“A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous, got me?”
— Captain Beefheart
Down the hall from my freshman dorm room lived a skinny, eccentric kid from Connecticut. He apparently had money as he was one of the few people on the floor who had a single as opposed to a double, or shared room. The first time he invited me into his room I was blown away by how many albums he had in his small room. I would guess he had at least 800 records, which left room for little else. We would hang out occasionally just the two of us and talk about all kinds of weird stuff and listen to random music. He would blindly pick an album from the stack and put it on. He later told me he mostly bought albums based solely on their cover art. If he liked the artwork on the sleeve, it didn’t matter if he’d never heard of the band he bought it. This is probably how he wound up with so much music, and some of it was terrible. One day he pulled an album from his collection that would change my life and pour more gasoline on the already smoldering fire that was my creativity. The album was Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band.
Trout Mask Replica is a serious piece of art masquerading as a joke. During its 80 minutes and four sides of two pieces of vinyl, he does things few albums have attempted either before or since. It is a quintessentially American album that combines polyphonic rhythms of blues and jazz into waves of dissonant sounds with Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart) singing his offbeat, surrealist lyrics in a tone that sounds like Tom Waits had a baby with Grace Jones. The first time I heard it I didn’t know what to make of it. It was so strange and so different than anything I’d ever heard before, and it defied logic in it’s out of sync pacing, but I kept coming back to it. A couple of years later at a different college with a different roommate and I was playing Trout Mask Replica for anyone who could stand it. It ended up being a kind of test of someone’s integrity if they could latch on to the fish-faced double album from 1969. The more I listened, the more it sank in, and the more I heard the genius inside it. This is what opening up to experiences feels like. You dive in, without prejudice and you sit with the experience. More profound experiences defy easy categorizing. They take time and patience to get ahold of their full meaning if ever that is indeed possible. It’s those experiences that stay with you, help to shape you and make you a more vibrant person.
Captain Beefheart took me on a journey that ended up taking me to all corners of the music and art world. His music opened up a gateway to me that has to this day given me the freedom to persistently return to a more open perspective on the world and to give things that might otherwise be dismissed a chance. The more you experience, the more you want to experience. Experience is the emotional and intellectual fuel we live off of, and we need it to thrive. The ore we succumb to self-applied filters the lesser our lives become. Absurdity, even as a mask is a permission to explore. Embrace a little more nonsense in your life, and you’ll find it liberates you to see things less cynically, even the absurdity of our politics. However, always look for the seriousness of the action. Just like Trout Mask Replica is built on the deeply committed playing of serious musicians, your life should have a backbone too. The difference between our absurdist politics and absurdist art is our politics is spineless. The more you practice a little absurdity, the greater your perspective becomes and the more permission you can give yourself to experience more. All experiences worth anything are challenging at first because you’re literally growing during it, just like growing pains hurt when you were a teenager. As Beefheart said, “I like the blues…but I like aquamarine just as much.”