Sunday, June 07, 2009

Bulbous, Also Tapered

There's no iconoclast like an American iconoclast, at least musically speaking. It's summer and I'm not teaching, so I don't really have to wheel out proof for my thesis statement. But as I scribble a few lame sentences here, Moonlight On Vermont kicks in at full volume from Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica.

As I mentioned in my last post, I finally picked up a CD of TMR, having had it on several different formats over the years. For many years it was an insignia on the general concept of "novelty." That is, my perception was that it was an entire album assiduously dedicated to the proposition that being self-consciously strange could be a diverting stand-in for Art. Connected to this: I have for a long time now kept certain recordings in my arsenal, specifically to wheel out for anyone within earshot (but even more specifically, uninitiated musician friends of mine) in order to produce the "what the fuck is this?" response. Some of these recordings I myself am not that close to. Patty Waters, for example. But I recognize the stretch and I like to lay the stretch on others, not so much out of a spirit of confrontational, in-your-face competition but out of a sincere love for sharing the experience of the new, the surprising, the shocking, the general WTF-ness of it.

(meat rose in hairs/meaty rose in hairs....which always made me think of disgraced baseball great, Pete Rose).

But there's some eye-opening aspects to having the CD and playing it on a pretty good stereo. I think Trout Mask suffered in the past from the extremely low-fi platforms I tried to play it on. The mix is very heavy on Beefheart's vocals, way up front, to the extent that the Magic Band sometimes sounds like it's in another room (which I think it was, at least for some tracks). In general, it's very difficult on poor equipment or with the interfering noise of a car (I used to play TMR on cassette tape on a boom box in my car) to focus on the absolutely outrageously intricate accompaniment. Lost in the haze of passing time and legend: who actually composed and arranged these instrumental parts. Apparently John French, aka Drumbo, had a lot to do with the final shape of each tune. Apparently also, the band lived in utter cult-like bizarre squalor and worked for many, many weeks on the pieces.

For a long time I figured a lot of the band parts were improvised. This is absolutely wrong, of course, and probably a side effect of my background before I heard TMR, which was from the so-called free jazz side of things. It's also because for a long time I never really knew how to listen to rock/blues electric rhythm/harmony guitar as an instrument (also an auditory blind spot resulting from a lot of jazz listening). I also bought into the myth that Beefheart successfully fabricated of absolutely untutored, raw primitivism. In fact, of course, the chromatic, contrapuntal polyphony that is yet surrealistically rooted in blues cliches and phrasing is highly sophisticated.

The relationship of the vocal parts to the band is almost constantly embattled. Some of the finest instrumental lines/harmonies are underneath the most vocally horrifying or potentially annoying pieces, such as Pena or The Blimp. The entire idea of what "lyrics" are is constantly shifting. The narrative lines are hilariously mercurial. The seemingly casual, tossed off, self-subverting lyrics sometimes contribute to the sense that the entire enterprise is a sick joke ("I'll set up with ya Big Joan/I'm too fat to go out in the daylight"). Beefheart's use of the soprano saxophone was very difficult for me to hear years ago, but much more a working part of his concept now. I hadn't yet accepted the "anti-technical" in music back in the '80s-'90s. Even Albert Ayler or Peter Brotzmann's approaches to saxophone were ones I could embrace, but not Beefheart's. It seemed an almost-inexcusable co-optation of "free jazz" methodology, yet another white raid on black music. This too is a whole other layer of Beefheart's approach, his "blues" influences, seemingly ever more remote and buried under layers of completely unexpected harmonic and melodic detours. Then there's the sometimes grotesque hippy/psychedelic angle, such as in Ant Man Bee. Then there's the hilarious faux hobo (fauxbo?) acapella "folk" flarf angle, such as in Orange Claw Hammer. And the Beat Poet/Dada/stream of consciousness poetry reading angle. And the bizarre references to various perspectives on "nature." And in spite of all of this, it's still possible to get that deeply skeptical, "you can't be serious" mistrustful feeling anywhere along the line. (or is it the "you've gone too far!" feeling? or the "this is just ridiculously pretentious bullshit!" feeling? Or the "damn, this is hideous!" feeling? etc.)

Are there PhD recipients or candidates out there writing about these themes? What about a larger picture where the "popular culture" could somehow support Beefheart even showing up on the radar, pun(s) intended? (I sometimes feel this way about certain recordings by Tom Waits, Primus, Helmet and a very few others). How does it happen that America comes to embrace, however briefly, partially or superficially, cultural items of extreme oddity? The musical landscape in the US is usually so unrelentingly and uniformly non-confrontational. A reasonable argument could be made that Trout Mask Replica is (so far anyway) the most aesthetically challenging "pop" recording ever released. That copies of the CD are available at, for example, Barnes and Noble, is nothing short of a miracle.

Which goes to show you what a moon can do?

1 comment:

Chris Rich said...

Peter, this is a completely superb bit of analysis and writing.

I actually saw 'the Beef' at two concerts out of 3 he did in Boston in the 70's.

They put him on strange bills, one with Ry Cooder, (which upon reflection makes sense) and another at Tufts with Mississippi Fred McDowell shortly before he passed away.

I missed the Beef's third Boston visit with the weirdest line up of all. The Captain, Larry Coryell and the New York Dolls.