by Brian Strang
[Editor’s note: The following essay is posted on the occasion of the upcoming HARDLY STRICTLY PERSONAL—2017 (HSP2017) — A Celebration of Post-Beefheart Projects, taking place in Berkeley, CA, March 3-5, 2017. Details on this festival appear below the post.]
When I was a 22-year-old undergraduate in 1988, I studied art under Ann Hamilton (whose spectral and existential influence I’m only now beginning to appreciate). I even helped install one of her projects, the capacity of absorption, at MOCA in L.A.—several huge rooms with strange dreamlike objects that melded into landscape and human. I don’t remember exactly but it would be something like this: in one room, there would be a giant waxen horn with a silent video showing in one end, in the next, the horn funneling toward a telephone and human actor/model (sometimes Hamilton would sit in herself) sitting motionless at a table with hands pressed downward and a coat trailing into the next, creating another fantastical landscape/object. These exhibits were grand in scale and yet detailed and meticulous to install, so she utilized the willing enthusiasm of her students, which in my case mostly meant spending hours creating a floor from old typeface packed in upwards so that when anyone entered the room they were literally walking on text and having text stamped on the bottom of their shoes. I even got my name on the wall at MOCA. When I studied with her, I created immersive environments (or tried to anyway) that blended sculpture, sound, text and so forth.
Around this time working either on my own projects or hers, I was hearing a lot of Captain Beefheart, almost exclusively Trout Mask Replica. It was inevitable and inescapable. It was as perfect and as all-absorbing as her work. At the time it was the rich, stimulating soundtrack to creativity itself, as my mind became increasing exploratory and inclined toward combining art forms and testing possibilities. Don Van Vliet was right there, ahead of me showing me the way and behind me spurring me on, beyond what I learned from Hamilton and out into my own painting, poetry and music.
But as intensely as it started, it ended. Perhaps it has something to do with Van Vliet’s explosive, absorptive style, one that paralleled the kind of creativity Hamilton drew out of me, or perhaps it has something to do with the precociousness of youth and the particular impressions that young would-be artists make on the world and encourage in each other. In short, Trout Mask Replica became nauseating to me. The music became so synonymous with a period of youthful experimentation that as I outgrew that period in my life and moved into more mature iterations of creativity, I began to detest the soundtrack that reminded me of all the indulgent creative gestures I no longer wanted to own, ones that were perhaps encouraged by Beefheart’s anything-goes approach. When I heard “Pachuco Cadaver” I heard self-absorption. I couldn’t stand it. And I began to focus my artistic efforts on poetry alone.
I continued to be thrilled by Van Vliet’s work through the years, less by the mind bending, all-over-the-map headfirst dive into the pool that The Trout represents and more by early work like Safe As Milk. This interest in weirdo blues also is due to a lifelong obsession with one particular strain of droning, driving hypnotic sound that has become something like a lifelong spiritual practice for me, one that is supernatural (in the sense that “super” equals “sur” and “natural” equals “real”) and began with the deep heartbeat of John Lee Hooker when I was a teenager and continued through to Bo Diddley, and fellow Texans 13th Floor Elevators, to The Stooges and, then, especially, Spacemen 3, continuing further outward into lots of directions. The fascination with a musical form rooted in the twisted and painful soul of American roots music—one that revels in the half-truths of history and the deeper truths of fairy tales where imagination always lives and where it takes refuge from rationality, in the universal revelations that emerge like Jungian archetypes out of a collective unconscious—predates my flirtation with artsy pretense during my Trout Mask phase. And it has developed along its own lines ever since. I would come to use Gram Parson’s term to describe a hybrid form of music, “Cosmic American Music”: in my case, one that combines early mystical American musical forms with the deliverance of a meditative trance induced by a hard-edged psychedelic drone. I use this term today to describe the music of my band, Crow Crash Radio, which (I hope) reflects this vision.
All things are cyclical. Van Vliet didn’t deserve the entirely subjective association I laid on The Trout and only very recently have I been able to listen to it without hearing my young creative self. My focus narrowed to poetry alone for about thirteen or fourteen years, but then, in the last fifteen years or so, my interests opened back up, beyond poetry alone and back into music and painting. I’ve cycled in and out and among these three forms of expression throughout the years as my artistic vision has matured, just as Van Vliet did. In Riding Some Kind of Unusual Skull Sleigh: On the Arts of Don Van Vliet (1999), W.C. Bamberger notes that “in The Soul’s Code psychologist James Hillman discusses the fact that ‘the influence of genetically inherited factors in our make-up waxes and wanes at different times in our lives. At times, genetic influence is dominant, and at other times it withdraws to allow other, less easily defined parts of our character to take the lead.’” We go through different phases in our lives and in creativity, follow rhythms, just as nature does, in the ebb and flow of the tide, in the beating of the heart and in matter itself, which, as subatomic particle physics tells us, is composed of vibration itself. Find the right wavelength and anything is possible. Van Vliet eventually left music for painting entirely. I think he might have returned one day had he lived another 100 years, but we all only have so much time. Such is the nature of the faster rhythm patterns, ones we call a lifespan, within the very slow beats of the universe. Our lives are such transient vibrations, they barely register on the rhythmic scale of the universe.
We also oscillate between becoming narrowly obsessed and broadly expansive, focusing on a single area or medium and diving deeply inward then looking outward and taking in many things, making connections between seemingly disparate elements. Creativity can be enhanced by strict limitations or by their absence. It means changing constantly, being always in a process of becoming. Miles Davis, a creative spirit guide to me and a man with whom I share a birthday, exactly 40 years apart, changed throughout his career, reinventing and going from soft whispers to driving bellows, from simple and understated to complex and far out, from intensely personal to cosmically grand. As he put it, “To keep creating you have to be about change.”
To me, the micro and macro are one and the same, since they are part of something all-encompassing and connected, something both singular and multiple, something with both facile simplicity and rich complexity. Move between this and that, between here and there, between now and then, but in the end, all rivers reach the sea and water is always water: it evaporates, rains, evaporates again. Bamberger applies a “Gaia” theory of the mind to Beefheart, one that suggests that all things are interconnected and that Van Vliet needed to be “ecologically and systemically connected to other musicians or mediums or life forms.” So as one looks inward, one also looks outward. In “Towards an Open Universe,” poet Robert Duncan writes, “The most real, the truth, the beauty of the poem is a configuration, but also a happening in language, that leads back into or on towards the beauty of the universe itself.” The most inwardly focused path can be one of endless connections, a path that leads outward to infinite possibility. Or as William Blake put it in “Auguries of Innocence,”
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
At this particular point in my life, I hear Trout Mask Replica, including “Pachuco Cadaver,” with new ears. And I hear what’s been there all along: not only the crazy changes in time signatures and far-out explosive gestures I recognized early on but also a creative vision that is uncompromisingly individual. And isn’t that what it’s all about?
Fast and bulbous!
Brian Strang is a poet, musician, painter, and educator.
Admission donation $ 12.00 per day ($20.00 for the entire weekend)
March 3-5, 2017; 7-10 p.m.
Finnish Kaleva Hall
1970 Chestnut St, Berkeley, California 94702