Sunday, 25 September 2011

Trout masks and beef hearts

The South China Morning Post has come up with an excellent wheeze for its Sunday pages: a column called Rewind, in which a classic movie, album and book, all of which tie into a theme, are reviewed. Here is my first contribution to the column, a scary encounter with Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, for a Rewind themed around madness.

When Tom Waits leaps into print to give you props for bringing the crazy, you know you’ve reached some transcendental level of lunacy. Not that anyone would have dared to tell the late and very large Captain Beefheart, who once pushed his drummer down the stairs for refusing to "play a strawberry", that he was nuts.
    Madness and genius have been inextricably linked down through the ages, not least in the arts, and most especially in music. You have to be a hamper short of a picnic, the thinking goes, to get synapses short-circuiting to produce bursts of pure creativity. But there’s music by tortured geniuses and sad broken poets, and then there’s Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band (Straight) 1969. This is some seriously nutty stuff from a real whack job. Listen to it too often, or for too long at once, and you might begin to call your own mental health into question.
    Warns Waits: "The roughest diamond in the mine, his musical inventions are made of bone and mud. Enter the strange matrix of his mind and lose yours." The song titles alone gave me pause: Dachau Blues. Hair Pie Bake 1. Pachuco Cadaver. China Pig. Ant Man Bee. Neon Meate Dream of A Octafish. Only a madman, or someone trying to impersonate one, could cough up such frothing nonsense. As a Beefheart neophyte, I felt nervous. What if I didn’t get it? Worse, what if I did? Anyway, I sonically tip-toed past the point of no return and realized with relief that anyone who claims to ‘get it’ is a big fat bare-faced hipster-wannabe liar. You can’t ‘get’ this level of virtuoso deranged chaos any more than you can ‘get’ a tornado or a serial killer. You can only stand back, knock-kneed and awestruck, humbled with fear.
    "My smile is stuck, I can’t go back to your frownland," he warbles through werewolf teeth on Frownland, the opening track. And for 28 songs he sinks those fangs into your brain and chews. You feel for The Magic Band, and boy, they must have been to have even remembered which bit of what song comes next. The tunes jump about like hyper kids with Ritalin grins. Tunes? More like attention deficit symphonies. Mad chattering rhythms, a dozen different time signatures in a song, random bits of blues, rock, folk and assorted musical perversions I couldn’t begin to categorize. Random guitar wails. Gratuitous sax. And over all of it in his importuning multi-octave growl, the insistent babbling insanity of the Captain’s stream of incontinence, all fast and bulbous squids eating dough in polyethylene bags, lipstick Kleenex and mice toes scampering, girls named bimbo limbo spam, and dank drum and dung dust.
     I gave Trout Mask Replica the recommended five listens. I still couldn’t hum a single tune. Although one song that got wedged in a loose flapping fold of my brain was The Blimp, which features a hysterical loudhailer voice intoning "The tits, the tits, the blimp, the blimp, the mothership" over a demented, repetitive hurdy gurdy riff.
    Beefheart buffs will know the legends. How the Captain, aka Don Van Vliet, had his musicians rehearse for a year to translate the simmering visions in his skull into something approaching actual songs, then recorded 20 of them in one day. How he wouldn’t let them eat or sleep or leave his house. How he made them wear dresses and subjected them to endless hours of group therapy. How he brought Frank Zappa in as producer, and how Zappa recognized instantly an evil genius at work, and how he basically left Beefheart to get on with making his magnum opus of madness. You wonder how the band put up with his abuse, but would you mess with a man who could hit High C while simultaneously blowing on two saxophones?
    Whether the Captain was a real deal loony tune, crazy like a fox or simply, as Lester Bangs suggested, ‘the only true Dadaist in rock’ doesn’t really matter. Trout Mask Replica stands alone, a jabbering beacon at the far edges of our universe, pulsing its arrhythmic logorrhea through bursts of static, warning of the epic weirdness and flights of madness that lurk in the human mind.
    "The tits, the tits. The blimp, the blimp." The horror, the horror.


  1. Great review. I'm not sure why so many people consider this a work of genius or something similar. It's nonsensical musically and artistically. If a toddler throwing a tantrum in a cluttered room and breaking everything it can reach while howling at the top of its voice is genius, then I would understand. Interesting performance art though.

  2. Having said that, it does grow on you like some strange fungus. I find myself putting it on again and again, against all better judgement. Even listening to it in the headphones on public transport, people seem to sense something amiss and edge away from you.