Trout Mask Replica : A Dagger in the Head of Mojo Man


Sean Bonney

paper addressed to ICE-Z (International Conference of Esemplastic Zappology) 16 January 2004 at Theatro Technis, Crowndale Road, Camden Town, London


I first heard Trout Mask Replica in a squat in the Forest Fields area of Nottingham, around 1990. The album’s mythology had preceded it ; it was the most insane album ever made, the band were playing different songs at the same time, etc etc etc. Certainly, the person who owned the album seemed to believe these myths. When I asked him to play it he grumbled that it was rubbish, unlistenable and so on and so on. To shut me up, he agreed to play a bit of it, believing that I would be begging for it to be removed from the turntable within thirty seconds. He eventually cut it off halfway through "Moonlight on Vermont", and gave it to me as a present. But not kindly, he was angered, and thought that I was just pretending to like it to be "cool". I’ve heard the same argument since, with reference to most of my favourite things. Nobody can like Finnegans Wake, or Sun Ra, or the recent poetry of J.H Prynne, and those who say they do are elitist scum trying to buy a bit of mystique through their choice of notoriously "difficult" cultural products. Poets and revolutionaries have a duty to mercilessly mock persons with such opinions as saddoes who like to project their own cultural and political misery on everyone else. Trout Mask Replica is, quite obviously, one of the greatest seventy minutes of fuck-music available on the sexless plains of Oxford St. It is also great for dancing.

In Iain Sinclair’s recent novel Landor’s Tower, when the narrator is arrested at a service station on suspicion of murder, the cops who drive him away are listening to Bob Dylan[1]. It is a bitter observation on the recuperation of once rebellious rock n roll, and the failure of the sixties counterculture. It is unlikely that cops would be found listening to Captain Beefheart. Trout Mask Replica has been granted the status of classic, of course. But in its case, as with Finnegans Wake being described as "unreadable" on the back of its Penguin Modern Classics cover, its classic status is implemented to save classic rock fans the trouble of listening to it. I associate the concept of classic rock with the magazine Mojo, which emerged in the 1990s around the same time that Tony Blair was being photographed strumming his Fender Stratocaster, and terminal dullard Noel Gallagher was mumbling away about "proper songs" and authenticity. Rock n roll was always improper. Mojo magazine and classic rock in general is a celebration of music being nailed up in the lair of the accountant, only to be listened to through expensive systems, with all the fizzes and pops and memories of what its energy could actually mean digitally erased.

The conservatism of rock n roll classicism was not, however, a phenomena new to the 1990s. Detractors of Trout Mask Replica miss the point that it is one of the best blues albums of the 1960s. The blues was a music under attack. Eric Clapton, and his pub rock imitators reinterpreted the blues as a rhythmically fixed and largely formulaic shuffle, to the extent that it is actually incredibly suprising to go and listen to the records of Howling Wolf or Muddy Waters. Moreover, the recordings that Blind Lemon Jefferson made in the 1920s have the same rhythmic fluidity - and the same viciously ringing guitar lines running counterclockwise to the vocal patterns - as the best of Beefheart’s work. The problem with Eric Clapton is that, like Wynton Maseilis in jazz, he saw the music as a fixed and possibly sacred form, with any attempts to develop it as tantamount to heresy. He also forgot that the music was not there as an expression of empty virtuosity, but as a violent expression of hatred for the oppressor. Robert Johnson didn’t spread the rumour that he had sold his soul to the devil out of superstition or ignorance, but because he knew that it would terrify the godfearing bourgeoisie.

In Europe, at roughly the same time as the first blues players were reinventing popular and traditional musics as an expression of hatred and alienation, Tristan Tzara and Richard Huelsenbeck, among others, were attempting a similar thing with poetic form. Writing in 1919, Tzara pointed out that poetic rhythm had become "the beating of a dried up heart, a little tinkle in putrid, padded wood". He insisted instead that the poet must

Know how to recognise and pick up the signs of the power we are awaiting, which are everywhere; in the fundamental language of cryptograms, engraved on crystals, on shells, on rails, in clouds, or in glass; inside snow, or light, or coal; on the hand, in the beams grouped round the magnetic poles, on wings[2].

