"No Instruction Sheet": Trout Mask Replica's Unfathomable Origin Story
If you were a teenager who liked freaky stuff, on a June day in 1969 you could bicycle down to your local record store and buy a brand-new, shrink-wrapped album with a man covering his entire face with an actual fish head on the cover. A double-LP set, it cost your whole month's paper route money, but there was something about the guys on the back-cover photo, who looked like refugees from a down-at-the-heels science fiction carnival, with hair longer than your dad would ever let you grow, that made you willing to go for broke. Rolling Stone
's review had called this very album "the most unusual and challenging musical experience you'll have this year," throwing out names of musicians of whom you'd never heard, including Don Cherry
, Ed Blackwell
, Albert Ayler
, and Cecil Taylor
(Your local record store's paltry jazz section started and stopped at the Dave Brubeck
Quartet's Time Out
.) As soon as you got home, having held on to your handlebar with one hand and clutched your new album to your chest with the other hand the whole unsteady ride, you rushed into the living room, flung off your mom's Dean Martin LP from the family turntable and slapped down side one of Captain Beefheart
and His Magic Band's Trout Mask Replica
On the first track, two guitarists, one bassist, and a drummer played a sort of clanging, rhythmic tune, with the guitars slightly out of sync until, seven seconds in, an angry-sounding, gravelly-voiced man started yelling a microphone, "My smile is stuck" but it sure didn't sound like he was smiling. Then, a few seconds later, the musicians gave up trying to keep time with each other and each went whirling away like four separate music boxes that had gotten caught in a lawn mower, but still played. They sounded like the "black jagged shadows" this (was it?) Captain Beefheart evoked irately. Good thing there was a lyric sheet, so you could tell that, despite Beefheart and His Magic Band's apparent aversion to melody, he was singing a basically corny set of 1969 clichés about brotherhood: Take my hand 'n come with me
It's not too late for you
If it's not too late for me
To find my homeland
Thing was, no way did you want to take this singer, this hollerer's, hand. The whole group emanated brittle metallic unhingedness. Until now, the craziest song you'd heard was The Beatles
's "Helter Skelter" on another double-LP that had eaten up your paper route money last Christmasbut when you came down to it, that song sounded like four reasonable people doing their best impression of hard-rocking crazies; whereas Captain Beefheart actually sounded like he'd sandpapered his throat while His Magic Band tried to tear a hole in your eardrum with their strum-drumming. A hole...and that's when your dad bellowed, "Turn off that noise!"and for once, even though you wanted to keep listening, you had to go along with him. Rolling Stone
's rave review had been penned by none other than a twenty-one year-old Lester Bangs. Although Bangs rightfully asserted, in 1980, that Trout Mask Replica
"was not even 'ahead' of its time in 1969. Then and now, it stands outside time, trends, fads, hypes, the rise and fall of whole genres," the album nonetheless bears some traces of its late '60s origins. These traces include the gatefold's psychedelic hues; a man's voice saying, out of nowhere, apropos of nothing, "Ha, ha, that's right, just DIG it," in one song; a few of the era's ubiquitous paens to woman-as-earth-goddess "When she walks flowers surround her / Let their nectar come in to the air around her"that must have driven at least some actual women bonkers. But the strongest trace of 1969 lies in the album's having been "made" doesn't seem strong enough try summoned from the depths
at all, let alone under the imprimatur of a major record label, Warner Bros. Records.
Actually, the album came out on Straight, a record label run by Frank Zappa
and his manager Herb Cohen and distributed by Warner Bros. How did this business relationship come to be? By the late 1960s, especially after the success of Easy Rider
and its soundtrack, the suits in the entertainment industry had little grip on what product the huge youth market wanted to watch and hear. The suits, in this case Warner's Mo Ostin, turned for some formal and informal A&R to non-suits like Zappa, who wereor seemed closer to the audience they hoped to reach. Zappa used his freedom to sign uncommercial "outsider" acts from among his L.A. contacts. He evidently included Beefheart in this "outsider" category, despite the latter's having made Safe as Milk
, a 1967 psychedelic blues-rock album, that, thanks to John Peel's imprimatur and enthusiasm, had given Beefheart and His Magic Band some real popularity in the U.K. Nevertheless Zappa must have sensed that his old friend Don Van Vliet
)the two, born within a few weeks of each other in the winter of 1940-41, had spent their teenage-hood in the Lancaster Country, the Mojave desert country north of L.A.chafed at the genre restrictions of psychedelic rock and was ready to let his avant-garde freak-flag fly. Zappa then committed one of popular music's great acts of cultural subversion by giving Van Vliet the opportunity to make a seventy-eight-minute double album with no creative restrictions.
Zappa doesn't seem to have gotten, or asked for, much money, if any, from his corporate sponsors to fund Trout Mask Replica
's months-long gestation. By all accounts, the band and its leader, living in a state of cult-like semi-penury in a house in the L.A. suburb of Woodland Hills, subsisted on checks from Van Vliet's mother and contributions from guitarist Bill Harkleroad (Zoot Horn Rollo)'s college fund. At one point, Zappa bailed out members of the band after they'd been busted for shoplifting food. The band's comparative pennilessness makes the resulting two-disc collision of Modernist classical music, "New Thing" jazz, blues (holler, acoustic, and electric), spoken word art, and other genres I may not have divined despite hundreds of listens, all the more unlikely. I've complimented the late Zappa on his business sense, but I'm sure he knew how fundamentally uncommercial, or even anti-commercial, an album Trout Mask
was because he'd produced it. The four-piece band of young, though experienced, musicians play songs that throw rock convention out the window for musical structures that had more in common with Igor Stravinsky's Modernist-era oeuvre than with, say, then-contemporaries Ten Years After
's blues grooves.
Everyone who...experiences Trout Mask Replica
recognizes it as a high-impact collision of musical styles and approaches, but different listeners tend to fixate on different aspects of the album's sound. In 1980, Bangs conceived of Trout Mask
in terms of what was, by then, already a bygone epoch in jazz history: "Beefheart and his unearthly looking cabal of spazmo henchmen seemed effortlessly to cook up the so-far still definitive statement on the possibilities for some common ground...on which raunch rock, slide-slinging Delta blues, and post-Coltrane/Shepp/Ayler free jazz might consecrate a shakedown together." Statements like this sound great, but despite Beefheart and His Magic Band's mastery of the Delta blues, there's only one blues song with instrumental backing, "China Pig," on the album. Trout Mask's instrumental tracks incorporate blues elements, just as they, for a few seconds, quote note-for-note from a song on non
-free-jazzer Miles Davis
's Sketches of Spain
("Sugar 'n Spikes"), but these elements function more as ingredients for Van Vliet's compositional blender than as genres for entire songs.
I can only imagine the ghosts of Bangs and Van Vliet chuckling in ghoulish antiphony when Trout Mask Replica
was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress in 2011 among the twenty-five works named annually as "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." Like Bangs, the government musicologists tasked with writing the album up see Trout Mask
as a mélange-meltdown of a record: "This unclassifiable melding of country, blues, folk and free jazz filtered through Captain Beefheart's feverishly inventive imagination remains without precedent in its striking sonic and lyrical originality." Neither of these elements for Van Vliet's Blender mentions Modernist classical music. Nor is the work of Steve Reich
mentioned, although Van Vliet quotes directly from his Reich's first recorded piece, the tape-loop experiment "Come Out," on Trout Mask Replica
's raging blues-rocker, "Moonlight on Vermont."
