Perfect Sound Forever

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band
Trout Mask Replica
by Mike Barnes
(February 1999)

Captain Beefheart book excerpt- Part 2

These more turbulent, multi-metred songs demanded a new style of singing. If an American avant-garde/roots version of Sprechgesang, a half-singing, half-speaking, melodic oratory, could be deemed to exist, then this is it. Van Vliet sings, recites and sometimes splashes the lyrics over the instrumental backing like a sonic action painting. This initial flash was an important part of his process and his tactic of staying away from rehearsals, preferring instead to opt for maximum spontaneity, is vindicated here for the simple reason that it worked.

Another song which displays a similar chemical relationship is "Neon Meate Dream Of A Octafish." Van Vliet narrates the lyrics over ensemble playing of staggering complexity which evokes the mythical octafish thrashing about in the water. The remarkable lyrics work on a number of levels. To make his point, Van Vliet alludes to the Imagist concept of being very precise in descriptions, and the Surrealist concept of juxtaposing opposites to generate new forms so, as André Breton said, 'forgotten meaning becomes primary': 'Whale bone farmhouse', for example. The song is a journey through a luxuriant forest of language which Van Vliet recites in pinched, breathless tones, onomatopoetically evoking the slippery wetness of sex.

The procession of words like 'incest,' 'in feast,' 'syrup,' 'semen,' 'squirming' evokes the Futurist concept of using words purely for the meaning conveyed in their sound, but his alliterative lists are chosen for their semantic meaning also. In contrast comes the darker image-stream of 'tubes,' 'tubs,' 'bulbs,' 'mucous mules,' 'dank drum' and 'dung dust.' The delirious, drooling carnival stops en route to inspect the centerpiece of the "Meate Dream," 'Meate rose 'n' hairs', the female pudenda, with the orifice displayed as a succulent, pungent, sap-oozing, hothouse flower. In the background Van Vliet wheezes away on musette and simran horn as if asthmatically gasping with excitement.

"Pena" rolls along on an even keel musically until French races off on a spectacular tangent towards the end, leading the band into sounding as if they're suddenly playing the song inside out. Cotton recites the lyrics hysterically, declaiming the tale of a girl who was out enjoying the sun 'whilst sitting on a turned-on waffle iron,' with the result that 'smoke billowing up from between her legs' made him 'vomit beautifully.' He confides that he then 'band-aided the area' before once more adapting his cartoon chuckle. In the background, Van Vliet howls like an animal. The tension between the vocal lines with their painful lyrical content and the astringent music makes it one of the most unsettling songs on the record. It was also physically painful for Cotton, who would hurt his throat when singing in this way.

The brief, abrasive "Bill's Corpse" was written about either Bill Harkleroad on a bad day or Van Vliet's goldfish, Bill, who died after his enthusiastic young owner overfed him. Maybe both. Ken Smith recalls that, as a youth, Van Vliet and his family had a funeral service for the deceased pet who was interred in a matchbox coffin. Bill could well be the goldfish in the bowl that 'lay upside down, bloatin.'' The lyrics also paint an apocalyptic scene of 'plains bleached with white skeletons', a cremation, and finally a plea to a female figure, perhaps symbolic of nature.

Another song where Van Vliet stares death in the eye, to a soundtrack of guitars scratching in the dust, is "Fallin' Ditch." It falls somewhere between Robert Pete Williams's "Almost Dead Blues," which he wrote during serious illness with the grave, or ditch, awaiting and Dylan Thomas's poem "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," where the addressee is implored to 'rage, rage against the dying of the light.' A mellifluous bass line leavens Van Vliet's assertion that in his bleak, 'frownin'' moods 'things just turn t' stone.' But even at this nadir he insists that 'Fallin' ditch ain't gonna get my bones.'

Van Vliet plays the role of raconteur over a complicated, melodic backing on "Old Fart At Play." The narrative comes across as a folk tale, rich in imagery, or maybe a grown-up children's story, chronicling the activities of a character, the Old Fart, who hides behind a knoll and dons a wooden fish head, 'a very intricate rainbow trout replica,' with breathing apparatus attached. He arrives at a farmhouse kitchen as Momma is cooking, and the excited Old Fart surveys the spread of food: 'fat goose legs', 'special jellies,' rows of jars with 'crumpled waxpaper bonnets.' Van Vliet claimed on a number of occasions that the song was an extract from a novel of the same name, it certainly flows that way, but it was never published.