The romantic staples of the cliched idea of what a poet is - "clouds", "snow, "light" - are negated by their proximity to "cryptograms", "rails", "glass" and especially "magnetic poles". Light, the mystical image par excellence through the history of poetry, is suggestively transformed into electric light. And the poetry of Tristan Tzara, in the years immediately following both the horrors of the first world war and the hopes of the Russian Revolution, were the sounds of poetry injected with a few thousand cryptographic volts :

here the drum major and the castanets step in
for there are zigzags on his soul and lots of rrrrrrrrrrrrrr here the
reader starts to scream
he starts to scream starts to scream then in his scream there are
flutes which multiply corals
the reader wants to die perhaps or dance and starts to scream
he’s skinny dirty stupid he doesn’t understand my verses he
he’s cock-eyed
there are zigzags on his soul and lots of rrrrrr
nbaze baze baze look at the undersea tiara which comes undone in
golden seaweed
hozondrac trac
nfoonda nbababa nfoonda tata
nbababa [3]

Bob Dylan is usually credited with introducing literacy to rock music. Although this is news to anyone who’s listened to the lyrics, or even the titles to things like "Fence Breakin Yellin Blues" - recorded in 1929 by Blind Lemon Jefferson - there is truth in it, Dylan being one of the first to combine blues forms with the poetic innovations of the European avant-garde. But Dylan’s mix of Rimbaud, Woody Guthrie and the Memphis Jug Band never advanced beyond basic stanzaic poetic forms, thus highlighting an implcit conservatism in the hippy counterculture.

Beefheart was the first to take on the full implications of Dadaist poetics. "Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish", track 10 on Trout Mask Replica, unleashes a torrent of improvised word mutation to challenge anything performed in the Dada soirées at the Cabaret Voltaire. Powered by Beefheart’s musette playing - a minature bagpipe that sounds here like the offspring of a half-asphyxiated hammond organ with a North African pan pipe - this is a song that should be studied by any aspirant pornographer. "Its all about the birds and the bees", as Beefheart kindly pointed out in "Lick My Decals Off, Baby".

neon meate dream of a octafish
artifactal rose petals
in flesh petals and pots
in fact in feast
in tubes
in jest incest injest injust in feast incest
in specks
in spreckled spreckled

This is like free association of the best kind, echoing the fecund imagery of the words themselves. Words are experienced as material entities that themselves change into one another, just as plants grow from their bulbs in the song, and transform into fists and flesh and body fluids. Thus "octafish" becomes "artifact", "in flesh", "in fact", "in feast". And as that alliterative run exhausts itself, another direction comes in from behind, as the "t" at the end of "feast" brings up "tubes", "tubs", "bulbs". As the words proliferate, so what they signify flickers and changes in the way of all good poetry ; "bulbs" and "tubes" are from one direction plant material - from "petals and pots" - but they’re also lightbulbs and plastic tubes. A sexual mesh of meaning, which intensifies as Beefheart stutters, looking for the next direction in his wordflow, and the "in", which had been used as a rhythmic anchor, starts growing new associations out of itself : "injest", "injust", "incest". The caution that this is merely wordplay, "injest", is internalised, ingested, and spat out again as "incest", as the plant-fuck imagery intensifies, and the "rancid buds burst".

limp damp rose
peeled in felt fields in belts
impaled on in daemon
mucus mules
twat trot
tra la
tra la

A compost heap of dead plant life and an exhausted sexuality, a "limp damp rose", spirals up into new, weirder formulations. The same free association playing off "in" - as if we were drilling further and further into the possibilities of a single word - is now throwing up specific imagery, peeled felt, field belts. And then, after a slight pause, a sudden certainty in the declaration "impaled on im daemon". An observation of the sexual centre of poetic action, as Beefheart’s voice is fucked from behind by the spirit of inspiration spoken of by Socrates. "Mucus mules" acknowledges the cross pollination of body fluids, the alliteration and repeated long vowels emphasising two entities becoming one, confirmed in the "twat trot", which actually forces all meaning out of Beefheart syllables, who is left intoning "tra la tra la".

At the end of the song, just in case we’ve missed what he’s really going on about, he makes it as obvious as he can with a jizz spattered string of final alliterative associations:

squirmin serum in semen in syrup in semen in syrup
stirruped in syrup

And then the final ecstatic declaration to punctuate the whole thing, "neon meat dream of a octafish", before Beefheart blows into his simran horn, and the whole thing shudders off in the direction of "China Pig".

