A GOD AND A MONSTER Gary Lucas (Pt. 2)

On working with
Captain Beefheart and Jeff Buckley, on composing film scores and his Jewish
heritage, plus future plans.

BY A.D. AMOROSI

 

We continue our
discussion with guitarist and composer Gary Lucas, whose band Gods and Monsters
recently released their latest album The
Ordeal of Civility. Go here to read Part 1 in which he outlined the dynamics of
the group and the making of the album as well as his connection to legendary
Czech band The Plastic People of the Universe.

 

BLURT: OK, the
Beefheart stuff: I know you saw him very early in your guitar playing career,
like ’70 or ’71. Where were you aesthetically when you saw him and what changed
about you or your playing after that first show? Funny aside – I met him at a
show in New Jersey where he grabbed me and brought me backstage to draw me as I
was wearing an insanely loud red suit. He kept calling me the “red devil”…
Oddity, or everyday occurrence?

 GARY LUCAS: Yes, he
would have liked your suit and would have liked to draw it. That was totally
normal!

        I was drawn to
his music first, but the whole thing came together after seeing him perform
live in NYC at a little club here in Manhattan
called Ungano’s in early 1971. Ungano’s was a little club on West 72nd Street that was only around for
a year or so. It literally changed my life. I thought to myself, “If I ever do
anything in music I want to play with this guy.” It was that inspiring and
life-transformative. The thing of it that got me was that it was so
unconventional, powerful, artistic, and humorous. I wanted to be part of that
free spirit. To me, it was like running away to join the circus.

 

How exactly did you
go from seeing him in 1971 to playing with him in the mid-‘80s? And what was it
like working with Van Vliet – especially in the studio – other than radically
demanding? I’m not looking for dirt. I’m looking for joy

 I basically
interviewed him  for Yale’s radio station
a few months after seeing him and bonded with him over the phone and later in
person when he came up to play at Yale. He was enormously warm and friendly and
charismatic. I stayed in touch with him then and made a point of going to see
any show of his in proximity to New
Haven for some years after that. Then I lost touch
when he lost his deal with Warners and made those albums for Mercury.

        But then he
came to my hometown Syracuse in spring of ’75 with Zappa on the Bongo Fury tour, and I met him backstage
at the end of the show [and] took him out for midnight ribs at an underground
barbecue pit in the black ghetto – in a guy’s backyard; it was “Tobe
Erwing’s Barbecue,” and Tobe was packing heat in his apron. And there and then
told him if he ever put the band back together I wanted a chance to audition
for it.

        “Why
didn’t you tell me you played?” he asked me. Well, I didn’t think I was
good enough, but I had secretly been practicing his music, so… the time felt
right. He invited me to audition in Boston
after another Zappa show that week and that was it. I was in. It took a few
years to realize, though, as I had a ticket to go to Taipei and work for my old man for a couple
years, which I acted upon, as he was rather vague as to a timetable or a plan
of action at that point. And then I contacted him few years later. Eventually
he invited me to play with him in 1980

 

I’ve heard that he
composed in a manner closer to a painter and a sculptor than a musician.
Discuss please, if you can. And tell me how you think it affected your
compositional skill up through to the present.

 Yes, he did exactly
do this, by either whistling, scat singing, or playing parts himself on piano
and sometimes on guitar, bass and drums – and then having you tape his
“through-composed” compositions and learning them note for note, tic
for tic, mistake for mistake. Though he didn’t believe there were any mistakes.
Like Allen Ginsberg said, “first thought, best thought.”

        He then would
further sculpt these parts, modify them and edit them and put them together in
an assemblage – kind of like a collage, or sometimes it would feel like a
free-standing mobile spinning in air – and alter them further surgically in
rehearsal so that by the time we hit the recording studio these were very
meticulously played parts which he had drilled into us and which we reproduced
like a well-oiled machine, with no improvisation whatsoever allowed. He then
would record them and go back in and put a melody or spoken word vocal line on
top and also harmonica or sax – and on these parts, he of course was allowed to
improvise. We were the canvas that provided the support for him to fling his
own paint on, like an action painter.

 

 What the heck
made you want to manage him? Did you have that skill set? Do you manage your band now?

 I never wanted to
manage him! I just wanted to play with him. Managing him was his idea! But after my then-wife Ling
and I went out to visit him in the Mojave Desert – where I was instructed to
apply his “Exploding Note Theory” to his guitar solo piece
“Flavor Bud Living” which you can hear on Doc at the Radar Station,
and which put me on the musical map – he rang us up and begged us to manage
him. Why? “I don’t trust anyone else!”

        And as I loved
him – we both loved him – and wanted to help him, we agreed to do so out of a
sense of trying to help an artist we thought wasn’t getting a fair shake in the
world of music and who deserved to be better known. I told him, “I am not
really a manager, you know,” and he said he understands but that he
believes and trusted we could do a better job of it then anyone he’d had
previously.

