Crossing Rocky Ground: Looking Deeper Into Bruce’s “Wrecking Ball”

Almost two months have passed since the release of Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball, which means that the ‘event’ of the album is well behind us. All the major reviews have been written, the brief media discussion of the record’s merits and faults has been superseded by some other topic, and Wrecking Ball’s chart history has been established. Like most albums by rock artists of Springsteen’s age and stature, Wrecking Ball shot to number one, and quickly tumbled away, resting this week (the Billboard chart for May 5) at 31, surely bolstered by his current tour more than any airplay.

And we’ve had the chance to see Bruce, and a now-monstrous version of the E Street Band, present the new songs, first in a short series of TV appearances, then across the opening leg of a lengthy tour.

As fast as things move today, when you stop to actually listen carefully to Wrecking Ball, or to cobble an opinion of it (both of which I am doing now), you can find yourself looking back at it – it already feels very familiar. Two months of a new Bruce record, particularly an exceptional one, are usually filled with many replays, conversations about it, and at least one live show. And I got mine under the belt already: A great three-hour Cleveland concert that leaned hard on the new songs, but also showed off the freshly augmented band, on catalog showstoppers like “E Street Shuffle”, “Trapped”, and “Light Of Day”.

And with all that digested, I can now see Wrecking Ball standing next to the other standard-bearers of Springsteen’s canon, like The River, Nebraska, and the greatest of them all, Darkness On The Edge Of Town. And that was a point I did not expect to reach when the first of Wrecking Ball’s songs were offered up in the weeks preceding the album’s release, introduced sadly by Internet and not by radio (hearing new songs by a great artist as a surprise, introduced by a rabid DJ beats getting a link in your e-mailbox anytime).

Springsteen fans have a perspective of him that comes most often from their first Bruce kick, whether it was those who saw him barnstorm east coast clubs in the days before Born To Run, or those converted by Darkness, or the masses who came under his watch in 1984, when the other “Born” album ruled both radio and MTV, or even the second generation of Springsteen fans who were ushered to E Street reunion shows in ’99 and ’00 by parents and older brothers. Each of those groups, and others, have something specific they want – A particular sound or a lyrical feel that will bring them back to that place where they were first injected with Bruce Juice. I don’t think this is nostalgia. I think everyone innately searches for new sources of the adrenalin they once felt, no matter the source. Wanting to feel engaged and energized by a source once terribly strong is not a sign of someone living in the past. Rather, I think it’s part of our clockwork. For many, Springsteen music is a part of their regular cycle of happiness, even for those who are not devoted five-shows-every-tour Bruceheads.

So when an album comes along with a warning label, we have a tendency to push back from the table at first. Wrecking Ball, before it hit the stores – whatever that means now – was said to be ‘experimental’, ‘radical’, and ‘diverse’. I don’t think that scared Bruce fans as much as it bummed them out a little. Since Springsteen came back to a full schedule of activity about 12 years back, he’s offered up a slew of releases and tours. It’s been sort of a new golden era for Bruce buyers. But among the new records in that run, you will not find what so many Bruce followers really want: A return to the true E Street Band sound. That big-but-lean, loud-but-clean attack forged on Born To Run, perfected on Darkness, and exploited on The River. The Holy Trinity of Bruce records, for my generation of fans these were the albums and tours that sucked the air right out of our lungs. It’s true what they say: They go in threes. Just like celebrity deaths, the greatest rock artists of the album era usually cement their legacies with a run of at least three killers in a row. Bringing It All Back Home led to Highway 61 Revisited and then to Blonde On Blonde, and you could easily name a dozen more trilogies of similar impact. When the strongest rock writers and performers make a run like that, they establish an audience that believes in them forever. Even if they never quite hit the nail again, that audience believes the heavyweights can do it again, and at least knows that the artist has the goods to give them the adrenalin rush again when they drop the dime on another ticket.

