cooder quit the band. If blowing this potentially big break wasn't bad enough, his second album (Strictly Personal in '68) was screwed around with by the producer behind his back (and came out in another form three years later). Even at this early stage, Beefheart was whipping his music into a wild, wooly version of the blues, taking it back to a time when it wasn't just 12-bar. He was just getting started though on his unique musical vision.
Beefheart hooked up with his old buddy Zappa again to finally record his music his way in '68. Zappa signed him to his Bizarre/Straight label and produced Trout Mask Replica. For some nine months, the Magic Band was wholled up in a house (cult-style), trained to play Beefheart's music after he'd written 28 songs in a fitful 8 hour session. Later, the band would claim that his notes for the songs were a mess and they had to sort it all out. Whatever the real story, he renamed his band to go along with the concept: the cast included Beefheart (saxes, vocals), guitarists Zoot Horn Rollo (Bill Harkleroad) and Antannae Jimmie Semens (Jeff Coton), bassist Rockette Morton (Mark Boston), the Mascara Snake (Victor Hayden, Beefheart's cousin) on bass clarinet, and drummer Drumbo (John French, who dropped out at the last minute and got cut from the album's credits).
Things went way downhill for Beefheart in the '70's. He split from Zappa after another album didn't sell well and began a slow decline of compromises. First, he immersed himself into the blues (The Spotlight Kid, '72) then soul (Clear Spot, '72) then pop mush (Unconditionally Guaranteed in '74 where he appropriately clutched dollar bills on the cover). Then he fired the Magic Band and claimed he held the rights to their stage names- they got together as Mallard for a while and tried to eke out existances. After returning to Zappa for a tour and some session work, he put together a new Magic Band but wouldn't be able to put out his new album thanks to lawsuits.
His last few years of music turned out to be his best though. Shiny Beast finally came out in '78 as a good mix of the blues, surreal poetry, pop and jazz that he'd been working with before. Doc At the Radar Station was fiercer and funnier and the better for it. Ice Cream For Crow carried along in this vein before Beefheart decided to permanently retire from music to paint full-time- his work (first seen by many on his album sleeves) is shown world-wide and goes for thousands of dollars. Actually during these last years, he managed to get an appearance on Saturday Night Live, a story in People and have some videos made of some of his songs. His frustration with the music business was just too much though even if it seemed as if his time had finally come when punks expressed their love of his music.
"I DON'T PLAY LULLABIES"
It's with Trout Mask Replica though where a large part of Beefheart's legend rests. Rolling Stone put it in their list of 100 Best Rock Albums in 1987. Greil Marcus called it "as unique and true a vision of America as rock and roll has produced." The Trouser Press Record Guide hailed it as a "masterpiece." Record Collector called it "a major musical achievement." The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock says that it's "one of the most advanced overall concepts in rock music." It was listed as #81 in Paul Gambaccini's "The Top 100 Rock'n'Roll Albums of All Time," a poll of rock critics. The All-Music Guide gave it five stars, rating it as a "Best-of-Genre (Rock)" pick. Besides the fact that this didn't help move any sales, none of them ever really say if the damn thing is any good.
To start with the best part, Beefheart's lyrics on TMR played with broken, slurred, invented words about the environment and the fucked-up nature of the human race. This sounds like bleeding-heart material but he was still a cut above Jim Morrison if not the Fugs. Nostalgia for country life was also a big theme though it wasn't a Norman Rockwell landscape- we hear about moonlight, a riverboat, a smokestack, flowers, a barnyard, snow, worms, cherry phosphate, and a rabbit. Beefheart mixed it together with wild imagery and unexpected poetic associations. Overall, the tone is cranky though. Beefheart sings about running away to "Wild Life," not buying a "Veteran's Day Poppy," a disaster ("The Blimp"), the holocaust ("Dachau Blues"), escaping from "Frownland," killing a "China Pig," and the self-explanatory "My Human Gets Me Blues." He's down but always looking for a way out of a world gone cuckoo.
Musically, he pulled no punches. A left-channel guitar plays something close to rhythm while a right-channel guitar does wailing slides. Both play distinct, different leads, soloing, occasionally playing in synch, usually going off on their own and not relating to the drums or vocals- this was the exact opposite of the minimalist approach of the early Velvet Underground. Bunches of different rhythms jump up and disappear in each song. The "beat" can get pretty sludgy at times even when the band raves up (especially compared to his last albums). Beefheart screams, howls, bellows with the abandon of a kid, playing flurries of cascading notes on his sax. What sounds like a bunch of sloppy dip-shits is actually a well-tuned machine though. Each band member repeats a riff a few times then does another unrelated one, usually not coming back to the ones they did before. This was usually done independent of the other instruments the same way it'd been done before in free jazz. The band sounded like they were playing different songs for crying out loud!
