2010 was a tough year for fans of beautiful noise. Jay Reatard overdosed, Alex Chilton passed away days before his big comeback gig at SXSW. Then if all that wasn’t bad enough, a week before Christmas the news came through – Don Van Vliet, the man they called Captain Beefheart, had died. He had been away from the music scene for many years but his influence on generations of artists who wanted to make art, not money, will always be felt.
There is a time in a life where important decisions are made. We may not know at the time how momentous these decisions are but in retrospect they are pivotal moments that forever alter the people we are. My father gave me two books for my 23rd birthday, huge long beasts – "Underworld" by Don Delillo and "The Proud Highway", a collection of letters by Hunter S. Thompson. I decided that during my 1997 Christmas vacation I should not only read both books in two weeks. But that I should also totally throw myself into listening to a record people had been talking to me about for years. "Trout Mask Replica" by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band. Such a seemingly inconsequential decision that rang a bell which has resonated through the rest of my life.
But god knows it isn’t easy. “My smile is stuck, I cannot go back to your Frownland.” At the time I’m listening to odd music anyway, Sonic Youth were huge, The Jesus Lizard also and I was starting to flirt with Jazz. But from the second I started Trout Mask, something started changing in me. At first it doesn’t even sound like music. It sounds like a bunch of guys playing different songs in different time signatures in different rooms while a gravelly voiced maniac intones random abstract phrases over the top. Listen to the whole album, which is a long double, and that’s what it sounds like the whole way through. Interspersed with a bit of studio banter between The Good Captain and his friend and producer Frank Zappa. But I wanted to understand so I put the CD player on repeat, after many more listens it still sounded impossible.
Then, a good friend of mine dropped an atom bomb on my brain. He told me that it’s not wild free jazz, it’s not even slightly improvised. Beefheart had taken the Magic Band to a cabin in the woods where here composed all the music on Trout Mask. He proceeded to rehearse them for months, making them learn to play the songs backwards and forwards. Then they went into the studio with Zappa and recorded the whole thing in a day.
Listen to Trout Mask knowing that and it becomes even stranger. This is what these guys did with their time? These wild, frenetic tracks were not improvised they were constructed? It changed the listening experience from one of bemusement to disbelief. Surely these were the greatest musicians ever if they could learn and play such music. For them to create a musical Chinese finger puzzle they must have had a startling commitment – or a stern taskmaster. Which is by all accounts just what Captain Beefheart was, why would you need to know how to play it backwards?
After finding out that Trout Mask was composed, it started to pull into focus for me. I began to find the space in the songs, the melody and momentum that hides under the surface. Then the lyrics start to take hold. Phrases rise up and stick in the mind. “Light floats down the river on a red raft o’ blood.” “The black paper between the mirror breaks my heart.” “I cry, but I can’t buy, your Veterans Day poppy.” Surely this was poetry. And I’m reading these two long, great books and listening to this long crazy album. Day after day. And then I realize there is a connection between them. They are invested in the scope of America. They are creative outpourings that filled the cultural horizon for decades to come. And I knew after finishing I would never hear or see things the same.
Captain Beefheart showed me what is possible if you can give yourself over to the Muse. The epiphany that the line only ever flexes, never breaks. You can push as hard as you like and if it’s hard enough your imprint will be left forever. Thats what Captian Beefheart did for me and so many others. He said, if this is right, then maybe there is no wrong. Now days I find myself dancing wildly (no other way to dance to it) whenever I put on Trout Mask Replica. Virgins to the record look at me like I’ve lost my mind and I know that they just haven’t opened theirs fully. All they need is time.
Beefheart made other records of course. Some as good as Trout Mask ("Lick My Decals Off, Baby" may actually be better) some not so great. But no other record changed me as profoundly as Trout Mask Replica. Because if he’s not crazy, if he’s brilliant, then maybe we are as well.
THE BEEF IS DEAD, LONG LIVE THE BEEF.