Dissonant Notes

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Deep Laughter: Trout Mask Replica and the Legacy of Captain Beefheart

"My smile is stuck
I cannot go back to your Frownland
My spirit's made up of the ocean
And the sky 'n' the sun 'n' the moon
'n' all my eyes can see
I cannot go back to your land of gloom
Where black jagged shadows
Remind me of the coming of your doom
I want my own land
Take my hand and come with me"

Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band 'Frownland'

What does uncompromising mean? It crops up in so many music reviews these days that it has become, like the word challenging, an almost meaningless identifying trait, an empty signifier. The term could easily be applied to the most recent Taylor Swift album, given that it's hard to imagine how Taylor Swift's music could be compromised in any way. If a person has no artistic principles and no musical vision, then it goes without saying that any album they release will be uncompromised. Given that I do not enjoy the music of Taylor Swift, couldn't it be said to be challenging also? Clearly I do not understand its appeal, therefore its very existence challenges me. Wading through the murk and muddle of modern music journalism, one begins to wonder if it's even possible to use such terms again and have them retain at least some of their intended meaning. It's doubtful, but every now and then events transpire that allow us to reconnect with an important term and see that, before it was diluted and overused, it actually did denote an important concept and its usage was meant to imply that something important was at stake. To be compromised was to choose commercial acceptance above the demands of your art and, laughable as this may sound, there was a time when that meant something bad. We have moved on from such scruples these days, happy to be able to shake off any troublesome ethical dilemmas, but the question is, are we better off for shedding such baggage? What does it mean to have artistic principles and, really, what is the point of having them? On December 17th 2010 Don Van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart, passed away. His life was one infused with the idea of artistic principles, of achievements and ambitions not tied in with financial reward, and as such serves as a timely reminder of what can be accomplished when the creative mind is untethered by commercial demands. To be sure he made some lurches toward the mainstream which resulted in his greatest artistic misstep, (yes, I'm talking about Bluejeans & Moonbeams) but he ultimately had the wherewithal to recover his artistic momentum and finish his musical career with a trilogy of patented Beefheartian brilliance. Even though the name Captain Beefheart is synonymous with avant-garde rock in general, within his back-catalogue there remains an album that still manages to strike fear into even the most adventurous of musical explorers. Time has not softened the impact of Trout Mask Replica. Its eccentricities have not been incorporated into the mainstream and as such it remains an utterly idiosyncratic creation, furiously atonal and, yes, uncompromising. Let us use the great mans passing as an opportunity to explore its hidden treasures and also to look back at a time when following ones artistic muse was not seen as pretentious or reveling in failure but was viewed rather as a triumphant cry of individuality in the face of business interests and audience demands.

Let me start by saying that if you're looking for an entry point into Beefheart's world, Trout Mask Replica is not the best place to start. Both his debut Safe As Milk and 1972's Clear Spot represent less extreme but nevertheless  glorious examples of the Captain's unique genius. Once hooked, as you certainly should be, by Beefheart's charms you will sooner or later feel the urge to explore the bumpy terrain of Trout Mask Replica. Don't let the first listen put you off. Or the second, or the third. I still remember with great clarity my first experience with the album in question. I was puzzled as to why an LP could have no discernible melodies, completely ungraspable time signatures and altogether impenetrable lyrics. Nothing about it made sense. I retreated in fear to my copy of Safe As Milk, unsure when I would be able to give Trout... another shot. Try I did though, again and again, and time and again I was repelled by its unorthodoxies. I gave it a long break and had all but given up when several months later I threw it on while driving. I found it to be less off-putting than normal, and indeed wondered if I was really beginning to enjoy it. Then it happened. About a minute into 'Sugar 'N Spikes' I felt an exhilarating rush, a sense of all the pieces fitting together. "God", I thought, "it really does make sense". With each successive listen it made more and more sense and I felt confused as to how I could have missed its power and creativity the first time, or at least by the fifth time round. Once seduced by its charms, though, there's no going back. It continues to reward the convert, and one can even get an inkling as to what fuels its creative motor and why it takes so long to pick its locks. The secret is the rhythmic friction between drums and guitar, and how this gave the Captain free reign to unleash his lyrical absurdity with no concession made at all to melodic appeal. It's all in the rhythm. Don't forget.

