IT’S THE BLIMP, IT’S THE BLIMP…
And how. Beefheart is the blimp. The Captain is unique. No band in the world could manage what he and his magic men achieve. They tear and slash at the guts of their music, ripping its lungs out, grinding and crushing the bones, then pull it all together in a couple of bars. Their songs both lyrics and rhythms – destroy the tired-out bullshit conventions of every contemporary musical field. Saxes jag in and out among rasping guitars, the drumming is what ‘heavy’ used to mean, and Beefheart hasn’t managed a drink or a screw since he climbed out of the Imperial Valley after his diet of turtle-come, radishes and acid. That’s how he sounds… itching to get at someone or something… and he gets rougher with every cut. The real value of the music is its texture, its depth, and the subtlety of reaction between rhythms and melodies – harsh as they may seem.
When Beefheart hit England in spring 68, the hip press (prodded by Peel) immediately seized a new underground music hero. Yet, in retrospect, it was largely because Don Van Vliet was the freakiest cat in the country for those few weeks. Musically, the band wasn’t that far out. No put down. It was only his presence and that grinding voice that did it. Then ‘Strictly Personal’ followed and everyone nodded quietly. Yes, ‘Safe as Milk’ was nice, but this shows where it’s at. And now ‘Trout Mask Replica’ – the same Beefheart, but a new mind behind the lyrics; a new band; Zappa producing – whose groin (not to mention pocket) is this one going to hit?
Zappa warned that Beefheart’s English followers would be shocked by the new double set, but despite the changes in line-up / record company / producer there aren’t that many shocks. The basic progress this has made over his last record is that it has clarified Beefheart’s musical position (and not just by printing out the lyrics). It’s an album that he and Zappa are pleased with. The Captain now knows where he’s at. The progress made may mean rougher vocals and more crashing, raping instrumental work, but the roughness is tempered by beautiful, stoned, surrealistic lyrics; groups of hallucinatory alliteration and repetition. Similarly, the crazy patterns weaved on guitar hold together – somehow – the cross rhythmic sax playing. This is the major shock of the album – the extended use of sax – with Beefheart dropping mouth harp and strich for soprano and tenor. This makes the Magic Band nearer to the Mothers than before, and strains of Coltrane, Taylor and Ayler are heard again.
Edgar Varese is possibly the most influential music freak of the 20th century. Someone wrote of him; “While his harmony is often very unusual, it is the total sound of his music that at any one moment claims the attention. The sound is the result of carefully planned and powerfully imagined dispositions of sonorities, every note must be in the right place, and that is to say, in the right place in the right instrument.” Sounds like Zappa conducting the Mothers onstage, or producing Beefheart (he breaks in on one track to mumble “Uh shit, how did that harmony get in there?”).
The Varese thing does apply to ‘Trout Mask’. The total sound is similar to ‘Strictly Personal’ – a sharp sympathy between the bass line and the solid drum patterns, and the waving slicing guitar balanced by Van Vliet’s cement mixer voice. But the make-up is different – 5 of the 28 tracks are either instrumental or unaccompanied songs, snatches of narration (thanks to Rockette Morton), two tracked or simultaneously played saxes, and a greater flexibility in the production – at least one track recorded in a field. The old band’s idea shows through on numbers like “Moonlight on Vermont” and the beginning of “Ella Guru” – generally on those tracks where sax isn’t used, where the guitar is played on the cross current to carve up the lyric melody and the solid, crunching ‘rhythm section’.
On the instrumental tracks – “Hair pie, bakes 1 & 2” and “Dali’s car” – the new depth and freedom speaks for Zappa’s influence. The guitars still slice over tight, multi structured rhythms… Zoot Horn Rollo (on glass finger guitar) and Antennae Jimmy Semens (on steel appendage guitar) wind up to some incredible mesmeric harmonies – presumably they were accidental – while they move in and out searching for a musical identity with the constantly changing background of the bass and percussion. Then the sax piles in, following the rhythm at first, then slashing them down like a machete through the jungle. The Cap plays good and relaxed. Not great in terms of tenor sax players, but it sure extends the range of the band.. and when he uses bass clarinet – Jesus – it may just be me, but that’s a mother of an instrument.