Trout Mask Replica was the first album on which Van Vliet's ecological concerns were clearly stated. "Ant Man Bee" rides along on shuffling, swung 4/4 rhythm, 'the baby beat', and tells an allegorical tale of man squabbling with fellow man in 'God's garden.' Humankind experiences another fall from grace from a mythical Eden, which is now relocated into the twentieth century as a teeming anthill, with the denizens squabbling over 'that one lump uh sugar.' Ants have recently been found to be more intelligent than humans realized, but, unlike humans, they still don't have the ability to temper their behavior. His singing over, Van Vliet gets out his tenor and soprano saxes, playing them simultaneously like car horns or dog barks over the perambulating coda before loosening up for a primitive, visceral solo.

When asked about his views on the human race's capacity for destruction by Co De Kloet in 1993, Van Vliet replied: 'Horrible. Human beings. It goes way back. I can think way back to when I wrote "Ant Man Bee." It's scary to find the things you're saying acted out in front of your very eyes. I was right. That's one time I'd like to be mistaken.'

A more dramatic first-person tale of disruptions to the natural order is conveyed in the back-to-nature ethos of "Wild Life." The protagonist flees from the painful reality of a situation where the oppressors have 'run down all my kin.' Now the endangered species himself, he confides to the listener, 'Folks, I know I'm next,' before fleeing to the mountains with his wife, hoping the bears will take them into an ursine utopia. 'Wild life is ah man's best friend,' he says, already assuming they will be more hospitable than humans. "Steal Softly Thru Snow," a complicated propulsive song that shifts through a series of episodes powered on by staccato guitar, touches upon some of the same themes, this time more poignantly. Van Vliet is heartbroken by seeing the geese flying off for the winter. He is left behind to witness highways being built over fields of grain, and with only murderous humanity for company.

Some of the Trout Mask songs show more overt R&B influences. "When Big Joan Sets Up" is based on a boogie whose forward thrust comes from the guitars playing a repetitive push-pull riff. Apart from a lengthy hiatus filled by a scribbled sax solo, momentum is maintained throughout. The lyrics describe a large woman who, Van Vliet observes, can't go out in daylight, the reason being people laugh at her body, 'Cause her hands are too small.' Hardly sylph-like himself, Van Vliet pledges to be there for her when she emerges. His exclamation, 'Hoy hoy, is she uh boy?' is a tongue-in-cheek misquoting of 'Hoy hoy, I'm the boy' from Howlin' Wolf's "300 Pounds of Joy," where he uses his giant frame as a selling point over his rivals in romance.

After numerous diversions, including an opening section with a Boston bass line that Van Vliet deliberately engineered to be out of sync with the other players, "Pachuco Cadaver" develops into a mutated shuffle beat with tricky accents. In one of his best lyrics, Van Vliet runs through a number of contemporary cultural references, including Kathleen Winsor's best-selling novel Forever Amber. The antacid 'broma' seltzer' (sic) and 'brody knob', which was a slang term from the hot-rod and motorcycle culture of the forties and fifties for the 'turn knob' on a vehicle's handlebars or steering wheel, which allowed it to be turned quickly, to give a 'brody', a 180-degree skid. He obliquely eulogizes a Hispanic dame who is cruising around in a Chevrolet, with a bolero jacket, high heels or 'high tap horsey shoes'. Although ninety-nine years old, she is still the centre of attention, with 'Yellow jackets 'n' red debbils buzzin' round 'er hair hive ho,' like drones around the queen bee's beehive hairstyle. Another example of Van Vliet's music accommodating details from his musical past within its radical structures is found at the end of the song, where the group keep returning to a refrain which is the children's song "Mammy's Little Baby Loves Shortnin' Bread," a tune he still loved.

Similar rhythmic propulsion is whipped up by the slashing guitar chords of "My Human Gets Me Blues." Van Vliet's urgent singing keeps riding the rails throughout the song's rollercoaster path. The home straight is an onward-rushing irregular time signature, with Boston's bass holding on to the drums with a rubbery grip. One of the main guitar motifs breaks out again like a clarion call over the final bars, then a final drum roll and two cymbal crashes punctuate Van Vliet reciting the song's title. As well as being one of his most brilliantly realized songs, "My Human Gets Me Blues" became a live favorite throughout the rest of his career.

