Monday, December 6, 2010

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 85 - Captain Beefheart

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

Captain Beefheart is revered by his fans as some sort of tortured genius, desperately attempting to translate his creative vision into musical form. He's responsible for some of the most strikingly original albums of the past fifty years, and since retiring from the music scene he's become a fairly well-respected painter. 

Apparently he's also a raging asshole. Frank Zappa (who admittedly had a bit of a rivalry with Beefheart) describes him as an only child spoiled by his parents, raised to believe that he was a genius set apart from other people. The recording process behind Trout Mask Replica is infamous; it apparently involved a cult-like environment in which Beefheart refused to let the band members leave the house. He would berate them, and sometimes beat them bloody, until they were cowed into submitting completely to his creative vision. 

Beefheart also seems to have fallen in love with his own mythology, spreading rumors and stories that are far from the truth. The legend that none of the Magic Band had picked up an instrument before starting work on Trout Mask Replica? False. The rumor that no drugs had been consumed during the recording process? False. The claim that Captain Beefheart dropped out of school after kindergarten because he was such a free spirit? That he once went a year and a half without sleeping? False and false. 

The idea of a misunderstood genius is certainly appealing, especially when it comes to musicians. (Think movies about Beethoven). This stuff makes for great stories, but the legends themselves grow tiresome, and it often diverts attention away from the actual music. Trout Mask Replica isn't just "that weird album"; it's "that weird album where the singer forced the band to live in isolation while constantly throwing things at them."

This week, I found myself wondering if Trout Mask Replica would be quite as revered among critics if it weren't for the mythos that surrounded it. If a normal person made an album like this, it would be considered incoherent. But when a pompous jerk physically and verbally abuses his band and forces them to live in abject poverty while making an album like this, he's considered a genius whose creativity is just too strong for this world. 

I sort of liked Trout Mask Replica. But I wonder if fans aren't in love with the idea of the album more than the actual album itself. 


ARTIST OF THE WEEK: Captain Beefheart

WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: I had never heard a single Beefheart track before this week. I only vaguely knew of him as that weird avant-garde rocker who was friends with Zappa.

MY LISTENING: I listened to Trout Mask Replica (1969) every day this week. I also listened to Safe as Milk (1968) three times, and Lick My Decals Off, Baby (1970) twice.

WHAT I LIKED: There's no use denying that my record of choice this week, Trout Mask Replica, is  initially very off-putting. The first time I listened to it, I was actually sort of dreading returning to it six more times during the week. I've heard dissonant, arrhythmic avant-garde music before, but never for such a length (the album clocks in at over 78 minutes). If you've never heard Trout Mask Replica, it's like dropping a blues album on the floor and gluing together a bunch of shattered pieces. The individual parts are still there, but crafted together in such a way that the final result looks radically different. 

But once I got around the initial strangeness of the album and got used to its way of doing things, I started to enjoy myself. Beefheart has a great voice (it reminds me of Tom Waits), and his songs are filled with such intensity that you can't help but take notice. A lot of the music sounds random, but Beefheart and his band actually notated and fastidiously rehearsed each piece; the result is a piece of art akin to a Shakespearean fool - it seems to be meaningless babble, but there's a strange sort of order underneath the chaos.

In a way, Trout Mask Replica is like a portrayal of rock in an alternate universe - a genre of music that never materialized in this dimension. It's hard to compare the songs to anything else ever recorded but, taken on their own, I began to appreciate them for what they were. Because Beefheart can rock. It's a kind of rock completely alien to what we know, but it's rock nonetheless. In fact, this primal energy saves what might otherwise would have been a pretentious mess of an album. "Ella Guru" is one of the best tracks in this regard, and "Ant Man Bee" shows off Beefheart's considerable vocal talent. 

Beefheart devotees consider even Trout Mask Replica to be too mainstream, and consider Lick My Decals Off, Baby to be his true masterpiece. I can sort of see where they're coming from, though I haven't listened to this album enough for it to even begin to make sense. Here, Beefheart seems to be incorporating more instruments, employing a marimba in "Wo-uh-me-Bop" and a harmonica in "I Love You, You Big Dummy" to great effect.

Safe as Milk would be the weirdest album in any other artist's discography, but (as the name implies) this record is relatively easy to swallow compared with the later stuff. It's more straight blues-rock - Cream with a touch of Dada - and it might have been my favorite album this week just because it wasn't as taxing to listen to as the others. "Plastic Factory" is another catchy track with a harmonica, and "Zig Zag Wanderer" is like a track from Trout Mask Replica, except all the musicians are actually playing in time. 

WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE: Music like this requires the listener to be in a certain kind of mood. Some days this week I just wasn't in a Beefheart frame-of-mind, and Trout Mask Replica was especially a chore to get through. I like what Beefheart is doing, and I find it interesting, but I couldn't cop-out and put it on as background music or anything like that. The music demands your full attention, and was pretty exhausting by the time the week was over. 

I also got tired of Beefheart's insistence on putting snippets of studio dialogue and spoken-word pieces into his albums; Trout Mask Replica is a lesser album because of this. In these episodes, Beefheart stops being weird with an aesthetic purpose, and just starts being weird for his own sake. "Pena" is not a great song to begin with, but the spoken-word introduction goes on interminably long, and "Fallin' Ditch" also fails to amuse. 

Finally, Safe as Milk contains some strange psychedelic leanings (this was before Beefheart got too weird even for the hippies). I like his blues-oriented stuff, but I got bored with the new-age meanderings of songs like "Autumn's Child."

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: I'm willing to explore more Beefheart, but it's going to have to be slowly, and on my own terms. This type of music takes a while to digest. Mirror Man (1971) is mostly instrumental jams, and probably up my alley, while The Spotlight Kid  (1972) and Clear Spot (1972) are Beefheart's "commercial" albums, and I'm interested to see what that sounds like. Doc at the Radar Station (1980) is also considered among the best of Beefheart's later work.

But really, this week left me with the impression that I need to explore Frank Zappa, who I also know nothing about. 

BEST SONG YOU'VE HEARD: There's no real popular Beefheart single, so I'm going to go with "Diddy Wah Diddy," a 1966 Bo Diddley cover that sounds nothing like Beefheart's later output, but nonetheless got him started on the road to an obscure kind of fame. 

BEST SONG YOU HAVEN'T HEARD: "Moonlight on Vermont"

It might have been a coping mechanism, but by the end of the week I was convinced that this song rocks.