The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

“We didn’t want to make sense. The last thing we wanted to do was to make sense. So we worked on that.”
(Spike Milligan on the genesis of the Goons)

The Child
…and the secret, really, to understanding, to dwelling within, Trout Mask Replica is to make sure it’s the first record you ever hear; I first heard it sometime in 1970, aged six – my dad had the record and thought it would be absolutely up my street, but that’s why it’s so great to contemplate music when you’ve been brought up on Spike Milligan, Batman and the Bonzos before you get to the Beatles, thus to me the Magic Band were the most magical of bands, like a Disney-Marvel fusion of daft and colourful, I mean how could you not be six years old and not love a band called Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band – they certainly out-coloured Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in my book – those crazy costumes which made me think of the Banana Splits, and those names! Zoot Horn Rollo! The Mascara Snake!! A drummer called Drumbo!!! Whom they forgot to credit on the sleeve!!!! I knew a bit of Ornette by that time, but what the fuck was a simran horn or a flesh horn; these things sounded like treasure plundered from Tintin’s idea of Incas…

…and it tickled me and it threw me and it dazzled me and it unbound my spells because to begin with the record told us to be happy – “My smile is stuck! I cannot go back to your Frownland!” And the guitars and drums, well they weren’t the Tremeloes, I could tell even that, but they slid tantalisingly down the slide-rule of my mind and unearthed measurements I hadn’t even considered, and they were all over the place, not quite together, never more together, but if they were falling off the cliff you could be pretty damn sure they were doing so deliberately, not like lemmings, but because they trusted in the existence of a bouncy, benign trampoline to catch them beneath, and why don’t you come and reside in our bouncy castle, it was gold and gaffe, inapt and immaculate…

…and in six senses Trout Mask Replica is really a set of hallucinatory nursery rhymes, thus “Ella Guru” and “Sweet Sweet Bulbs” and “Sugar ‘N Spikes” somersault their way through mathematical rods and make you want to slide down banisters and pass the parcel while chanting “Here she comes walkin’/Lookin’ like uh zoo” uh was that the right one, but the rhythm was sparse yet multiplex, it never settled for foursquare when it could blossom out in all true and imagined directions like a Starship Enterprise run on beans (Rockette Morton: “I run on laser beams!”), in other words Beefheart’s singsongs made you want to shift and sway and shake all over your bedroom and not simply plod like dull 1969 adults did; like Ornette and George Clinton and Lee Perry (all of whom attracted me by their use of the cartoon, and what is Pollock's White Light if not a cartoon, if not an untied Tiepolo?) they ask the question: why not this way?

The Child With The Horn

…for people still have problems when Beefheart takes to the sax; no, his soprano isn’t Steve Lacy’s or Evan Parker’s, but then that level of proficiency and independent vision would not be suitable for Beefheart’s music, for if we are to assimilate this idea of the greatest children’s album there has ever been, then we must think like children, or at least as this six-year-old author would have thought. When Beefheart and The Mascara Snake do their lengthy soprano sax/bass clarinet duet throughout “Hair Pie: Bake 1,” they discover harmony by accident, they sound like cats attempting to squash Cadillacs, they sound like the first people making the first music, like children learning how to think and respond and create, they fashion an environment into which the child can enter and glimpse the vast world which lies beyond, if they’ll only let it…

…Beefheart’s sax is a sex machine, even more so than James Chance’s alto, and without any of the latter’s malice come to that, and these duologues you hear in “Wild Life” and “Ant Man Bee” where Beefheart appears to be in conversation, or on the point of consummation, with his sax/alter ego/true child signified, well you can feel his mind slaloming like an overoiled pinball, from extreme to intuitive, indeed all of the things which even his newly invented language cannot adequately articulate, because when we’re ecstatic and DELIVERED – and note that anagrammatic reed devil there – we know that any words aren’t nearly enough; and indeed…

…”When Big Joan Sets Up” provides us with the biggest hands in rock music, if indeed the Captain is a rock, and why not, why should not rock be the Captain, and it burnishes along with the entirely knowing discovery that this is SEX and this is NEW and dammit when you’ve been writing this while listening to Dale Winton on Pick Of The Pops playing the Top 20 this week in 1969 and squirming at the perceived necessity of Sandie Shaw and Lulu prostituting themselves on forcefed battery food crap like “Monsieur Dupont” and “Boom-Bang-A-Bang,” and they’ve both said much the same themselves, and then you listen to Beefheart’s noble soprano hurtling confidently into the newly-trawled conduit of flesh and noise and pop, finally taking flight, and the alacrity and anticipation are such that you fly with them, and end up rocking back and forth on the windowsill Eastern dervish style and realise THIS IS WHAT SHOULD BE NORMAL and it’s as sexy as 20 fucks and about nine million dirty sox…

