recorded 1967 at TTG Studios
Have you listened to "Mirror Man" recently ? If not ........why not !!
Mirror Man is a much under rated album. Sure, it is not out on the edge like Trout Mask Replica but if it had not had a legitimate release these four tracks would be part of a legendary, 'essential to have', much sought after bootleg. If you think about it, it's amazing that Mirror Man was issued. Even at the time I was surprised and could not understand why it had been released - although very happy to get my hands on this incredible music. It was not strictly speaking an official Beefheart release - four years late, incorrect recording dates and a picture of the wrong Magic Band on the front - it almost seemed to be a work in progress if anything and I could not see the record company releasing it with the idea of making any money. (Having said that Pye/Buddah would repackage and reissue Safe As Milk and Mirror Man in many formats and combinations over the years. Were they trying to cash in on the commercial push Reprise were giving Don around the time of Lick My Decals Off Baby and The Spotlight Kid? Who knows?)
The Mirror Man tracks were probably originally recorded to form part of the projected double package 'It comes to you in a plain brown wrapper'. Whether these were the finished tracks or just initial run throughs is probably something we will never know for certain.
I am particularly attached to the Mirror Man album because I'm a sucker for the sound the '67-'68 Magic Band made. I still live in hope that more live material of this band will come to light. The Mirror Man album offers a glimpse of this band in the raw, about as live as we'll ever hear them now. The backbone to the sound is John French's superb drumming ( "a contrapuntal, polyrhythmnic syncopation" I read somewhere and I can't argue with that) a relentless rhythm around which the guitars spin and wheel like crazed moths around a flame. The drumming holds the sound together yet it is continually pushing the guitars of Alex St Clair and Jeff Cotton onto more experimentation while Jerry Handley's bass snaps at their heels. This may not yet have been Don's ideal musical vision but there sure as hell wasn't anything else around like it. There still isn't come to that !
The album gets off to a shaky start with Don's harp distorting badly on 'Tarotplane'. But soon settles down to the steady beat of the rest of the album, solid drums, spiralling slide guitars and loping, growling, grumpy bass lines. Based loosely on the title of Robert Johnson's Terraplane Blues I presume the punning title came later as a comment on the 60's mystical fad as Don is definitely saying 'terraplane' and not 'tarotplane'. The rest of the lyrics owe much to 'Gonna need somebody on your bond' which was an old blues song played at live gigs in '67 and '68 by the Magic band and in '74 by the Tragic Band. Don also slips in the line 'you aint too old as long as you can boogie' from 'Old Folks Boogie' on the '66 Avalon boot. Don plays some fine wailing harp as well as some first time musette(?) ... or is it the shenai?. His playing here is more structured and controlled than the more free form sax outings on TMR. Just when you think the track is finishing on a fade, it builds with wailing musette and feedback and the drums drag it back together for a final flourish of 'Gonna need...' with Don really twisting the words and possibly swallowing the microphone.
What a track to start with ! I always feel exhausted and exhilarated at the end of it and there's still three more tracks to go.
'Kandy Korn' appears to be the only song in a finished state. It is definitely the most structured of the four songs and sounds identical to the Strictly Personal track (without the production of course) except that the instrumental ending just goes on and on as if the Band are so locked into the riff they can't, or don't want to, stop. It shows the power and subtlety of the twin- lead guitar attack when they play the same riffs weaving in and out of each other to perfection and then coming together totally in sync with the bass and drums. For me this was a favourite section from Strictly Personal, so it was a wish fulfilled to have an even longer version. There is even the few notes on piano, picked out very slowly and precisely (at 2:50 and 5:48). Is this the first recording of Don playing keyboard ? This is also the only track on MM which seems to have had some production work on it - Don's voice is double-tracked and there seems to be some simple phasing/distortion on the voices and cymbals.
'25th Century Quaker' had a mention on the Strictly Personal sleeve and here was the source of that reference. Similar in some ways to 'Tarotplane' but with more specific lyrics. It is almost a love song (albeit one seen through a distorting mirror ) with Don singing some lines in a very tender way while the Magic Band swoop, soar and thunder behind him. The 'flutter', 'shutter', 'shudder' sequence is another great piece of word association and sung in such a way as to conjure up all sorts of connotations and images.
And finally THE track, the title track 'Mirror Man' itself ... despite the irritating phasing, 'Son of Mirror Man' on Strictly Personal was a stunning track and here we have the block from which that chip was taken. A rambling monster of a track with false endings, rolling drums, growling bass and tight insistent spring-loaded slide guitars plus Don using that magnificent voice to deconstruct words and reassemble them into sounds and all the while drawing the Band along with his virtuoso harp playing. It's got to be one of the greatest pieces recorded by anyone, anywhere without a doubt.
If I have one complaint about the album it is that the guitars are mixed too low. Imagine these tracks if the guitars were as up front as on 'Safe as Milk' or 'Trust Us' as on the 'I may be hungry...' CD ... they would probably fry your speakers !
Shit...some people are never satisfied are they ?
Get your copy out now. ...put on your headphones... choose one of the instruments and follow that sound. When it's finished, put it on again and follow a different instrument this time ...
'Well, they look so good ...'
Additional late 1999:
So Buddah (or rather Buddha) have repackaged Safe As Milk and Mirror Man yet again! But this time they've remixed them. Woohoo!! Mirror Man has become The Mirror Man Sessions.
For some reason they have decided to rearrange the tracks so that 'Kandy Korn' is now the final song. Although a little unnerving at first, I think this does work. The extra tracks are a nice bonus but I'd have been just as happy if it were only the original four songs. However, these bonus tracks on Mirror Man do fit better with the rest of the album than the tracks that have been added to the end of Safe As Milk.
As for the remixed Mirror Man album ... there's now even more power in these four songs - John French's drums roll even heavier, Jerry Handley's bass growls and thunders even more so, if that's possible ... and the guitars ... and the guitars ...
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