Springsteen’s output from ’75 to ’80 put him in that class. Following that has come a wild ride of all kinds of records: Acoustic and painfully bare bones efforts, slick synthesizer give-ins, LA session-man workouts, Celtic folk revivals, 21st century ‘thick rock’ pep rallies, and Brian Wilson tributes. None of them ever brought back the E Street sound and force of ’78. Many thought Bruce and the band were coming back to that point with The Rising and Magic, and some even said those albums were the definition of E Street power. They were wrong. Fine records with some towering songs, sure, but Brendan O’Brien’s brick-wall production made them both feel dense and somewhat fatiguing. Thrills were often shallowed by a pushy waveform common in most albums of the last ten years. Distinctions between instruments were blurred, and, as in 1984, and again in the early 90s, we found ourselves with Springsteen records that sounded like other people.

Long-time fans, me included, kept hoping that a true E Street Band album would still emerge, one with all the live-in-the-studio sinew of the classic two-guitar, two-keyboard, sax and drums rocket ride that could still be found in E Street shows. After the meticulous Phil Spectorisms of Working On A Dream, it seemed that Bruce might bring things full circle at last.

Instead, Wrecking Ball was touted ahead of release as an amalgam of all he has done with a band in the last decade, mixing The Sessions Band with E Street musicians and some players who have come to be identified with Bruce over the last few years, particularly guitar-wringer Tom Morello.

For me, that didn’t bode well. People talk these days of a rock and roll rebirth, and there is one, with knockout garage bands all over the place. But it’s a hardening of a niche, not a resurgence at the most public level. Rock artists are cuurently defined by most people as lunkhead acts like Nickelback (when will these clowns go away?) or fashion models like Train. You and I know better, of course. So when a real master, someone you know can make a rock AND ROLL record, doesn’t choose to grab that option by the throat when it seems we need it most, it’s discouraging.

And even worse, Wrecking Ball seemed to be arriving as a half-assed effort. Of the 13 tracks announced for the record (if you shelled out for the ‘deluxe’ version – another pain-in-the-ass compromise to the creeps that run record labels), two, including the title track, had already been issued in other forms, and another was a staple of Springsteen encores. At first glance, it appeared that the most prolific writer this side of Elvis Costello couldn’t deliver more than 10 new songs and had resorted to padding.

When the songs started appearing, one-by-one in a marketing strategy designed to make you ‘tune’ to a new webpage everyday, first hearings left me cold. “We Take Care Of Our Own” didn’t strike me at first as anything extraordinary. It presents Bruce as the character he sometimes seems at live shows, a preacher who seems able to create a new cliché about our group condition every other Sunday. Immediately there was talk of the song being misunderstood, misappropriated, and jingoized the way “Born In The USA” was so many years back. But that really didn’t happen… Bruce is not as much a part of the everyday as he was then, and our 14-minute news cycle found something more controversial to yap about before the sun went down. “Take Care” also seemed to be a rather predictable extrapolation of the big, post-2000 Springsteen stage sound, with a somewhat-too-grand hook that needed no guitars. And, like “Radio Nowhere”, the lead-off from Magic, it wore thin quickly, particularly to those who caught Springsteen every time he passed through town – The riff was a little too obvious, akin to the kind of “na-na-na” codas Bruce attaches to many songs.

The following tracks, “Easy Money”, “Shackled And Drawn”, “Death To My Hometown” and the rest, mostly seemed to be musically obvious, relying on fiddles and accordions and other sounds Bruce became comfortable with during the Seeger days as a kind of conduit to the Americana audience. The sound is big alright, maybe too big, with what seems like a dozen singers getting undernearth Bruce on every chorus. And “Wrecking Ball”, originally casually released as a live single a few years back when Giants Stadium was about to be destroyed, was not only a re-tread, but made carbon paper use of a counterpoint vocal riff that Bruce had dropped on us all the way back in ’88, when he released a live acoustic version of “Born To Run”: A ‘whoa-ho-hoooo-oh-ho’ lick that he used to bring the audience into a performance of the one song that everybody wanted to hear played just like the 45 they bought as a kid.

