Topic: Works of art that make us see and hear things in a new light
I recently bought the CD of a cult classic album called Trout Mask Replica. I had read many interesting and intriguing things about this disc in books and magazines over the years, so finally my curiosity was piqued enough to check out the disc myself. Has anyone else out there actually heard this disc? Trout Mask Replica was released in 1969 by Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band and produced by none other than Frank Zappa.
So what is this album like? Believe me, it is weird! I suppose as a listening experience, it's the equivalent of watching a movie like David Lynch's Eraserhead, on one hand thinking perplexedly to yourself "What the hell is this?!" and at the same time finding it totally and utterly cool and fascinating.
Captain Beefheart (whose real name is Don Van Vliet) has actually got a really cool singing voice, this wild, slightly deranged-sounding bluesman's voice. And the music performed by his band is this really strange, bizarre mixture of blues, avant-garde jazz, and God knows what else. And what makes the music even more amazing is that, even though it sounds utterly chaotic and random, it was actually fairly well-thought out and rehearsed in advance!
Basically Trout Mask Replica seems to be a record made by someone totally hellbent on absolute originality at all costs, even if that means creating something that a great many people listening would have any sort of point of reference for! On one hand, this sort of approach is decidedly limiting in terms of popular appeal. But this album definitely ranks as a cult classic, and many people find the approach of Beefheart and his band of merry man very refreshing and original.
I mean, yeah, I'd be lying through my teeth if I were to claim to have "got it" at this point in time, but I know I'll definitely be cranking this fascinating record again some time in the near future!
Also, I recently purchased a new copy of an older book called Stranded: Rock and Roll for A Desert Island, edited by Greil Marcus. It's a collection of essays from rock writers and critics in which they review the one album that they would want to have with them if they ever got stranded on a desert island! And one writer, Langdon Winner, reviewed Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica. The book and the essay were first published in 1979, and Langdon Winner's essay in its entirety covers pages 58-70. Here's some of what he had to say about the disc:
One reason, then, that Trout Mask Replica would be my personal choice for a desert island is that a desert island is possibly the only place where I could play the record without being asked by friends and neighbors to take the damned thing off.
On its own terms, the popular judgment of the work is entirely justified. If the purpose of a phonograph record is to soothe us, to provide a beat for dancing, a pulse for making love, a set of themes to reassure us in the joys and troubles of life's daily commerce, then Trout Mask fails utterly. Anyone who tried to make love to these infernal rhythms, for example, would have to be carted off to a chiropractor. But if a record is legitimate in trying to overthrow our somnambulistic habits of hearing, seeing, and touching things, if it is valid in seeking to jolt our sensibilities and restructure the way we experience music and everything else, then Beefheart's strange collection of songs begins to make sense. Beneath the apparent chaos of its surfaces are structures of remarkable intricacy. Beyond the ugly noise that assaults us on first listening is a wealth of ingenious melodic and harmonic inventions. As one penetrates the apparent hysteria of its tunes and lyrics, one discovers a realm of surprisingly serene and happy freedom.
Beefheart has stormed the castle of musical authority and brought about a personal revolution in its operating structures. He has devised his own ingenious way of writing songs, of using guitars, of singing, of playing drums, of combining voice and instruments, and of weaving the whole thing together. In its own terms and for its own purposes, the achievement is nothing short of dazzling. The ultimate success of any revolution, however, depends upon getting a good number of people interested in the changes you propose to make. That is something Beefheart has never accomplished. With the exception of a few punk rock guitarists who have imitated Trout Mask Replica licks, most rock and roll performers have ignored his work. Even Beefheart's small but devoted cult following shows, by its generally inane behavior at concerts, little comprehension of what the man is trying to do.
But on a desert island none of this would matter. The listener always completes the artist's work. In this regard Trout Mask offers two features that other records do not: (1) an enormous variety of musical puzzles that require a considerable amount of time and concentration to figure out, and (2) a seemingly inexhaustible supply of unfinished ideas that one can fill in oneself. From fragments the record makes available, the castaway could begin to create whole new musicals, symphonies, island anthems, and the like. As my own lingering puzzlement gave way to unbothered pleasure, I could imagine myself sitting on a coral reef charting the rise and fall of hits contained within this one album. Flash: "Neon Meate Dream of an Octafish edged out Sugar 'N Spikes for the number one position this week as a new dance craze based on the last several bars of Pachuco Cadaver swept the island!"
You will remember that I likened the experience of listening to Trout Mask Replica to viewing David Lynch's Eraserhead. Perhaps a bit of an obvious, pedestrian analogy, but the point I was trying to make was that sometimes it can be productive and helpful to try and "un-know" or "un-learn" everything we know (or think we know) about what good art or entertainment is supposed to be, or consist of. Because if you hold an album like Trout Mask Replica or a film like Eraserhead up to any kind of formulaic, mainstream standard that you're used to, you're going to be up the creek without a paddle! I guess the trick is to try and figure out the artist's rules, because what seems to be going on is that he/she is creating an entire universe of their own, and it's quite possible that a certain...well, I guess, adaptation process is necessary on the part of the listener/viewer/reader. Some people may relish this opportunity, while others may recoil and return to their more traditional fare...which is not unexpected and often quite understandable.
Has anyone else experienced this personally? Have you ever watched a film, listened to a disc, or read a book that seemed to completely break the rules? Something that seemed, for lack of a better word, totally "out there"? And after a long, patient while, did you finally start to "get it," and find yourself on the maverick artist's wavelength, as opposed to the mainstream wavelength?
Last edited by Darth Pazuzu (2007-09-04 20:03:44)