"She's Too Much For My Mirror" is a tale of a mismatch in love. Van Vliet sings about a woman who is so vain that he's loath to look in the same (overused and abused) mirror. He's moved to Chicago, 'hungry and cold,' and regrets leaving home, longing nostalgically for 'that little red fum [farm].' Maternal advice to be 'choosey' (sic) was ignored, a bad move as it turns out. 'Now I find out she's uh floosey,' he sings, before admitting that he still longs for her.

The formidable a cappella song "Orange Claw Hammer" finds Van Vliet playing the role of an old sailor who has returned to port after thirty years at sea. He ends up on skid row, on the edge of town, by the side of the railway tracks 'on the bum where the hoboes [sic] run.' He's down on his luck, with only a dollar to his name: 'An eagle shined through my hole watch pocket' is his description. Although encumbered by a peg leg, he is looking for any odd jobs to increase his resources. After his lengthy sojourn at sea he marvels with heightened senses at nature around him. The end section of the song is as moving as it is bizarre. He sees a young girl and howls, 'God, before me if I'm not crazy is my daughter.' The fact that the subject of his paternal affection is still a girl after he has been away for thirty years is incongruous.

Maybe he just sees her that way. Or maybe he is simply crazy. But after memorably offering to buy the 'child' a 'cherry phosphate,' he explains to her how he was shanghaied, and describes her messy conception in a 'banana bin.' In a tearful denouement, he takes her down to the harbour to see the ship from which he has disembarked, resplendent with erotic figurehead, 'the wooden tits on the Goddess.'

This song exemplifies Van Vliet's ability to take traditional material and mould it into a highly personal language. In his teens, Zappa lent Van Vliet Blow Boys Blow, a collection of traditional songs of the sea sung by AL Lloyd and Ewan McColl. By 1980, he claimed that it was still his favourite record. He never gave it back. The idea for "Orange Claw Hammer" may well have sprung from this root, as although the song is a narrative, the tune is in simple, repetitive cadences reminiscent of a sea shanty. It also evokes the atmosphere of the 'Cutty Sark' section of Hart Crane's epic poem from 1930, The Bridge. There, an old mariner comes back disoriented from a long voyage. 'I don't know what time it is, that damned white Arctic killed my time,' he says. Crane deliberately constructed this poem around American speech rhythms and it reads from the page like phrases jotted down from a conversation.

Van Vliet's performance on "Orange Claw Hammer" was, in effect, also jotted down. It is one of the 'field recordings' done at the group's house, with the pause button on the recorder audibly clunking down as he thought of the next line. Van Vliet also referred back to folk idioms of speech. He wrote his lyrics from Trout Mask Replica onwards in a sort of personalized phonetic transcription of the vernacular, with, for example, 'uh' or 'ah' replacing 'a'; 't' replacing 'to'; ''er' replacing 'her'; 'm'' and ''n'' replacing 'my' and 'and'; 'thata' replacing 'that'd'.

"Well" is like a field holler, sung in a stentorian baritone, with the refrain 'Well, Well' at the end of each line. In an interview in 1980, after he had come up with his by then stock phrase 'Everyone's coloured or you wouldn't be able to see them,' he looked back on the song. And took care to cover up his blues roots.

'Yeah, who said an albino can't have soul? What I'm saying is that I think a poem like 'Well' and I have that voice...I have an awfully powerful voice. I haven't heard the likes of it. Although if I could parrot it'd feel so funny... like putting on the sleeve of someone else's coat'.

Here, causal narrative is eschewed in favour of a juxtaposition of image-rich snapshots within a feeling of impending darkness, a hypnogogic state with the mind filled against its control on the edge of sleep. The light which brings day time is described, fantastically, as sailing on the river of day on a 'red raft of blood,' presumably a reference to bustling humanity. Ultimately night 'blocks out d'heavens like a big black shiny bug.' Van Vliet drops into a dream state that gathers its own momentum, picking up fantastic debris as it goes.

Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca was affiliated with the Surrealists in the late twenties (although he found that some of their techniques based on subconscious processes lacked the clarity he sought). In Lorca's view, the juxtapositions that 'unlock the potential of meaning' need not necessarily be purely imagination-based or 'Surrealist.' In his terms of reference, if poetry was born just from the 'imagination', then it would be largely bound by existing human knowledge and logic. His own processes of juxtaposition were more deliberate and produced poetry born of 'inspiration', which incorporated the idea of the hecho poético, or poetic fact (Robert Graves labelled these two types of poetry 'muse' and 'Apollonian' respectively).

In García Lorca: Poeta en Nueva York, Derek Harris explains the hecho poético as 'an image which seems as inexplicable as a miracle, for it is devoid of any analogical meaning. Based on the hecho poético and bound together by la lógica poética, the poem becomes a self-sufficient entity without reference to any reality outside itself.'

Like Van Vliet, the Andalucian Lorca dealt with deeply rooted native folk archetypes and wrenched them out into a new, often shocking context. The apogee of this approach is in the collection The Poet in New York. The striking illogicality and haunting, self-contained images within these lines from "Well" can be seen as a Van Vlietian hecho poética:

'The white ice horse melted like uh spot uh silver well
Its mane went last then disappeared the tail.'

"The Dust Blows Forward 'N The Dust Blows Back" is the third of the a cappella songs and another 'field recording,' again the tape pause button is audibly pressed down after each line. It sounds as if it comes from some forgotten oral tradition, with Van Vliet singing in creaky tones, like a septuagenarian farmhand sitting on his porch reminiscing about a fishing trip. Down by the riverside, he casts his rod with a cork float 'Bobbin' like uh hot red bulb.' He notices a riverboat pass by and a lipstick-smeared Kleenex caught on a twig. He sounds happy, drinking 'hot coffee from a krimped-up can' with his girl named 'Bimbo Limbo Spam,' presumably to make the last line scan. Day turns to night under a moon that looks like a giant dandelion.

Van Vliet told Roger Ames in 1974: '"Dust blows forward, dust blows back" [sic] was recorded in the house on a cassette. It was just me with the cassette. That was an impromtitudinal [sic] poem. I used the clicks from switching the mike on and off to create the space. A lot of the songs on that album were poems.'

To many people, Trout Mask Replica is best known for the snatches of conversation between songs. In the most famous exchange, Van Vliet engages Victor Hayden (The Mascara Snake) in a call-and-response, the notorious 'Fast 'n bulbous' routine. 'I love those words,' chuckles Van Vliet as Hayden recites his lines, then butts in. 'Yeah, but you've gotta wait until I say: 'Also a tin teardrop',' he continues, leaving Hayden both amused and bemused. So what exactly is it that is fast 'n bulbous? 'A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag,' he informs us during another spoken link. These links, together with the inclusion of a few spontaneous home recordings, compound the feeling of Trout Mask Replica as a sonic scrapbook on to whose pages the contents of Van Vliet's psyche have also been pasted.

On "Hobo Chang Ba," Van Vliet revisits the hobos of "Orange Claw Hammer." The song is specifically about Oriental immigrants who came over to America looking for work, but ended up becoming hobos, riding the trains into uncertainty. The subject of the song, 'Chang Ba' is his name, now lives nomadically. He is found waking up in the early morning cold in a railroad boxcar, 'Mornin' time t' thaw,' as he says. There is a defiance and dignity in his predicament, an elegiac figure disappearing into the unknown, who because he is disenfranchised becomes a frontiersman by default. He covers endless miles in search of a new future and if it isn't found on the horizon, there are always horizons beyond. This constant movement becomes an end in itself. He feels that 'Standin' still is losin' and that each new sunrise at least carries potential. He has become so rootless his mother is now the ocean and 'the freight train is m' paw [pa]'.

Van Vliet told Kurt Loder in Rolling Stone in 1980 of an encounter when he had 'split a bottle of wine' in the High Mojave with a black hobo. 'He'd hitchhiked down from Oakland. He didn't take a train any more. He said, 'I don't ride the rails because the young people they kill tramps now, you know.' I said, 'That's disgusting.' He said, 'It isn't like it used to be, Don.'''