It seemed that, not only would Wrecking Ball not be an E Street hot rod, but that Bruce had little to say that we didn’t already know. Clearly, there was rage in the lyrics that talked about what Wall Street jackals did to millions of homeowners and job-holders, but the messages seemed behind the times. Yeah, we got deeply rogered, Bruce, four years ago… So, where have you been since? The Occupy movement was last year, and already feels stale, and the pain of the crash of ’07 and ’08 has hardened into scars. It seemed like we were moving on, or trying to, acknowledging our weakness under the corporate scythe, and taking comfort in a slowly recovering economy and a few less battlefields. And then Bruce turns up to tell us how screwed up things are. It just didn’t fit. When Nebraska landed in ’82, it was right at the bleeding edge of what the Reagan Revolution was doing to the US: creating a schism that has yet to heal, or even to start healing. There was a sense of warning in that record, a feeling that the characters were coming to life all around us, that desperate acts were about to be commonplace… That the holster was on your hip. Nebraska seemed to say “The monsters in all of us are coming out from under the bed.” Those who would use our country as a means for their ends exclusively were summoning those monsters. Wrecking Ball, as it arrived, seemed to offer a warning-too-late, and a sense of spite that many of us were already sick of. You can’t hold bile in your mouth too long, but sometimes there’s no point in spitting it out, either. Especially if there is no one around to spit at.

But then I heard the ninth track from Wrecking Ball, a concoction of Lomax field recordings, light hip-hop, beatbox-and-piano, and Biblical imagery called “Rocky Ground.” And then, for me anyway, the ideas and execution of Wrecking Ball began to congeal. That song signaled to me that maybe I was being rash, and that this album might find a home in my home after all.

Like the rest of Wrecking Ball, “Rocky Ground” tries to mix up a big recipe: Gospel choruses making room for dry New Orleans horn parts (tarnished brass actually does have its own sound, it turns out), a touch of Curtis Mayfield guitar, on top of a synthesizer drone, accents from samples of tent revival shouts, and the scratch of a 78-speed record, and more and more revealed with each play. And yet, thanks to producer Ron Aniello, the recording never seems crowded, even with Bruce trading vocals throughout with Michelle Moore.

“Rocky Ground” uses the New Testament metaphor of shepherds and flocks and brings one part of today’s struggles into focus – That we can’t expect a new, brighter day if we only watch out for ourselves. That was the attitude taken by those who got us into this mess in the first place. And shepherds don’t just watch over their charges, nudging them back to he best grazing lands; They also keep watch for whatever predators might threaten their flock. Post-2008 citizens, too, can only pave a safe path by including their neighbors in their concerns, while being fierce to any notion that adversely impacts their rights and future, like the privatization of schools.

Most importantly, “Rocky Ground” talks about traveling over hard, jagged terrain, not getting stuck there. We’ve all done that lately, even if we were lucky enough to keep our homes and hold a steady bank account. We’ve watched retirement funds stagnate, and seen criminals walk away from crimes, and no one doesn’t know somebody who’s been financially crippled by bankers who are no better than Somalian pirates. But through all that, we have indeed, for the most part, kept walking. And we’ve done so without recognition of that progress. “Hold tight to your anger, don’t fall to your fears”, Bruce sings in the title song, in a much more compelling manner than in the song’s original version, as he reminds a generation who only heard rumors of the Great Depression that “Hard times come… and hard times go.” That last point is not one you’ll hear from the army of political and economic pundits that blather on all day every day. Instead, most commentators seem only capable of wallowing in the moment, and resist telling us that we’re stronger for what we endure, and that daybreak always follows night. Through the politicization of our troubles, our prominent media voices seek most often to trumpet the despair rather than encourage us to press on.

And Wrecking Ball, once it is allowed to reveal itself, with each song heard in context, does not do that. As I listened to the album a few times, I found that Bruce’s timing was better than I first thought. As we’ve gotten used to the ‘new economy’, we’ve started to forget how we got these scars in the first place. “Hold tight to your anger”, therefore, turns out to be an important lesson, and “Wrecking Ball”, the song, once a side item in the Bruce catalog, now leaps forward into 3D, anchoring an album with songs that fit best as chapters in a tale with a arc that ends in the voices of ghosts. First, there’s the fingering of culprits and the acknowledgement of the damage in songs like “Easy Money” and “This Depression”, along with the recognition that while our dreams may be sacrificed (a long-time Springsteen theme), we have skills enough to get by (“Jack Of All Trades”). Then comes the resistance that starts with the line “Bring on your wrecking ball” and continues through a brighter, louder version of the 12-year old “Land Of Hope And Dreams”, an evocation not just of Bruce’s promised land, or even Chuck Berry’s, but of the one created through settling of a new continent and the salvage of souls pushed too hard by life in Europe three hundred years ago.

