Another of our new 33 1/3 books for Spring is Kevin Courrier's expert telling of the many stories behind Trout Mask Replica. Here's an excerpt from Chapter 4 of the book, "A Little Paranoia is a Good Propeller"...
As for the "strange music," which would ultimately comprise Trout Mask Replica, the inspiration for it was partly due to the jazz records that Gary Marker had been playing Beefheart over the past couple of years. Among the stacks of Archie Shepp, John Coltrane and Charles Lloyd albums, there was one record that particularly stood out. It was a rare disc by author Lawrence Lipton called Jazz Canto. Lipton was a writer with a varied career, who early in the '40s wrote mysteries, novels and poetry. In the late '50s, when he was in his sixties, he became linked to the Beat writers such as Jack Keroauc and Allen Ginsberg, in the poetry renaissance in San Francisco. Later that year, Lipton began experimenting with the latent musical rhythms within verse by combining poetry with jazz music. While working with Shelly Manne, Jimmie Giuffre and Buddy Colette, he perfected an integration of the two forms. When Benny Carter and Jack Hampton heard Lipton discussing his fusion of poetry and jazz on CBS Radio, they called on him to produce a whole series of poetry-and-jazz concerts. This not only led to the First West Coast Poetry and Jazz Festival in December 1957, it resulted the following year in a concept record for World Pacific Records called Jazz Canto. The album drew upon the musical talents of Shorty Rogers, Paul Horn and Barney Kessel to shape their music around the recitations of poets like Kenneth Rexroth, Stuart Z. Perkoff and many other West Coast bohemians. The record provided a portal by which Beefheart could combine poetic timbre with the musical arrangements from his group.
Gary Marker had also partly provided the idea for the musical structure of Trout Mask. One day, while learning how to edit, Marker was told to take out a number of reference tapes and put together a series of 4-bar and 8-bar segments in a random order, then match them up so that the metre would be accurate. While Marker was playing back his seemlessly edited opus of disjointed parts, Beefheart happened to enter the studio and immediately wanted to know what he was doing. Once Marker explained the process to him, Don decided that he wanted to create a music that was, as Marker recalled, "like punching buttons on a radio and getting random stuff that hangs together." To achieve this conceptual strategy for Trout Mask Replica, Beefheart turned to the one person he could: John French. "Alex [Snouffer] directed the original band, until Don kept asserting himself to the point where Alex became disgusted and gave up," French explained to Bryon Coley of Spin. "It took somebody to arrange what Don was doing; not creating music necessarily -- although I created a lot of my own drum parts -- but just making sure that everybody knows what everything is, so that the tunes don't go on for 20 minutes."
The popular myth, devised by Beefheart, then embellished by the rock press, was that he composed all the songs on Trout Mask Replica at a piano in a remarkable eight-day span. Not only is the claim patently false, it helped propagate a cult of personality around Beefheart. It was reminiscent of the declarations made by many auteur film critics that Orson Welles was the sole genius behind Citizen Kane, as if Herman J. Mankiewicz's screenplay were merely an adjunct to the picture. Yet the Trout Mask myth served another purpose. It enabled Beefheart to claim an artistic control thus far denied him and it pitted him as the resident genius next to his friend/rival Frank Zappa. Since most rock critics despised Zappa, especially for his snide put-downs of the counter-culture scene, it proved easier to exalt the more romantic view of Beefheart as the misunderstood master. It's a spurious perspective still held today - although the Magic Band has finally been recognized for the importance of their contributions.
One significant truth of Beefheart's assertion, though, was that he began composing the music for Trout Mask on the piano. One day, he brought one into the house, even though (in the spirit of Victor Hayden) he couldn't play it. As Mike Barnes pointed out in his Beefheart biography, Vliet approached the piano in an intuitive manner, "unencumbered by technique as he possessed none." Barnes described the process, quoting future Magic Band guitarist Gary Lucas, by suggesting that Beefheart was "throwing a pack of cards in the air, photographing them as they fell and then getting the...musicians to reproduce the frozen moment." John French agreed with the intuitive approach Beefheart applied. "Don could neither read nor write music notation as he had no formal music education," he explained. "Yet with this handicap, he still managed to communicate several albums worth of material through whistling, singing, and playing parts on guitars, drums, harmonicas, pianos, and any other instrument within reach. Had he been able to write music in the conventional manner, there is no telling what this man might have accomplished musically."
Even so, Beefheart accomplished more than anyone could have bargained for - and French knew it. This is one reason why he used a tape recorder to get Beefheart's spontaneous musical lines down for notation. "I had been tape recording Don's piano parts," French remembered. "He would go on for hours, just hours, to get one little thing on there and we finally ran out of tape. He was like, 'John, record this! Get this, man! Get this! Come on!' He'd be sitting at the piano, trapped in his own creativity, because he couldn't get up. If he moved his hands he'd forget what he was doing."