Thanks to drummer and uncredited co-arranger John French
(Drumbo)'s keen memory, we have a fairly good, ahem, record of what LPs to which Van Vliet, and perhaps the Magic Band also, actually listened throughout Troust Mask's
gestation: "Don played albums a lot. Mostly jazz and blues but some surprises. One night, I walked in to the sound of live circus music! Joe Henderson
, Charles Lloyd
, John Handy
, Miles Davis
(Sketches Of Spain
), John Lee Hooker
, Muddy Waters
, Howlin' Wolf
, Son House
, Lightnin' Hopkins
, Lightnin' Slim
, Wes Montgomery
, and Gabor Szabo
were a few of the artists I remember him playing." French also recalls that "Don had a small record collection consisting of his favorites. Eric Dolphy
, John Coltrane
, Ornette Coleman
, Archie Shepp
(not much), Horace Silver
, and the blues players [including those just listed and] Son House
(his favorite at the time ). He [also] had some Bob Dylan
, The Rolling Stones
, a few [by] The Beatles
, Tina Turner ([he] loved her voice), and then some electronic music." According Mike Barnes's Beefheart bio, the "electronic music" included records by Steve Reich, whose super-repetitive tape-loop composition "Come Out" Van Vliet enjoyed playing for the GTOs (an L.A.-scene all-female group assembled by Zappa to record on Straight) after they'd smoked copious amounts of pot.
Having spent more time than I care to admit immersed the history of Trout Mask Replica
's gestation and recordingwith the help of composer and Professor of Music at the Syracuse University Strasbourg Center Samuel Andreyev's recent, in-depth interviews with the Magic BandI think it helps to map out the album's temporal stages rather than to conceive of Trout Mask Replica
as a madman's goulash of styles dropped in the pot together at once. I'm also less interested the question of the album's relation to jazz per se
than I was when I started. In a way, Van Vliet's approach to saxophone is a red herring for those fascinated by jazz and Trout Mask Replica
, whose songs' composition and arrangement (the latter task shared with the Magic Band), the on-the-spot creation of its lyrics, and his vocal delivery of those lyrics in the studio, were all, to some extent, improvisatory. The album features many different kinds of improvisation, but they happen on different time-frames: the songs came together through a highly idiosyncratic, but essentially improvisatory, process; but once the band had those songs down, the musicians rehearsed them so incessantly, over a period of months, that they became the world's only experts at playing them. Beefheart's horn playing and vocal delivery, on the other hand, were improvised on the spot in the recording studio.
In a way, Trout Mask Replica
combines two related-but-distinct related albumsone rigidly formal, if not rote (the Magic Band) and the other howling-at-the-moon style uncontrolled (Van Vliet). In March, 1969, the album was recorded over two different sessions at Whitney Studios in Glendale: the Magic Band's instrumental parts first, and, a few days later, Van Vliet's vocals and horn parts. ("Moonlight on Vermont" and "Veteran's Day Poppy" had already recorded in 1968 Sunset Sound Recorders.) It's passed into Beefheart lore that, during his recording session, Van Vliet recorded his vocal and saxophone parts without headphones, and so, apparently with little regard for the Magic Band's exhaustively and obsessively rehearsed musical tracks. However, French downplays this detail's significance: "Oh, [Van Vliet] was in synch quite often, I thought.... The studio wasn't very good, so the leakage was probably sufficient" for Van Vliet to hear the instrumental tracks without the aid of headphones.
The two albums, or two halves of one album, don't always fit together easily. I don't think Trout Mask Replica
sounds like noise, but I sympathize with those who do, at least on the first few listens. As bassist Mark Boston
(Rockette Morton) describes them, "the songs sound like two or three different songs playing together at the same time." Rehearsal tapes of the Magic Band running through almost the entire album, on Revenant's Beefheart boxed set, Grow Fins: Rarities 1965 1982
, make it easier to the hear the musicians' separate parts in all their wild complexity. They also show the Magic Band members had memorized their parts down to the note well before the recording session. In fact, I would take Boston's "two or three different songs...at the same time" and multiply those numbers to twelve or fifteen songs. These instrumental tracks are exceptionally dense for a rock albumand that's before
Beefheart recorded his vocals over them in a separate session. (Readers familiar with the album may have the same question I asked French: which guitarist is located in which channel of the stereo mix? His answer was unequivocal: "Bill [Harkleroad] / Left, Jeff [Cotton] / Right.")
As critic Robert Palmer points out, Trout Mask Replica
's songs are characterized by "[u]nequal phrase lengths, shifting meters, and rhythms that change radically every few lines [to] keep the unwary listener perpetually off balance." The best explanation I've seen of how a Trout Mask
song functions appears on Andreyev's online tutorial on "Frownland." Andreyev maps out how each song contains many mini-songshe calls them "blocks," but other most of the musicians use the term "riffs"which change at intervals of roughly twenty to thirty seconds. (Andreyev and his Magic Band interviewees don't always share the same vocabulary: for Andreyev, "blocks" refers to "entire complexes of riffs played together.") Each shift block to block may be accompanied by a change of key, tempo, or other musical element; but to complicate things further, within each new musical block the musicians may be playing at different tempos, et al. For instance, Andreyev points out that in the beginning of "Frownland," "guitar 1, bass, and drums all play a 7-beat phrase"; while the second guitar "plays a 5-beat phrase in a different tempo." It's no wonder our fictional teenage listener was thrown off by the album's opening.
The shifts of mood and genre from song to song on side one function as a macro version of the shifts within
most of the album's songs. Langdon Winner actually counted out the shifts between blocks or riffs in one song: "In the two and a half minutes of the instrumental 'Hair Pie: Bake 2,' for instance, there are no fewer than fourteen separate beats and melodies quickly introduced, briefly run, and abruptly junked. Throughout the whole album, just when you think you've begun to groove on something, just when your toe starts tapping, it's vanished and something else has taken its place." How did Van Vliet and the Magic Band arrive at such an innovative or, depending on your sensibility, utterly unhinged sound? French opines, "Actually, I find little on Trout Mask
that sounds like a 'blues part.' I find an overall abstract relationship to blues in much of the music, due to Don's influences in youth, but I also find bits of jazz influence, and even classical influences all thrown together."
The music itself demonstrates that Van Vliet moved away from identifying himself as a bluesman and began to identify himself with originators of twentieth-century avant-garde classical music and avant-garde jazz. Guitarist Jeff Cotton (Antennae Jimmy Semens) remembers Van Vliet playing German electronic composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, a precursor to Reich, for the band. As with Reich, I don't think Stockhausen influenced Van Vliet in the strict sense; but latter's music may have freed Beefheart up to find different models for his music than rock or even his beloved Delta blues allowed and provided him with the model of an avant-garde composer. He didn't abandon Delta blues, whose elastic sense of rhythm served his compositional purposes, in a musical sense, but I believe he looked beyond the bluesand definitely beyond late '60s rockfor twentieth-century composers to serve as models for his new music.
One of these models included Stravinsky
, to whom, French remembers, Van Vliet compared himself. (If you can't stomach the comparison, just skip this paragraph.) Assuming Van Vliet actually listened to Stravinsky's Modernist-era compositions and didn't just seek to emulate The Rite of Spring
's succès de scandale
, the latter composer had much to offer the former on a musical level. I learned from Andreyev that Stravinsky eschewed the traditional notion of development in classical music, where the piece takes a listener on a kind of voyage, and each musical motif flows out the one before, and latter motifs return to earlier ones. Stravinsky rejected this kind of development for compositions that are stitched together musically. The model is less that of a (temporal) voyage than a (visual) mosaic. In his Modernist compositions, no one idea carries through to the end; the whole thrust of his pieces is anti-organic. If you've read my earlier description of Van Vliet's Trout Mask
songs as stringing discrete, often unrelated riffs together, this sketch of Stravinsky's principles as a composer hints at why the former might have compared himself to the latter, albeit in a megalomaniac gesture.
