Saturday, December 18, 2010

captain betaheart

My best friend in high school received a cassette from my future best friend in high school, a pink-magenta looking thing with the most grotesque cover imaginable: a man in a top hat topped with a shuttlecock, a fish head pressed against his own face. It had stared out at me before, in the writings of Lester Bangs, on every single one of those "Top __ Albums Ever," but even in listening to Trout Mask Replica, there was simply no path into such wilderness. I didn't get it. Listened to it time and time again, and it was wholly alien, hieroglyphic, off-putting, brusque, obtuse. And when there was a moment of clarity in it, it was strangely...hysterical.

It was the humor of the music that served as portal into the world of Don Van Vliet and Captain Beefheart, of Drumbo and The Magic Band. Lines like: "I run on laser beans"; "I took off my pants 'n felt free/ The breeze blowin' up me 'n up the canyon/ Far as the eye could see"; "A squid eating dough out of a polyethylene bag is fast 'n' bulbous, got me?"; the prank phone call vocals of "The Blimp"; the stoned chit-chat with neighbors at the end of "Hair Pie: Bake 1"; the tape rewinds amid the grunts of "China Pig," through such funny moments, they let me enter into TMR finally.

From there, I became of aware of what made the Captain so revered. That play of words, of images, of outré music (delta blues, free verse and free jazz, feedback), it was that childlike sense of making 'sense' that has stuck with me. With a bit of sugar, the spikes could be digested, too. There's still a rush to be had when the procession of horns finally enters the room on "Hair Pie: Bake 1" or when all the disparate fragments of "Ella Guru" come together via that one looooong drum roll of Drumbo, all cohering into an explosive, cartoonish, wide-eyed chorus.

When I was still in high school, under the spell of Richard Meltzer's insouciant and stoned essays from Gulcher, one of my first writing efforts was about how Trout Mask Replica was the first hip-hop album, citing as evidence the way Arrested Development dressed, the amount of skits embedded in the album, that the music was deemed "phat." In later years, I had the supreme honor of being involved in the putting together of Revenant's Grow Fins box set. Even with the unpacking of mythology, the deflating of said "Blimp" that the book inside revealed (like the atrocious conditions under which TMR was recorded) couldn't help but give me another level of appreciation for what the Captain did, good or ill. And today, I feel similarly to my former-editor Chuck Eddy, who laments in his recent obit, "he barely seems like he's in the music's DNA at all."

Lord knows, he remains in mine though. Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band initiated me into such a sound world and --almost twenty years on-- I've been stuck in it ever since. It's not unlike the end of "Old Fart at Play," as once inside this music, all else can be understood: "The old fart inside was now breathin' freely/ From his perfume bottle atomizer air bulb invention/ His excited eyes from within the dark interior glazed/ and watered in appreciation of his thoughtful preparation..."

Never mind that I haven't been able to sit through all four sides of Trout Mask Replica since the end of my pot-smoking days. Or that upon hearing the news this morning of the Captain's departure from God's Golfball, I am reaching for the albums that surround TMR first: the tough garage of Safe as Milk, the maligned psychedelia of Strictly Personal, the soulful, radio-play maneuvering of Clear Spot and bittersweet moments like "Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles."

Soon enough, I'll get to the sugar and spikes of "Dirty Blue Gene" and "Making Love to a Vampire With a Monkey on My Knee," the free-jazz farewell of "Light Reflects Off the Oceands of the Moon." And as I move deeper towards those first  memories of my love of music, I'll no doubt turn to gaze into the glassy eyes of that trout mask itself one last time.