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

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