By Gabe Meline
We used to play Trout Mask Replica to clear people out of the store at closing time. It was 1997, in Portland, Ore., the hometown of Matt Groening, who famously called Trout Mask "the greatest album ever made." Most customers called it unlistenable.
That was my introduction to Captain Beefheart, aka Don Van Vliet, who died last week at age 69 from complications due to multiple sclerosis—as a utility. Is not most all music, at its core, utilitarian? We seek music that we can dance to, that we can read to, that we can drive to, that we can make out to. But Trout Mask Replica is none of the above, unless the goal is for those activities to go unrecognizably awry. It certainly wasn't music to shop to, and thus, like a janitor, it effortlessly mopped customers out of the store and back to the safety of the predetermined.
Partially due to its built-in jaggedness and partly due to owning it on double LP, split into four sides of dense listening, I have never listened to Trout Mask Replica in its entirety, beginning to end. Even so, it's clearly one of the greatest records ever made, because, like a mop, it collects the detritus of so many genres—blues, free jazz, early psychedelia, spoken-word poetry—and wrings them out into a fascinating if crowded pail. Not all pails need to be shotgunned.
What Beefheart does with this detritus is fascinating. He doesn't attempt, at least in conventional ways, to shape it into a cohesive whole; instead, guitar parts scurry in and out of time, the drums clunk hobblingly under the beat, and Vliet, who didn't want to hear the music when recording his vocals, coughs, sputters, scowls and bellows around the rhythm, resulting in even more elasticity. But to say it's "sloppy" overlooks its careful orchestration. Trout Mask Replica had been rehearsed tirelessly and monastically for eight months at a house in Laurel Canyon, where no band members were allowed to leave and usually ate one bowl of soybeans per day. As a result, the album took just four and a half hours to record.
With an output spanning 15 years, Vliet's influence is mammoth, but not blanketing. As little kernels of his vision worm into other artists' work, his music is a contagion that prefers to whisper its name. One noticeable exception is Tom Waits, whose debt to Beefheart shouts even beyond the lumbering, Dolphy-by-way-of-junkyard music of his mid-'80s period. To see footage of Beefheart live is to see the source of Waits' flailing arms and door-hinge wrists, and both fled Los Angeles to stay creative by the California coast (to say nothing of the shared hat tip to Howlin' Wolf).
What hurts is learning what a dictator Beefheart could be. Abandoned by his more respected peers like Ry Cooder and, later, Frank Zappa, Beefheart sealed his fate as a recluse by walking off the stage at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1968 before his first song was finished. For the next 13 years, he kept trying to walk away, with various botched record contracts signed and broken, until his rudimentary painting finally reeled him away from music forever.
By that time I came across him in 1997, Vliet had long since retired from music. None of my friends knew exactly where to, other than "the desert," and when the internet got good at tracking these things, it didn't offer much more than "rural Northern California." The news came last Friday, during a busy workday, that Vliet had died at Mad River Hospital in Arcata, Calif. I shuffled into the Bohemian newsroom to break the news, expecting blank stares. Surprisingly, the entire editorial staff not only knew who Vliet was but professed their love of his work. For every 10 people his music drove away, it seems, one person was made richer for it. Such people tend to converge.
This past week, Trout Mask Replica has probably been played more times than ever in the past 40 years, as memoriam. But to his many followers, Beefheart is mirrored in every parking lot full of cars whose windshield wipers bleat off-time; he's on every farm with competing pig squeals, tractor horns and dinner bells; he's in every trinket store with multiple music boxes chiming at once. Wherever so-called cacophony reigns, Captain Beefheart is there, making sense of it all.