Although I haven't found any evidence that a recording of Stravinsky's "Les Noces" (1923), a ballet and orchestral work for percussion, pianists, chorus, and vocal soloists, to which Andreyev referred me, was lying around the so-called "Trout Mask House" in Woodland Hills, California, after listening to the piece I understood better why Van Vliet would cast himself as a sixties Stravinsky. In "Les Noces," the modernist composer stays just this side of cacophony: no sooner does Stravinsky introduce a musical through-line then he disrupts it. Listen to the Pokrovsky Ensemble's 1994 recording of this piece and you'll find some of the most Trout Mask
-y sounding music this side of Archie Shepp
Another, more then-recent composer and jazz musician who I'm certain served as a model for Van Vliet was Eric Dolphy
, whose Out to Lunch
(1964) deconstructs the notion of a "song" while it gives its sidemenFreddie Hubbard
, Tony Williams
, Richard Davis
, and Bobby Hutcherson
the freedom to play their instruments non-traditionally as when Hutcherson momentarily takes on the drummer's role by hitting the vibraphone stand with his mallet. As jazz critic Brian Morton writes (italics mine): "Dolphy is an 'episodic' player, like an obsessive tale-spinner who shifts from 'reminds me of' to 'and then there was the time when,' not quite non sequiturs but not quite obviously connected either. He was an instant composer rather than a strict improviser
; bebop had established the pattern of transforming songs in this way; Dolphy merely extended the habit, doing it four or five times in a single cut
This description of Dolphy's compositional style sounds not only like a less formal version of Stravinsky's Modernism, it also bears a similarity to the plethora of beats and melodies tried out and discarded, non-sequitur style, in Van Vliet's songs. To be sure, Dolphy was a far, far more accomplished and well-trained composer and player than Van Vliet, but since there are precious few contemporary models for Trout Mask Replica
's instrumental sections, I'm going willing to draw a pretty straight line between Out to Lunch
and Beefheart. Of course, the obvious difference between Stravinsky's compositions and Dolphy's is that the former were composed using musical notation that enables musicians to play his Modernist work almost a century later; whereas Out to Lunch
's compositions, even if Dolphy brought charts to the session, evolved right there in the studio by means of improvisation. The album's liner notes reveal that Dolphy "wanted a free date to begin with." Van Vliet didn't give the Magic Band the freedom that Dolphy gave Williams and the rest of his collaborators, but something of Out to Lunch
's non-sequitur composition style makes it into the former's songs for Trout Mask Replica
To try out these new models in Modernist classical music, electronic music, and progressive jazz, Van Vliet needed a band pliant enough not to question his increasingly unconventional musical worldviewor any other aspect of his authority. Van Vliet began to establish that control in 1968 by kicking two long-time members of His Magic Band, Jerry Handley and Alex St. Clair, or letting them quit. Both were closer to Van Vliet's age and needed to make a living by playing with a touring band, while Van Vliet had no interest in playing live. Instead, he moved into 4295 Ensenada Drive, Woodland Hills, in the San Fernando Valley, with the two remaining, younger band members, drummer French and guitarist Cotton, to work on his double-album for Straight. Soon, he recruited two other younger players, guitarist Harkleroad, then ensconced in an acid cult, and bassist Boston. As it happened, this particular group of musicians had grown up together in the small musical world of Lancaster County and played together in high school in various mid-to late-60s bands, including Blues in a Bottle. Van Vliet "picked the best musicians he could find from the desert," Cotton asserts half a century later. (Van Vliet's cousin, Victor Hayden
[The Mascara Snake] was more of an interloper in the sessions and never earned the respect or friendship of the core Lancaster County band members.)
As Cotton remembers, "Once he got rid of [Handley and St. Clair], anything was fair game. He had a bunch of young kids" implying that Van Vliet had assembled a group it would easier to manipulate. One of the youngest band members, Harkleroad, remembers grooving out to Safe as Milk
as a teenager when it came out, so that being asked to join the band may have fulfilled a teenager's musical hero-worship fantasies. He was still just barely out of teens though: when Van Vliet introduced the band to Abstract Expressionism and Pop Arta very Beefheart-like way to preparing them to play his musicHarkleroad remembers, "These [artists' names] were all new...to me, the only [names] I knew were baseball players like Sandy Koufax." I imagine that Harkleroad and some other members of newly-constituted Magic Band would probably have been happy to play freaky-but-accessible psychedelic blues rock and to get out of the Woodland House to play gigs, meet some fans. They probably could have made some money, especially on the U.K. circuit. But Van Vliet didn't want to tour \he even turned down the chance to play Woodstockand he wanted to make a record totally different from Safe as Milk
In order to create a sound as far from blues-rock as he could get, even with the two guitars, bass, and drums line-up, Van Vliet emerges, after even a cursory amount of research, as a wildly insecure, power-tripping, saxophone-strangling, credit-hogging, check-from-your-mother-cashing prodigy and/or cult leader. He compared himself, as we've already learned, to Stravinsky; decades later, Cotton compared him to Charles Manson in his mode of exercising control over the band. (No one knows seems to know what Van Vliet and Manson talked about when they met briefly, in the summer of 1968, at the Fountain of the World compound in Simi Valley.) Both comparisons have real validity and point to contradiction as the album's generative impulse. According to Winner, who penned the single most insightful sentence about Trout Mask Replica
: "At the center of all the delightfully unrestrained playfulness is an awesome, if not downright dangerous, degree of control
This contradiction absolutely defines the album. The playfulness, as we've seen, was reserved for his own horn solos and lyrics; while the Magic Band had to learn their parts note-for-note. In his memoir of the Beefheart years, French recalls, "Almost everything recorded by [Van Vliet] was intuitively performed, whereas [the Magic Band] could seldom do anything intuitively, because it took a constant intellectual process just to keep from getting lost in the complexity
, much less being able to play anything with spontaneity" (italics French's). How did Van Vliet manage to get some of the most avant-garde music ever heard in rock out of his head and into playable parts for his band, all without reading music or playing the instruments on which he "composed" the songs?
In fact, though he was loathe to admit it, Van Vliet was a self-taught musician whose insecurity about his ignorance of technical terminology caused him to lash out at his musicians for asking each other, say, what key a song was in. He couldn't "write" a song in a traditional sense, let alone twenty-eight of them in a day, which is how he later claimed to Rolling Stone
that he had composed Trout Mask Replica
. Van Vliet's deep dark secret was his need for an arranger and musical director, someone who would cobble together the proto-musical fragments he came up with into actual compositions, and then teach those compositions to the band. He needed a Billy Strayhorn
figurebut imagine if Duke Ellington
couldn't read music, and "wrote" his songs by whistling and pounding out impressionistic musical phrasings on instruments he couldn't actually play, while Strayhorn had to notate as best he could and then put the fragments together later. Ry Cooder
, who was in the Magic Band for a brief but key period in 1967, played that role on Safe As Milk
; while John French took over the helm for Trout Mask Replica
. Cotton imagined Cooder and Cotton's frustration with their arranger roles: "What do I gotta do, teach this guy music before he can even do his own song?"
Cotton himself acted as eager amanuensis on Trout Mask Replica
, as Van Vliet dictated his lyrics to the former apparently off to the top of his head, in his own version of what Allen Ginsberg
called Jack Kerouac's "spontaneous bop prosody," and then revised the lyrics aurally by having Cotton read them back to him twenty, fifty timesenough to drive the rest of the band crazy. On Trout Mask Replica
, Cotton recites "Pena" in a demented cartoon character voice, with passages such as "Smoke billowing up from between her legs / Made me vomit beautifully," while Van Vliet and Hayden makes inchoate noises behind him. For those with the patience to read that far, I'll return to the improvisatory nature of the album's lyrics near the end of this essay.