Presented in concert, the Wrecking Ball songs mingle well with staples like “My City Of Ruins” and “Badlands”, and you can feel the band stretching them back and forth. None less than “Jack Of All Trades”, which now sits next to “Racing In The Streets” as an epic of a couple standing up to their circumstances, not just accepting them, which is what the robber-barons want of us all, anyway.

And when you come home to hear the album again, it’s concept takes full root, and Wrecking Ball emerges as an album that outstrips its initial misconceptions and ranks as better than any Springsteen has made in thirty years.

The E Street Band sound of 1978 is now gone for good, as much by the deaths of Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons as by the Irish/gospel/soul/Guthrie stew that Bruce now serves up in place of roaring engines and summer nights. And, happily, that stew has come to mature quickly and form a taste that we may one day long for as much as we once ached for the E Street Band of old.

Wrecking Ball looks ahead with its chin up but not with its cheek turned. And we should, too.

– Mister Stick

Last Album: Dr. John, Locked Down (preceded by 4 plays of Wrecking Ball)

I Shall Be Released

The Marvel of Marvell, Arkansas: 1940 -2012


Listening to Levon play drums was like putting your ear to the ground and hearing the rhythms of the whole country.

Gone now, I guess he needed someplace to lay his head.

– Sad Stick.

Current album: Music From Big Pink

Saturday Afternoon Wore A Wide Tie

The news channels tonight are filled with a looped recollection of Dick Clark, which covers his rise to fame as the ever-pleasant host of American Bandstand, on through dozens of other television ventures as host or producer, and culminating in scenes from the boring-but-traditional-as-pumpkin-pie-on-Thanksgiving New Year’s Rockin’ Eve shows, which Clark launched in ’72 and continued to contribute to in this century, long after a stroke made that seemingly impossible.

Dick Clark was a steady presence on television for about five decades, most often in attachment to some kind of presentation of popular music, with unswerving popularity and professional demeanor. But did this guy move the ball forward in any way? Did he really contribute to rock and roll? Was he truly a pioneer, a broadcaster and program creator who opened up a vista? Or was Dick Clark just an opportunist, someone with the same relationship to music that car dealers have to the autos they sell – Doesn’t matter what new models they dump on us this year, just find a way to convince the next guy through the door that this ride was made just for him.

Clark was never a rock and roller by design or lifestyle, the way many noted DJs were, from Tom Donahue to Jim Ladd. Dick was never, ever hip. He looked like a suit, because he was one. But a terrifically affable suit, for sure. Bland, perhaps, but at least bland is not by definition annoying. In fact, compared to the leaping chimps we’re expected to deal with now, blandness is almost an asset. You know it’s true: Flip through three or four channels this instant, and you will find a TV host that is as desirable as refined sugar on a bleeding cavity. Clark could easily be ignored, but for someone so ubiquitous, he could not be hated – There’s a lost art for you.

And forget that “Oldest Living Teenager” nonsense. Clark was purely adult, with the cred of a suit and a wide flat tie, and unflinchingly ‘middle’. That beige personality helped him deflect practically any criticism, and made it easy for him to charm the same payola prosecutors who gave Alan Freed the final push over the edge. Rarely was Clark ever off guard or apparently uncomfortable, because he simply would not enter into public situations where he was at risk. Keep smiling, and if you can’t say something kind of nice, then say something nicer. The only time I can ever remember seeing him pissed off was when Michael Moore ambushed him in Bowling For Columbine for being the hundredth link in a chain of very unfortunate events that killed a 6-year old back in Moore’s home state of Michigan. And in that case, I don’t blame Clark for snapping, and I don’t think he knew there was a camera rolling anyway.

