Trout Mask Replica
Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band
When Tom Waits gives you props for bringing the crazy, you know you've reached some transcendental level of lunacy. Not that anyone would have dared to tell Captain Beefheart, who once pushed a drummer down a flight of stairs for failing to 'play a strawberry', that he was nuts.
Madness and genius have been inextricably linked throughout the ages, not least in the arts, and most especially in music. You have to be a hamper short of a picnic, the thinking goes, to get synapses short-circuiting to produce bursts of pure creativity. But there's music by tortured geniuses and sad broken poets, and then there's Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band. Listen to it too often, or for too long at once, and you might start to question your own mental health.
Waits warns: 'The roughest diamond in the mine, his musical inventions are made of bone and mud. Enter the strange matrix of his mind and lose yours.' The song titles alone are enough to give you pause: Hair Pie Bake 1. Pachuco Cadaver. Ant Man Bee. Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish. Only a madman, or someone trying to impersonate one, could cough up such frothing nonsense. Anyone who claims to 'get it' is a hipster-wannabe liar. It's impossible to 'get' this level of virtuoso-deranged chaos. The listener can only stand back, knock-kneed with fear.
'My smile is stuck, I can't go back to your frownland,' the Captain warbles through werewolf teeth on Frownland, the opening track. And for 28 songs he sinks those fangs into the listener's brain - and keeps chewing. You feel for the Magic Band, tasked with keeping up with the composer's surreal musical visions, and they must have struggled to recall which bit of what song came next. The tunes jump about like hyperactive children with Ritalin grins. But perhaps 'tunes' is the wrong word - they're more like attention deficit symphonies: mad chattering rhythms; a dozen different time signatures in a single song; random bits of blues, rock, folk and assorted musical perversions.
There are random guitar wails and gratuitous sax. And over all of it in his importuning multi-octave growl, the insistent babbling insanity of the Captain's stream of incontinence, with references to 'fast and bulbous' squids 'eating dough in polyethylene bags'.
Beefheart buffs will know the legends. How the Captain, aka Don Van Vliet, had his musicians rehearse for a year to translate the simmering visions in his skull into something approaching actual songs, then recorded 20 of them in one day. How he wouldn't let them eat or sleep or leave his house. How he made them wear dresses and subjected them to endless hours of group therapy. How he brought Frank Zappa in as producer, and how Zappa instantly recognised an evil genius at work and left Beefheart to get on with making his magnum opus of madness. You wonder how the band put up with his abuse, but would you mess with a man who could hit a high C while simultaneously blowing on two saxophones?
Whether the Captain was a real-deal loony tune or simply, as Lester Bangs suggested, 'the only true Dadaist in rock', doesn't really matter. Trout Mask Replica stands alone, a jabbering beacon at the far edges of our universe, pulsing its arrhythmic logorrhea through bursts of static, warning of the epic weirdness and flights of madness that lurk in the human mind.