I was fourteen years old when I first heard Trout Mask Replica.
I would stop on my way home after school at Fat Angel Records, a small record shop that specialized in buying promos from DJs and reselling them. I would pour through their racks and, for a buck or two, spend my allowance on whatever seemed intriguing. One day I came home with a double LP with some exceptionally strange looking people on the cover and production credits by Frank Zappa, who was looming large on my musical horizon.
What I heard on those discs was wholly unlike anything I had ever heard before. This was difficult music, especially for someone who was still figuring out exactly what made the blues the blues, and how to tell good rock’n’roll from bad. This wasn’t bad, but I certainly didn’t understand it. It would take me a few years to even begin to get it, and in the meantime, the acquisition of his other records Strictly Personal and Safe as Milk, as well as his equally oblique followup Lick My Decals Off, Baby, would help.
Here’s what Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band had done on this LP:
- He fractured and reconstructed the basic structure of songs to not only form an entirely new musical architecture, but also to redefine the chemistry of the instrumentalists within a band.
- He took America’s primal musical form, the Rural Blues, and introduced it to the most outré expression of American modernism, Free Jazz, and united them through the common bond of contemporary rock and blues.
- He took the wildest lyrical expressions found in Blues, threw in some Beat influence, and produced the lyrical equivalent to Surrealism and Abstractionism, and then mixed in some puns. (“I knew you were under duress, I knew you were under your dress.”)
- He turned the natural gift of his voice into an instrument that could call up Howlin’ Wolf, a dissipated hobo, and the wails of the high desert all at once.
In the years following, he would go on to produce more brilliant music. Indeed, his only period of faltering would come when he tried to embrace mainstream culture, and the result was two LPs that sounded ironically stilted and pompous. In the early 80s he roared back into form with some of the best work of his career, but with critical success confronting commercial failure, as well as his declining health, all taking their toll, he abruptly retired from making music and concentrated on his painting.
And so the Captain has been saying farewell to us for a quarter century, and today, he said his final farewell. He is gone, irrevocably.
It has been said of the Velvet Underground that they only had 100 fans, but that each of those fans went out and formed a band. The same is true of Beefheart, and while the influence may not be as obvious, it is every bit as pervasive. Everybody from the B52s to ZZ Top owes him a debt. And while we fans may argue as to who was AS important (I would say the Velvets; many would say the Beatles, and one friend would even propose the Grateful Dead!), it can easily be maintained that there has never been anyone MORE important.
One more thing, and this is for the guitarists: We all love the Secret Chords. The unique structure of the guitar fretboard allows for the construction of certain chords that fall well outside the instruction books, but that possess an arcane and unique beauty. I have been lucky enough in my decades of playing to have found two of them. But the most beautiful one of all is repeated in the coda of Beefheart’s “Veteran’s Day Poppy.” Listen for it and see if you can figure it out. If you can’t, bring your guitar over sometime and I’ll show you a little Magic…