Trout Mask Replica, his 1969 double album, which I hadn't listened to in quite some time. It's a 28-track pandemonium, and I put it on during the drive to work. It saw me neatly from leaving the petrol station near home to the turn-off of the M6.
Listening to Trout Mask Replica again was a bit like listening to the audiobook of Joyce's Finnegans Wake that I'd had in the car a week or two ago. From the primal gumbo of sound would emerge clarity, phrases (musical or verbal) that suddenly pierced the surface and seemed all the clearer set against the texture of the whole. Because, in places, like on 'Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish', Trout Mask Replica sounds for all the world like a tin box of kitchen utensils being kicked fitfully down a fire escape. With rhyme, but seemingly no reason, Trout Mask Replica is an aural assault, and makes you think: what the hell is going on?
On some tracks, like 'China Pig', an improvised blues recorded on a cassette, Van Vliet's voice takes command, a growly blues shout that anticipates the later Tom Waits, and the guitar accompaniment renders a direct Delta blues; on 'Orange Claw Hammer', a capella, he carries the whole song with a shanty tale that is pure Melvillean Americana. As I listened, I realised that what is so challenging about Trout Mask Replica is rhythm. It's a long way from a rock 4/4 or the beat of blues; only the first half of the final track, 'Veteran's Day Poppy', a thumping r'n'b, or the jalopy rumble of 'Pachuco Cadaver', or the stomping 'Fallin' Ditch' (which has a lovely melodic electric bass line) have much in the way of recognisable and sustained metrical regularity. It sounds like chaos, but isn't: legend has it that Van Vliet locked the band in a house for months, rehearsing 14 hours a day, drilling them over and over and over, and finally recorded all the instrumental tracks in an 8-hour burst. The spiky, shifting, clattering structures are designed that way, are not the product of 'play' (like the 'Old Fart' in the title of the penultimate song) but of hard work, and lots of it.Van Vliet was as driven as Keith Richards, in a way, to drive the band on, to achieve the desired sound through repetitive work.
(I've recently thought that the Romantic image of Keef, the 'mad, bad and dangerous to know' outlaw, is wrong. Keith doesn't create through bursts of inspiration, but through repetition, jamming, work. Heroin and cocaine facilitated the work/ crash cycle, where Keith would be up 3 days straight. Richards isn't known as the 'riff machine' for nothing.)
The Stones song that comes closest to the feel and angular playing of Trout Mask Replica is 'Ventilator Blues' from Exile on Main Street (1972), with its harsh slide guitar figure and halting gait; but Charlie Watts would have had to have been on L-Dopa to to achieve the ticcy, convulsed rhythms of Trout Mask Replica, and the Stones' organic groove is diametrically opposed to Beefheart's bolted-together constructions. (I'm also reminded of the figure of 'witty, ticcy Ray, the Parkinson's sufferer in Oliver Sacks's wonderful book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, who translated his tics into expressive jazz drumming.) The only out and out rock drummer to move so extensively around 4/4 rhythms was Keith Moon. In a recent documentary on Quadrophenia, Townshend said that he didn't rate Moon as a drummer, and complained that instead of playing 'boom-tish-boom-tish' Moon would play 'boom-bip-bop-tiddle-iddle-be-bop-boom-tish', and Townshend himself would have to keep time with his guitar: 'someone had to'. It's an odd complaint. You only have to compare a Keith Moon version of the most driven of Who songs, 'Won't Get Fooled Again', with the live cut included on the 2006 Endless Wire cd to realise just how important Moon's polyrhythmic drumming was to The Who's sound. Pete is, I confess, a bit of an old crank these days, bless him, so I can forgive him this indiscretion.
It's the absence of a rock 4/4, that regular thump that anchors the wildest 60s psychedelic rock freak-out, that makes Trout Mask Replica such an uncomfortable (and downright weird) listen. In most songs, the rhythm is agitated, unsteady, revealing the way the songs were written, in pieces, then spliced together; hi-hats aren't where they should be; it's as if the drum kit had been assembled by someone who'd never seen one before, and then played them blindfolded. To reiterate, though, this has nothing to do with incompetence, and everything to do with intention: the music and lyrics are of a piece, an expression of the very singular landscapes of Don Van Vliet's imagination. (As a child, according to Bangs's article, Van Vliet built sculptures and refused to go to school; Trout Mask Replica's songs are ramshackle sculptures themselves.)
While not exactly pre-musical, the sound of tiny tots banging tin cups together in a play pen, there is a gleeful, whirligig energy to Trout Mask Replica's pandemonium that can be found as easily in the lyrics as in the music: 'A squid, eating dough, in a polyethylene bag, is fast and bulbous. Get me?' Where Joyce's Finnegans Wake attempted to represent a language so fluid that it reached a pre-Babel glossolalia, there is something if not quite primal about Trout Mask Replica's sonic and linguistic sculptures, then prior to the factory-floor regularity of rock and pop's post-war rhythms. It's awkward, yes, but it's the uncomfortable energy of beings that haven't yet learned to adopt the patterns of the workaday world. Trout Mask Replica might be the product of hard work, but it resists, or precedes, modernity's discipline.