The album is also full of audio verite as if to (stupidly) point out that it's a recording and not some trip you can lose yourself with. This includes spoken intro's and outro's, flubbed and unfinished takes and conversations with engineers and passers-by. Luckily, this didn't become a staple in Beefheart's work (was it Zappa's doing?).
The whole problem with experiments is that they don't work sometimes. "Well" is a great solo reading thanks to Beefheart's majestic chanting. "Orange Claw Hammer" is another good field holler with the rising and falling of his voice. "When Big Joan Sets Up" has a great, wailing sax solo. "Sugar 'N Spikes" has the guitars going at it together. "Pachuco Cadaver" is a wild stomp. "Moonlight On Vermont" has great buzzing guitars. BUT... "The Dust Blows Forward N' The Dust Blows Back" is an uninspired reading. "Dachau Blues" and "Old Fart At Play" mix the guitars down to no great effect. "Ant Man Bee" and "China Pig" are stumbling blues. "Pena" has Semens cackling like an old lady. "Dali's Car" is synchronized guitar scales. "The Blimp" is a cute novelty. "Veteran's Day Poppy" starts as a blues stomp then swings then falls into a long, plodding riff. Elsewhere, the coy dialogue and missed takes don't help. None of the four sides are consistent enough to fall in love with unless you think mistakes are really the portholes of discovery that James Joyce said they were. I think mistakes are just mistakes. Beefheart's work is all part of a grand, mindblowing experiment. Any scientist'll tell you though, sometimes experiments fail.
"AN ASSORTMENT OF OBSERVATIONS TOOK PLACE"
When it comes to taste, the other problem with knocking an icon is that you will stand a chance of being (THE HORROR) uncool. Clearly, only an uptight stuck-up nerd-ass pathetic wimpy shit wouldn't be able to appreciate something like Beefheart. Do you think that you could proudly say you didn't dig him in the company of your hip friends if every "cool" publication, rock critic and band are in love with him (or at least they say they are)?
I actually like Beefheart a lot but I don't understand how people can blindly worship him. To me, this makes the least sense when I think about what's supposed to be his masterpiece. When it came out in '69 along with another pretentious piece of art from the Who, TMR beguiled even the hippest minds. He was supposed to finally be free to make his music his way in a sprawling double album (more is better, right?). Since it was able to piss off and confuse so many people, it must be good then. If it turned every cherished convention of pop music upside down, it had to be a damn great work of genius. Actually, the Shaggs had done this better (or worse actually) the same year and have barely a fraction of his rep.
I've actually listened to TMR dozens of times. In high school, Beefheart was so weird and foreign to me that it was a great little secret pleasure, especially since all of my friends loved Pink Floyd and Bruce Springsteen. I listened to TMR but I never really fell in love with it. I admired the whole contraption (still do) until I wondered why I kept playing it. Out of fascination probably. As I heard his other albums like Lick Off My Decals, Baby and Strictly Personal, I fell in love with his nutty beat and hoarse voice- I used to imitate it all the time as my favorite cartoon characters or any song on the radio I'd hear. Ask any ex-girlfriend would tell you though, love and respect ain't the same thing. Not by a long shot.
"WE'RE THE ONLY PEOPLE DOING ANYTHING SIGNIFICANT IN MODERN MUSIC."
Maybe if someone was raised on a steady diet of TMR in some lab experiment rather than nursery rhymes and the radio (which is pretty similar anyway), they'd be no mystery about his music or any strangeness about it. I'd blame the radio, which fooled me in the '70's into believing that Chicago and The Eagles made music. The problem with realizing that this really is shitty music is that you could take the other extreme and say that any noisy, discombobulated screaming horror-show is good for you. Again, it's just as stupid and insane as wanting to hear "Loving You" (Minnie Riperton, just in case you were lucky enough to forget).
If you're really willing to fall in love with TMR, then you'd have to grant Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, the Beatles, Buddy Holly, Hank Williams, Gram Parsons, Jimi Hendrix, the Ramones, Nirvana and Bob Dylan their due. They all believed in the conventions of music but also in pushing them more than anyone had before. Beefheart was pushing music to places it hadn't been before too and upping the ante that Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Richard Berry and other maniacs had started with.
"I NEVER TOOK LESSONS... I NEVER REHEARSE"
Beefheart is an original and a pioneer also, but only as far as rock goes. Even today, TMR wouldn't make any sense to people who only know music from what's on sale at Tower or Sam Goody's or some other chain. Most of what he's released still sounds pretty alien even after hordes of misguided bands have tried to pick up his trail. Even then, there's some measure of integrity to doing this- what kind of mental case would try to break into the music industry with clanking, jagged noise?
