18 December 2010

Hair Pie, Bake III

Art should be independent of all clap-trap.
— Jas Abbott McNeill Whistler

Don Vliet (later Don van Vliet, later Captain Beefheart) is no more:

Mr. Van Vliet’s life story is caked with half-believable tales, some of which he himself spread in Dadaist, elliptical interviews. He claimed he had never read a book and had never been to school, and answered questions with riddles. “We see the moon, don’t we?” he asked in a 1969 interview. “So it’s our eye. Animals see us, don’t they? So we’re their animals.”

Quite possibly I’ve said this before, but one of the things about The Rock Press &c. which tickles me, has been that Trout Mask Replica is routinely listed among (for abstract example) The World’s Greatest 100 Albums; yet it is nearly the only album in that list to which the majority response is apt to be, I tried it out, and it’s unlistenable.

Personally, I think that the term avant-garde is (largely) misused in reference to Beefheart (and the frequently-slung adjective atonal, almost always misapplied). Practically every musical element in his work comes from blues and related offshoots (not that there’s anything wrong with that); his inventiveness was organizational. Something with which this composer can sympathize, Beefheart found a lot of the patterns and repetition boring.

Of course, that ties in neatly with Stravinsky, and his genius for destroying symmetries and tidy repetition (together with a genius for noodly varied repetition), who was an idol unto Frank Zappa, Don Vliet’s boyhood friend. Zappa gave Don complete liberty for Trout Mask Replicado whatever you please, I’ll just capture it on tape — though of course there are also some stories about Beefheart responding even to this with some paranoid contrarianism.

But certainly, in a way which is strikingly analogous to new music written in the ‘classical’ tradition, Trout Mask Replica demands your full attention, and requires that you listen to it on its own terms. So many people buying the compact disc there in the Pop Music aisle have brought (and will bring) to the disc, to greater or lesser degree and in all likelihood unconsciously — or at any rate, with tough roots down in the subconscious — an expectation that it can be listened to in much the same way as this or that pop artist (or ‘artist’).

And given such an exercise, compared to Neil Diamond, Trout Mask Replica is, admittedly, ‘unlistenable’. The music is brash, febrile, hardly establishes any rhythmic pattern without freely leaving that pattern to flap on the sidewalk while the music rapidly moves elsewhere. Van Vliet’s voice is all over the map, he growls, shouts, plumbs velvety depths, squinches up to a timbral pinch, half-sings, hoots, or simply declaims. And that is apart from either the at-times-surreal play of the words themselves, or the occasional snippets of audio-verité dialogue in which Zappa particularly exulted (in the everything around us to be heard, is music spirit of John Cage).

On the whole, I should be surprised (though I admit it could not be impossible) if anyone simply liked the album on an initial hearing. Although (a) there is a lot to like, which there is no reason not to like directly, and (b) of course I may just be generalizing from my own experience, which perhaps everyone has done one time or another.

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