The Shyster
Immediately after “Hair Pie: Bake 1” there’s a delicious fragment of chatter where some kids, and notably some girls, stop by the Captain’s place to chew the fat. The Captain is clearly flattered by their interest and enthusiasm, but you just know from his sotto voce baritone that he’s buttering them up for chatting up; and there’s a section where he muses with a chuckle in his voice, “The name of the composition is Neon Meat Dream Of An Octafish,” and for all the world he sounds exactly like Orson Welles, and then you get it; part magician, part mendacious conman, and would we worship him if he were only either? Then there is a lovely prolonged section of silent night; cigarettes are lit, drinks are lifted to lips, contemplating the landscape stretching out before them – it’s very touching, and you would give anything for a camera to have been present.

But then that leads you to the man himself…

The Blimp
Was this seriously intended as a single? “Frank it’s the big hit! It’s the blimp!” Chanted in serious falsetto down the telephone – see also Daniel Johnston’s similarly manic/ecstatic telephonic delivery of “Speeding Motorcyle” with Yo La Tengo backing him on the other end of the line – it’s the most cartoonish moment on the album, yet also perhaps the most desperate (“The brothers hid under their hood”) and that moody piano which takes the song out…and again the self…

The Wolf
…and what is it with that sequence of solo vocal recitatives made up to sound like ancient 78s, “The Dust Blows Forward ‘N The Dust Blows Back,” with its mock crackles which actually form the song’s rhythm, and the mood is playful, gophers rumblin’, one red bean stuck in the bottom of a tin bowl, but also profound in its emotional range, spanning childish wonder – “Well I took off my pants and felt free” – to childish wonder – “It’s night now, and the moon looks like a dandelion” ; then “Well” with its startling full-facial focus and sturdy Paul Robeson baritone (coming straight after the castrated sopranino of Zoot Horn Rollo’s sole lead vocal on “Pena”) and its emotional turnaround with the lines “My mind cracked like custard/Ran red until it sealed,” and finally (un)settling on the unforgiving arena of “Orange Claw Hammer” which lyrically seems to run between “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (“A gingham girl baby girl/Passed me by in tears”) and the first Mad Max film (“Gimme one and I’ll buy you a cherry phosphate”) even though it’s about a sailor who hasn’t seen his children in thirty years, and somehow it begins to be about children in a different and more unsettling way…those tape delays, as though reconstituted from the remnants of an annihilated civilisation…

But The Wolf
“Well” is Howlin’ Wolf through and through, and “Moonlight In Vermont” with its Lifebuoy citations and “Gimme that old time religion” refrain conjures up Howlin’ Wolf’s band all falling through the club roof at the same time…

The guitarist Hubert Sumlin first encountered Howlin’ Wolf at the age of twelve when he attempted to gain entry to a club to see him perform. Denied access, he clambered up the back wall and through a gap at the top, supported by several empty crates, he witnessed the bluesman in full showbiz flow. He became so entranced that he hardly noticed the crates rocking, then giving way, as he tumbled through the wall, landing on the dead centre of the stage in front of an astonished Wolf. He took to Sumlin as a father would to a son, and a few years later paid for him to come to Chicago, and employed him as his lead guitarist for the rest of his long career. Listening to “Spoonful” or “Smokestack Lightnin’” you could scarcely imagine a bigger voice or a bigger human being existing.

…and “China Pig” is where the Captain veers closest to the Wolf, with Doug Moon’s Sumlinisms on acoustic 12-string as Beefheart howls and moans and teases; the tape eventually warps and cuts off abruptly, but it affords us a glimpse of the eminently normal man Don Van Vliet actually is…

Moanin’ At Midnight
Even as a six-year-old, “Dachau Blues” sounded slightly too scary for a children’s album; the deepness of Beefheart’s voice was unsettling, as was the way The Mascara Snake’s bass clarinet seemed to lurch into the picture from stage right and then suddenly screech, like a disturbed tarantula, and I had to wait until The World At War a few years later before I realised what Dachau meant; though the brutalist summation of “War One was balls and powder and blood and snow/War Two rained death and showers and skeletons” is about as concise and comprehensive a summary as anyone could come up with. Then there are the unnameable horrors of “Bill’s Corpse” where Beefheart stops the song entirely to yell, “It’s not the way I’d like it to get together/That’s not the kind of thoughts I’d like to keep,” after a couplet of “The only way they ever all got together/Was not in love, but shameful grief.” And “Dali’s Car” seems to be the last music ever played; the Ventures after the Bomb.

