Counterbalance No. 54: Captain Beefheart’s 'Trout Mask Replica'
Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica is like a squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag—it’s fast and bulbous and bound to end badly. Eric Klinger and Jason Mendelsohn try to clean up the ensuing mess in this week's Counterbalance.
Mendelsohn: Klinger, this album gives me a headache. And before we go any further, I know, all right, I know—this album is important, it’s groundbreaking and its avant garde obtuseness opened the door for the entire world to think differently about music. I get it. But you want to know what I think? I think it’s terrible and I'm sick of people telling me they like it. This has been happening to me since I was a teenager when a friend of mine first introduced me to His Beefiness. I was taken aback because this friend of mine had really good taste in music and here he was, pushing this unintelligible pile of noise excrement at my ears. Now, later in life, when I get into conversations with people about music and they tick off Captain Beefheart as a favorite artist, all I can think is, "You really listen to this record? Really?" I'm sick of people trying to foist this record upon me and the public in general like it’s some great, misunderstood piece of art-rock that only high-minded music lovers can truly understand. You know what I think? Those people are jerkholes.
Klinger: Whoa there, Mendelsohn. I understand that Trout Mask Replica is a huge matzo ball to have to swallow, and I'll begin to go through my own highly conflicted issues in a moment, but is it fair to say that people are only claiming to like this album—or overstating their enjoyment of this album to appear superior to the masses?
This is something I think about a lot as I've come to realize just how divergent people's taste in any type of art can be. I've read a couple of books that attempt to explain how and why people's brains respond to music, but none of them seem to address why some people respond so strongly to dissonance and arrhythmic patterns. But still some people do (some of them, for the record, are indeed jerkholes). Sure, when someone touts an album as clearly baffling as this, it's tempting to question their motives. But as I recognize the more outré corners of my own music collection, I have to accept that there are people who genuinely enjoy Trout Mask Replica.
Mendelsohn: Oh, now looks who's trotting out the "music is highly personal" argument. Look, I'm not suggesting that there aren't people who genuinely love this album. There are seven billion people on this planet; one of them has to think Trout Mask Replica is the greatest thing ever put on wax. My issue is with the groupthink that seems to be endlessly perpetuated regarding this album’s high esteem. Is it some kind of joke that got out of hand? Is it a test? Oh god. It's a test isn't it? They are looking for all the meta-humans, aren't they? They are trying to separate the normals from the highly-gifted mutants who are able to decode the hidden messages within these 28 tracks in order to build a master race. That's what is happening here, isn't it? I'm a dead man. Oh god. This is going to get posted on the Internets and they will know that I am on to them and they will have me killed. Why did I agree to do this with you, Klinger? WHY!?!?
Seriously, though. This album is terrible.
Klinger: OK, I'm not ruling out anything you've just said, mainly because I understand so little of it. I will say this: Trout Mask Replica is an absolute puzzlement to me. And it's not because I have anything against atonal freak outs—I've listened to music from Ayler to Zorn and liked it a great deal. But after owning this disc for about 15 years, I can say that I've never really connected with Trout Mask Replica. I always suspected that I had to be in the right frame of mind to really let it hit me in the right way, but that never happened. But in poking around his catalog a little more, I've discovered that I actually like Captain Beefheart (and really, as big a Tom Waits fan as I am, it would be disingenuous of me not to appreciate Beefheart at least a little). So, Safe as Milk? You bet! Lick My Decals Off, Baby? Sign me up! (I haven't gotten to his universally hated mid-'70s Mercury albums.) But this album? I got nothing. It doesn't drive me to fits of paranoia the way it does you, but I also takes all my efforts not to switch to something—anything—else. I've since talked to people who like the Captain but share my disdain for Trout Mask Replica, and that just got me puzzled further.
So I've really been pondering this one, and that's when I figured out what sets Trout Mask Replica apart from his other albums: Frank Zappa.
Mendelsohn: Now we're just falling further down the avant-rock hole. I don't buy it. Look, I know that it takes a certain amount of skill and determination to make an album sound like a room full of three-year-olds banging on pots and pans. Plus, I respect Zappa too much (mostly for his goofy stuff) to ever speak ill of the man, but I have a hard time believing that just because he took pity on his friend Beefheart, gave him a record deal, and then produced this album, that critics would be willing to get behind a record that is absolutely hard to listen to. I'll now hear arguments to the contrary.
Klinger: Well, my theory is a little more complicated than that. I maintain that Frank Zappa's production is exactly why I don't like Trout Mask Replica. Here's the thing: say what you will about Zappa's skills as a composer and musician, throughout his work there is an undercurrent of what can charitably called condescension. You can hear it on his albums like We're Only in It for the Money, which is basically an extended takedown of his fellow L.A. musicians. You also get a sense for it in the acts he chose when he was given his own Bizarre/Straight labels to fiddle around with. He proceeded to sign a bunch of "outsider" types (the schizophrenic street singer Wild Man Fischer, the so-called "worst band in L.A." Alice Cooper, a bunch of groupies dubbed the Girls Together Outrageously) and essentially presented them as part of his musical freak show stable. The extent to which they were in on the joke isn't always clear—it seldom is when people champion outsider artists (remember Wesley Willis?). After Trout Mask Replica, Beefheart complained that Zappa set him up more as a figure of fun than as a serious artist. (Given the fact the Magic Band members later went on record suggesting that they may well have been suffering from Stockholm Syndrome during the recording of this album, I'm tempted to say that the player got played, but we'll leave that for now.)
In listening to many of the Captain's album pre- and post-Trout Mask Replica, it's not hard to see Beefheart’s point. It sure sounds to me like Zappa encouraged all of Beefheart's worst instincts (intentionally singing out of sync with the musicians being most notable among them), threw in a few of his own Zappa-esque touches (those annoying snippets of dialog between songs, for example), then packaged the whole thing up—the good ideas and the bad—into one difficult-to-digest two-LP set. Zappa might have thought he was being funny, but let me state once and for all my most sincere belief: Frank Zappa is not funny. I’ll say it again. Frank Zappa is not funny.
Of course, I still haven't fully worked out why Trout Mask Replica has ensconced itself in the upper reaches of the Great List. I'm tempted to say it's due to Elmo the Muppet's star-making guest turn on "Ella Guru".
But that's probably not it. So I'm going to put it to you, Mendelsohn, someone who obviously dislikes this album so much. Why do you think the critics—people whose job it is to actively and thoughtfully listen to music—rate this album so highly?
Mendelsohn: I think I covered that in the opener, Klinger. Music critics are jerkholes. Elevating this record to such a high status is their attempt to separate themselves from the general listening public because this album will never gain mainstream appeal and will forever retain its cool factor. How many great bands have the trendsetters and critics lost to the general listening public? This album will never suffer that fate.
Honestly, I don't know. Maybe it's here simply because it’s the first of its kind. Coming out in 1969, it would have been the complete antithesis of everything that was popular at the time—a twisted, demanding, alternate-universe type of record. Or maybe Trout Mask Replica is the pinnacle of music as abstract art—Beefheart as Pablo Picasso to the orchestral landscape pop acts of the late '60s. Maybe it really is a masterpiece of musical composition and I'm just not evolved enough to hear it. But if being evolved means having to like this album, I'd rather be a Neanderthal. Please hand me my club, that Huey Lewis album, and that six-pack of Schlitz and I'll go back to my cave.
Klinger: I'll join you. Can I bring my copy of Lick My Decals Off, Baby?