By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Cooder barely outlasted the April 1967 sessions for the album; he abruptly quit the Magic Band that summer, on the eve of a potentially career-making date at the Monterey Pop Festival, after Beefheart, in apparent mid-hallucination, walked offstage in the middle of a Northern California gig. Cooder was also unhappy because what the band was playing wasn't blues, and he had a legitimate point. While Safe As Milk contained such material as the Stones knock-off "Call on Me," the doo-wop ballad "I'm Glad" and a stop-time cover of Louisiana ex-convict/singer Robert Pete Williams' "Grown So Ugly," Beefheart's music was already arcing toward unfamiliar terrain. One can easily imagine a blues player being bewildered by the herky-jerky rhythms and opaque lyrics of "Abba Zaba," or the trippy arabesques of knotty, theremin-laced pop songs like "Electricity" and "Autumn's Child."
Undeterred by the commercial failure of Safe As Milk and Cooder's defection, the Magic Band recorded a second album -- twice. In late 1967, with new guitarist Jeff Cotton (soon to be rechristened "Antennae Jimmy Semens") in tow, Beefheart and holdover members French, guitarist Alex Snouffer and bassist Jeff Handley entered the studio to cut what was envisioned as a two-LP set entitled It Comes to You in a Plain Brown Wrapper; half the record would be "live" studio jams and half more conservatively rendered songs. After these sessions were completed, the Magic Band's producer-manager, Bob Krasnow, became involved in a Machiavellian series of negotiations with several labels, which led to a hurried re-recording of most of the same material in April 1968. Ultimately, Version B of the album was released -- slathered with phasing, distortion, stereo effects, tape loops and other acid-rock gimmickry -- in late 1968, to Beefheart's displeasure, as Strictly Personal, on Krasnow's new label, Blue Thumb Records. (Two cuts from that botched set are heard on The Dust Blows Forward.) The unadulterated Version A is reconstructed on The Mirror Man Sessions; seven additional outtakes are included on Safe As Milk.
Mirror Man is a weird album, part blues, part . . . something else again. Three of the tracks are elongated, amorphous numbers ranging in length from 10 to 19 minutes. "You're Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond" reappears as the epic "Tarotplane" (the title of which is a pun on Robert Johnson's "Terraplane Blues"), encrusted with shards of "Wang Dang Doodle" and some debutante saxophone noodling from Beefheart; the more economical "Gimme Dat Harp Boy" is nothing more or less than a lurching take on "Spoonful." However, some of the songs nod toward things to come -- most notably "Kandy Korn," which floats on French's oddly accented drumming and unexpectedly jerks into a wafting coda that anticipates the bolder rhythmic conceptions of Beefheart's next album.
AFTER A TRYING YEAR THAT CLIMAXED with the penniless band nearly stranded in Europe, Snouffer and Handley jumped ship (following a gig on the beach at Cannes during the '68 MIDEM music conference, glorious footage of which may be seen on Grow Fins' CD-ROM disc). Beefheart quickly shanghaied two young Lancaster musicians, guitarist Bill Harkleroad (whom he dubbed "Zoot Horn Rollo") and bassist Mark Boston (a.k.a. "Rockette Morton"); these babes in the woods joined French, Cotton, Beefheart and Beefheart's cousin, bass clarinetist Victor "The Mascara Snake" Hayden, in a rented house in Woodland Hills. There, living on pilfered groceries and handouts from relatives, they labored in seclusion for months on what proved to be the Magic Band's pièce de résistance. With French painstakingly cobbling fragments banged out on the piano or whistled by Beefheart into musical transcriptions, and Cotton assembling Cappy Don's scribbled notes on napkins and paper bags into finished lyrics, Trout Mask Replica took form.
Almost all of the 28 excruciatingly complex tracks on that 1969 two-LP set were recorded during one four-hour session by producer Frank Zappa. (Seven of these songs -- though, strangely, not the improvised recitation "The Dust Blows Forward 'n the Dust Blows Back," the cut from which the package takes its name -- are featured on the Rhino anthology.) The Magic Band were able to perform this astonishing studio feat because they had drilled each composition in merciless rehearsals -- conducted with what French recalls as "a truly cultlike mixture of brainwashing, intimidation and coercion" -- and had in fact recorded an instrumental version of the album with portable equipment at the Woodland Hills house, with the intention of overdubbing Beefheart's vocals later. This "Beefhouse" rendering of the album is the centerpiece of Grow Fins, taking up all of the third CD.
By this time, almost all vestiges of the blues had vanished from the Magic Band's sound: The lone generic piece, "China Pig," a surrealist 12-bar about a piggy bank performed by Beefheart and briefly returned prodigal Doug Moon, is an anomaly. (It appeared, as recorded, on the finished Trout Mask.) While Harkleroad and Cotton are credited with "glass-finger" and "steel-appendage" (read: slide) guitar, there isn't a Delta lick to be found; the two musicians wail away in arrhythmic cross-currents, though a comparison to the released album demonstrates that every seemingly random note was carefully charted. French's drumming is often as freeform as that practiced by Cecil Taylor's skinman Sunny Murray, while the scattershot reed combat of Beefheart and Hayden bears the humid, humorous signature of one of the Captain's favorites, Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Here, the Magic ã Band arrived at its own vision: Through a unique combination of Beefheart's terrorist work ethic and the group's instinctive translations of his ideas, they formulated an unprecedented and seamless fusion of rock & roll, blues and free jazz (overlaid, on the finished product, with stream-of-consciousness post-bop prosody).