Second Childishness…And Mere Oblivion
“My smile is stuck. I cannot go back to your Frownland.” What does he mean by a frown? “It’s not too late for you/It’s not too late for me/To find my homeland/Where a man can stand by another man/Without an ego flying/With no man lying/And no one dying by an earthly hand.” A lyric which in isolation could have stemmed from the pen of Pete Seeger or Joan Baez. And an 80-minute album which begins with a stuck smile and ends with “I cry but I can’t buy.” The penultimate song “Old Fart At Play” is about a bitter old man – maybe the same sailor of “Orange Claw Hammer” – hiding behind ludicrously labyrinthine disguises, for the sake of hiding himself from the world. Beefheart concludes the piece with a two-part recitative; the first part he delivers straight, again sounding uncannily like Welles reading Huysman’s Against Nature, while the second he hams up in mock-Charles Laughton style, concluding with a bandmate commenting ironically: “Oh man that’s so heavy.” While the subject of the song looks forward to his imminent annihilation (“His excited eyes from within the dark interior glazed/Watered in appreciation of his thoughtful preparation”) – and the factor which will suffocate and kill him is the “very intricate rainbow trout replica” which is presented so mischievously on the record’s cover.

“Wild Life” again – “I’m going up on the mountain for the rest of my life/Before they take my wife” preceded by “They got my mother’s father/And run down all my kin/Folks I know I’m next.” The capitalisation of the words “FOREVER AMBER” in the song “Pachuco Cadaver.” So is Trout Mask Replica a concept album about the search for identity, the pining of the forcibly rejected for an unreachable home? The invention of a language so convoluted and incomprehensible that no one will be able to penetrate those who speak it?

“The black paper through a mirror” in “Steal Softly Thru’ Snow.”

The horror. The horror.

The 28th and final track of Trout Mask Replica – though really the whole record is one extended song in twenty-eight movements, or sections – is “Veteran’s Day Poppy.” “It don’t get me high,” Beefheart sings in a mournful yet agitated tenor. “It can only make me cry/It can never grow another/Son like the one who warmed me my days.” And then the blues train – or is it the death train, like the one heading for Dachau? – departs with undue force and speed, giving way to a strange and extended tonal guitar waltz. It seems to provide unexpected calm and harmony, but in truth reveals Trout Mask Replica as a dream; the dream of a grieving father whose son has been killed in Vietnam, imagining in his reverie the sense and nonsense, the noise and music, which might have gone through his son’s head, what his life must have been like; or perhaps it’s the reverie of the dying son himself, his life flashing back like meteors of crazy paving even as it painfully ebbs away.

Painless Parker
In the song “Orange Claw Hammer” it’s the sign on a barbershop. It is also the greatest and most concise history of jazz over the last 30 years.

“Every swallow brought breath that bore neither memory nor meaning nor even deliverance from them – he no longer needed that deliverance – but rather the strange sweetness of something that may or may not have ever been, except in a dream of faint sea breezes through darkening pines.”
(Nick Tosches, Dino: Living High In The Dirty Business Of Dreams, Doubleday: New York, 1992; ch. 15: “The Breeze”)

We can’t leave 1969 there, of course, not sans everything. Because in the other crucial record of that year, a different Captain – or perhaps the same one from a not-too-different perspective – emerges and turns us all into the happy and fulfilled children we have always longed to be. And also because I do not want an end to everything; because I am in love and the tenderness and loud generosity of this other record reaches out to me beyond the life of its creator, towards, inevitably and irresistibly, you.