No doubt about it- in the music world, Beefheart holds court. Sonic Youth, XTC and the Buzzcocks covered his songs. PJ Harvey ("Rid Of Me") and the Sex Pistols ("New York") quoted his lyrics. His ex-band members infiltrated the Pixies and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. His fanclub also includes the Talking Heads, Pere Ubu, the Residents and Devo. The important thing here is that all of these bands themselves turned out to influential themselves so that Beefheart has become a real seminal influence in music.
But if Beefheart is such a hero with so many respected (and misguided) bands, why the hell have most of them never have heard of his hero? Ornette Coleman started much before Beefheart did and is still active today. The violent reactions that most of the so-called music establishment (a snotty bunch of lily-white assholes, really) were pretty much like the hatred that punk stirred up when it started to spring up. Beefheart's ideas were new only because he took Coleman's idea to rearrange the ideas of what was supposed to be melody and rhythm into rock territory. Ornette explored these ideas more thoroughly, thoughtfully and CONSISTENTLY for more than 40 years now and is still on the case. Beefheart packed it in though (with some good reasons), disgusted after 20 years.
Disgust cames from other musicians too and not everybody digs "free" music. Charlie Mingus had a long-standing hatred of Coleman and free jazz and was never shy about making himself heard or making a point. At one show, he had a screen in front of a band that were playing "free jazz." Mingus let this go on for a while then took down the screen. It was a bunch of children trying to play the instruments for the first time. His point was well-taken. Where these kids any "better" or more professional than the avant-garde music that the jazz world was taking seriously?
Of course, there's a flip side to this argument- loads of attention to "musicianship" is the thing that stifles the life out of any music. The reason that early rock 'n' roll was so alive wasn't just the fact that guitarists, singers, horn players and drummers knew some scales and notes but that they had a lot of fury and sweat that SOUNDED good. As the Mekons pointed out, rock is one of the few places where expertise and experience work against you.
"GOD PLEASE FUCK MY MIND FOR GOOD"
It's no different for a lot of other "difficult" art. If you're used to watching movies like IDIE HARD or TERMINATOR and then run across DOG STAR MAN (with the film out-of-focus and painted on) or UN CHIEN ANDALOU (where a knife slices an eye) or EMPIRE (a 24-hour shot of the Empire State Building), you'd be thinking "what the fuck?" and spit out your greasy popcorn. Stan Brakhage, Luis Bunuel and Andy Warhol took the basics of film (story, characters) and turned them inside out to make an abstraction, just like Beefheart did. You'd have the same reaction after hearing TMR if you were raised on a steady diet of Born To Run or Dark Side of the Moon. Work like this not only screws with your expectations of what you think ought to be happening but can actually open up the old gray matter to see things in a different way.
As great as I find these ideas when I read about them, I'd admit that sitting through one of these films is as patience-trying as TMR can be. Maybe you think these guys are a bunch of geniuses because they can set "entertainment" on its ear, but does that mean you'll go with it whole hog and not admit some of it is pretentious horseshit and just toss out anything that dares to have a story and characters or rhythms and melodies? If you say "yes," then maybe you should go and listen to the sink drip and watch your clothes spin in the laundry.
This takes you right back to the question of what's the real worth of this music then. Is this is just interesting theoretical garbage just to be admired when you hear "about" it but makes you run out of the room if the actual music gets played? If you want to argue that something like Trout Mask Replica "works on its own terms," that's no argument. You could say that about anything. You have to think of what your criteria is. TMR did fare better than other Zappa productions at that time (Alice Cooper, Persuasions) probably because Zappa was supposedly asleep at the wheel. But like a lot of great concepts, it looks a lot better on paper.
"I HAD A BEEF IN MY HEART AGAINST THE WORLD"
When all's said and done, there's no reason to trash Beefheart himself. If his only legacy would have been Half Japanese, he'd still be a hero in my book. In a world where music magazines and radio stations bend over and say thank you to major record companies, where "alternative" is slapped on any bunch of new saps, where good videos are more important than good music, where multinational corporations sponsor stadium tours, and where even the most successful rock bands still give up most of their advances to lawyers and managers and then still don't even have health insurance, Don Van Vliet is still a goddamn inspiration to anyone who's got ears and who's got to listen. Still, pretending that his long-winded moments are works of genius are just slavish devotion to a guy who deserves more respect than that. No wonder he's taken to painting.
See the rest of the Beefheart tribute
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