The day-to-day, recursive, seemingly endless process by which the album came together, part by part by part, may have been part of Van Vliet's possessiveness of his own creation even if he needed his musicians to bring those creations into being. Decades later, Harkleroad speculated, "to have to told us directly what to play would have given us way too much control over the music. So he kept control by waiting until it sounded like something he liked, rather than something he intended
" (my italics). This process sounds, in fact, like the reverse-process of most composers, who start, one assumes, with an intention of some kind and work toward a finished product that pleases them. There's almost a purpose-built inefficiency in Van Vliet's process, especially when you consider that an album invents its own idiom as it goes along, Out to Lunch
, was recorded in a day, with perhaps one previous day given to rehearsal.
On the other hand, the process of composing Trout Mask Replica
took months. As French writes in his memoir, "Don was constantly writing, so there was seldom time to assimilate and process what he did efficiently. What's more, trying to learn all his ideas from whistled, sung, and sometimes clumsily played guitar parts took more time than it should. Don was a natural percussionist with a great sense of time, and piano is considered a percussion instrument. It all made sense." So one day, movers showed up with a piano covered with mirrors on the front, and, with some maneuvering, got the instrument into Ensenada Drive. In each of the Magic Band members' accounts, Van Vliet sat with French at the piano, an instrument Van Vliet, I repeat, did not know how to play
, and produced what to call them emanations? effusions? fragments? French, who spent untold hours with Van Vliet at the piano, calls them "amateurish poundings."
Harkleroad calls Van Vliet's process "musical sculpting." Without knowing it, Van Vliet's percussive composition style actually aligned with jazz pianist Mal Waldron
's contemporaneous experiments: in the liner notes to his 1969 piano trio album Free at Last
, Waldron introduced his latest work as "my meeting with free jazz.... Therefore, in this album you will hear me playing rhythmically instead of soloing on chord changes." Now, even though Van Vliet didn't know what a chord change was to save his life, he somehow intuited that the piano was the right instrument for him, as it was for Waldron, on which to make some avant-garde music by emphasizing rhythm.
Apparently, Van Vliet was inspired Zappa's practice of writing sheet music and having Ian Underwood play it back to him on the piano, although Van Vliet reversed the process. French sat with Van Vliet at the piano and transcribed the parts the latter wanted him to get on paper. From Boston's point of view, the process looked like this: Don would sit there and ramble away at the piano for hours, just playing. He didn't really know what he was doing, but every once in a while he'd get an interesting pattern and he'd say, "John, write this down," and play the same for a little bit. But then, he could never go back and play it again later. He'd play it long enough for John to write it down. Don would say, "That's the guitar part," and then he's say, "That's a bass part." That's how a lot of that stuff came together.
It must have been stressful for French to transcribe "parts" whose composer could only repeat them a limited number of times. In a post to the Beefheart fan website, the Radar Station, French elaborates on the process by which he and his bandmates helped create the songs they played: We did not "write" the music. The main source, the basis of all the material was always Van Vliet.... However, the arrangement, the composition, the manner in which parts went together and the determination of whether a part was playable or needed to be modified was almost always decided by band members. Once Don gave us what he considered "music" for a piece, it still had to be put together. It came to us unassembled, with no instruction sheet. That's why I am saying there is a lot of "us" in those songs.
When asked what kept the Magic Band going through what must have been frustrating musical circumstances, Boston replied, "Determination." I don't think it's coincidental that French puts "music" in quotation marks: evidently what Van Vliet was doing on the piano was closer to playing percussion than melody, and French not only had to note those percussive phrases using an eccentric form of musical notation, and turn that "music" into music (no quotation marks), and the process of teaching that music to the Magic Band and for them to assemble it must have required intense determination, to which the sixteen-plus-hour rehearsals attest. Because they lacked an "instruction sheet," the band's determination required an improvisatory method: how else would they put the pieces together?
I pestered French to take me through the steps of what he actually did as "transcriber" and I quote him at length here because his memories provide the closest we'll ever get to a blow-by-blow description of how the album's songs came together. French's memories reinforce what I've been calling both Van Vliet and the Magic Band's improvisatory compositional methods: The first piece I actually acted as transcriber was "Steal Softly Thru Snow," and after the first three sections, Don basically handed me the reins when I asked "How does the rest of this go together?" He said, "You know what to do."
The word "know" is the key word, because I didn't "know" what to do, but I decided to "try"that is, give it a go and trust my instincts. I've never actually looked at the original transcription of "Steal Softly" (which is the only one I have) and tried to make a record of the decisions I made in terms of what might be called an "arrangement," but I do recall at one point going to the next section of what he'd written and thinking, "This doesn't seem to be the best part to be 'next' in the arrangement."
I would then seek out what seemed to be the next logical section. Sometimes, I'd take a single piano riff and have everyone play the same part---i.e. [lyrics] "The black paper..." section of "Steal Softly." Other times, I would take different parts and put them together, as in [the lyrics] "Rain Grows Rain Bows..." and you can hear that each person is playing something that was played independently by Don, but seems to work together well. These were the kinds of decisions I made.
I'm struck here by how much autonomy Van Vliet gave French to assemble the different parts of this song for the players. In the end, however, French focuses less on what he'd surely be entitled to call his arrangement than on his ability put together parts that were "played independently by Don." That is to say, he gives Van Vliet the credit for composing the songs. The improvisation came when French, to use his terminology, assembled these disparate parts. These musical parts grate up against each other as often as they complement each other.
Van Vliet and His Magic Band, to the extent to which they internalized his aesthetic, weren't interested in popular songwriting in any traditional sense. Instead, to quote Morton on Dolphy, the Magic Band-musical group-mind put together parts that were "not quite non sequiturs but not quite obviously connected either." What happened when French brought those parts, with their idiosyncratic musical notation, to the other three band members? Apparently, he would teach each band member his own part for the song by ear, even though they could all read music, and then each would rehearse on his own. When they finally started to rehearse a particular song as a group, Harkleroad recalls being surprised at how much his band members' parts differed from his own: "That's your part?" He remembers "fighting through the two other rhythms," Cotton's guitar and Boston's bass, to make the song come together.
The notion of "fighting through...rhythms" instead of playing melodies suggests that Van Vliet's compositions had rhythm as their primary building block. Harkleroad remembers that, during the rehearsals, when Van Vliet's "music" became music, "everything was built from a rhythmic sense. Certainly it was that rhythmic element which has remained the biggest musical influence I have assimilated from that time [Trout Mask
rehearsals.] My feeling was that the actual notes were interchangeableit really wouldn't have mattered a whole lot as long as they created the same effect." The "effect" would have been the bandleader's imprimaturon the occasional times when he rehearsed with the group, and we've already established Van Vliet's lack of comfort with scales, notes, keys, melody, some of the key elements of traditional Western songwriting. Or, as French suggests, Van Vliet's "limitation of not grasping the concept of key signatures when it came to piano caused him to emphasize rhythm more in his compositions.... Most of the [Trout Mask
] stuff that he wrote without the aid of a piano ('Sugar n' Spikes,' 'Veterans Day Poppy,' [and] 'Moonlight on Vermont') has a recognizable key, so he instinctively knew when he created using his voice, whistling, and singing parts. But, on the piano, that instinct may well have been lost in the creative process. That being said, yes, Trout Mask Replica
is a rhythm- driven album in a sense." In his memoir, French recalls the specifically rhythmic influences on his playing at the time: "There was Delta blues influence, East Indian tabla, jazz (Elvin Jones
, Jack DeJohnette
mostly), and occasionally some ethnic music. It was during this time that I heard a compilation of field recordings of African rhythms, which contained a track with exactly the same beat that I had made up for the [earlier] Beefheart song 'Abba Zaba.'"
