Kevin Courrier’s Trout Mask Replica, and Sean Nelson’s Court and Spark

cover art for Court and Spark (book)We have reviewed other books in the fascinating series called 33 1/3. It’s an incredible conceit. Give an author carte blanche to write about a favourite album, in any way they want. Recall Allan Moore’s didactic treatise on Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, or John Niven’s “factional” novella concerning the creation of The Band’s Music From Big Pink. And there are some forty other titles available, with just as varied approaches. Today we’ll look at two new titles, the artists as different as night is from day, the authors’ styles equally polar. Kevin Courrier (who wrote well-regarded biographies of Randy Newman and Frank Zappa) tackles Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band’s Trout Mask Replica while Seattle musician and writer Sean Nelson seeks to explain Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark.

Nelson’s approach is to try to place Joni Mitchell’s most commercially successful album in the context of its time and where it fell in the chronology of her work and development. She was still first a musician when she made this album, in 1974, doing watercolour sketches for her own album covers but mainly playing the acoustic guitar and singing, like a second generation Judy Collins. She had come off a couple of well publicized romances, and was investigating new guitar tunings, which would lead her into far more experimental music. Court and Spark was where “Raised on Robbery” resided. Who knew that Joni could rock? And when she covered Hendricks’ and Ross’s “Twisted,” how did we know she had such a sense of humour? (Okay, there was that incredible giggle at the end of “Big Yellow Taxi” but that seemed like a one-off.) And bringing in Cheech & Chong? And Robbie Robertson? Geez!

Nelson looks back at Ladies of the Canyon, Blue, and For the Roses (albums that personally I admire more) but comes back to Court and Spark as the pinnacle of her art (while dismissing “Raised on Robbery” as a pastiche!) (Hmm, I’ve always dug that tune!) He finds the earlier albums a bit self indulgent, maybe a tad depressing. But that’s what we loved about Joni, right? She laid her cards on the table. Rolling Stone called her “Old Lady of the Year,” and she accepted her fate. Can’t imagine her going along with that at a later date in her career. Nelson describes the “emotional ambivalence,” and “specifics about her uncertain relationships,” that can be found in her lyrics, and places this in the context of the music. He describes the level of the strings compared to the mix of the piano, the kind of background harmony found on each track, and by piling detail upon detail forces you to reconsider the album. Perhaps in ways you’ve never even thought about. I was drawn back to pull out my old vinyl copy (now over thiry years old) and give a listen, just to try to recall the songs he was writing about. Sure, I knew the radio-friendly tunes, but some of the more obscure titles had passed into the recesses of my memory. And if a book can get you to play an album you haven’t listened to in at least a decade then it must have been successful. Right?

cover art for Trout Mask Replica (book)The same is true of Kevin Courrier’s appraisal of the Beefheart classic Trout Mask Replica. How can it be a classic when so few people have really listened to it? Well, that’s a question Courier asks. He covers a lot of ground in the book’s 144 pages, giving a potted history of Don Van Vliet’s musical ouevre, with stops at Zappa, Ry Cooder, and a succession of sidemen who accompanied the Captain on his journey. I realized that I don’t even own a copy of TMR! Must’ve sold the original vinyl one day when I needed grocery money. Sure, I still had Grow Fins, Revenant’s amazing box set of out-takes from these sessions; and a healthy batch of vinyl Beefheart (mainly later works); as well as Rhino’s two-disc anthology, and Rhino-Handmade’s live double . . . but no TMR!

This meant I had to go looking for it! Nobody I knew had a copy, that was for sure. It wasn’t in any of the racks of the local CD shops. So I simulated listening to it, by digging into the rough recordings of Grow Fins, and listening to whatever sound bites I could find. And probably, by so doing, heard more of the album than many readers have ever heard! First of all, who bought double albums with photos of weird guys wearing fish heads as a mask? And was the fact that Frank Zappa produced it in its favour or not? Think back to 1969. Golly, that’s nearly 40 years ago!

Courrier provides an excellent rationale for rediscovering this collection of rhythms and glass finger guitar mixed with Howlin’ Wolf yelps. It’s darn fascinating music. He gives the history of why Ry Cooder left the band after a very brief stay; and how musicians like Bill Harkelroad came to be named Zoot Horn Rollo. He describes the first time he heard this bizarre music himself, and the impact it had on him and his circle of friends. I recall a high school dance where they gave away a copy of a Beefheart album, only to see it destroyed later, when the poor innocent fellow who won listened to it! Such was the reaction to the Captain’s ouevre. And TMR was where it all started. (Okay, there were a couple of earlier albums and Courrier mentions them, but let’s face it, Van Vliet’s reputation hinges on this one!)

It’s interesting, in both books, that the albums are treated as vinyl. Not CDs. Nelson divides Joni’s work by song, “putting the needle down on side one …” and Courrier discusses the value of the four different sides of a double album, not one continuous piece of music. That’s what makes these 33 1/3 books valuable. They maintain a connection to the past, not just in their reassessment of old records, but in their respect for the medium. It was a time when graphic design meant something. Twelve by twelve inches is a far better showcase for a photo of a trout mask man than a jewel case is!

There are many of these little books. All with their own personality. The Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime by Michael Fournier, and the Pixies’ Doolittle by Ben Sisario are just two of them; but you can see for yourself here the broad spectrum of albums they have covered. You might even find yourself suggesting an album they haven’t covered yet!

(Continuum Books, 2007)
(Continuum Books, 2007)

You can find out more about the 33-1/3 series at Bloomsbury’s website.

David Kidney

David Kidney was born in the Marine Hospital on Staten Island in the middle of the last century, when the millenium seemed a very long way off. His family soon moved to Canada, because the air was fresher. He has written songs and stories, played guitar, painted, sculpted, and coached soccer and baseball. He edits and publishes the Rylander, the Ry Cooder Quarterly, which has subscribers around the world. He says life in the Great White North is grand. He lives in Dundas in the province of Ontario, with his wife.

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