Captain Beefheart - Trout Mask Replica (1969)

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"I was able to turn myself inside out." - Don Van Vliet

I digitized this album over a year ago, and it’s been haunting me ever since. I’ve never felt so under-equipped to write about music before. Trout Mask Replica is quite possibly the most confounding record my dad owns. (Meaning the record itself is confounding, not the fact that my dad owns it – I’m more confounded that he owns so much Paul Anka.) I thought perhaps if I was patient, let it settle in, something would come to me. But after listening to the record several times, it’s still an enigma, wrapped in a conundrum, floating in a pool of cacophony that kind of resembles the blues.

If you’ve never heard of Captain Beefheart before, here’s a little primer. He’s eccentric.

I mean, really, really, really eccentric. So eccentric, I wouldn’t be surprised if the etymology of the word eccentric was traced back to when someone first tried to describe this guy. His real name is Don Van Vliet. (At least, that was his moniker as an artist) He was a weirdo, a west-coast space cadet gifted with insane talents as a visual artist, writer, and vocalist. His vocal range spanned four octaves. He started sculpting when he was three. He claimed to have remembered being born. If Dos Equis did their “most interesting man in the world” commercials in the sixties, Van Vliet would have been a candidate for the role. 

He met Frank Zappa when he was a teenager, and their friendship directly lead to Van Vliet being able to make Trout Mask Replica, his third record, but first to be produced by Zappa. With Zappa at the helm, he basically gave Van Vliet carte blanche, artistically and financially. And Van Vliet took full advantage. 

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The stories about the recording of Trout Mask Replica sound terrifying. The album was recorded after an eight month rehearsal period, during which the entire band was forced by Van Vliet to live communally in a tiny house in suburban LA. Members of the band likened the experience to being in a cult – Van Vliet emotionally terrorized the band, and visitors even called the house, “Manson-esque.” There was little to no money, very little food, and rehearsals were non-stop and intensive, averaging about 14 hours a day. It was so bad that a few musicians attempted escape, and Van Vliet punched guys and threw them down staircases. Not cool.

After the painful eight months passed, the band recorded the 28 songs that became Trout Mask Replica relatively quickly, and when they were finished, Van Vliet spent a few days dubbing in his gruff vocals over their already recorded instrumentals. It was at this point Zappa realized Van Vliet was creating something singular and odd, and rather than offer guidance or help, he took a hands-off approach and allowed Van Vliet to operate under the clarity of his own vision. 

And man, what a vision. It’s like nothing I’ve ever heard before, and it’s more than forty years old. I guess it comes off mostly as “avante-garde,” but classifying it is cheap. John Peel, the legendary British music journalist may have nailed it when he said, “If there has been anything in the history of popular music which could be described as a work of art in a way that people who are involved in other areas of art would understand, then Trout Mask Replica is probably that work.' 

Yup. It’s just…a big, sprawling, incredible piece of….art. Not a Monet, or a Rembrandt…no, this is modern art. Jagged, strange, and absurd, yet somehow moving and thoughtful. This is definitely not something you want to throw in as background at your next dinner party. It’s the kind of album you listen to on headphones and let hit you hard, like a spinning mass of twisted metal and wood – it’s a messy sculpture made of sound. 

I’ve posted a few tracks below that I think best exemplify what this album is all about. Or, at the very least, will give you a good idea of what it sounds like, mostly. But I can’t suggest enough trying to listen to the whole thing, at least once. In my mind, there are two things it reminds me of – The Minutemen’s album “Double Nickels on the Dime,” and John Waters’ movie “Pink Flamingos.” Don’t know why. Can’t even try to explain it. It’s just the feeling I get from those is in the same ballpark. A feeling that I can’t really describe. Which I hope is what Van Vliet was going for all along.

I chose to skip rating this album in my typical "out of 5 stars" ratings. It just doesn't seem right. If you've got any thoughts on this one, just let me know in the comments!

-N.W.

Trout Mask Replica - Important Tracks:

[ mp3 ]: Captain Beefheart - Frownland

[ mp3 ]: Captain Beefheart - Moonlight On Vermont

[ mp3 ]: Captain Beefheart - Orange Claw Hammer

[ mp3 ]: Captain Beefheart - Sugar 'N Spikes

BONUS: Found this clip of Van Vliet on the Letterman Show, circa 1982. Pretty fascinating. You can get a good idea for how "out there" he really was.