“Trout Mask Replica”
by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band
Am I really going to review an album that you’re most certainly going to hate?
Listen to it ten times, to those who are willing, but only if you are exceptionally patient, or you relish the pleasure in waiting. I’ve been listening to this album for almost 15 years now. I can understand nearly 85% of it already.
It was given to me that long ago, free of charge, from an unbelievably cool record-storeowner, with that prescription alone.
“Listen all the way through ten times. Hold onto the thing until you do. If you’re not into it by then bring it back, I can always re-sell it”.
I was in a deep Pink Floyd hole at the time. It was the absolute and only thing I would listen to, the early freak-out stuff especially. I asked the grey bearded man behind the counter for something heavy and experimental, he handed me Trout Mask Replica.
“Without question, the most authentically experimental Rock album ever recorded. It’s one of a kind. The Beatles may have been greater, but not even they could have touched Captain Beefheart in a straight-up weirdo contest”
I took the CD home, walking excitedly on the way. I couldn’t wait to hear it. In my hands was the very thing sure to be the pointy little pinnacle of my psychedelic apprenticeship, an instant advancement chip in Rock and Roll sophistication, and for free! It would make everything that came to me before it seem false, or at best preparatory, trinkets to teach the gospel, but not that “old-time-religion” itself.
I put on headphones, good ones. Nobody was home. It was before I owned a cell phone, so I unplugged the one from the wall, pushed the play button, and braced myself for the coming transformation.
“Frownland” is the first track. I listened through the whole song in a dull blob of shock, as if I were made of petroleum jelly and cheap rubber bones. It was like the sound of un-tuned instruments being thrown down a stairwell, stretched out and sustained for nearly two minutes. Musicians playing separate songs, all at the same time, but not musicians, amateurs with broken guitars making sloppy noises. I picked up the stylus before track two could begin.
What the hell was that? That old bearded bastard gave me the wrong album! Is this some kind of subversive hippy record-storeowner test I just failed? He’s probably laughing his ass off at the shop, right now! It’s because I’m not really into The Grateful Dead, isn’t it? I’m sorry. I’m just more of a “mid-to-late 1970’s European heavy Prog Rock/Pre-Metal” kind of guy. It’s nothing personal I swear.
But it wasn’t a joke. This was the album the man thought I should hear. I double-checked the label to make sure.
Have faith, I told myself, plunge forward.
The second track, “The Dust Blows Forward ’N the Dust Blows Back”, is spoken word. It’s just the Captain, rambling and rhyming into his tape recorder. It’s a drunkard’s lullaby, a crooning loony in an alleyway, reciting a poem, that if you weren’t there, you couldn’t appreciate.
I let the record play. I listened to all four sides of the double album. “Dachau Blues” is a low throated horror story. “Pachuco Cadaver” is fast and bulbous. “Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish”, a Jackson Pollack sound-splatter. Then, “Dali’s Car” , “When Big Joan Sets Up”, “Hobo Chang Ba”, straight on through to “Veteran’s Day Poppy”.
I didn’t get it. I immediately called bullshit. The Emperor was naked, I could see it very clearly. I thought for a moment about going back to the record store to return it immediately. It was just long enough of a walk away, in the New England winter cold, to be an idea not worth pursuing. I took the disc out of the player, set it aside, and went about the rest of my day.
Weeks later I thought about the album again. I still hated it, but one guitar line came back to me, just the vague memory of it’s melody. “Moonlight on Vermont” was the song, not the whole thing, just the opening guitar part at first. I found the disc and once again put it into the player. I immediately skipped to track 6. The drums beat to start and then that riff, noisy and dirty cut through. I enjoyed it much more this time.
There might be more to this crappy album that I initially thought. I let it play through for a while. The rest of it was still terrible, mostly; save for a few other brief moments I must have missed the first go-around. But that one song was really cool. Maybe I’ll put it on a mix-tape, I supposed.
Again, time goes by, eventually other lines came through in much the same way. At work or on the bus, out of boredom usually, a horn blast or bass-line would just be there. A few times it was a struggle to remember the source, and I’d be surprised and laugh with the realization of where it came from. Mostly when it happened I would give it another shot, and listen to the album again, at least part of the way through.
It took years. But I always found myself going back to this weird, mostly horrible album. But every time it would get less and less mostly horrible, until finally I was broken and forced to surrender to it. It quickly became an obsession.
I was wrong, and so might you be.
With a bit of investigation you can read the whole twisted story. It’s legendary, the abuse the musician’s took, and the iron hand of the Captain. It was like being in a cult. The Magic Band lived in a house together, practiced for months, every day, for most of the day, until the songs were completely repeatable. They were drugged, manipulated, hit, hurt and restricted. Not to mention being cut out of the credit and given little money for the help in creating it.
They recorded the whole double album, instrumentally, in six hours. With all that practice, they could play it straight through with little error. Frank Zappa produced it, and appears as a voice a handful of times.
Trout Mask Replica is one of my favorite albums, a stroke of pure genius. It’s an album that will transform itself before you, if given proper time to incubate. Piece by piece, phrases that at first irritated me, that seemed dissonant and offbeat, came to sound perfectly played, and totally sound of mind, pleasurable. It’s magic. The more I listen to it, the more it surprises me. It’s not ahead of it’s time, it’s beyond timing. This album will be just as formidable in forty years, in fact I’ll bet even more so.
It’s a challenge, one that I’ve invited others to endure, with mostly nothing more than polite rejection in return. I’ve also made a few converts, and have since read about many, many more. This album is a puzzle, for those with saintly patience. The Parker Brother’s sold a boatload of boring jig-saw pieces though, so I know those type of people are out there. If you’re one of them, give this album a shot.