Clark was incredibly willing to pimp ANYBODY, which may have been deceptive. It appeared that he was excited about every act he introduced just as a matter of formula. Read the prompter, move on. But I suspect his enthusiasm was slightly more genuine, if only because he didn’t want to be left out of whatever action was next. ‘Be the guy that holds the door for everybody’ might have been his mantra. And he had a solid platform, because he just looked like a guy you could trust. Or your parents could, anyway.

DJs and TV music personalities love to break acts, and benefit immensely from being in on the ground floor. If Dick Clark broke new acts, it was only by happenstance. He couldn’t lead an act to success, really, or even persuade an audience to try something new. He introduced, not endorsed. But he could always legitimately claim to contribute to hit bands, just because he kept the volume so high – and by ‘volume’, I mean amount, not loudness. Clark continuously spewed so much pop, rock, dance, and country music at our TV screens that he couldn’t help but hit the trifecta now and then. The staggering number and variety of acts he presented over the years on American Bandstand and what seemed like a hundred other programs meant that he couldn’t help but please us eventually. And it also meant that he couldn’t help but be an asset, over and over again, to bands and singers looking for their big break. For him, it wasn’t about making choices of who to promote. It was about creating enough bandwidth to promote everybody. So, if he made a lasting contribution to rock music, it was this: Let everybody in, give anybody a chance. Act like A Taste Of Honey is the next Supremes… Just in case… you know… they actually are. Of course, they most certainly were not, but nobody blamed Dick Clark, just as certainly.

But two points of his career seem to be overlooked tonight. First is the very, very long list of television concepts with his name on top that either were quite short-lived or simply still born. The losers, not the hits. Besides the immense successes as host, from Bandstand to Pyramid to that bloopers laugh-track fest with Ed McMahon, and those as producer, like the pointless but enduring American Music Awards, Clark had a crazy string of flame-out money-losers like World of Talent (on-air for about 10 forgettable weeks) and a kind of live music-and-motorcycle-stunt show on NBC in ’78. And his production resume surely isn’t bolstered by such schlock as Shaq Vs. and that horrible movie he made in the mid-70s about the birth of The Beatles. Didn’t matter to Dick. If the thing blows up on launch, just build another one… Something is bound to stick. My guess is that he put so many concepts on the network execs’ desks, they couldn’t find pitch sheets from anybody else. Besides providing the lesson of “hang in there, kid”, it’s another example of how Clark succeeded just on the volume. Mass media means mass consumption, and Dick knew that feeding the beast was the road to riches. Along the way, as a side effect, many were given their 2 minutes of fame (15 being a standard long ago diminished), and they owe Clark something for it. Just what he wanted: A career bank account filled by millions and millions of 5 cent deposits. Like pop bottles.

Second, it’s worth remembering that Dick Clark’s closest and most successful emulator passed just two months back. Don Cornelius, creator and host of Soul Train, did not introduce black music to white people. He did something even better. He introduced black people to white people, and was far cooler than both Clark and American Bandstand, or at least he seemed that way to those of us who were not privy to black culture, except through sitcoms and Soul Train. But without the concept of a nationally-televised mostly-white dance show to contrast with, Soul Train would not have had the same value, either to my rural community or to those of the inner cities. Cornelius took a more focused approach than Clark, creating niche music programming in contrast to the ‘anything goes’ format of Bandstand and AM Top 40. He went for the pockets of his own community and jumped from the teenage crowd to young adults. And it was clear that Cornelius was truly tight with a lot of the acts that stopped by the studio. Guys like Marvin Gaye and The O’Jays wanted to hang with Don. Dick was nice…. But there’s a party at Don’s place. If the two shows were restaurants, Don was a chef, and Dick a maître d’.

The losses of Clark and Cornelius remind us that presentation of music is only as good as the presenters, whether their approach is that of a friendly doorman or as an insider.

Today, much of the music is presented anonymously. We learn of new acts and releases through Facebook and blogs and sidebar ads, not through an excited TV huckster telling us to “get ready to dance”, as if anybody ever danced in front of the TV anyway. And there’s the contribution that’s lost in the passings of Dick Clark and Don Cornelius. Somebody to stand up and sell it, in a K-Tel, Oh My God You Won’t Believe It style, that we might buy at first, scrutinize later, and forget about down the road. These guys gave us the appetizers, and a reference point to move on from.