Influenced by former Magic Band member Alex Snouffer, the guitarists used much heavier-gauge strings than would have been typical for rock music at the time; and Van Vliet had them use metal picks and commanded that they play percussively, often in aggressive right-hand technique. (I'm less clear on what he wanted Mark Boston's bass parts to sound like, but it's obvious to anyone to plays the album that Boston is playing his instrument non-traditionally.) This emphasis on the percussive element of composition puts Van Vliet in line with Ornette Coleman
, of whose Atlantic-era albums critic Francis Davis writes, "Perhaps the trick of listening to [Coleman's] performances lies in an ability to hear rhythm as melody, the way he seems to do, and the way early jazz musicians did." I'm pretty sure Coleman had a greater technical ability to distinguish melody from rhythm than Van Vliet did, and that his epoch-changing choice to de-emphasize melody in his compositions, came from his musical philosophy to which he eventually gave the name of Harmolodics. (According to Harkleroad, Coleman and Van Vliet palled around together a bit in the early '70s.)
On a somewhat, but not entirely different, end of the spectrum 1950s and '60s American music lies James Brown
, who once asserted, "I had discovered that my strength was not in the horns, it was in the rhythm. I was hearing everything, even the guitars, like they were drums." In fact, critic Robert Christgau locates this shift in the same year Van Vliet and the Magic Band were creating Trout Mask Replica
: "in 1969, James Brown began to concern himself more and more exclusively with rhythmic distinctions." Unless there was a total embargo on playing the radio at the Trout Mask House, it would have been impossible to escape Brown's late '60s songs, which elevated a percussive groove and "feel" far over melody. Van Vliet, too, wanted his musicians, too, to play their guitars like drums, with lots of what the guitarists call "attack."
On "Ant Man Bee," for instance, you can hear the guitarists just laying into their strings playing very regimented, what sound to this ear like interlocking, rhythm guitar partswith an emphasis on rhythm. At same time, Van Vliet's voice, in one of his best vocal performances on the album, takes the real lead, starting with an almost maniacal toughness, "White ants runnin' / Black ants crawlin'"; and then transitions into a profound plaintiveness or even out-and-out petulance: "Why do yuh have t' do this / You've got t' let us free." Van Vliet couldn't play the piano; but what he could "play" is his own voice, and in the end its hard to tell whether the album's emphasis on rhythm comes out of a genuine primitivism related to Van Vliet's lack of ability to play the instrument of composition, or whether he chose to compose on an instrument he on which he literally pounded to discover his songs and thereby to align his music with rhythm-driven genres such as jazz and rhythm-and-blues.
By the time the musicians had learned their parts, according to French, "the whole group was playing intertwining rhythms." French doesn't use the term polyrhythmic
, but he could have, and the term certainly applies to texture of Trout Mask's songs. Having the guitarists take over so much of the songs' rhythmic aspect freed French, and possibly Boston, to play more melodically than they would on straightforward blues rock. "My favorite times," remembers French, "were writing out nearly impossible patterns and playing them. This isn't time-keeping drumming for the most part, it is more on the scale of melodic." The movement, in these last two paragraphs, from characterizing guitars as rhythm instruments and the drums as closer to a melody instrument show just how non- standard Van Vliet's compositions, with the help of the band to realize them, ultimately were. I return to Stravinsky's Modernist "Les Noces" as a precursor, because, in performance, the composition's piano, drums, and voices, have a percussive quality practically leaps out of the speakers.
In their occasional forays around Los Angeles in 1969, Van Vliet (who no doubt chose the destinations) and the band didn't attend classical music concerts, where they may not have been able to get in the door; but neither did they take part in the huge, youth-oriented rock scene. Almost every famous rock act on the national and international scenes must have played L.A. in 1969. Judging by the number of albums with '69 in their title (Aretha Franklin
's Soul '69
, et al) record labels and artists experienced 1969 as a watershed year in popular music. Instead, Van Vliet took his band to a retrospective of Salvador Dali's work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. This outing, French claims, " probably influenced all of us more than any other single event
" (my italics). I'll leave it to another writer to tease out the suggestion that Van Vliet used postmodern visual art as a means of training the Magic Band in the kind of music he wanted them to play. Probably my exclusive focus on musical composition in this essay is reductive, because Van Vliet's talents as poet, visual artist, and musician have never been more fused than on Trout Mask Replica
. The band's visit to the County Museum resulted in one of Trout Mask
's most profound flights of fancy, "Dali's Car," composed and transcribed by Van Vliet and French by candlelight and performed brilliantly by guitarists Harkleroad and Cotton on the album.
In addition to attending the Dali exhibit, the group went to quite a few live jazz shows at such storied, now-defunct venues Shelley's Manne Hole and The Lighthouse, by artists that included Ornette Coleman, The Crusaders
(then called the Jazz Crusaders), Gabor Szabo
, Rahsaan Roland Kirk
, and Yusef Lateef
. Now, these weren't only excellent groups to see live in the first place, they were all on fire in 196869. It's hard to figure out what albums each group was touring behind, because each released multiple albums during this period. Except for Coleman, all these artists were bringing then- popular styles and even songs into their repertoire, with results such as Roland Kirk's totally mind-melting "I Say a Little Prayer" (on Volunteered Slavery
) and Lateef's super-funky (how could it not be with Chuck Rainey
and Bernard Purdie
as his studio rhythm section?) album Yusef Lateef's Detroit Latitude 42° 30' Longitude 83°
One can only speculate about what kind of impact these jazz shows made on Van Vliet and the Magic Band. Van Vliet probably identified himself with jazz innovators such as Coleman. Whatever band he was playing with, Coleman emphasized dissonance and texture over tunefulness, in a way that probably gave Van Vliet permission, or re-informed the permission he'd already given himself, not to compromise on Trout Mask
. I suspect the line-up Coleman brought to L.A. included Dewey Redman
, Charlie Haden
, and then-adolescent Denardo Coleman
; and the elder Coleman probably busted out his violin and trumpet during the concert. These various forms of amateur-cum-primitive playing by Coleman junior and senior likely reinforced Van Vliet's own unorthodox horn playing, a subject I'll take up shortly.
John French wasn't so wild about Coleman; rather, he liked the Jazz Crusaders' performance most of all. However, French's memories of watching specific musicians show just how close the Trout Mask House crew got to some of the era's great players. Anyone interested in the impact of '60s jazz on Mask Replica
should start with French's very detailed memories of the live shows the Magic Band and its leader saw: Don would see a drummer do something, and say, "You should try that," but most of the time I just was affected by the amount of study that went into being able to play that well. We both were really impressed by Yusef Lateef's drummer, Roy Brooks, who did the sort of open/close high-hat hit where one hits the high-hat just before closing, it getting a kind of "chuff" sound. Also, he had tubes fastened to the toms and would blow air while he was playing to change the pitch.
In this memory, Van Vliet, the artist of immediacy, fixates on Brooks's sound, while French, the drummer and de-facto arranger tasked with giving shape to his leader's piano-ramblings, focuses on the labor behind Brooks's mastery. Evidently, French sat close enough to Rahsaan Roland Kirk to see that he seemed to have some way to lock his keys when he was play two or three horns. He had this sort of cane on casters that was for all his paraphernalia, such as his "nose flute" which looked like a child's song flute with the mouth pieces rounded or whittled. Everything on that cane was wrapped with common masking tape, and it looked horrendous and completely captivating all at the same time.
