The Aging Punk 018

Sunday, 06 February 2011

The recent passing of Captain Beefheart leads me to make a confession which might surprise some of you. I'm someone who loves weird music (and I pride myself on that love), yet I never really got into Beefheart. In fact, I never listened to Trout Mask Replica (widely acknowledged as his masterpiece) until a couple of years ago, and then I was disappointed.

Why was I disappointed? Frankly, it wasn't weird enough. when I finally put it on after years of being told what a challenging album it was, it didn't sound that different from stuff I'd been listening to for the past twenty years.

This is a problem I've encountered before, in a variety of art forms. Other innovative classics which didn't seem so new to me have included the music of John Coltrane, Citizen Kane, and James Joyce's Ulysses.

The first time I watched Citizen Kane, my reaction was, “What's the big deal?” It honestly struck me as a good, but unexceptional movie. Of course, I quickly realized that something which didn't look new or innovative today could well have been startlingly unfamiliar when it was released. The problem with Citizen Kane is that it was too influential; everything new about it – especially the use of camera angles and lighting – has become the standard language of film making.

The same problem exists for many other groundbreaking works of art. When I finally read Ulysses, I at least recognized how innovative it was – especially for its' time. It was a breakthrough in many ways, including its' use of stream of consciousness, its' experiments in structure, and even its' very ambition but, again, all those techniques have become standard in today's fiction. While they may be most prevalent in experimental fiction, many of them have become common is mainstream fiction, and even some genre works (notably in Sophie and mystery; I'm not even going to speculate whether or not there is any Joyce an influence on romance novels).

That entire summation needs amendment. I should say, when I finally finished Ulysses; I attempted to read it many times, the first just after my graduation from college, but it was only a couple of years ago that I finally made it all the way through. However standard its' innovations may have become, it remains a difficult book. It may even be more difficult today than when it was published – given that your average reader tends not to be fluent in Greek mythology. Still, with every new technique he introduced, I could at least understand what he was doing (if not necessarily what he was saying).

This points to another problem with innovations in style and technique; later artists often use them better. This is why I say Ulysses remains difficult. At times, the point of the stylistic experiments seemed more to experiment than to propel the narrative and themes of the story. The book often seems wilfully obscure – even today when the techniques Joyce used are common.

Perhaps a better example of an innovative technique which today's writers do better is Crime and Punishment. In it, Dostoevsky (writing fifty years before Ulysses) basically invented stream of consciousness, but the difference is that he completely overdid it. While it is true that our thoughts often run in the same circles over and over, faithfully reproducing that does not make for interesting reading. Still, Dostoevsky must be given credit for inventing a technique that future writers refined.

But enough about literature (this is supposed to be a music column), and back to Captain Beefheart. One difference between him and the previous examples is that his ideas have not seeped as thoroughly into today's mainstream music – they remain primarily on the fringe – but his influence runs fairly deep there. I hear echoes of Trout Mask Replica in much of the music I listen to regularly, including the Contortions and Pere Ubu, and even early Roxy Music and King Crimson. Among the innovations he pioneered are varied time signatures, spoken word interludes and a certain atonal squawk, all of which have found their way into much of today's music. Spoken word interludes, especially, have become de rigeur in everything from punk to hip-hop.

Of course, not every musician influenced by Captain Beefheart sounds like him necessarily, just as many bands who claim the Velvet Underground as an influence do not sound remotely like them. What Beefheart did was open the door a bit wider on what was acceptable in rock music. All sorts of weirdness –  not all of it Beefheartian –  stepped through that opening, and some of that weirdness (in diluted form) has definitely made it into mainstream popular music.

At this point, I must admit to another possibility for why Trout Mask Replica sounded so familiar to me: Frank Zappa. I've been listening to Zappa regularly since I first heard We're Only In It For the Money in high school. The careers of Zappa and Beefheart run so close together that it is hard to separate who influenced who. Obviously radical ideas were flowing back and forth between the two, so I had already indirectly heard many of Beefheart's ideas before I ever put his albums on.

Even with that in mind though, it still doesn't do anything to diminish my larger point, and that goes to recognizing the fact that, in any art form, the radical, the experimental, the innovative, rapidly becomes the normal at some point. Granted, it may be modified, softened or co-opted, but it is still there and is often there strong enough that what was once radical, innovative, downright weird can soon sound familiar and acceptable. After all of that widespread acceptance (some would say “blanching”), it can finally be judged on its' own merits; judged by a standard other than simply “This is so weird!”


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