The moiré plaid Saturday afternoon countdown aspect of music promotion is gone, and the Colgate smiles with it. People are still selling you music, but Dick and Don looked you in the eye when they did it. Sure, the kids can still find Ryan Seacrest and others, but it’s different. They’re trying to be the audience or get the audience to be them or something. They’re not adults telling you it’s alright to like this stuff.

Don and DIck, especially Dick, made it look safe, which is the first trick to fooling your parents long enough to let you jump from Abba to AC/DC. So, tip one back for the coy subversives of syndicated television, the volume dealers and cool specialists. They won’t pass this way again.

– Mister Stick

Last Album: Toure Kunda – Paris Ziguinchor

Watermelon In Easter Hay

This is Easter morning, and I think Easter is more about repeatable habits than it is about ritual. ‘Ritual’ has a ring of importance to it, some sort of seriousness and pride. Habits are just a treadmill, a series of scheduled activities that we live with more than embrace. And maybe they’re something we give only as little energy to as they demand.

Example: I was in a local coffee and doughnut joint about an hour ago, and as I walked out, clutching an underfilled paper cup of blackened water and a small bag of muffins, the first wave of post-church-service pastry-suckers was strolling in (apparently somebody has a speedy drive-thru Easter service around here, ‘cause it wasn’t a minute after 9:20 AM – I also noticed the Baptists unlocking their church just 10 minutes before – not sure which is stranger). There were 3 or 4 kiddies coming through the doughnut door that, as a group, fit the cover of the church bulletin like a well-made key in a brand new lock, each more shamelessly decorated then the last: Little girls in tiny dresses that could double as midget parachutes, and a 7-year old boy in the nattiest pinstripe suit that a white middle class family could abide. Right behind them, here comes Dad, looking like he just got done rebuilding a carburetor, except he doesn’t look smart enough to rebuild anything. The Easter habit depicted here is to go to church for one of maybe three times this year – that’s showing the Big Guy some respect, right? – and to dress up your offspring in the nicest threads they may ever wear, sorry to say. But there’s no point in getting niced up yourself, as if you had anything respectable on the shelf, anyway. Because the point of all this is to get a nice camera-phone snap of the kids looking clean and sweet and send that off to grandma in Steubenville. Matter of fact, since that’s all that this is about anyhoo, screw going to the service, let’s just drop off the kids at Sunday School and snatch ‘em up an hour later and get that picture in front of the church. Maybe get the steeple in the back or something. It’s cheap and silly, and kind of embarrassing, but the preacher is too nice to say what he or she really wants to: “What do you think this is, a freebie day care room, you dumb hick?” And on the way home, we can crush any guilt the way Americans always do: With a jelly-filled piece of dough, fried in animal fat.

Run this routine a couple of years straight, and it’s quickly a cheap, low-demand easily forgotten repeatable activity and thus a habit, not a ritual. Rituals seem to demand some sort of statement or something. They force you to give a little; They seem to resist compromise. Habits can be rounded off, and you’re still satisfied with the activity on the back end. Thus, let’s keep Easter on the calendar, but, y’know… It’s for kids, really. I want the points for stuffing little Brandon Josh Skyler Tyler into a Wal-Mart-bequeathed ‘little man’s first suit’, though.

Maybe it’s just me (isn’t it always?), but if the Big Fella works the way I like to think he does, hypocrisy and corner-cutting are a couple of things he’s hoping we’ll reduce, not encourage. Churches work best, I think, as small tight communities where everybody shows up for every game, not as convenient options for habitual relief from guilt.

And as such, Mr. Stick checked out of church life quite a while back, and permanently, I suppose. I could cop to all the usual progressive attitudes, like how organized religion actually pulls us away from the truly spiritual, and so on and the like. Truth is, I respect the devout, but I just can’t be bothered with it, since I never focus on what’s going on nearby when I am sitting still for more than 4 minutes anyway. And far, far better to excuse yourself entirely from the social unit than to try to take a merit badge away from it while injecting as little energy into the motion of the group as possible. The worst thing we ever cooked up in this country was prizes for good attendance.