        And in fact,
as difficult as it was, I am very proud of the job I did for him in that
capacity:  including setting up his last
US and European tours; setting up the publicity for his last two albums by
getting all the important critics and writers in NYC to come over for listening
parties at my apartment, including Lester Bangs (who gave me the best
compliment of my playing career up till then: “Which part are you playing
Gary, the top or the bottom” he asked after hearing “Flavor Bud
Living.” “No Lester, that’s me playing both parts simultaneously, in real
time,” was my reply); getting him on David Letterman twice; getting Ice
Cream for Crow
going as an active recording project with Epic Records since
no one at Virgin Records had informed Epic A&R that Beefheart was still an
active group on their roster – ridiculous, as there was a Virgin/Epic imprint
in the US; getting the “Ice Cream for Crow” video made and then
getting into the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art when MTV
rejected it as “too weird”; getting Don on the cover of Musician magazine and then profiled in People magazine.

        I was recently
on a panel at SXSW where someone remarked that “everybody who knew Don
managed him at some point or another.” Well, I let the remark go in passing,
but I’d really like to know what those reputed “managers” actually did for him. So did I have that skill
set? Ling and I tried to do the job as best we could, which wasn’t easy,
especially with a difficult artist like Don, and I’d like to think I rather
rose to the occasion when he asked me to do this for him solo when Ling and I
split up.  It was a dirty job, but
someone had to do it. 

        And yes I
manage my own band now, by default – for the same reason.

 

You were an integral
participant in getting him art exhibitions in Manhattan. You ran tributes to his music
before he passed. He really got under your skin in a good way.

Yes, I think Don has had a beneficial and lasting effect on
me in a good way, especially on my sense of irony and overall world view. As he
was able to see so clearly through the games people try and run on you, and
that really rubbed off on me. But I especially adored his sense of humor, and
have tried to keep that whimsical side within me. 

        And what I
remember the most and prefer to recall rather than any particular negative
incidents, which various Magic Band members have exhaustively harped on in
books in a rather “sour grapes” tell-all mode – I mean, why did they
stick around him for all those years if he was so bad? – would be his
overwhelming sense of humor and enjoyment of life and the natural world around
us. That was precious.

 

 How does that
feeling compare to the one you have for Jeff Buckley whose career you launched?

 Well that’s a whole
different kettle of fish, and I would hate to make comparisons. Jeff was one of
a kind and the most gifted young musician I have ever worked with and the best collaborator I’ve probably had to
date. But I knew Don Van Vliet a whole lot better as a person, and spent a lot
more time with him, and had a much closer bond in the period I worked with him.
I loved Jeff dearly though – that’s for sure.

 

 Do you think it
is a positive thing that Sony keeps re-re-releasing Buckley’s past work? I know
that “Mojo Pin” and “Grace” were but two of your compositional collaborations –
it seems impossible to believe that more stuff may be in hiding.

I don’t know. I haven’t paid much attention to their
re-releases except to note that I seemed to have been summarily
“disappeared” out of their official narrative of Jeff’s career,
particularly on the three Grace box set
re-issues which Sony issued – and why three?. Which, except for the pro forma
inclusion of my name in the writing credits for those two songs and the
inclusion of Jeff’s special thanks list from the original Grace album where I am cited for “magical guitarness,” there
is not a mention of my name nor a photo of me in any of the critical essays
that come in the booklet or any real presence in the videos included with any
of these reissues. Which hurt me.

        I mean, the
very first note of the “Grace” album is my guitar, in the clear, on
“Mojo Pin.” I wrote the original music for the first two songs on this
album – they began as my solo guitar instrumentals “And You Will” and
“Rise Up to Be,” which became “Mojo Pin” and “Grace,”
respectively, after I sent them to Jeff and he added lyrics and vocal melodies
to them. I composed the basic harmonic structure and building blocks of these
two songs, which are considered anthems in the Buckley canon. There are people
all over the world who believe that Jeff wrote the guitar riffs that are the
basis of these songs. I guess that’s the impression that the “powers that
be” wanted to foster by leaving me out of the liner notes. Not very
charitable, is it?

        As far as reissues,
I really don’t know if Sony have anything left in their vaults.  But I have hours of good stuff , including
five as yet unreleased songs I co-wrote with Jeff that are killer, some as good
as Grace I reckon. Also cassette
mixes of Grace that Jeff sent me from
the Bearsville sessions that are superior to what they eventually decided to go
with on the Grace album.

 

 Are you an easy
collaborator? Early on in your solo career I may have thought of you as happily
isolationist.

[It] depends on whom I am collaborating with. With Jeff, and
also with the Indian vocalist Najma Akhtar with whom I made the album Rishte a couple years ago for Harmonia Mundi and which went to #4 on the World Charts,
it was so easy, as I could give them both finished guitar instrumentals and
they would return with perfect vocal melodies and lyrics that fit like a glove
over them, I didn’t really have to do anything else! With other artists it
hasn’t been so easy all the time.

        But I like
collaborating, of course I do! There is no better feeling than hearing the
fruits of a great collaborative effort, as you know that the work you mutually
created is most likely bigger and better than what you could have accomplished
on your own. When I heard the playbacks of the demos for “Grace” and
“Mojo Pin” I knew these songs would shake the world! And I don’t
think my own efforts to have finished them solo without Jeff would have
resulted in such world-beating songs.