Kirk's horn playing was virtuosic, while Van Vliet's was "horrendous and completely captivating" and some listeners would stop at "horrendous." Certainly the inclusion of the following sentence in Trout Mask
's musical credits, "Captain Beefheart plays tenor and soprano sax simultaneously on 'Ant Man Bee,'" is tantamount to an admission of having been influenced by Kirkand for Van Vliet, who liked to consider himself sui generis
in every possible way, that note explicitly and uncharacteristicallytips his hat to Kirk, the master.
By shifting to a discussion Van Vliet as saxophonist and poet-singer, I'm also shifting toward the day he recorded his overdubs, after a previous recording sessionduring which Zappa gave the Magic Band what its players consider, even decades later, to have been scandalously little time to lay down their instrumental parts. Nevertheless, because Trout Mask House was saturated with authoritarianism, fear, and compliance enforced by Van Vliet's dreaded "band talks" the band members were able to knock out two nearly-identical takes of the all of the album's musicexcluding such vérité tracks as "Hair Pie, Bake 1" or Van Vliet's a- cappela tracks, such as "Orange Claw Hammer" in something like four hours
Van Vliet, who almost never rehearsed his vocals or horn parts with the band, was particularly tuned in to contemporary jazz when brewed up Trout Mask Replica
; whereas the blues element goes back to his earliest work. Certainly, Van Vliet's discordant, skreaking-and-skronking alto and saxophone solos are the album's most obviously jazz-like element, and they are probably what most listeners think of when they hear "Beefheart and jazz." All of the 1960s-era "New Thing" saxophone players, to quote from Iain Anderson's book on the movement, "employed an array of highly distorted tonal mannerisms such as shrieks, growls, and other noise elements in the high and low registers to increase the dramatic and emotional tension" and whose "unbridled dissonance and unpredictable leaps and turns" challenged many listeners' ears in the early to mid-60s. Even now, your local Starbucks isn't likely to play Coltrane's Live in Seattle
while you wait for your chai latte.
Anderson's descriptors, and particularly his emphasis on "noise elements," also describe Van Vliet's saxophone playingor they describe his aspirations as a player since, unlike the above named musicians, he did not have tradition, in the broadest sense, to fall back on. Dolphy could play, as Miles Davis famously groused, like someone was stepping on his foot; but Dolphy, on bass clarinet, and bassist Richard Davis could offer up a reverential take of Duke Ellington
's "Come Sunday" that makes you feel like you're in jazz church. Whether or not Van Vliet wanted to play with such control, he simply didn't have the chops to do it.
By "chops," I refer specifically to his saxophone playing, because if you count his blues harp skills and his control over his own croaker of a voice, Van Vliet had a lot to offer, musically. By the time he and the Magic Band recorded Trout Mask
, however, Van Vliet was still a neophyte on the saxophone. Van Vliet had received his first horn, as soprano saxophone, as a gift from French and Cotton in 1968 before the band's European tour. Cotton also gave Van Vliet two saxophone lessons, and emphasizes that those were all
the lessons Van Vliet got. Maybe two lessons were all Van Vliet needed to unleash his passions on the world. Van Vliet was not a highly trained musician who made a conscious choice to swerve into "unbridled dissonance." His barely-bridled playing was a form of highly expressive, often frenetic breathing into his horn, or as he liked to call it, his "breather apparatus." As Harkleroad says in what I'm not sure is a complimentVan Vliet "could push a lot of air through" his saxophones.
On days when I enjoy Van Vliet's soloing on Trout Mask Replica
, I want to rename the album Joy of a Toy
, after the Ornette Coleman
song of course, because you can almost feel Van Vliet's excitement when he opened that first horn case a yearor less before. Cotton compares Van Vliet's saxophone playing to "a little kid put in a sandbox with all these toys." Van Vliet's best solos, or effusions, or whatever you want to call them, are so infused with the joy of discovering, as on "Wild Life," that he can play even a simple pattern, that his untutoredness becomes its own virtue. Bangs, punk before there was punk, might even have considered those two lessons too much. Beefheart's great champion also celebrated long-lost garage bands like The Shaggs: "They can't play a lick! But mainly they got the right attitude." Bangs also spurned New Wave bands who had bothered to learn to play their instruments, "a process," he called, "as ineluctable as the putrefaction of a corpse."
Bangs articulates a philosophy which I suspect, Van Vliet, who liked to sneer, "Scales are for fishes," shared: that the ability to play one's instrument in any conventional sense, actually gets in the way of expressing "attitude," or whatever name you give the musical equivalent of unmediated personality may be. Even Coleman who really was punk before there was punk tested the endurance of even his most hard-core defenders with what one reviewer calls his "idiosyncratic, untutored violin playing, which sparked derision when he picked up the instrument in the [mid] '60s." Certainly Coleman had more underlying musical knowledge that Van Vliet when he began playing violin, but he wanted to play instrument his own way to express attitude, as it were, by scraping his bow across the strings with a tender abrasiveness all his own.
At other times, I agree with the club-goer who, after hearing Van Vliet play his saxophone live circa 1975, exclaimed to John French, "I didn't buy that psychedelic sax bullshit for one instant." During these less charitable moods, what bothers me about his playing is not its lack of almost any formal control, but its solipsistic, delusory megalomania. Van Vliet eschewed the very notions of influence and likeness, telling one interviewer, "I think I sound more like a whale or a dolphin than I do John Coltrane
." I don't buy it. I think when he played his horn, he genuinely believed he sounded like Coleman, Ayler, and other free jazz greats. I asked French, who watched fans stream out of American concert halls during his bandleader's horn solos, whether Van Vliet considered himself alongside the great originator-figures of progressive jazz. French's answer: "I think [Don] was pretty much convinced that he was one of the great saxophonists of jazz.... I recall his rehearsing in the living room when he was able to buy a couple of horns. He would play, but it was always just loud and sort of pointless. He once told me 'all I need is a soprano and a hit of LSD to be able to play like that...' [W]e were listening to John Coltrane
! I thought, 'No, it probably takes more sacrifice.'"
Now, who knows how to interpret a fifty-year-old memory of a throwaway comment. However, if we trust French's caustic re-telling, Van Vliet is dead serious: he really thinks if he just trips out enough, he can short-circuit the hundreds of hours of practice Coltrane famously and punishingly put himself through throughbefore sets, after sets, even between sets, sometimes in a phone booth
if he couldn't find any other alcove in which to practice to attain the absolute mastery he sought and found. At this very time, in 1968-69, the Magic Band was practicing for sixteen hours straight to get Van Vliet's Trout Mask
compositions exactly to his liking. In light of both Coltrane' legacy and Van Vliet's own, highly skilled band's dedication to his music, the comment, "Scales are for fishes," sounds almost derogatory, or at least petulant, as if scoffed by a kid who doesn't want to practice because he doesn't have
I may never resolve my feelings about Van Vliet's alto and tenor performances, if you can call them that. Certain they're not what keeps me coming back to the album. I do know that, for better or for worse, Van Vliet's particular kind of free music depends on his the very childlike nature of his creativity. He liked making new things more than he liked practicing what he'd already made. I did ask French what is, to me, the million-dollar question about the recording of Trout Mask Replica
: why, if Van Vliet had power-tripped the Magic Band so mercilessly that they could play the album's songs on command, did he almost never rehearse with them? French's theory, decades later: I think the plan with the group was to get us so tight that he could sort of "skate through" his performances. Frank Sinatra was the same way as an actor. He always said, "You better get it in the first take, because that will be the best." Don hated rehearsing, going through lineswell, just about anything that involved repetition or discipline. He only wanted to constantly create, so all the tedious performance stuff was just "unnecessary" in his mind
This intense, almost overbearing creative fecundity makes Trout Mask Replica
a high water mark of maximalist art that it remains more than a half-century later. His musical method of establishing melodies and rhythms, junking those, restarting, results in an extraordinary musical density that's matched only by the word-mélanges over which he sings, chants screams, rumbles, and at times almost gargles. (By the way, I did not expect French to compare Van Vliet to consummate studio pro Sinatra when I asked this question!)
