In Beefheart's absence Bob Krasnow released the album Strictly Personal under his own label, Blue Thumb, without Beefheart's approval. As lawsuits filled the air, Beefheart himself was left in bewilderment. The record had been electronically altered through a process called phasing which totally obliterated the sound which he had been striving to put down. "That's the reason that album is as bad as it is," he sighs when asked about the incident. "I don't think it was the group's fault. They really played their ass off — as much as they had to play off."
But despite the electronic and legalistic hanky panky surrounding its production, Strictly Personal is an excellent album. The guitars of the Magic Band mercilessly bend and stretch notes in a way that suggests that the world of music has wobbled clear off its axis. Beefheart's singing is again at full power. In songs like "Trust Us" and "Son of Mirror Man — Mere Man" it sounds as if all the joy and pain in the universe have found a single voice. Throughout the album the lyrics demonstrate Beefheart's ability to juxtapose delightful humor with frightening insights — "Well they rolled around the corner / Turned up seven come eleven/That's my lucky number, Lord/I feel like I'm in heaven."
The unfortunate fact about the second album was that few people were able to get into it. Apparently, the combination of Beefheart's musical progress and Krasnow's electronic idiocy made the album too much for most listeners to take. Strictly Personal sold poorly and did nothing to advance the band's popularity.
To this day there exists a strange love/hate relationship between Beefheart and Krasnow over the record. Krasnow claims that Beefheart still owes him $113,000 and that as a result of Beefheart's disorganized way of handling money, he has been thrown in jail twice. Beefheart, on the other hand, usually cites Krasnow as a charlatan and pirate — the man most responsible for destroying his career. At other times, both men speak of each other with genuine respect, sympathy and affection. "I'd really like to have him back with me," Krasnow said recently. "He's actually a good man," Beefheart will tell you.
Most of the Captain's relationships with those close to him are of this sort. Everybody's despicable villain one day, a marvelous hero the next.
The current focus of Beefheart's love/hate dialectic accounts for much of his current activity and inactivity. This time the prime protagonist is Frank Zappa.
Zappa has always had a great admiration for his old friend from Lancaster — an admiration often bordering on worship. Like so many of those around Beefheart, Zappa considers the man to be one of the few great geniuses of our time. When the smoke had cleared from the Blue Thumb snafu, Zappa came to Beefheart and told him that he would put out an album on his label, Straight Records. Whatever Beefheart wanted to do was O.K. and there would be no messing around with layers of electronic bullshit. The result was Trout Mask Replica, an album which this writer considers to be the most astounding and most important work of art ever to appear on a phonograph record.
When Beefheart learned of the opportunity to make an album totally without restrictions, he sat down at the piano and in eight and a half hours wrote all twenty-eight songs included on Trout Mask. When I asked him jokingly why it took that long, he replied, "Well, I'd never played the piano before and I had to figure out the fingering." With a stack of cassettes going full time, Don banged out "Frownland," "Dachau Blues," "Veterans' Day Poppy," and all of the others complete with words. When he is creating, this is exactly how Don works — fast and furious.
"I don't spend a lot of time thinking. It just comes through me. I don't know how else to explain it." In his box of cassettes there are probably dozens of albums of Trout Mask Replica quality or better. The trouble is that once the compositions are down it takes him a long time to teach them to his musicians. In this case it took almost a year of rehearsal.
Trout Mask Replica is truly beyond comparison in the realm of contemporary music. While it has roots in avantgarde jazz and Delta blues, Beefheart has taken his music far beyond these influences. The distinctive glass finger guitar of Zoot Horn Rollo and steel appendage guitar of Antennae Jimmy Semens continues the style of guitar playing which he has been developing from the start. It is a strange cacophonous sound — fragmented, often irritating, but always natural, penetrating and true. Beefheart himself does not play the guitar, but he does teach each and every note to his players. The same holds true for the drums. Don does not play the drums but has always loved unusual rhythms and writes some of the most delightful drum breaks in all of music.
On Trout Mask Replica Beefheart sings 20 or so of his different voices and blows a wild array of post-Ornette licks through his "breather apparatus" — soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone and musette. When Beefheart inhales before taking a horn solo, all of the oxygen in the room seems to vanish into his lungs. Then he closes his eyes, blows out and lets his fingers dance and leap over the keys. The sound that bursts forth is a perfect compliment to his singing — free, unrefined and full of humor.
Trout Mask is the perfect blend of the lyrics, spirit and conception that had been growing in Don Van Vliet's mind for a decade. Although it is a masterpiece, it will probably be many years before American audiences catch up to the things that happen on this totally amazing record.
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