According so some of the musicians who played for Don Van Vliet’s Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, fifty years ago they began to work out the bits and pieces of two songs that, two years later, would be included on a double record album called Trout Mask Replica.
I found out about Beefheart and his music through a friend, who read Stereo Review and bought any record the critics liked. He especially enjoyed “The Blimp” and “Old Fart at Play,” the more juvenile of the astonishing, infuriating assortment of blues, folk, dada, naive, primitive, atonal, poly rhythmic music on the record.
Today we’d call Trout Mask a mash-up, a cross-cultural collage employing deliberate appropriation and combination of previous styles, motifs, and methods that subverts categories, challenges standards and norms, celebrates irony and, at best, is sufficiently interesting to be called art.
But it’s more than that. Van Vliet started performing in California as another white man mimicking black blues stylists Howling Wolf and Bo Diddley, with a beat poet’s playful sense of subversion. At times, you know the band, and producer Frank Zappa, who met Van Vliet when they were teenagers, are just fooling around, recording snatches of conversation, improvisational goofs and silly phrases that sound disgusting or marginally obscene, but are just goofs.
At other times the band you can feel the band’s furious concentration as they try to play music with definite blues, folk and rock roots that is so complicated and difficult that you might as well call it a tour de force. You ask yourself how could anyone write this stuff, or even perform it?
On the first few listens, the record can be silly, annoying, trite, sloppy–all the things that a slickly produced, blues-oriented studio recording like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon–is not. The music was composed from tape recorded motifs, many coming from Van Vliet, who composed at the piano, an instrument he did not know how to play. Van Vliet banged away at the keys, coming up with refrains, snatches of melody, and phrases that he liked. These were taped and then rearranged by the band, which, according to legend, recorded their parts in a single day. It took several days for Van Vliet to record his beat-poet lyrics, the horns (which he also did not know how to play) and other overdubs and studio effects.
It still sounds like a mess, but it is far from that. The record has a wild, frenzied, free-jazz, anything-goes sensibility that can take several listens to appreciate. Like the splashier abstract expressionists (Van Vliet has a second career as a painter whose work was similar to Robert Motherwell and Joan Miro) and and the seemingly disordered ruckus of John Cage, Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band produce a singular work of modernist art that is so turbulently original that few who hear it ever forget it. Fewer still want to hear it again. But enough have for many publications to put it on their best album lists, somewhat lower down than Dark Side of the Moon.
The album did not sell in the United States, though it charted as high as 21 in England. After it appeared, Beefheart changed his style, veering toward the longer, slightly more listenable compositions on The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot, before zooming off into the more completely realized songs of Ice Cream for Crow and Doc at the Radar Station.
Like too many musicians of his day, Van Vliet denied publically that he took recreational drugs, but wallowed in them. When I had a chance to see him live, I heard from those backstage that he was far too fond of cocaine. But his performance was even more amazing than his recordings: for once, all that strange, disjointed, seemingly chaotic music–worked!
Van Vliet was also notorious for being cruel to his band. He did not credit his musicians as co-composers, often did not pay them. Most who joined his Magic Band later spoke of the exhilaration in playing music unlike anyone else’s, and the financial destitution that awaited them at the end of a long concert tour.
Today Frank Zappa is honored as an important composer who worked within the rock milieu and even had a top-40 hit (“Valley Girl”), Captain Beefheart is mostly forgotten, though his influence on Tom Waits, The Simpsons cartoonist Matt Groening, John Cale, The Residents, and many others, is significant. Like many artists whose work surprises and even shocks us at first, Beefheart’s recordings yield their value slowly, requiring several listens and a patience unusual for contemporary music “consumers,” who are confronted with far too many easily likeable musical pieces on streaming services that have changed the way music enters our lives. Why listen to peculiar, challenging music that defies conventions, when there is so much more that has mastered those conventions?
Because much of life isn’t about mastery (and its metaphors: wealth, high status, connoisseurship, the self-congratulatory state of having made the “right” choices), but how we master the challenges we must meet along the way. If we can be patient with “difficult” art, we can apply that patience to the difficulties we find in ourselves and others, and accept that what is of lasting value is not always obvious the first time we encounter it.
Yes, it was very easy to adore Dark Side of the Moon on the first listen. And I can still appreciate it today.
And it was just as easy to be delighted at Trout Mask‘s triumphantly absurd “Neon Meate Dream of an Octafish” when I fifth time around.
Or was it the sixth?