But Easter still holds a little something for El Sticko that no other day on the calendar does. And whether habit or ritual, it gleams at me nicely enough that I look forward to it for at least the week before, and I am gleefully indulging in it even as I bang these keys.

Every Easter morning, I listen to Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band (Straight/Reprise, 1969).

Easter is a day for your best duds, of course, including top hats and psycho wrap-around shades. Here we see The Captain and crew, circa ’69.

I got on this kick maybe 10 years back, when I re-read The Real Frank Zappa Book. Zappa, of course, was credited as producer for Trout Mask (or would you prefer just ‘Replica’?), and went through the ordeal of obliging the Captain’s idiosyncratic demands of the recording process. Example: Van Vliet refused to sing his parts from a vocal booth wearing headphones that would let him hear the mix of the band playing on the other side of the glass. That’s how sane people who want to go to dinner at a reasonable time do it, but not our man Don. The Cap’n was cool with the vocal box, alright, just not the ‘phones. So he sang along to the band based on only what he could hear leaking through the supposedly soundproof booth. And Frank, God bless him, went along with it.

Left to himself to tweak and mix all this noise into a landmark (or maybe landmine) of an album, Zap, according to the book, “finished at approximately 6:00 A.M. on Easter Sunday, 1969. I called them up and said, ‘Come on over; your album is done.’ They (Beefheart and the Magics) dressed up like they were going to Easter church and came over. They listened to the record and said they loved it.”

So, willing to ritualize Easter, but uninterested in watching a poor clergy person unspool the same tale of resurrection I have heard since I was 3, trying to make it somehow newly fascinating and convincing under the circumstance that nobody else has ever managed to snap out of a 3-day dirt nap in the 2K+ years since, I have substituted sitting by myself and frying the air around me with Trout Mask Replica.

I’m a sucker for anniversary-type events, and maybe I was looking for one more to cloud the calendar. More likely, though, I established the Trout Mask Breakfast as a way to make sure I listened to Beefheart’s most famous recording at least once a year. Come to think of it, I do not have such a code established for any other record, at least not pinned to a specific day and time of that day. Doing this after lunch would not work – it wouldn’t duly celebrate FZ’s achievement at actually assembling this mess at that time, nor would it be atypical enough to give me my own unique weird activity. I suspect fans of Replica usually slap it on late in the evening after girding themselves with strong drink for at least an hour previous. There’s also something about the album that makes it a wasteful summer Saturday afternoon kind of thing, for some reason.

Lester Bangs wrote once about a friend who told him he took acid every two months, just to “blow all the bad shit out of my brain.” And I think that’s some of the reason a lot of people like me make a regular date with Trout Mask Replica. It will, even in a casual frame, blow some of the dust and rust and must and grime off your mind. Notice that I didn’t say it would blow your mind – just blow at it. We’re in The Captain’s “Frownland” now indeed, drowning in soon-forgotten information more than ever, and we all know it. Our own opinions have been elevated to a status well beyond any legitimate standard of worth, and every single corpuscle of other people’s lives is magnified and sold to us like Happy Meals. All of it is such a whirlwind of squeaky monotone noise that, at this point, things that are really twisted, like the deepest end of Beefheart’s pool, seem to shine, and feel almost relaxing and pleasant.

