Geelong West, 1993
Oh Captain! My Captain! – Walt Whitman
Being a firstborn means, of course, that I have no older brother or sister to blood me into an existing musical lineage via overheard teenage soundtracks or bequeathed record collections. I have had to map out my own musical journey from scratch.
Across the road from my first teenage share house lived Grigor. He was a few years older than me, held a job as a chef, and carried a kind of surly, brooding countenance that made me a bit wary of him. His large collection of glistening cooking knives underscored this perception. We were on nodding terms until a mutual acquaintance introduced us.
He was, by no stretch, my surrogate big brother, but he fleetingly filled something of that role musically in that he had a huge, carefully selected, record collection. The first day I went to his house I found myself kneeling with unconscious reverence at the foot of his library of platters. He offered me a slow, single nod and I took that as a sign to go ahead and flick through the albums. As I began to explore I made lots of ooing and ahhing noises, warming Grigor up to the question that had formed in my mind the instant I spotted his discs.
I spoke to him in a slow, staccato tone:
“I wonder if you would mind if I maybe brought some cassettes over here and kind of made a tape or two?”
Never a man for detailed responses, he simply replied, “Sure”.
“Grouse,” I said softly and returned later that day with a box of TDK C90s and a hunger for the new.
One of the many joys of vinyl records is the rich and intriguing visuals that wrap themselves around the discs. When I recall the LPs that grabbed my attention in Grigor’s collection that day, all had stunning sleeves. For example, Yoko Ono’s Approximately Infinite Universe, (a cool close up of her exquisite, compelling face);
Brian Eno’s Music for Films, (144 square inches of blank grey cardboard, somehow more mysteriously minimalistic than the ‘White Album’);
The Band’s Basement Tapes, (a stoned, side-show, freak-show);
Joy Division’s Closer (a hagiographic crypt, a grave, a testament);
…and Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica (a man-fish, wrapped in a racing green, fur-lined, velvet jacket and wearing a tapered top hat crowned with a shuttlecock, offers an ambiguous hand gesture while sporting a stunned piscean expression). Dig it!
Worlds away from Countdown and Top 40 radio, all these albums held music that was as brilliant as it was off-centre. Weirdest of the lot was the unclassifiable Trout Mask Replica. I confess to wanting to tape over this confounding racket when I first listened back to what I had dubbed. Unhinged, unwieldy, (apparently) uncoordinated and maybe even unlistenable. Despite or because of this, I pressed on. I’d read somewhere that this was supposed to be An Important Album and I wanted to impress Grigor with a favourable review. So I kept returning to Trout Mask Replica until I cracked its code and found an opening. My way in was the sixth track, Moonlight on Vermont.
The apparent mayhem of the track, I later read, was carefully, clinically orchestrated. Rhythmically it leaps, lurches and limps. Innumerable guitar riffs crash and slide around the track with seemingly little regard for each other or the corresponding clatter of the rhythm section. Captain Beefheart’s blustery vocals create further division in the music, yelping, gasping and bellowing non-sequiturs with a righteous urgency. The tension of this track is finally released in the codicil when Beefheart intones lines appropriated from an old spiritual:
Gimme that ol’ time religion
Gimme that ol’ time religion
Gimme that ol’ time religion
It’s good enough for me.
This is not a hymn. Nor is it gospel music. It’s a delicious dog’s breakfast, perhaps best described by Beefheart’s own descriptors as being ‘fast and bulbous’. Indeed. I’d never heard anything like it. Still haven’t.
I lost track of Grigor soon after I completed my cassette taping frenzy. His house was put on the market later that year, and sold soon after for what I thought was the outrageously high price of $14,000.
Still, as the saying and the song goes, the best things in life are free. Had it not been for his generous nod, who knows when or if I would have stumbled across the madly brilliant left-field albums that formed the core of Grigor’s collection. Had it not been for Moonlight on Vermont I probably would have erased Trout Mask Replica. Instead, I fell into a Beefheartian spell, on this song, this album and just about everything else the good Captain released. Grigor has no idea that the impact of his generous permission resonates to this day.
Footnote 1: 1993 was also the time when the record industry ran a campaign based around the slogan, Home Taping is Killing Music. Sure, I taped all of these albums, copying them for free. But I also bought every one of them, on vinyl, over time. Then I bought them, all over again, years later, on CD. I wouldn’t have purchased any of these discs if I hadn’t initially fallen for the stolen sounds I had recorded on my dubbed versions. Internet radio, Spotify and the like are good and fine. But even today I still feel a strong desire to own the actual, physical thing that contains the music. To possess what possesses me.
Footnote 2: If you don’t believe that the apparent chaos of Moonlight on Vermont and Trout Mask Replica is in fact a carefully organised series of orchestrations, see the YouTube exploration of the album’s opening track Frownland. The song itself goes for a little over a 100 seconds but the deconstruction takes about 30 minutes. Art-rock-nerd-heaven.