There are a hundred different moments scattered throughout Trout Mask Replica that trick you into thinking you’re listening to something familiar, something you could feasibly move your body to. Half an hour in, there’s even a bona fide blues song, no frills, very familiar; in this way, “China Pig” comes across as both the best and worst song on the album. It’s certainly the most listenable. You can fold laundry to it. It sounds like Muddy Waters. It’s got all twelve bars. Cool.
But it’s a respite from the hurricane, and however deeply you love a good hurricane will surely dictate your appreciation of the song, and of the album surrounding it.
What can we do with difficult art? Captain Beefheart did not know how to play the piano, not really, but still he used the instrument to write each individual part for every member of his Magic Band, for each song on their newest record. He asked them to get to know each of these parts blindly, without hearing what any of the other portions sounded like. It was cut and paste, a real ctrl+c, ctrl+v kind of music-making. Then when they all got together to rehearse and later record, he shouted surrealist poetry over it. He called one of the songs “Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish,” and another one “My Human Gets Me Blues,” and another one “The Blimp (mousetrapreplica).” Its is 2019, 50 years after its release, and Trout Mask still sounds like difficult art. Which is another way of saying it sounds like nonsense.
When it comes up in conversation that I was in a band throughout high school and into college, the first question people always ask is “What instrument did you play?” It’s the logical question to ask; unfortunately, I don’t have an answer, or I guess I have too many. I played a Casio I stole from my mom’s basement. I played the ukulele, acoustic and electric. I played the banjo, poorly. I played a sampler at our live shows, and a pair of amps plugged into one another so that what came out when they were both turned on and turned up was a sort of modulated feedback loop. My favorite years with the band were the first two, when we were a noise collective who always asked to go up first on the bill so we could get the cops called on us before anyone else got the chance to play. My favorite performance is still the one where we covered “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” in a swirling mass of chaotic drum machines, high-pitched squeals, and a looped sample of a ringing telephone. I didn’t know how to do anything well, so I did whatever I wanted to.
Years later, there’s still one recording session I regret missing out on, even though I hadn’t been invited in the first place. My friend and bandmate had two younger brothers, and one Saturday afternoon the three of them decided to recreate A Love Supreme. The youngest, at 11 years old, played the piano. The middle brother, at 13, played the saxophone (he was in middle school band). And my friend, 16 years old, drummed on a toy drum set. They were methodical, almost scientific, in their process, listening to one minute of the album at a time, then recreating that minute of music to their best of their ability. They were hampered by their kitchen desktop’s Microsoft recording software, with which you could only record one minute at a time. They were not hampered by their inability to play music with any skill or practiced know-how. That piano sounds like this note, yeah? He maybe just zonked on the sax way up this high, right? Let’s just feel it out and see what happens.
The recording that resulted from this afternoon is a gauntlet for any sane listener, the simple vocal chanting at the end of track one a welcome respite from the chaos. I thought it was one of the funniest, most creative things I had ever heard. I likened it to the Shaggs and Into Outer Space with Lucia Pamela. It should come as no surprise that at the time, Trout Mask Replica was one of my friend’s all-time favorite albums.
What can we do with difficult art? Where do we put it? Trout Mask Replica is 28 tracks long, falling just short of the 80-minute mark. If you cobbled together the even slightly more conventional parts from throughout its tracklist, you’d have maybe 10 minutes of easy listening, and this is being generous. There are whiffs of Ornette Coleman and Paul Bley and Edgard Varese and of course John Cage, but oddities of the stage almost feel closer to the project than anything else. Brecht and Ionesco, Breton and Artaud and Luigi Pirandello—all artists fascinated by the surreality of merely existing, of bringing this to the forefront at every given opportunity. In one scene, an actor throws a basket of live puppies into the audience. In another, the cast speaks in a gibberish only they understand. Just after intermission, all the actors die—it isn’t clear whether or not the characters do as well. If there are no rules then everything counts, everything matters.
Captain Beefheart lived outside of his Magic Band as Don Van Vliet. He considered himself an avant garde composer, and as a teenager made fast friends with fellow left-coast weirdo Frank Zappa. After a debut album of pretty standard blues rock songs punctuated here and there with shocking madness, Zappa would go on to produce Vliet’s sophomore record. With this one, Zappa said, leave nothing behind, pursue every radical impulse. He wanted him to take the blues artists he loved so much and filter them through free jazz, dada, childlike tinkering, Stravinsky. Beefheart composed each individual instrument’s parts for the new songs himself, on a piano he didn’t really know how to play, then spent eight months with his band obsessively rehearing the new material. They then recorded all of the music together over the course of a single six-hour session in a house in Los Angeles, the songs by that point more muscle memory than music. They were only going through the motions, Olympic sprinters finally at the block.
I lied before when I said that Don Van Vliet considered himself an avant garde composer—he considered himself an artist, medium notwithstanding, and honestly most likely not even that. As a child, he was by all accounts a prodigy of a sculptor, though his parents removed visual arts as a viable career path early on. Over time, he gravitated toward music, keeping reams of sketchbooks and stacks of canvases on his person throughout adulthood. When he left music behind at the tail end of the 1970s, he left it for painting, spending the last couple of decades of his life as a serious painter who eventually found serious fans in Julian Schnabel and Mary Boone before the rest was history. His work has been compared to Franz Kline and Rothko; I could study much of it in the same way I slobber all over Twombly. Van Vliet died in 2010 more a painter than a musician, for much of the art world—I was snowbound in a drafty house in Montana that winter, and remembered him the way that was most difficult and made the most sense: Trout Mask Replica on loud, on loop.
Because what it is we do with difficult art is the same we do with anything at all: choose to give it our time, or not. The only thing there ever is to “get” when the work feels ungettable is the notion that you could be moved by this particular strangeness, at this particular time, for this or that particular reason. Or perhaps no reason at all. As our organic selves and our digital selves blend deeper and more easily into a single suffering being, the echo chamber of our lives amongst others is only yawping louder and more cavernously. Grappling almost seems not worth the time at all. That’s your prerogative, and mine, most days. On our better ones, though, I like to think that we prefer the work of it.