The most common mistake I make when approaching strange music nowadays is to assume that I’ll get it because of my triumph over Trout Mask Replica. Everything — the Fall, Earth, LaMonte Young, Public Image Ltd., Ornette Coleman — is still difficult to listen to at first, until I hear it several times and eventually absorb and begin to enjoy the stuff. And it’s pretty much always worth it.
Those familiar with Beefheart’s most interesting and genuine album, though, would probably understand my misguided expectation. It took me a long time to warm up to Trout Mask Replica, it being the first “experimental” work of music that I tried to get, and for the past three years I have spent dozens of hours taking it in. Mine was a typical progressive arc: at first it was abrasive and nonsensical; then I listened to a few tracks which were appealing, songs like “Ella Guru” and “Moonlight on Vermont”; then I broadened my attack and listened to the whole thing in uninterrupted stretches which left me absolutely exhausted. I was convinced I would never enjoy this stuff — perhaps I would find it interesting and continue to pull it out when I wanted to scare the piss outta my friends, but it would never pop into my head and compel me to listen to the CD.
Boy, was I wrong.
After giving up TMR for about a year I returned to it last month. One day as I was driving down 101 from San Martin to San Juan Bautista I felt an urge to put it on after the end of Agharta, having played out much of my other music. I called up Beefheart on my iPod and linked it to the car stereo and settled back to listen as traffic slowed to a crawl. Maybe I would like it more this time.
I put it on and experienced a brief epiphany. “Frownland” was as horrid and unappealing as ever — one of the worst Beefheart songs, really — but I was stunned by my re-entry into “Ella Guru.” The guitars which had years before sounded so scratchy and insubstantial now rang like twelve-strings from the shrine of Roger McGuinn, and they pounded out as much beautiful blues and pop melodicism as cranky keyless dissonance. The songs were suddenly appealing and entertaining. I returned to the fold of Beefheart enthusiasts a true convert, a real fan of the man behind the fish mask; I was for real now.
Since then I have spent some brain cells on the obvious question: why have I come to enjoy Trout Mask Replica? It feels subtly different from other experimental works that I don’t enjoy as much — Weasels Ripped My Flesh, say, or The Well-Tuned Piano — and for a while I could not put my finger on what distinguished it from such head games. I’ve come to realize that the most prominent difference is in the mood: the prevailing feeling in this album is one of… joy. Once the barbed wire is peeled away from tracks like “Pachuco Cadaver” and “Sweet Sweet Bulbs” and “Fallin’ Ditch,” what’s left is a brilliant organic core of joy that imbues the songs with life and makes them more timeless and universal than any cloistered twelve-tone exercise. (Could Frank Zappa ever bring himself to shout “Dank drum ‘n’ dung dust” and then print it on the lyric sheet?) Beefheart tries to circumscribe human experience in his own garbled way, advocating for acceptance and tolerance (“When Big Joan Sets Up,” “My Human Gets Me Blues”), escaping dehumanizing modernity (“Wild Life,” “Frownland,” “Sweet Sweet Bulbs”), telling bittersweet campfire stories (the spoken poems, “Steal Softly Through Snow”), howling anti-Vietnam protest songs (“Bills Corpse,” “Veteran’s Day Poppy,” “Dachau Blues”), talkin’ depressive fixin’ to die blues (“Fallin’ Ditch”) and singing good old-fashioned love songs (tracks 2, 4, 7, 9, 10, 15, and 17). He runs the gamut of emotions and often gets the music to brilliantly complement his poetry — listen to the beauty as “Steal Softly Thru Snow”‘s verse riff underscores the line “the black paper between a mirror breaks my heart,” or the life-affirmation of Beefheart’s plaintive lonesome howl in conjunction with the first section of “Fallin’ Ditch.” (The bass countermelodies in many of these songs are nothing short of astonishing.) John French’s arrangements of eight hours of piano ramblings deserve much of the credit here, but Beefheart had such an excellent grasp of symbolism and mind-bending imagery that he is undoubtedly the player who puts this collection over the top and elevates Trout Mask Replica‘s appeal from intellectual to visceral. It’s not a perfect album — rarely are shifting multipartite songs consistently pleasing, and TMR is no exception — but its highs are so wonderful that the appreciative listener is really left with no choice but to give credit to its creators, if only for attempting to make an album this ambitious. I disagree with those who insist that it should have been a single record because almost every track hits home. Cut all you want from Double Nickels on the Dime, but leave Trout Mask Replica alone — this is as good as it’s gonna get. The best weird-out in rock history has worked its magic upon me; maybe it will work on you too. Good luck.