The phrase "neon meate dream of a octafish" appears elsewhere on the album, in one of the field recordings that pop up intermittently and go a long way to making the album a whole. Just before "Moonlight on Vermont" there’s a faint recording of what sounds like Beefheart talking to two neighbourhood kids he’s found loitering in the garden, eavesdropping on the music. "Whaddya think", he asks, to which the kids, shyly, but trying to sound cool, reply in unison, "sounds good". "Its a bush recording, recorded in bush", Beefheart informs them, with an example of characteristic wordshift emphasising the connections between the human and the natural environment as extensions of one another. "Bush" refers to a field recording, to the name of the manufacturer of the equipment they’re using, and to the pubic hair around the female genital organ. Its unlikely he’s referring to faux-Texan mass murderers of the future, but you never know. Beefheart then, as if its the most usual thing to be chatting to your neighbours kids about, says "the name of the composition is Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish", before correcting himself with "no its Hair Pie", thus underlying the sexual materialism of the former song.

Neon, classified as one of the noble, or inert gases on the Periodic Table of the Elements - the classification emphasising chemistry’s implicit understanding of the uselessness of the nobility - was first discovered in 1898. It exists in the atmosphere as 1 part in 65,000, and has no biological use. It is so inert that it does not react with air - even under extreme conditions - or water, halogens, or acids. It is separated by first liquefying and separating the air itself, and the only thing that anyone ever does with it is place it in glass tubes before exposing it to high voltages, which causes it to change colour, thus producing the neon lights of American cliché.

Neon Meat Dream is a key to understanding the central purpose of Beefheart’s poetics. As well as being a further example of associative word mutation, with its emphasis on N and M, the two letters at the physical centre of the alphabet, it is also suggestive of an eroticised, materialist poetics as attentive to the tiniest trace elements of the atmosphere as it is to its dominant forces of sexuality and noisy, discordant rock music. As opposed to the spiritualist pieties of much poetry Beefheart insists on the fact that the dream is a physical function, and as such is made out of the same meat that all human activity springs from. Neon, as a trace element in the atmosphere, is an analogous with the trace elements in the human meat that flicker in imagination to create the strange characters that people Beefheart’s songs, some human - like the tragic Big Joan who’s hands are too small - some less so, like the Octafish, or AntManBee. These characters are the element that make Beefheart’s imaginary world come alive, and the not quite human figures emphasise just how deep into consciousness and subconsciousness he goes to retrieve them. This, from an article by Peter Morgane, "The Anatomical Basis of Intelligence", quoted by the Olsonian poet John Clarke, goes some way to illuminating the depths of consciousness that Beefheart enters:

The present moment of the brain always embraces the past’s whole achievement. The embryo repeats, in rough summary, the events of hundreds of millions of years in nine short months, and the brain maintains them all simultaneously. In our own brain our past life, from worms through fishes and amphibians towards mammals, is summed up in what we sometimes term the old brain (paleo-cortex or archi-cortex), while advance toward humanity is expressed in the elaboration of the new brain (neocortex), whose overgrowth conceals its primitive antecedents . . . A great deal is known about it, but not enough to give really satisfactory accounts of how it works during a mental process [4].

But Beefheart is not merely some diver in the murky signals of the archi-cortex; what gives his lyrics their quickness and humour, which separates them from the portentous and treacherous Jungianism of Charles Olson or his imitators, is a Dadaist sense of play emerging from the materiality of the words themselves. Thus "Octafish" - whose spelling with an "a" separates it from "octopus" - is a play on Octave, as if musical terminology could come alive as a weird little animal.

Beefheart is often dismissed, by those not in the know, as one of rock’s more far-out eccentrics, a novelty act at best. It is reported that he fell out with Zappa when he felt the latter was marketing him as one of his stable of freaks. But Trout Mask Replica is also an alarmingly powerful social commentary. AntManBee is built around a quasi-lettriste formulation, which contains within itself a critique of the category "man". "Man" is interrupting the species sequence "Ant" "Bee", which is a recognition of the alienated human’s position as a destroyer of the environment. Furthermore, "man" is also interrupting the alphabetical sequence "a" and "b", which "ant" and "bee" are in kiddies picture book terms. Thus, not only is the human the interrupter of the natural environment, but also the interrupter and destroyer of its own inventions. And as if that wasn’t enough, the critique is made explicit by the possible reading of "Ant Man Be - or that human society makes ants of us all.