Van Vliet sings this poignant tale, one of his best lyrics, in a ridiculous voice that was apparently his approximation of an Oriental accent. Typically his vocal presence is inescapable, but his diction is unorthodox to the point where the meaning of the lyrics is obscured. A good enough reason to sit down and read the lyric sheet of Trout Mask Replica, one of the few rock albums that warrants such an exercise.

"China Pig" is an example of Van Vliet at his most spontaneous. Doug Moon visited the house and after he and Van Vliet had played an impromptu version of "Candyman" by Mississippi John Hurt, Van Vliet asked him to 'play one of those 'chunga, chunga, chunga'...' Moon is captured on cassette playing a neat blues figure to Van Vliet's improvised tale of penury with the subject of the story agonizing about whether or not to break open his piggy bank, howling 'I don't wanna kill my china pig.' He describes this glazed pottery beast with decorative painted flowers, and a curly tail, and recounts how a little girl 'used t' put her fingers in its snout.' A decade later, Van Vliet gave another shading on the song, saying: 'It's about how fragile a human being is. I mean the body as opposed to all the forces.' Moon received no credit for the music.

The stand-out oddity of the album is "The Blimp (mousetrapreplica)," a spontaneous poem, apparently based on the newsreel of the Hindenburg airship crash, read by Cotton with Van Vliet playing sax in the background. 'Master master, this is recorded through uh flies [sic] ear,' he informs, gasping, then describes the huge craft, the 'mother ship' with 'uh trailin' tail.' Zappa explained the unusual circumstances of the recording in 1993: 'I was in the studio mixing some other tapes, and the band that's actually playing on "The Blimp" is actually The Mothers Of Invention. The vocal on "The Blimp" was recorded by telephone. He had just written these lyrics, and he had one of the guys in the band recite it to me over the phone. I taped it in the studio, and recorded it onto the piece of tape that I had up at the time, which was my track. The piece is called "Charles Ives." We used to play it on the '68-'9 tour.'

Of the three instrumentals on Trout Mask, "Dali's Car" is the most concise. Two guitars lock together in almost Baroque formality but the tone is unremittingly harsh. The piece derives its title from an installation by Dali, a car containing a mannequin, painted sea shells and other organic matter, that Van Vliet and Harkleroad had seen at the LA County Museum.

There are two versions of "Hair Pie" (one of the more grotesque slang terms for cunnilingus): "Bake 2" is a group-only studio take and "Bake 1" was recorded with the group playing in the house, while Van Vliet and Victor Hayden played sax and bass clarinet out in the garden. Their dialogue sounds like the mating ritual of two gigantic birds. Van Vliet gave this tongue-in-cheek explanation shortly after the album was released: 'Vic had only been playing bass clarinet for three days and I had only played the horn 120 times or so, something like that, somebody was keeping tally on me.' Nearly thirty years later Harkleroad described the spontaneity of the occasion: 'We're practising in the living room, thinking that we're rehearsing, and they're out in the weeds playing the horn, 'Oh, that's a take!'''

When "Bake 2" finishes, there follows a conversation between a couple of kids and Van Vliet, recorded when he and Hayden were still wandering around in the garden. The bemused youths had come over to eavesdrop on the band playing in the house. They are asked by Van Vliet what they think: 'Sounds good,' they reply unconvincingly. Van Vliet helpfully informs them that, 'It's a bush recording. We're out recording a bush.'

They had in fact gone there for a specific purpose. Eric Drew Feldman, who joined the Magic Band in 1976, was a Captain Beefheart fan in his teens and had gone over to the house himself a couple of times, just to hang around outside and listen to what was going on. The incident captured on tape involved two of his friends. Feldman: 'One was a musician trying to put bands together and his friend said, 'Hey, there's this band playing up the street, they're really terrible, but they have a really good drummer. Maybe you can get him for your group.' They were thirteen years old or whatever and they go over and happen to come upon them when they were recording that version of "Hair Pie." After Don says it's "Hair Pie" there's that uncomfortable silence, nobody says anything. He [Van Vliet] explains who they are and they realize they're a signed band, that's big time. One says, 'I guess you don't get the drummer' and the other one goes, 'Huh'...'

Also see Uncle Fester's and the editor's Trout Mask Replica critiques

See the rest of the PSF Beefheart tribute

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER