[13 April 2003]
I was born in 1972. Thanks to having two older siblings preceding my arrival, our house was always filled with the sounds of the latest popular music. My older brother and sister had different tastes, but thanks to both of them, they led me down an initial musical path that would form the building blocks of my own early music collection. I recall back in 1977 my brother bringing home Billy Joel’s The Stranger LP and hearing the music contained within those grooves turned me into a rock and roll junkie on the spot. I was five and forever changed.
My mother saw how much I enjoyed listening to my brother’s records that she soon rummaged through the attic and brought down an old record player and speakers and a huge pile of 45s. “Here,” she said, handing me the whole kit and kaboodle. “This is for you. Have fun.” And so I did. The records were mainly from around 1960-1962 and came from my grandfather’s jukebox that he had in his store at that time. Strange tunes such as Richie and the Royals’ “We’re Strollin’”, The Expressions’ “On the Corner”, a weird-ass single by Jerry Reed and the Hully Girlies entitled “I’m Movin’ On”, as well as actual hits of the time like the Tornados’ “Telstar”, and more recent records that my brother had discarded like Billy Preston’s “Outa-Space” and my sister’s 45s of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” (backed with “Susie (Dramas)”, the best tune Reg ever recorded) and Cat Stevens’ “Moon Shadow” (again, with another great b-side “I Think I See the Light” from Harold and Maude).
And so from there, I continued to enjoy music though my youth, becoming a huge Billy Joel fan, while also enjoying the huge stars and one hit wonders on the early ‘80s. By the time I reached middle school in the middle of the decade, the radios were now favoring hair metal bands by the scored. I couldn’t stand it. So while all my friends were listening to Motley Crue, Poison, Cinderella, and the like, I went back in time and started exploring the ‘60s. It was an amazing trip discovering the likes of the Beatles, the Who, Led Zeppelin, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones, the Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd, and all those other phenomenal groups.
In high school, I dug heavily into the catalog of Todd Rundgren while still mining the old greats. I had found some kindred spirits by that time and we all had a lot of fun discussing music, listening to all our old favorites that no one else seemed to dig, and forming our own band. Then my senior year rolled around in 1990. It was a typical afternoon, my friends and I sitting in my bedroom listening to the Replacements or the Stone Roses or perhaps Camper Van Beethoven when suddenly another friend busts through the door excitedly with a tape in his hands.
“We’ve gotta listen to this,” he exclaimed, forcing the tape in my hands. “Just put it in! Hurry!” I looked down, and there staring back up at me was Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band‘s Trout Mask Replica. I swore I had seen the cover before somewhere, that still cover shot of the Cap in a green jacket and funky hat with a shuttlecock on top all the while holding a trout head in front of his face against a sickly red backdrop. I put the tape in as my friend demanded.
“A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast ‘n bulbous! Got me?” Those were the first words we heard and then the song “Pachuco Cadaver” started blaring out of the speakers. What the hell was this stuff? Off-kilter rhythms, cheap sounding guitars, funny sounding saxophones, hilariously beautiful lyrics, and that voice of the Captain all coming together and making this absolutely bizarre sound. It was nothing like I had ever heard before. We sat there in awe, all four of us. We laughed out loud. We played certain lines over and over again. We were simultaneously loving and hating it. I couldn’t get enough of it. For my birthday that year I got my own copy of Trout Mask Replica on CD and tried my best to turn other people onto this weirdness. Most didn’t want to hear any more than three seconds of it.
This is my favorite thing. This album right here. Oh sure, there are plenty other albums I play more than this one, but nothing ever changed all my thoughts about music and what I supposedly knew. Not the Beatles, not the Velvet Underground, not even that beloved Stone Roses disc that I once declared as being the most essential album ever. Even having said that, nothing does it for me like Trout Mask Replica, an album that still sounds a few decades ahead of its time just as much as it must have when it was originally released.
There are 28 tracks in all, and 20 of them were recorded in one day. The Captain (Don Van Vilet) had spent nine months teaching his band how to play these songs. And in the hands of the fantastic Zoot Horn Rollo, Antennae Jimmy Semens, the Mascara Snake, Rockette Morton, and Drumbo, this double album became one of the most fascinating works ever released into the rock and roll bloodstream. Don had childhood pal Frank Zappa produce the work. Zappa gave Vilet complete freedom to do what he liked after his previous album Strictly Personal was botched thanks to various cheesy phasing effects thrown into the production without his approval. Prior to that, the Cap had released Safe As Milk featuring Ry Cooder on guitar and also had a previous hit on A&M with “Diddy Wah Diddy”.
Yet those works (including the blues-soaked Mirror Man which Buddah Records issued in retaliation against Strictly Personal) were not so freakish, not so expansive. Trout Mask Replica, on the other hand, took its fusion of rock, blues, folk, poetry, and jazz and simultaneously deconstructed and reconstructed the entire pop music landscape in one fell swoop all right before your very own ears. And it continues to do that to this day every time you put it on.
It’s hard to think of another album that has divided music fans right down the line so cleanly. Some, such as I, embrace the album with great fervor and proclaim its majesties until we’re blue in the face. Others keep ten feet away from it at all times, claiming the album is nothing but noise, and if not that, than an overrated artifact in the world of avant-garde music. They think too many hipsters have come in and spoiled the soup by tossing too many accolades on top of it. But how could I have even been close to being a hipster when I had never heard the Captain prior to my initial exposure? No, I was a virgin who became seduced and ultimately skull-fucked by this brilliant work.
It’s not an album as off-putting as Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, which I also happen to own. Lester Bangs decreed Reed’s magnum opus of white noise the best album of all time, which was quite the Lesterly thing to do, but honestly the album is flat-out boring no matter how many punk acts have claimed that it inspired them to rock on. It may have been quite the album when it was initially released, but as time has worn on, it has turned more into a novelty and something you own to say you own, then get to laugh when you play ten seconds of the monster to your friends who often run away in horror than it is an album with any real charm. I expect the real lovers of this album would argue with me that it does indeed have its charm, but even as a great Lou Reed fan, I cannot bother to bring myself to argue the semantics of the noisy album.
Trout Mask Replica, on the other hand, has a multitude of layers and sounds that were not issued to provoke listeners and record labels and piss them off. Don Van Vilet was finally doing what he always wanted to do. And by doing so he did release a critical darling that many bothered to not touch, yet at the same time those who did take the time to listen to its songs found an entire world of music that had probably not existed in their lives before that.
Zappa’s production is bare bones for the most part, and the Captain got irked with him somewhat after the fact about the sound, but really, I couldn’t imagine it sounding any other way. It has a very live feel to it. There are a couple of more “produced” moments such as the closing “Veteran’s Day Poppy” and the phenomenal “Moonlight on Vermont”, but for the most part it sounds like a wild, wonderful nightmare that when peeled back exposes its technicolor hues.
Then of course, there’s just the plain freaky madness that envelops the whole thing. The infamous bit where the Captain is instructing the Mascara Snake to get his lines right during a “Fast ‘n Bulbous” segment (“Yeah, but you gotta wait till I say ‘Also! A tin teardrop’” says the Captain, to which the Mascara Snake laughs and replies ” Christ!” in a fit of bewilderment) is classic, as is the segment where the Cap is talking to two kids outside about his music. “What do you think?” He asks. The kids, obviously a bit stunned and not knowing what to say, pause for a few seconds, then mutter “It sounds good.” “We’re doing a bush recording,” the Captain goes on. “We’re out here recording a bush. The name of the composition is ‘Neon Meate Dream Of A Octafish ’” Then more nervous silence from the kids. And then Beefheart corrects himself. “No, wait. It’s ‘Hair Pie’.”
Add to that the sheer creepiness of “Pena”, the greasy blues of “China Pig”, the whimsical poetry of “The Dust Blows Forward ‘N the Dust Blows Back” and “Orange Claw Hammer”, the fantastic riffs of “Pachuco Cadaver”, the hilarious “Old Fart at Play”, and other gems like “When Big Joan Sets Up” and that “Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish”, and well, you really have something there. Especially when Beefheart sings in his stunning multi-octave range and blows two saxes at the same time. None of this album is to be missed.
Probably the best thing about Trout Mask Replica is watching people start to come around to it when you play it enough for them. They might say, “Hey! Those lyrics really are kind of cool.” Or perhaps they’ll admit to grooving to the hypnotic silliness of “Hobo Chang Ba”. But that is the whole thing about this work. The songs really are there. You just have to let them come to you. What at first sounds like a cacophonous mess eventually reveals itself to be very intricately produced songs of immeasurable substance.
Following Trout Mask Replica, Beefheart released the similar Lick My Decals off, Baby before turning towards a more accessible route due to his record label’s demands. A couple of those works, such as Clear Spot and The Spotlight Kid are terrific works, whereas others like Unconditionally Guaranteed were artistic disasters. Before Beefheart retired completely from music in 1982, he managed to release a few more albums that featured him doing what he wanted to do, such as Doc at the Radar Station and Ice Cream for Crow.
If you’ve never listened to Trout Mask Replica, go give it a try. Then listen to it about five or six more times, even if you feel like you’re forcing yourself. If after that you still feel that you don’t like it, at least you know you gave it a real shot. On the other hand, you might find you absolutely love it, even on the first listen. Whatever the case, Trout Mask Replica may rightfully be the very first and last time an album has so thoroughly polarized the listening public. After all, after this was created, you couldn’t rightfully do it again, could you? While the Beatles were off creating entire chunks of rock music, Captain Beefheart created his own musical language and universe. One that could only be listened to afterward and never reclaimed again. And if Beefheart himself couldn’t replicate the Replica, then you knew this was one of a kind. Trout Mask Replica is indeed a beautiful masterpiece that shall continue to sit at the top of the rock and pop music heap.