Most of the song is in straightforward protest mode, with its catchy chorus call of "why do you have to do-o this, you got to let us be". What saves it is the amazing word bending in "war still running on, one lump of sugar", where "one" is sung with such force that it bends and breaks into a repeat of "war". This builds an antiwar protest more subtle than a rabblerousing cry of what is it good for, in that it equates the individualist "one" scrabbling after its sugar lump with the cause of war. Word bending is an essential tactic. On "Frownland", right at the beginning of the album, he yells out an understanding of unity with the cosmos. The lyric booklet in the CD issue tries to tell us that this says "my spirit’s made up of the ocean and the sky and the sun and the moon and all I can see". But ever since I’ve been listening to the album I’ve heard it as :

My spit’s made up
Of the ocean
And the sky
And the sun
And the moon
And all I can see

This in any case is a more accurate account of unity, in that spit - and the rest of the body - is made of the same basic matter that everything else, including sun and moon, is made of. If he was merely claiming that his "spirit" was made up of these things, then he would be separating himself, and suggesting that a mystical abstraction was more real than his own being. A strange position for someone who famously said "stars are matter, we are matter, but it doesn’t matter". The cosmos described in Trout Mask Replica includes rare gases, electric tubes that turn into meat plants, strange antennae, voodoo, and amazing Ayleresque saxophone playing that can still terrify the Mojo reading rock connoisseur. Most of all, it includes body fluids. More far-out than any psychedelic vision, it is closer to Trotsky’s materialist vision at the end of the 1933 notebook on Hegel :

Our concept of the earth, the "most durable" of our conceptions, the "most durable" of the objects of our everyday milieu, is based upon a total rupture with the revolutionary formation of the solar system. The concept is conservative. Its conservatism issues: a) from its utilitarian purpose, b) from the fact that the memory of a person, like that of humankind, is short [5].


The official music industry, and its press that serves generally as an advertising outlet, is a key conservative force in the contemporary war economy. The unfamiliar and strange is increasingly denounced as too difficult for the ‘way we live today’[6]. As Adorno said in 1945, in words chillingly applicable to our era, "shoddiness that drifts with the flow of contemporary speech is taken as a sign as relevance and contact: people know what they want because they know what other people want"[7]. The culture industry’s problem with difficult or weird art is not that its elitist, but because there is a chance - however tiny - that it might jar people out of their shopping trance. It is the culture industry itself, and not the people it so cynically administers, about who it is true to say that "only what they do not need first to understand, they consider understandable; only the word coined by commerce, and really alienated, touches them as familiar"[8].

Mojo magazine, and others who see their demographic as the alienated middle aged yearning for the excitement of their youth, is particularly pernicious as it tries to reach into the past and absorb everything that's there. Everything pink and weird - like the cover of Trout Mask Replica - is to be normalised[9]. Come on, says the retro branch of the culture industry, wouldn’t you rather listen to Rod Stewart. There’s something they don’t want us to know.


[1] Iain Sinclair, Landor's Tower, London : Granta, 2002, p. 163.

[2] Tristan Tzara, 'Note on Poetry', 1919, Seven Dada Manifestos and Lampisteries, trans. Barbara Wright, London : Calder, 1977, p. 75.

[3] Tristan Tzara, 'The white leprous giant in the countryside', 1918, Chanson Dada, trans. Lee Harwood, Toronto : Coach House, 1987.

[4] Peter Morgane, 'The Whale Brain - The Anatomical Basis of Intelligence', cited in John Clarke, From Feathers to Iron, San Francisco : Tombouctou, 1987, p. 86.

[5] Leon Trotsky, Notebooks 1933 - 1935 : Writings on Lenin, Dialectics and Evolutionism, trans. Philip Pomper, New York : Columbia University Press, 1986, p. 78.

[6] This is part a reference to Nick Hornby, who reviewed a recent Radiohead album - Radiohead, for fucks sake - in the New Yorker, and slagged it off because people today are too busy to listen to such complex music (sic). Thanks to Burhan Tufail for telling me about this.

[7] Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia : Reflections from Damaged Life, 1951, trans. EFN Jephcott, London : Verso, 1978, p. 101.

[8] Ibid.

[9] It's closer to red, really, but I like the words 'pink and weird' too much to stop now.


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