 

You’ve worked within
the Festival of Radical Jewish Culture, you did a live soundtrack to The Golem, there is a song on the new
record, “Jedwabne,” that I know from a Polish neighbor of mine with the last
name “Jedwabne” was a  particularly
vicious atrocity toward the Jewish community. Tell me a little bit about that
song – and please tell me a little bit about your connection to your religion.

Well, I am very cognizant of my Jewish roots and proud of my
heritage – I was really happy, for instance, when Natalie Portman stood up and
denounced John Galliano recently for his anti-Semitic remarks. And I began
referencing this side of my spiritual upbringing in music early on as a solo
artist, first with a performance at the Berlin Jazz Fest on the 50th
anniversary of Kristallnacht – basically, the beginning of “open season”
on Jews in Germany in 1938 – with the performance of an improvisatory piece
called “Verklarte Kristallnacht” (which
translates as “Transfigured Kristallnacht
“) after the Schoenberg piece
“Verklarte Nacht.” It went out over WDR national German radio and stunned
the audience into silence before they responded with an ovation.

        So I would say
I was a very early innovator on this scene, and in fact told John Zorn about my
performance at this same Berlin Jazz Festival where he was playing with Naked City.
Several years later Zorn came out with a piece entitled
“Kristallnacht”!  My, my…

        A year or so
later I composed a score for The Golem with my childhood friend keyboardist/composer Water Horn, and I have since
performed with this film all around the world in a solo version, in Moscow, St.
Petersburg, Sydney, Melbourne, all over Europe, the Venice Biennale – and in
Prague, of course. I recorded two records for Tzadik in Zorn’s Radical Jewish
Culture series which some feel are my best albums.

        “Jedwabne”
is the story of my family on my mother’s side who were wiped out in a massacre
of the Jewish community there in July 1941 by their Polish neighbors. Which is
why I have no surviving relatives on my mother’s side in Europe.
In 2001 the then-President of Poland
invited the surviving Jedwabne relatives back from all over the world for an
official government apology ceremony and I traveled to Poland
representing my family. It was a very painful experience to confront the past
like that, and in fact, in Jedwabne itself, there were hostile town folk
glaring at the procession of Jewish survivors as we marched  through the streets of the town to the
remembrance ceremony, but incredibly worth it. I met some wonderful people
there including the Polish Jewish film maker Slawomir Grunberg, who made a
documentary about the events of the pogrom and the official apology ceremony.

 

 

 

        I subsequently
wrote the song to encapsulate my feelings about it and memorialize the tragedy.
So that people would not forget about what went down there, ever.

 

Talking about your
live soundtracks for a minute – what sort of stretch for you is doing those
things? I’ve witnessed a lot of different artists doing such – from a pipe
organist in an old department store doing Metropolis to the guys from
Luna doing the Warhol shorts. It’s a tough haul. You seem particularly
attracted to the idea, what with the Spanish Dracula and Jose Mojica
Marins’ This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse.

 Well, I find it
relatively easy and fun as I was steeped in film soundtracks and also horror
and fantasy films and literature from a very early age. I used to project 8mm
horror films such as Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, This Island Earth and
Bride of Frankenstein in my basement for the neighborhood kids when I
was about 8. I later created original musique
concrete
soundtracks with Walter Horn – to tape, in fact to frighten trick
or treaters on Halloween! And my earliest score for a film was for a Rod Serling-narrated
documentary titled Aquatic Ecology in
1971.

        Plus, I like
to improvise, and that is the secret to my accompanying films with my solo
guitar scores, that these scores I perform live are 50% composed and 50%
improvised, which keeps them fresh as I never play them the same way twice.
Through very intense, close-watching of the films I try and commingle with the
spirits of the dead actors on screen and personify them through my guitar
playing. And I love working with films, as they are basically like having a
reliable partner who will never let you down.

 

How does the new Gods
and Monsters record breathe live – especially now that you are already on to Cuba with
Haydee and Suylen Milanes and recording there? Is Gods and Monsters  live ever embracing of that Cuban sound? Are
you cross-pollinating the vibes or is keeping it all in separate boxes key to
the Lucas oeuvre?

 I am keeping it in
separate boxes for the time being, but that is not to say I wouldn’t bring
Suylen and Haydee into the Gods and Monsters fold in the future. It’s just
easier for now to record this project in Havana
with the cream of Cuban musicians.

        As far as how
the new album songs breathe live, well, we have been breathing them live for
some time now and it feels just great. I hope to be able to bring this music in
front of more audiences this time out, but again am hampered by the reality of market
forces, as there is no tour support available and I refuse to run my band at a
deficit at this stage of my career. Let’s hope your good words and support from
the media in general this time out will enable people to check out and fall in
love with this album, which will hopefully drive sales and enable us to tour
more widely and attract bigger audiences.

        And if not, I
will just keep on keeping on, on to the next thing. I’ll always keep running
Gods and Monsters, though. I love these guys, and I know how good my music
sounds with them playing it.

 

[Photo Credit: May Lee]

 

Leave a Reply