Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band: Trout Mask Replica (1969)
Adam: What can we say about Trout Mask Replica?
Jordy: Probably too much.
Glenn: Yes, but I have a question for you fellows. When you play TMR, which songs do you skip? I tend to skip both “Hair Pie”s, “When Big Joan Sets Up,” “My Human Gets Me Blues,” and “Neon Meate Dream of a Octofish.” In fact, much of the middle of the record is a mess.
Corollary question: which songs do you love, and why? For me, this record is mostly about the interplay between Beefheart’s blues shouts and the warring guitars, which should like they’ve been dipped in acid. “Ella Guru,” “Dali’s Car,” “Sweet Sweet Bulbs” have lovely guitar interaction and really unique internal structures. In “Sweet Sweet Bulbs” especially melodic shards recur in a sort of theme-and-variations.
Jordy: I can just imagine some filthy hippy sitting around with his oily friends in 1969, listening to this record, and saying, “Dig it, man: this cat is way ahead of his time. This is what all music will sound like in twenty years.” Well, despite what many weirdos had hoped, this has not been the case. In fact, TMR still sound about as weird as anything I’ve ever heard.
And I agree with Glenn about the relative palatability of the middle portion. Starting around “Bill’s Corpse” by eyes glaze over. This is especially the case when Beefheart isn’t singing. While the whacked-out rhythms are interesting they seem secondary. It’s Don Van Vliet’s inimitable yowling and word associations that make this album such a gem. I particularly like “The Dust Blows Forward…” and “Old Fart at Play.” (Also I think Antennae Jimmy Semens is a really cool name).
Glenn: I’ve been reading the new biography of another genius weirdo, Thelonious Monk, and one of Monk’s famous quips defines the appeal of the best of Trout Mask Replica: “You know, anybody can…use far-out chords and make it sound wrong. It’s making it sound right that’s not easy.”
I think we’ll all agree that TMR is best when it’s “accessible” and “melodic” — “Pachuco Cadaver,” “Moonlight on Vermont,” the aforementioned tracks — but after taking another couple listens the past few days, even those accessible, melodic songs are genuinely odd. The back and forth guitar spittle on “Ella Guru,” the weirdly timed bassline at the beginning of “Pachuco Cadaver,” the slippery blues licks that seem to be falling apart on, say, “Fallin’ Ditch,” most of the lyrics — but these “far-out” elements often sound absolutely right in context.
Adam: I also have a hard time listening to this album all the way through. I find the instrumentals especially tedious. In terms of stuff I actually like, “Moonlight on Vermont” is one of my favorites, and I also like “Dachau Blues” and “Ant Man Bee.” And the spoken pieces like “The Dust Blows Forward and the Dust Blows Back” are good too.
Also, I think some of the lyrics are actually quite clever and affecting, but the few lines that are clever and and affecting are buried beneath heaps of nonsense like “That’s right, The Mascara Snake, fast and bulbous…bulbous also tapered.” I’m thinking specifically of “Dachau Blues,” which is really an avant-garde protest song.:
The world can’t forget that misery
and the young ones now begging the old ones please
to stop being madmen
before they have to tell their children
about the burnins’ back in World War Three’s
Do any of the other lyrics stand out in anyone’s mind?
I’m not familiar enough with the rest of the Captain Beefheart discography to say whether or not this is his masterpiece, but I have to say I like Safe as Milk a bit better, if only because it’s more accessible and it contains my absolute favorite Beefheart song “Sure ’nuff ‘n Yes I Do.”
Finally, if we’re going to debate which band member has the coolest name, I’d have to go with The Mascara Snake, with Drumbo coming in a close second.
Glenn: “Steal Softly Thru Snow” is gorgeous:
The black paper between a mirror breaks my heart
The moon frayed through dark velvet lightly apart
What’s it mean? I’m not sure. But there’s an image there, surprising and odd and beautiful: cracking apart a bright mirror to see the dark paper inside. And then the negative of that image: bright moon glimpsed through darkness.
And I’m a big fan of the lyric to “Frownland.” It’s either a kiss-off breakup song, or a middle finger to the frowning straight world. Oily hippies unite!
This post would not be complete without a tip of the hat to John “Drumbo” French, whose role is the Magic Band has been debated and distorted. It seems he is somewhat responsible for the the existence of the difficult (and, to my ears, beautiful and fascinating) instrumental compositions. In his words, Drumbo “…transcribed most of Trout Mask Replica in conventional music notation, and then taught it to the band.” You can tell — at times, the galloping but solid drumming seems to lead the band. We can wait for Drumbo’s memoir to come out later this year for more insight into the surely insane creation of this classic.
Jordy: From “Bills Corpse”:
Quietly the rain played down on last of the ashes
Quietly the light played down on her lashes
She smiled ‘n twisted she smiled ‘n twisted
Hideously looking back at what once was beautiful
4 Essential Tracks:
“Moonlight On Vermont”
“The Dust Blows Forward and the Dust Blows Back”