I’ve heard people call Trout Mask beautiful. It isn’t. It’s fun, it’s fragmentary, it’s dynamic, it’s strangely sexual, and it’s filled with animals and squish. But it’s ugly, baby, the way all collages really are. The other Easter music I think about now, FZ’s “Watermelon In Easter Hay”, by the way, is as beautiful as its title is curious, but Trout Mask Replica lives up to its name not by recalling something strange (the Zappa title refers to that mish-mash of little green plastic strips in Easter baskets) but identifying something that no one asked for, fish masks not being one of the more popular costume pieces. And it’s magic comes from the fact that it doesn’t try to be pure or pretty or crystalline. You hear effort and stuggle and copycat work in almost the whole thing. It’s effect comes from comparing it to the gorgeous sunny Sunday morning that today goes along with it. It also has that great quality that the very best double albums all have: Sprawl. Yep, even if you’re a Beefheart fanatic, just try to name all 28 of the album’s titles in order – Hell, just try to REMEMBER that there ARE 28 in the first place. The fact that it’s too big to memorize puts in ranks with The White Album, Sign O’ The Times and Exile On Main Street. And, like those, it’s best enjoyed as a big whole piece, not cherry-picked. Maybe even more so – While “Back In The USSR” fits The Beatles in a perfect way, kicking off a weird powerful record that is nothing like any other Beatles LP, it sounds terrific on the radio, too. But Beefheart’s over-throttled grit-blues Dada blowups like “Hair Pie” and “Orange Claw Hammer” shine best in the context of their other Trout Mask companions. Again, it’s a record you compare to the humidity and shininess around it, not to other music, at least not to music by other people.

Trout Mask Replica was the first Beefheart for me, and I wasn’t shocked by it at all, since so much was available to read about this album before I ever popped for a copy. I knew to expect avant-blues beat poetry played by people who either couldn’t play worth a damn, or were playing in such a hard-nerve guttural vein that they must be virtuosos. If it was hard to swallow, it was because YOU weren’t hip, daddy, not them. Only years later did I first read a summary of the Captain’s oeuvre that had the stones to claim that Trout Mask Replica was just a wank-job cluster, Scotch-taped together by Zappa using the same you-are-there editing sensibility he had perfected on Uncle Meat. The writer went on to praise Beefheart and the various Magic Bands to the high heavens, but labeled Replica as a proof-that-you-are-hip excuse of an album and near-throwaway, and claimed the more ‘straight’ CB records as the real gems (‘straight’ in this case being a very relative term). This was a shock to me: Were comparative middle-class noodles like the reviewer, and myself to be honest, really to be congratulated for seeking out hook and melody in place of artboy humpawhumpa? And could it be that the Captain actually excelled at a somewhat more trad song form? You’re telling me that “Neon Meate Dream Of An Octafish” is not the last word in Beefheartery? Turns out it wasn’t. Doc At The Radar Station, Mirror Man, and the fantastic, streamlined Clear Spot all turned out to be total kicks and the kind of record you can spin anytime you want, and get just as much groove on as freak.

And THAT’s what made Don Van Vliet a cranky genius beyond repair: He was slick enough to create art that stood as a comparative to the last thing he did, and both examples were worth your time. I’ve heard hardcore artsos, talking about the more temperate Beefheart records, call The Captain a sell-out, at least during the mid-70s. Horseshit. His records would have had to have SOLD something for him be called a sell-out. And even with the uber-producer of the time, Ted Templeman (The Doobie Brothers AND Van Halen) on the board for a while, CB still made most of his sales from the cutout bins. Truth is, Beefheart’s post-’69 records were all built on the accomplishment of completing Trout Mask in the first place.

Beefheart was way-out I suppose, but far more rooted than some might want to admit. He was a devoted Lakers fan (“They make the best percussion”, he said), and fine contemporary artist whose canvases would likely seem tame compared to the work of many of the NYC poker-faced Bohos who passed off urine-stained muslin as naked expressions of their soul for the asking price of twenty large. The Captain didn’t ask for too much, seems to me. He put on pants like the rest of us, and seemed interested in housecats and a nice desert sundown, which I find to be common preoccupations of the most conservative people I know. His art gave you a blast of something you needed regularly, but certainly not every day, and he seemed to know it.

Which brings us back to the value of Easter morning, and, by now, my second spin of the iconoclastic Trout Mask. If Easter is what it’s supposed to be, a reminder of great sacrifice for others and the glorious release of forgiveness for all the things we can’t seem to stop doing, if it is renewal and brightness and resurrection, then it pairs perfectly with the kind of birth-music on Trout Mask, where we hear musicians hammer instruments and poetry right down to ground. And like the best parts of Christianity, the confession-and-forgiveness parts, Mask takes you down with it, and that’s good. Without that, how do you get to climb back up again?

–  The Right Reverend Stick

Last Album: Take a guess, there, Dr. Hawking