BY JONATHAN CORTEZ
A quote that has always stuck with me was Tim Minchin on how “A genius is just a mentally ill person with an audience,” as it perfectly embodies the fine-line between a creative revolutionary versus a deranged madman. I don’t think that quote could be more true for the 1969 album “Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band: Trout Mask Replica”. An album which, even by today’s standards, is considered to be the most abrasive and offbeat works of art ever conceived. To put it simply “Trout Mask Replica” is a disorienting madhouse, which serves to remind us of one thing: you don’t have to follow the rules. You don’t have to follow any of them.
In order to truly understand the disorder of “Trout Mask Replica”, you should understand the background of the album. Van Vliet’s (aka Captain Beefheart) band had jumped from label to label, often only releasing a few singles, mainly because the labels didn’t have the same ambition as Vliet. After some time of label hoping, Van Vliet was Approached by his high school friend, now music legend, Frank Zappa who had offered Van Vliet the opportunity to record an album with total artistic freedom. Van Vliet gratefully took Zappas offer.
According to the book “Trout mask replica”, by Kevin Courier, who interviewed multiple members of the band along with Frank Zappa and the 2005 Vanity Project Interviews, In preparation for the studio recording sessions, Van Vliet had his entire band, along with himself, live in a rental house with all the windows completely boarded up. Van Vliet wanted not only total artistic control over the album, but total emotional control over his musicians. The result was 8 months of grueling,violent, and near-traumatizing discipline. The band practiced for 14 hours a day and if they didn’t suffice Van Vliet’s expectations, Vliet would stuff them in a barrel and berate them, often for days, till they collapsed in tears or in submission. Vliet also made requests that were impossible, such as requesting drummer John French to “play a strawberry.” Being unable to do so, French was beaten and threw down a flight of stairs by Van Vliet. Vleit Immediately kicked him out the band and told him to “Take a walk, man.”
The band was prohibited from ever leaving the house and lived only on welfare, resulting in several band mates being arrested for shoplifting (Zappa bailed them out). From the 1997 documentary, “The artist formerly known as Captain Beefheart”, French recalls living on nothing but a small can of soybeans a day for a month. After these 8 months, the band went into the studio of Zappa, to record the album. Zappa and the rest of the band claim they recorded all 28 songs in a single 8 hour session. Van Vliet claimed that he composed every song, yet later band mates claimed otherwise.
What was the result of 8 months of brutal practice? An incoherent mess, of terribly produced songs. Yes, from a technical standpoint, Trout mask replica is unlistenable, especially to those who don’t usually listen to rock, blues or experimental music in general. The band tries desperately to be as incoherent and random as humanly possible. With guitars and bass lines that make no sense, drums that bounce and pound oddly, and Van Vliet himself howling over all this, most would assume the band have no clue how to play their instruments.
Atop unlistenable instrumentation, the production( or lack thereof) is equally as grating.Yet the god-awful recording, the aimless instrumentation, and bizzare lyrics are all what make Trout mask replica a masterpiece. Van Vliet and his band rejected commercial suitability, mainstream appeal, and accessibility for artistic fulfillment. No, they didn’t become international rock stars and sell millions like other bands of their era, but they became legendary in the inner music scene. Everyone who was interested in progressive rock, or rock in general knew of Captain Beefheart. Trout mask replica rejects everything the establishment had defined as “rock” and shattered the rules. Trout mask replica is a spit in the eyes to snobs and elitists who define music with strict confinements and rules.
If there’s one thing anyone can take away from Trout mask replica is to never be afraid to break the rules. Don’t be afraid to sound weird or try something new. Don’t be afraid to sound like a complete maniac. When I first listened to Trout mask, I was totally appalled by the record. Yet after countless listens, It’s grown on me. While the performance and lyrics by Van Vliet and his band seem like nonsensical randomness at first, after some time, you realize everything is meant to sound the way it does.
As students who are relatively young, many of us are still getting our feet planted in the ground. Many of us are still figuring out, well everything. Whether it’s music taste or who we are as a people, were still figuring things out. Trout mask replica tells us to do whatever we want. Take a jump into something even if it seems absolutely ridiculous. Trout mask replica reminds us that, you can do something just for the sake of doing it.