The voice, when it enters at the beginning, sounds like a bemused visitor from another planet trying to get her larynx around Dusty Springfield, and it sounds such a sad voice – “Two mainstream die,” and then “You don’t love me when I cry.” The piano is quiet and the voice, for a voice which was often derided by 1969 ears for being too “harsh” and “strident” – women speaking up loudly and proudly for themselves, heaven forbade – was also capable of being the most intricately sensitive, knowing the exact location of the exact part of the left side of your neck which needed to be brushed, then stroked, as she brushes, then strokes her piano, and then suddenly STRIKES with a cry of “Baby I don’t want to say goodby” (that’s how she spelt it) or that shattering “got” in the middle of “Mister I got funky blues” followed by the swooning petals of kiss that are her words “all over me.” There are fragments of orchestration – flute, flugelhorn, organ, a few strings – which appear very momentarily, as if springing directly from her imagination, her desire, her being; I also think of Ron Carter’s bass solo on Gil Evans’ “La Nevada” where the rest of the orchestra improvise motifs around the bass in a kind of round robin, so detailed and multidimensional that you eventually forget about the bass, which incidentally sounds as though it’s being played in your living room – and arranger Jimmie Haskell seems to have had the same problems orchestrating Nyro’s songs as the Magic Band did with Beefheart’s; because they spring directly from her mind, fully formed but in her own distinctive, uncopyable way, she dictates the speed and flow of her songs as though sitting down next to you to speak with you, as each second and moment allows; so the sudden tempo changes or switches from rubato to aggressive and back again (sometimes all in the space of one second) were very difficult to pin down for other musicians. A lot of the time the other musicians sound as though they’re trying to keep up, and there are some minor tonal incompatibilities on occasion (and indeed a major one, when the orchestra and piano accelerate towards the end of “Save The Country”). You have to rush to accompany her soul lest you become lost.

These slow-burn meditations continue on the first Captain song, “Captain For Dark Mornings,” and you immediately remember exactly where the eleven-year-old Kate Bush must have been taking notes – those solo performances on Aerial are the nearest a British singer/songwriter has ever come to transposing the indivisible New Yorkness of Nyro into a recognisable but absolutely specific post-1969 British state of feeling. Perhaps only Beefheart could sprint the equivalent emotional gamut across which Nyro alternately crawls and strides throughout New York Tendaberry; and so this first Captain song is a tentative, then frighteningly bold, bid for companionship and more. Witness the terrible beauty of Nyro’s cry of “ravin’” – wanting so to come – and how the piano punctulates like the hips should, working its way up to the desired climax, but punctulating gently, like the treetops of Belsize Park avoiding the top decks of passing double decker buses. “If you’ll be my captain/I’ll be your woman/If you’ll be my fearless captain/Die! I would lay me down and DIE!” and I would have to print that last “DIE!” in 96 point Albertus type even to suggest how gigantic and silencing it is to the listener – to be immediately followed by the temptation, the delicately quiet invitation: “Captain say yessssssss….” and those sibilants gracefully slide down to that part of the lower shoulder which lightens you up so highly.

She’ll even kill not to get what she wants: the amazing “Tom Cat Goodby” which proceeds through Bacharach delirium (“You know you’re never gonna make a movie maker/Always be a City fag”), Frankie and Johnny murder mythology (“I’m going to the country” – or should that be cunt-tree, as suggested on one website? That part of the lyric is noticeably absent from the CD booklet – “To kill my lover man”) waning to the wistful (that Everest-high “lovin’ you” which swoops down like a vulture stuck to a parachute over San Jose) and then careering through a hall of mirrors encompassing Sondheim, Brecht, Gertrude Stein and Edith Sitwell (the consonants “Tom” and “Cat” eventually become abstract signifiers) before the above-hoarse roar of “HE LIES!” before the strings quietly draw a line under the intended horror.

“Mercy On Broadway” is like Sondheim grafted onto Hieronymous Bosch. A hint of SMiLE calliope gives way to a chorale of cowbells reminiscent of a herd of Alpine cattle tiptoeing through a plumber’s bedroom on a hot morning in July, and then warnings in the nature of “jive and pray” (or is that “prey”?) and “She’ll make you pay” before the song collapses in a maelstrom of thunderclap (New Woman?) and gunfire. The singer seems to be buried by the hurricane of tinnitus brass and handclaps which dominates the song’s end. “Save The Country” might be a turning point of a kind – so much more expansive than the compromised single version – and again she begins like an excitable Brill Building newbie, pounding enthusiastically at her piano and calling for the need to “lay that devil down.” When the orchestra suddenly bursts in halfway through the tone and speed are dramatically accelerated, like two skiers trying to outleap each other over dry land; the trumpets, led by Lew Soloff (then of Blood Sweat and Tears, later a Gil Evans and Carla Bley regular), keep ascending and extending this Torrent of Babel until THEY STOP AT THE EDGE AND GLIMPSE OVER


…and on the other side of the Grand Canyon there is “Gibsom Street,” and Laura’s afraid to go there for she’s heard “they hang the alley cats” there and that “if you are soft then you will shiver – but still, that crucial and sublime chord change after the first “Street” is sung, which represents the next abyss underlined by that safety net of the sustained major piano chord, before she prays to and for herself, “All my sorrow/All my mourning (or “moaning”? Again the lyric sheet conspicuously omits this section)”

and then the quantum jump:
“There is a man. He knows where I’m going. Gave me a strawberry to eat. I sucked its juices, never knowing that I would sleep that night on Gibsom Street.” The final low piano note is the bell tolling for a death rejected.

