Ella Guru by Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band

One of my favourite books is The Rolling Stone Rock ‘n’ Roll Reader, a collection of Rolling Stone articles and interviews from the late 1960s and early 1970s. It captures a point when the magazine, and rock music as a whole, were both at the peak of their cultural relevance. One of my favourite stories is a 1970 cover article on Captain Beefheart. You can read the whole article on Rolling Stone, but I’ve copied my favourite section below.

“That’s right The Mascara Snake. Fast and bulbous. Tight also.”

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.

For the first time in his career, Beefheart was entirely satisfied with his album. Zappa had made good his promise to give him the freedom he required and in fact issue the record in a pure and unaltered form. Nevertheless, the Beefheart/Zappa relationship is presently anything but an amicable one. Beefheart claims that Zappa is promoting Trout Mask Replica in a tasteless manner. He does not appreciate being placed on the Bizarre-Straight roster of freaks next to Alice Cooper and the GTO’s. He constantly complains that Straight Records’ promotion campaign is doing him more harm than good.

Straight Records on the other hand claims that Beefheart’s problems are all of his own making. He refuses to go on tour and procrastinates about making a follow-up album. “What can we do?” a Straight P.R. man asked me. “Beefheart is a genius, but a very difficult man to work with. All we can do is try to be as reasonable as possible.” Straight’s brass recall that during the recording of the parts of Trout Mask which were done in Beefheart’s home, Don Van Vliet asked for a tree surgeon to be in residence. The trees around the house, he believed, might become frightened of the noise and fall over. Straight refused to hire the tree surgeon, but later received a bill for $250 for such services. After the sessions were over Beefheart had hired his own tree doctor to give the oaks and cedars in his yard a thorough medical check up — his way of thanking them for not falling down.

In another classic story of this sort, Herb Cohen of Straight recalls that one day he noticed that Beefheart had ordered 20 sets of sleigh bells for a recording session. Cohen pointed out that even if Frank Zappa and the engineer were added to the bell ringing this would account for only 14 sleigh bells — one in each hand of the performers. “What are you going to do with the other six?” he asked. “We’ll overdub them,” Beefheart replied.

The fact of the matter seems to be that precisely the same qualities of mind which make Beefheart such an astounding poet and composer are those which make it difficult for him to relate to Frank Zappa or anyone else in the orthodox music business. Like many notable creative spirits, Beefheart’s personality is not geared to the efficient use of time or resources. For this reason and for the reason that he has often been burned by the industry, Beefheart is very suspicious of those who try to influence the direction his career takes.


  1. Interesting. As a long-time RS reader and Zappa fan, I’m well aware of Beefheart and his relationship with Zappa. And Trout Mask Replica. But I confess that I’ve never been able to get into the album. Too strange, too disjointed as I recall. (It’s been a while.) All that said, this inspires me to give the album another spin. Who knows? Maybe I’ve grown into it. I’ll report back later.

  2. I have never heard Trout Mask Replica all the way through (one day I will), but from what I heard I can tell it is the most delightfully insane music piece ever put onto a record.

  3. CB is a big CB guy. Listening to ‘Safe as Milk a lot lately. hotfox63 just did a piece on it. If you haven’t checked his station out I recommend it. Eclectic. Similar to yours. How diverse can you get, Captain Beefheart to Simon and Garfunkel?

      • I might have read it a long time ago. I find that “masterpiece” and similar adjectives get a little overused.. It is a good album. There is a cool doc on CB that does a segment on this album. I find a lot of this stuff humorous (love the quotes). Good read. Thanks for posting it. The Captain was a character who made music that I dig.

        (I have a lot of those RS’s in a box somewhere. I also have a book ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll. You would probably like it. Keep pulling out these stories. Interesting).

        • I would like to dig some more stuff out of that book, but I’ve covered a lot of 1960s and 1970s stuff on Song of the Day recently, so I probably need to go forward in time for a while. Plus those Beefheart anecdotes are the best bit of the whole book for me.

          • I was just looking at Rate Your Music and Trout Mask Replica is now the #6 ranked Beefheart album. It’s interesting, as it’s always been the high profile one, probably due in part to that Rolling Stone article, but it’s probably made it tough for people to get into Beefheart, with a tough double album. Looks like I need to spend more time with the rest of his catalogue.

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