It’s the density of the music, not the total sound. And the density is complex; sequences change freely with perfect control, and new patterns are constantly introduced, as if the band is consciously fighting against domination by the Captain’s vocals. (No credits for a drummer – could it be Frank Zappa in a last ditch attempt to get his cruddy drumming played on the radio?). It’s fast and bulbous, and surprisingly tight – theme, variations, theme is the progress of every tune – not experimental, but often free form, forced by the drums towards a musical identity, an identity which each track finds. The total album sound is unbalanced – there’s no single impression. Yet each track clarifies Beefheart’s multi-faceted musical position.
OK. So the music stretches with wild hard violence, searching always for simultaneous ecstasy with the lyrics. Always changing, expanding, and finding that ecstasy… and the process seems harsh, but for the lyrics, which are soft, gentle word-trips with associations from rural blues and folk –
“Moonlight on Vermont affected everybody
Even Mrs Wotten well as little Nitty
Even lifebuoy floatin’
With his little pistol showin’
with his little pistol totin’
Well that goes to show what uh moon can do”
or harder, disorientated image-groups:
“Lucid tentacles test ‘n sleeved
‘n joined ‘n jointed jade pointed
Diamond back patterns
Neon meate dream of a octafish.”
The range is vast, and the impression is of a breathless leaping from Guthrie/Dylan tenderness to a verbal Dali, juxtaposing the unreal with the real. This is where the Captain’s self-effacing freaky humour shows itself (and all that crap). Some of it’s just so funny… like “The Blimp” which is basically an hysterical voice screaming “It’s the blimp” over a distorted PA system. You can feel the vast portentous shape shadowing the sky –
“Tits tits the blimp the blimp
The mother ship The mother ship”.
Compare that with “Dachau Blues” (which Jerry Rubin reckoned would have been a great song if a human had done it), where he writes about “those poor Jews… still cryin’ ’bout the burnin’ back in World War Two”. Beefheart’s voice may make a strained evil sound, but the songs he writes have a weird gentle sadness to them.
Somehow they show a bizarre feeling for humanity. Most of the songs are like love – poems for mankind, and often individuals – Ella Guru, Pena, Big Joan and Lousey – which really isn’t the world’s present impression of the Captain’s sentiments, It’s almost impossible though, to write in detail about the lyrics without reference to the musical structures which hold them, and which they soothe, except in the unaccompanied tracks like “Orange Claw Hammer”. The tune here is reminiscent of ‘North Country Blues’, and lines like “the air breaks with filthy chatter” bring to mind “the sky cracked its cheeks in naked wonder”. The association doesn’t really end there. Dylan would sympathise with Beefheart’s ‘nature-and-love-trips’, but the Captain is faster and more bulbous (and he’s got his band). But this is it. In straightening out his music, he’s found some kind of religion. It may be in hair pies (yes!) or in Frownland, but mainly it’s people, children and country men and women. And this is a new delight for Beefheart – a rough outdoor humanity blended with humour and a rich verbal vomit of imagery.
F.Z & D.K.
Technically the album belongs to Frank Zappa, the producer, and Dick Kunc, the engineer – the same team which did ‘Uncle Meat’. If that was a great double set, this is possibly better – The Mothers used ‘Uncle Meat’ to extend the reach of their many musical facets over four sides; Beefheart uses ‘Trout Mask’ to dig out the real roots of his sound – and in so doing, opens up the most original mind and vocal chords in contemporary music. Zappa gets it down perfectly; he’s the absolute catalyst for a guy so freaked and so positive. It’s a beautiful set; not a weak spot anywhere.
Varese himself wrote, “I do not write experimental music. My experimenting is done before I make the music. Afterwards it is the listener who must experiment”. Try this with ‘Trout Mask Replica’. Do anything and everything to it. Experiment. It’s the sound of farmyard hard-on.