There is that little pause of hesitation after the line “So winter” which begins “Time And Love” but she then enters courageously into the sprightliness which the song is set to celebrate, and she now knows that her power is regained: “So he swears he’ll never marry/Says that cuddles are a curse/Just tell him plain/You’re on the next train/If love don’t get there first!” she laughs, and there is such unfettered joy in her singing “You been runnin’, you been ramblin’/And you don’t know what to do/A holy golden wager says/That love will see you through,” similar to the ecstatic breakthrough of Beefheart’s “Moonlight In Vermont.” “A woman is a woman is a woman inside,” Nyro concludes, “has miracles for her man.”

Oh yes.

And then this pair of beautiful, but BEAUTIFUL hymns, “The Man Who Sends Me Home,” and you want to swim and bathe in the warmly lapping waves of this so simple paean to true love: “There’s a man who loves me/When it hurts inside” – and the song is taken so delicately, so slowly, so deliciously – and oh GOD, “When I touch the man/Lord I rise/To rooftops in his eyes,” well you are already there as well you know but when we touch we will look out over all rooftops and it will seem like the most golden sea we have ever known and know we can fly across it and back again and even walk on it would you like that?

And “Sweet Lovin’ Baby” with that YOU CAN SENSE IT minor-to-major sweet shift on the words “my man,” how she makes the word “loneliness” sound like “no limits,” and “My dreams with God/softly waiting” and “I want you/I could almost die/He says” and don’t you know that and then a little bit of Beefheart crossover, the crucial crossover really (“Grace and the Preacher/Blown fleets of sweet-eyed/Dreams/Tonight”) and the song is working up and she declaims “Natural windmill/Wheel weave and bless/My bed/My bed/My man” and the music suddenly becomes the softest sea and back again – “Where is the night lustre?” and she answers her own rhetorical question with the shout-it-from-those-rooftops “Past my trials/Sparking in flight/In your arms/For all of my life” oh yes and yes and bless the summer there will be no autumn not with us.

Then the second Captain song, “Captain Sweet Lucifer,” and she’s found her earth and church: “Meet me Captain Sweet Lucifer/Darling I’ll be there/Don’t you know…

…now don’t you know I love you?”

“Now I’ll live and die and rise with my captain/Mama say go” (because the Captain did eventually say YES)

and when Laura Nyro reaches the orgasm of “Thank you baby! You’re my baby now!” she is not only addressing her Captain but her city, her world; it’s all hers now, to play with, to enter and to adore.

But the real climax of the record, of this journey away from her Frownland to her real idea of Wild Life, is found at dusk in her own living room, she and her pealing bells of piano with the hymn of lifelong devotion to her world, the title track, “New York Tendaberry,” and you want it to go on forever, it feels like the song could last the whole of Laura Nyro’s life, which in some ways it did, and she sees the beauty amid the grime – “Rugs and drapes and drugs and capes/Sweet kids in hunger slums” – she looks out over this and where is anyone, what does anyone have, if not their soul and each other?

“You look like a city BUT YOU FEEL LIKE A RELIGION TO ME!” – and there she reaches her apex, her peak from which she views the world in front of her, and she is not alone, just as you and I can NEVER be alone, not ever again, we know that now, me in this front room “here where I’ve cried, where I’ve tried, where God and the tendaberry rise” and you in that front room and it is the same room and we’re sheltering each other and looking at each other’s world and it’s the same world and now it is ours “join for life for precious years” and the song slows to a tiny whisper and the title disappears into her mouth and out into the air, and that last "tears" turns into Miles' trumpet, and then an eternal bell, and I see her on that cover with her flowing hair and is it leather or is it musk, where does one end and the other start, and she’s so damned sexy and really she knows it, and a smile beams through all of it and I look at this benighted city up on the roof and the sun comes down in pink and purple and the love broadens under the milky way then narrows down to the scope of the universe and my world becomes you.

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