When I was in college, I went through a phase where my opinions were easily swayed by those of Big Influential Music Critics. In particular, I remember owning a book Rolling Stone put out called “The 100 Greatest Rock Albums of All Time” or something similar, based on polling hundreds of critics, musicians, record execs and probably whoever else Jann Wenner had in his Rolodex in 1987. It was a pretty standard list—lots of Beatles and Dylan and Rolling Stones—but in the top 10 was an album I had never heard of called Trout Mask Replica, by a Frank Zappa associate named Don Van Vliet who went by the admittedly awesome name of Captain Beefheart. So, dutiful acolyte of the music cognoscenti that I was, I immediately went out and bought the album, on cassette, without having actually heard a note of it. We used to do that back before the Internet.
The punchline, of course, is that I hated it. It was a double-album made up almost entirely of what, to my collegiate ears, was just noise: lurching, arrhythmic guitars and saxophones stumbling along over halting, start-stop drums and occasionally what sounded like some drunk hollering nonsense over the top of it like, “Pies steam stale/Shoes move broom ‘n pale/Moon in a dime store sale.” It sounded kind of like The Doors, I supposed, but mainly it just sounded like a bunch of pretentious jackasses who’d done too much peyote and wanted to make a record that would Freak Out The Man. (Come to think, not an altogether inaccurate description of The Doors, either.)
The only parts me and Jake liked were the brief spoken word sections, where Beefheart would intone nonsense like, “A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous…got me?”, right before his band came stampeding in with another flurry of atonal guitar licks. We used to play these parts for anyone in the dorm whose attention we could get for two minutes, and then laugh our asses off while they looked at us with a mix of confusion and disgust before bolting from the scene.
I have no idea whatever happened to that cassette, but here’s the even better punchline: I’ve since gone back and relistened to a lot of those old Trout Mask Replica tracks and some of them ain’t half bad. Either my taste has gotten weirder or Beefheart was truly a man ahead of his time and it’s taken the rest of us 40 years to finally be able to pick up the signal of whatever frequency he was tuned to. Probably a little of both.
That being said, Captain Beefheart is still one hell of a weird dude and Trout Mask Replica still ranks as one of the weirdest albums ever released on a major label (it came out on Warner/Reprise in 1969). Produced by Frank Zappa, most of the album was allegedly recorded in only about six hours of studio time after the band spend months rehearsing the tracks at a house in the San Fernando Valley. On it, Van Vliet sings (sort of) and plays various woodwind instruments, mostly sax; his band, to whom he gave such colorful names as Zoot Horn Rollo and The Mascara Snake, played various guitars, bass, drums and the bass clarinet, which gives many of the tracks a spooky, free jazz vibe. Some of my favorite tracks on the album were recorded by Zappa on cassette tape in the style of primitive “field recordings,” as if Van Vliet was some old bluesman he had discovered in the boonies. Of these, “China Pig” is probably the most memorable, featuring Van Vliet’s Tom Wait-ish, stream-of-consciousness lyrics and guitar by Doug Moon, who was in the original Magic Band even though he doesn’t appear on the rest of the album. Give it until about the 1:30 mark and it gets interesting, trust me:
Beefheart and His Magic Band continued making albums until the early ’80s, including at least one more, 1980’s Doc at the Radar Station, that’s widely considered to be almost as much a classic as Trout Mask. He retired from music in the early ’80s to take up painting and has rarely performed or recorded since. [Update: Since we originally wrote this post, Van Vliet passed away, in 2010, at age 69.] Which is a shame, really, because I think the world needs more performances like this one, don’t you?