CAPTAIN BEEFHEART: MIRROR MAN (1971)
1) Tarotplane; 2) Kandy Korn; 3) 25th Century Quaker; 4) Mirror Man; 5*) Trust Us; 6*) Safe As Milk; 7*) Beatle Bones 'n' Smokin' Stones; 8*) Moody Liz; 9*) Gimme Dat Harp Boy.
Well, here go the magic words: This is the album that Strictly Personal should have been three years earlier. These are the original tracks that were recorded in late 1967 for Buddah Records and went down together with the band's respect for Buddah Records. Yet for all their displeasure with the results, Buddah executives did not erase the tapes or anything, and after the Captain got all solidified in his status of a living legend, they ultimately went ahead and released some of them in 1971 as Mirror Man; the entire package did not, however, see the light of day until well into the CD age — although bootleg versions probably circulated around, it was only in 1999 that the world got to properly experience the Captain's «original vision» for It Comes To You In A Plain Brown Wrapper, this time entitled Mirror Man Sessions and containing enough material for a bona fide double LP.
Not that it comes loaded with a double-LP-quota of great musical ideas, mind you. On the contrary, it is the direct opposite of Trout Mask Replica: instead of dozens of short, carefully preconstructed tunes, Mirror Man consists of a small handful of super-long bluesy jams that act as an arrogant challenge to contemporary Cream and Grateful Dead — ʽTarotplaneʼ alone, opening the album, clocks in at over 19 minutes, and the other three jams from the 1971 record collectively occupy another 33 minutes (bonus tracks on the 1999 release are generally shorter). And this is not some kind of over-the-top avantgarde jamming, either: this is relatively standard blues-rock jamming, without any psychedelic overtones. Even Ry Cooder could have joined in the fun, had he not already had his full share of the Captain's antics and left the band in favor of Jeff Cotton.
So why do I find it, despite all these hideous time lengths, every bit as engaging as TMR and maybe even more so? Part of the issue is contextual: after the (largely meaningless) excesses of the Captain's 1969-70 period, almost anything more «normal» sounds like a relief. But another part is that I really, really like whatever it is that Beefheart is doing in this genre — he is for Chicago blues what Bob Dylan was for folk music in 1964, a respectful adept intent on catapulting tradition into the future, and here he finds himself untampered with time limitations, free to carry on a particular idea or groove for as long as he thinks necessary, even if occasionally he tends to overthink it. But this kind of modernist shamanism does look more logical when it comes in the form of ritualistic, groove-based improvisation than when it comes in the form of brief chunks of inverted and distorted chord sequences — in other words, I can let myself go and float on the rough, but natural current of Mirror Man, whereas Trout Mask Replica is more of a convoluted labyrinth where you have to stay alert and watch your step every minute, unless you wanna end up with a bloody nose and stubbed toes in a matter of minutes.
As I already said, the sheer strength of these grooves totally trumps the much less inspired re-recordings on Strictly Personal — not to mention the awful production of the latter, with its poor mixing that somehow manages to downplay the role of every player, and its psychedelic effects that try to amplify the already present weirdness of the tracks but instead detract from it. Here, the bass and the interplay between Cotton's and St. Clair's guitars are perfectly audible, and you can actually groove to the funky sounds of ʽMirror Manʼ rather than just sit there and try to make sense of what is going on. Beefheart himself, with his sandpaper-voice declamations and swamp harmonica playing, is an integral part of the sessions, but there are long periods of time when he almost disappears from sight, letting the musicians carry on without his participation, and so he seems more of a general conductor and overseeing spirit rather than the be-all-end-all motor of the sessions, and that's okay by me, especially on tracks like ʽKandy Kornʼ where there's more of an overall structure to the proceedings, and the musicians alternate between two distinctly different melodies (the «bluesy suspense» and the «pop resolution»).
ʽTarotplaneʼ may be harder to tolerate due to the ridiculous length, but it is also the roughest track on the album, closer in spirit to pre-war Son House-style blues rituals than anything else, and there are patches of sensual delight when the straightahead electric guitar, the slide guitar, and the Captain's swampy harmonica weave their magic together. Another track that has no equivalent on Strictly Personal is ʽ25th Century Quakerʼ, compiled around a strange musical figure that is alternately played by the slide guitar and the bass and sounds like an African-Indian hybrid, part time blues riff and part time sitar drone — like one of the great blind bluesmen offered to write a soundtrack for a snake charmer. Call me too conservative (and I wouldn't even deny the charges), but somehow most of these melodic themes seem to make much more sense (and generate much more fun) for me than almost any of the twisted themes on the 1969-70 albums.
I will not pretend that the long jams justify their existence through players exploring all possible corners and branching out in all possible directions — they most certainly do not, and if you have a tendency to be bored by any theme that goes on longer than five minutes, the brevity of TMR will probably have more appeal to you. But when all has been said and done, and when all the praise has been lavished, I stick to the simple statement that behind all the madness, the Captain had always been a great bluesman at heart — and that Mirror Man is the one record in his catalog where he is more than happy to both acknowledge and deconstruct all the clichés and formalities of the genre. In fact, while I have no evidence to properly suggest this, I wouldn't be in the least surprised to learn that it was this chance to reacquaint himself with his own legacy and refreshen that blues sound in his mind, upon the (unauthorized?) release of Mirror Man in 1971 that ultimately led to the «re-blues-ification» of his music on The Spotlight Kid a year later, and, personally, if that were so, I'd consider that a healthy stimulus. Thumbs up.