Chasing the Trout
“I don’t think I do music. I think I do spells.”
Don Van Vliet to Lester Bangs, 1980
For about 10 years, Captain Beefheart’s music has fascinated me, which is not to say that I’ve ever been able to appreciate it. Until now and, even now, I’m not sure that I’m there yet. An appreciation of Beefheart, for me, has been like a trout in a stream: a fleeting shiny thing that catches your eye, but, then again, it could’ve been the sunlight reflecting off the current. I blink, and then again, I swear I see it bathing in the bubbles churned up by the tiny rapids.
For those who otherwise couldn't be bothered, the Captain, née Don Van Vliet, is a virtuoso on at least a half-dozen instruments with a vocal range that covers about as many octaves (although, from my listening experience, I mostly hear him ricocheting in the same range of Howlin’ Wolf). A linear description of his music is that it’s free-association poetry set to a hurdy-gurdy combination of R&B, blues, garage rock, free jazz and avant-garde experimentalism.
But we’re talking about a guy who directed his musicians (a coterie known as the Magic Band) by drawing the songs as shapes and diagrams and who admires the bleating of a goose as much or more than he does the skronk of Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler or Eric Dolphy. So a linear description isn’t going to get us very far. Whatever you think of this music, it’s impossible to be neutral about it. But even if you love it, there’s no way you can put this music on and leave it anywhere but in your primary focus. Trying to clean your house with this stuff on would drive even the tweediest music professor up the walls. This music demands that you sit down and deal with it directly.
I first got introduced to the Captain by a band mate, the same guy who put me on to Tom Waits, The Flying Burrito Brothers and Pavement. And in spite of how central those recommendations have been to my music listening over the past decade, my trepidation about investing in Beefheart has been considerable. Consider that, in those years, I’ve plunked down for Free Jazz, Ascension, Spiritual Unity, Blank Generation, Out To Lunch! and loads more in the CASTBOTU (Critically Acclaimed Shit That Borders On The Unlistenable) genre. Seriously, there’s enough wailing squawk in my music collection to give the dogs in my neighborhood seizures for weeks.
“A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous. Got me?”
Captain Beefheart, “Pachuco Cadaver”
Today I dialed up Trout Mask Replica, reputedly his masterpiece, for the second time this week, and sat down to write this with the intent of proudly proclaiming that I finally “get” this music. My first effort at Beefheartian appreciation was 1967’s Safe As Milk, which was his first album (featuring a then-teenaged Ry Cooder, who was already sitting in with Taj Mahal and the Rolling Stones). In sonic terms, Milk was Howlin’ Wolf wandering the
But Trout Mask ain’t no copout: if you can dig this, you’re drinking the Beefheart Kool-Aid straight from the chalice. One angular time signature tumbles into the next with enough randomness to tie Dave Brubeck’s fingers in knots. As a rhythmic reference, think of a box of dishpans being spilled down the stairs to the basement. Harmonically, you wonder whether if anyone in the studio was paying the slightest bit of attention to any other musician, there’s so much dissonance. Seriously, would it be too much if at least two players were playing in related keys? And then, in an instant, harmony, melody and rhythm all come together like three countercurrents suddenly resolving themselves. To the newcomer, those doses of the familiar and palatable are what make plausible the legend that Beef and his band spent a year practicing this clattering racket before committing it to a tape liberally spliced with non sequiturs like the one quoted above. Which is not to say that his verses are a refuge for making sense:
No more bridge from Tuesday t' Friday
Everybodies gone high society
Hope lost his head 'n got off on alligators
Somebodies leavin' peanuts on the curbins
For uh white elephant escaped from zoo with love
Goes t' show what uh moon can do
- Moonlight On
Consider Trout Mask a 28-song yawp, although Beefheart had more yawping to do, under outré titles such as Lick My Decals Off, Baby and Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller). Is yawping music? Hell, I don’t know. I’m not even sure that acknowledging Beefheart’s yawp is the same thing as getting his music.
And I’m not sure there’s anything to get. In Zen scriptures, there’s a story of a master who is confronted by a monk on the subject of living in accord with the Tao. The master simply pulls the monk’s nose and laughs out loud. Suddenness, unpredictability and unending change: All of the analysis and doctrine in the world isn’t going to help you get your fingerprints on those elements. The moment simultaneously arrives and passes, like the trout effortlessly squirming through my hands. As with Beefheart's music, there is no getting it.