The blues was a river of sorrow that flowed northwards from the Mississippi delta all the way to Chicago. Its distributaries reached the most creative minds of not only America but also the British Isles. In California the young Don Van Vliet was a teenage disciple, worshiping at the alter of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. It was from these early building blocks that Don would create the edifice that is Trout Mask Replica. Safe As Milk showed that Captain Beefheart had more than mastered the blues rock genre, and indeed had already moved beyond it. With Strictly Personal and its extended sessions things went further, but this was not enough for Don. After eight moths of solid rehearsal in religious-cult-like circumstances the band nailed the music for Trout Mask Replica in a matter of hours when actually permitted to enter a studio. Every lurch, every clatter, every crash and every jolt was planned in advance. What seemed like chaos was in fact a series of intricately worked-out, interlocking rhythmic patterns that revealed themselves to the listener over time. Once these patterns are discerned songs like 'Ella Guru', 'Moonlight On Vermont', 'Fallin' Ditch', and 'Veteran's Poppy Day' leap out like uncaged animals, with Beefheart coming on like a surrealistic preacher just returned from forty days in the dessert and intent on sharing his outlandish visions. Unlike many artists connected with the avant-garde, Beefheart's words were celebratory rather than tormented. Retaining the depth of emotion that emanated from the blues, Beefheart flipped the coin to produce an aching, declarative happiness, a large-hearted laughing embrace of life wherever it ebbed and flowed. This was no mere "let the sunshine in" banality, however, this was an exploratory, demanding happiness that refused to rest on its laurels, that prodded and pushed the listener, all but asking them: "How can you really be happy with the same old thing, aren't you selling yourself short by accepting some endlessly recycled version of a familiar, comforting emotion?". On every level Trout Mask Replica was both challenging and uncompromising, and it's to its credit that it remains so. Its appeal lies in the apparently hysterical notion that the listener must engage with the music, must work to unlock its secrets and above all must be prepared to enjoy a work of art that is beyond irony, beyond nostalgia, beyond kitsch, beyond angst, beyond sentimentality, beyond "awesome", beyond all easy emotional responses; its creation is at times beyond belief, and as a work of genuinely difficult aesthetic wonder it has no place in our current pop culture climate, which prefers instead to bestow upon us pseudo-populist observations of banal mainstream productions that require no artistic enlargement, but more an intellectual reduction that demands unquestioning passivity while reveling in an ostentatious display of apparent open-mindedness. 

After Trout Mask Replica came Lick My Decals Off, Baby which, although cut from the same cloth as Trout Mask..., could never be described as more of the same, instead being a case of more of the different. From then until 1982 Van Vliet's musical creativity continued, though not always matching the same high standards of Trout Mask Replica. Following his retirement from music the Captain concentrated on his first love, the visual arts. At some point he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and it was this disease and its complications that would eventually lead to his death. Although he had been quiet for many years, his death was still shocking. In some way just knowing that he was alive somewhere in California was a comforting thought. His mere presence meant that our collective imaginations had a curmudgeonly guardian, ever ready to chase away demons with a burst of deep laughter and a half grin / scowl. Even for those who never quite connected with Beefheart his passing should still be an occasion for sorrow as it represents a shrinking of our artistic boundaries. To use a political analogy (which, given the Captain's ecological concerns, I hope he would not find displeasing) Noam Chomsky has often remarked that in mainstream debate about global climate change there are two positions: those who say that we must act to save the planet and those who pronounce climate change a fallacy. Chomsky goes on to say that while this "debate" is played out there exists a third voice that is deemed too extreme for mainstream media, and that is the voice of scientists who say that all the steps we are taking to save the planet are nowhere near enough, and that climate change is happening right now and we must completely change our entire way of life in order to avoid unspeakable global disasters. Aesthetically, Captain Beefheart was that third voice, whose artistic demands altered the borderlines of what was deemed acceptable in music. The extremes of individuality and eccentricity of a particular age mark the furthermost points of imagination in regards to the visionary aspect of culture at that time. Van Vliet's extremity of invention cleared a revelatory path, not necessarily for others to follow, but more as an act of willful creativity that allowed his admirers to shed any fear they had in regards to their own artistic impulses. If Captain Beefheart can release Trout Mask Replica, then surely nothing is out of reach! That Beefheart's ambition did not relate to financial reward or mass exposure now marks him as a quaint relic from a bygone age. We live in a bold modern era where the job of the musician is to balance the demands of art and business, not follow their creative path wherever it may lead. Indeed, the very idea of following ones creative path to whatever end is now a mere pretentious fantasy (unless that path is mainstream acceptance). How lucky we are to have shed such notions as artistic integrity. How happy is our lot, with thousands of undemanding pieces of entertainment at our fingertips ready for consumption. How glorious must our future be, free from a past in thrall to the transformative power of Art. I bid you farewell Captain Beefheart. If your artistic inventiveness did not push popular music away from its cloying trajectory as you intended then instead let it serve as a lighthouse to those lamentable souls who, for some unknown reason, do not find joy in the cultural offerings of our impending utopia. In the glow of your musical output let them feel the thrill of capriciousness and anomaly, and let them know that there were indeed brave mortals who cared little for stifling, small-minded subservience. Rest in piece Don Van Vliet. An emptiness blows through our alleys and side-streets and winter becomes all the harder to bear, but you left behind enough light for even the most storm-tossed ship to sail toward, and for that I remain forever grateful.

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