Sometimes Van Vliet's apparently pathological aversion to preparation and rehearsal resulted in wipeouts recorded for posterity, as when, on his saxophone solo near the end of "Pachuco Cadaver," Van Vliet just loses the tempo and sounds like he's playing over a whole different song. At such a moment, Frank Zappa
either abdicated his role as producer; or he didn't care about such wipeouts. Certainly the perfectionism apparent in Zappa's almost contemporaneously recorded Hot Rats
wasn't in evidence at this moment. (I think Zappa's real talent lay in sequencing of Trout Mask Replica
, whose track order foregrounds the album's immense variety of styles by juxtaposing them from song to song.) French's memory of this wipeout crosses over into a meditation on the role of chance in improvisatory music: The out-of-sync performance on "Pachuco Cadaver" is very evident, but this is the trouble with avant-garde: you never really know whether or not the artist is doing it on purpose or not. I was in the control room when he overdubbed the sax, and when he came through the door, he looked right at me and asked, "Was that OK?" I said, "Seemed OK, but you should listen to it." I figured that he would either hear it and nix it, or decide that's what he wanted. He left it, but I have no idea to this day if it was intentional. Surely, he heard it was out-of-sync. Whether or not Van Vliet sax wipeout was "intentional," I would guess he simply couldn't be bothered to re-record it.
In the dialectic of playfulness and control that Winner identifies at the heart of the album, playfulness, in the form of a basically carefree attitude to what another musician would call a mistake, won out in "Pachuco Cadaver." The maximalism to which I referred is also apparent in the sheer number of words Van Vliet crams into most songsand, apparently, he didn't have room for all of those words. For instance, at the end of "She's Too Much for My Mirror," he whines, on mic, "Shit I don't know how I'm gonna get that in there," while he apparently holds a piece of paper with more lyrics than he can get into the song. The papers on which Cotton hand-wrote, and then typed, Van Vliet's verbal effusions, have been lost in the sands of time; certainly they're not in any university archive. French reported to me, "Jeff says he typed a footlocker full of lyrics and stories." The pervasive sounds of someoneI assume Cotton pounding away at a manual typewriter pervade the background of the hanging-out-at-Trout-Mask-House tracks on Grow Fins
Just as French was drawn away from his drums for lengthy composition-sessions at the piano with Van Vliet, so did Cotton have to skimp on his guitar- playing in order to copy down and then declaim Van Vliet's on-the-spot lyrics. In an interview quoted in Mike Barnes's Beefheart biography, French remembers, "Jeff's role was to read the poetry, our role was to be excited by hearing it...dozens of times sometimes!" And sometimes the band members were excited. For instance, at the end of "Old Fart at Play"a talk-song which, by the way, contain Bangs's favorite Trout Mask
lyrics, "Momma was flattenin' lard / With her red enamel rollin' pin" you can hear a voice that's clearly not Van Vliet's gush, " Oh man, that's so heavy
." The voice is Cotton's, and evidently he meant his appreciation. Cotton's role involved copying down, typing, and reading Van Vliet's words ad nauseam
but not to helping Van Vliet shape those words. When I asked French if Van Vliet used the typescripts produced by Cotton as the basis for revision, he replied, "I don't recall much if any revision."
The LP of Trout Mask Replica
I bought as a teenager in the late 1980shaving driven twenty miles to a used record shop cool enough to have a copydid not contain a lyric sheet. So for decades I, along with many listeners, heard the album's words as they resonated in my own subjectivity. Compared to the lyrics of the pre-eminent literary singer-songwriters of his generationBob Dylan
, Joni Mitchell
, Leonard Cohen
Van Vliet's word-bombs don't sound labored-over. He was a far better verbal improviser than a musical improviser. French remembers, "Oh, he seemed to love the sounds of some words put together like a word puzzle. 'Neon Meate Dream Of A Octafish' has some very odd imagery like, 'Cavorts girdled in lathers of light
.' I think that's what it said. I always loved that particular one, especially the 'lathers of light.' If I'm wrong, don't correct me. I'm happy thinking of it that way." In fact, the lyric sheet reads, " Cavorts girdled 'n latters uh lite
," but I know what French meanssome of Van Vliet's lyrics can be so nonsensical, or a-sensical, they seem like a direct beam from his subjectivity to his listener's. I'm not sure I would even call that word-cluster an example of imagery per se, since the words don't appeal to the senses as much as they attempt literally to tickle or irritate (a favorite word of Van Vliet's when characterizing his own music) a listener's aural sense.
You can call Van Vliet a poet of word-play with an emphasis on pla
ylike a child smushing Play-Do around. His fascination with animals seems particularly child-like. Here is a partial list of animals in Trout Mask Replica
's songs: trout, worms, bluejay, mice, gophers, doves, big black shiny bug, white ice horse, beetle, thick black felt birds, white elephant escaped from zoo, bees, goldfish, crow, chicken, old puff horse, eagle, jack rabbit, oriole, horse, favorite dog, old spotted hog, china pig, one yellow butterfly, tiny green phosphorus worms, wild goose, cat, rooster, duck, bears, white ants, black ants, yella ants
, and brown ants
. A particularly spooky passage in the a-cappella song "Well" envisions a dystopian hybrid of bird and metal: Thick black felt birds uh flyin'
With capes of solid chrome
With feathers of solid chrome 'n beaks of solid bone'
'n bleach the air around them
White 'n cold well well
Van Vliet sing-chants this song from the very bottom of his register, and the resulting ominousness lends the song an air of unhinged, dirge-like prophecy.
Many Trout Mask
songs, barely-coherent as they sound, may have their roots in Van Vliet's childbood. The very title of "Pachuco Cadaver" evokes a period in Los Angeles history, the Zoot Suit Era of the 1940s, and '50s, about which Van Vliet would have heard on the radio from L.A, out in the high desert, and, most importantly, as a boy" pachuco
" belongs to his childhood and early adolescent word-hoard. I love the song's words, but they look strange written down from the lyric sheet, because on Trout Mask Replica
, Van Vliet intones, rather than sings them above the Magic Band's shuffle, his voice coming down so hard on the plosives, that "wears her PAST" sounds a little like "wears her PANTS"; but if there's no written record of the words, you don't have to choose: When she wears her bolero then she begin t' dance
All the pachucos start withold'n hands
When she drives her Chevy Sissy's don't dare t' glance
Yellow jackets 'n red debbles buzzin' round 'er hair hive ho
She wears her past like uh present
Take her fancy in the past
Her sedan skims along the floorboard
Her two pipes hummin' carbon cum
Got her wheel out of uh B-29 Bomber brodey knob amber
Spanish fringe 'n talcum tazzles FOREVER AMBER
Those last two words, which give Van Vliet an opportunity to groove out on some vowels, come from his childhood, too. At six or seven, he would have seen posters and heard radio ads for one of the biggest prestige pictures of 1947, 20th-Century Fox's Forever Amber
. I don't know if you can call "pachuco" and "FOREVER AMBER" allusions in the strict sense. When Dylan name-checks Bette Davis and Ezra Pound in "Desolation Row," he wants you know he's mixing high and low allusions to Western culture. On the other hand, Van Vliet's word-memories enter his verbal field for their sound more than anything. His lyrics "don't make sense" in the same way his beloved Abstract Impressionist painters' work reveled in pure gesture.
"Pachuco Cadaver" also lets one revisit the conundrum of whether Van Vliet both was or wasn't listening to the pre-recorded playback of the Magic Band when he recorded his vocals. The song starts out in a boogie-woogie groove that fits the words but doesn't necessarily provide a rhythm for them. Since Trout Mask
songs don't stay predictable for long, by about the 2:20 mark, "Pachuco Cadaver" morphs into an up-tempo instrumental punctuated by an infectious, repetitive guitar riff in both channels. Now, somewhere in there, Van Vliet's lyrics shift too, from a kind of surrealist-Bo Diddley
evocation of a mythic female figure to a frankly corny love-paean to her: Her lovin' makes me so happy
If I smiled I'd crack m' chin
Her eyes so peaceful thinks it's heaven she been
Her skin is smooth as the daisies
In the center where the sun shines in
Van Vliet's rhetorical transition doesn't quite coincide with the Magic Band's melodic and rhythmic shift -but at the same time it does, right at around "Her lovin," where the guitarists start their joyful riff. Does Van Vliet just get lucky? If so, his luck runs out when, to return to our earlier "Pachuco Cadaver" story, he seems to get nervous and lose his timing during his sax solo.
In his commentary on this song, French writes, "it is obvious to me that we knew nothing about when to stop on this piece." Anyone who delves into the history of Trout Mask Replica
won't know when to stop, either. There is always another rabbit hole down which to go when one tries to reconstruct those eight insular months on Ensenada Drive. What role did Zappa and recording engineer Dick Kunc really play in the album's composition and recording? Certainly their excessively dry mix of the album, which pleased none of the Magic Band members, suggests Zappa and Kunc were no more than interlopers, oras they evidently saw themselves, as ethnographersin the Trout Mask House. Zappa's Hot Rat
s, recorded in August '69 on a primitive 16-track console, was one of the first albums to put multiple mikes on the drum kit and then mix the drums across the stereo "picture." French's virtuosic drumming would have benefitted from such aural attention. Why did Zappa give Trout Mask Replica
such a lo-fi mix? Why did Van Vliet, in a fit of sadism, physically kick his collaborator, John French, down the stairs and out of Trout Mask House and thenindignity of indignities remove French's name from the album credits? (Third Man Records' reissue of Trout Mask Replica
finally restores written credit to "DRUMS: Drumbo.")
Shortly after the album's release, Van Vliet undertook to convince credulous interviewers that he'd written entire album in one day and then taught the Magic Band to play their instruments in order to learn his music. Langdon Winner and Lester Bangs each bought these falsehoods hook, line, and sinker and repeatedly wrote them into Beehfheart lore through the 1980s. The assertion that the Magic Band learned to play guitar, bass, and drums at Van Vliet's feet, though cruelly specious and, possibly, injurious to the Magic Band members' subsequent musical careers, contains, despite Van Vliet's monomania, the germ of a semi- truth. Trout Mask Replica
's essential conundrums still revolve around the musicians' transformationunder harsh duress but certainly with some level of pleasure and complicity from first-rate blues-rockers in the late '60s mold into avant-gardists of the highest order. Certainly sixteen-hour rehearsals, malnutrition, sleep deprivation, hashish, and good old late '60s-style cult mind control didn't hurt. The particulars of those epic composition sessions-cum-rehearsals mayand perhaps shouldremain lost to Time. Referring to the Magic Band, Cotton muses, "we all had to unlearn what we had learned in order to re-learn a new technique. So I appreciate that. I would never do it againbut I appreciate it."
This essay draws primarily on recent, unpublished interviews with the members of the Magic Band; otherwise there would be no reason for another essay on Trout Mask Replica
. Samuel Andreyev's recent, yet-to be-transcribed, interviews with these four musicians are absolutely seminal and deserve to be part of a book on Trout Mask Replica
. His interview with marimba player Art Tripp (Ed Marimba), who replaced Cotton in the Magic Band after Trout Mask Replica
, went live just as I prepared this essay for press; I look forward to watching it. The interviews, as well as Andreyev's "Frownland" tutorial, are available online here
. Any mis-transcriptions of the interviews are mine.
In addition, Professor Andreyev gave this neophyte a tutorial Modernist Music 101 in an almost three-hour transatlantic call, during which we also touched on the making of Trout Mask Replica
. Unlike Professor Andreyev, my layperson's knowledge of music is non-technical. Any errors in musical terminology are mine.
John "Drumbo" French generously allowed me to interview him via email in the spring of 2019. The pleasure was probably more mine than French's, since he has already been interviewed untold times about Trout Mask Replica
; what's more, he's written an exhaustive memoir and essential reference book, Beefheart: Through the Eyes of Magic
(Proper Music Publishing, 2010), with detailed commentary on almost every Beefheart song. My own interview with French will appear in its entirety on the Beefheart fan website, the Radar Station (www.beefheart.com) in the summer of 2020.
Quotations from Jeff Cotton and Mark Boston come from Andreyev's interviews with them. Quotations from Bill Harkleroad come either from Andreyev's two interviews with him or from his memoir, Lunar Notes: Zoot Horn Rollo's Captain Beefheart Experience
(SAF Publishing, 1998), as noted. Quotations from French come, as noted, from Andreyev's interviews with him, my interview with him, French's memoir, French's contributions to the Radar Station, and, occasionally, from interviews quoted in Mike Barnes's: Captain Beefheart: The Biography
(Revised Edition) (Omnibus Press, 2000).
Barnes's biography provides readers, to the extent possible, with a sense of daily life at Trout Mask House, has a useful song-by-song rundown of Trout Mask Replica
, and discusses Van Vliet's misinformation campaign about the album. Kevin Courrier's 2007 book on Trout Mask Replica
for Bloomsbury's 33½ series gets into deep cultural inspirations for the album, most of which are beyond the scope of this essay but are nonetheless of great interest to Beefheart-hounds and other lovers-slash-scholars of twentieth-century avant-garde music and art. I'm not sure any one bookor essay!can encompass the full socio-spiritual-psycho-musical phenomenon that is Trout Mask Replica
. Certainly Barnes's biography, Courrier's book, and French and Harkleroad's memoirs make excellent starting- points. But the best way to learn about Trout Mask Replica
will forever be: put the album on and TURN IT UP!
Frownland; The Dust Blows Forward 'N The Dust Blows Back; Dachau Blues; Ella Guru; Hair
Pie: Bake 1; Moonlight On Vermont; Pachuco Cadaver; Bill's Corpse; Sweet Sweet Bulbs
Neon Meate Dream Of A Octafish; China Pig; My Human Gets Me Blues; Dali's Car; Hair Pie:
Bake 2; Pena; Well; When Big Joan Sets Up; Fallin' Ditch; Sugar 'N Spikes; Ant Man Bee;
Orange Claw Hammer; Wild Life; She's Too Much For My Mirror; Hobo Chang Ba; The Blimp
(Mousetrapreplica); Steal Softly Thru Snow; Old Fart At Play; Veteran's Day Poppy
Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart), vocals, soprano and alto saxophone, musette, simran horn;
Bill Harkleroad (Zoot Horn Rollo), guitar, "glass finger guitar," flute on "Hobo Chang Ba"; Jeff
Cotton (Antennae Jimmy Semens), guitar, "steel appendage guitar," lead vocals on "Pena" and
"The Blimp," flesh horn on "Ella Guru"; Victor Morton (The Mascara Snake), bass clarinet and
backing vocal on "Ella Guru" and "Pena"; Mark Boston (Rockette Morton), bass, narration on
"Dachau Blues" and "Fallin' Ditch"; John French (Drumbo), drums, percussion, and co-arrangement (uncredited);
Frank Zappa, speaking voice from control booth on "Pena" and "The Blimp" (uncredited); Richard "Dick" Kunc,
speaking voice on "She's Too Much for My Mirror" (uncredited); The Mothers of Invention,
backing track on "The Blimp" (uncredited). Frank Zappa: Producer.