"Here we go again," an exuberant David Johansen whoops over the percolating opening bars of "One Man's Meat," the twelfth track on this record. Indeed. As Gary Lucas' squealing, growling guitars push hard, the Gods and Monsters rhythm section (here, Jonathan Kane on drums and Ernie Brooks on bass) is, if anything, more insistently propulsive--this is the sound of that train that kept a'rollin. Here we go again indeed: "Come on children, let's rock," Johansen entreats, "Don't stop 'till your head spins." A kind of mission statement in miniature pertaining to what Lucas and his varied collaborators (who have included Captain Beefheart, Nick Cave, Joan Osborne, Jeff Buckley and scores of others) have been doing in music for decades. Head-spinning intoxication is just the beginning of the pleasure principle that Lucas' music is pushing. "It's kind of old school to say this," he admits, "but I really do believe in the liberating qualities of music, and I like to think what I do flies in the face of the convention that music should be an adjunct to other activities... I believe music should be at the forefront." The generosity, the strangeness, the humanity and the virtuosity of Lucas' songs, and his spellbinding guitar alchemy, pretty much guarantee that nothing he does ever fades into the background.
This particular platter, many years and many sessions in the making, represents both a culmination of sorts of Lucas' mission--and a new beginning. Lucas has built up a big and varied (and, due to the vicissitudes of the business, sometimes frustratingly difficult to access) discography since he began working as a solo musician in the late '80s, and while it wouldn't be entirely accurate to say that Coming Clean covers all the musical bases Lucas himself has, it's absolutely true that it's the record that comes closest to doing so. And, showcasing as it does his impressive evolution as a songwriter and his increasing confidence as a vocalist, it's one of Lucas' most cohesive collections.
Then, of course, there's the guitar playing. His workout, with Kane and Brooks, on Bernard Herrmann's immortal theme from Hitchcock's Psycho, is a short, scary stunner that tells you a lot about what makes him a great, um, axeman. There's the virtuosity, sure--stuff's hard to play, and Lucas doesn't miss a note. But there's also the sonic imagination at work--most impressively in the transposition of instrumentation, from the original's string ensemble to a three-piece rock band. Then there's the emotion, the head-spinning [again] aggression. And then there's the almost terse economy of the piece--Lucas, Brooks and Kane take aim, nail the target, and they're out. As a friend once admiringly observed, "Lucas doesn't do 'wank'."
He never has, despite having chops that moved the late critic Lester Bangs to wonder if Lucas was playing the top or the bottom part of the guitar on the Beefheart composition "Flavor Bud Living" (it's all Lucas, in real time on Beefheart's Doc at the Radar Station). Instead, Lucas continues a tradition that began with the great rock wizards of the '60s--Cream, Hendrix, The Yardbirds/Zeppelin and more--forging rock music that's informed and galvanized by a near-universe of other idioms, all in the pursuit of some kind of transcendence. (Or, in the case of the spirit-lifting, Byrds-evoking "Follow," consolation.) The near-whispers of the Lucas-sung "Evangeline" and of "Skin Diving," co-written with and beautifully vocalized by French music superstar Elli Medeiros, deliberately evoke the qualities of devotional and/or erotic music, Lucas says, wryly adding, "as we all know there's a fine line between religious ecstasy and sex." The plaintiveness of Jeff BuckIey's lyric for "Mojo Pin" (here sung by Michael Schoen) takes on a near-cosmic dimension as Lucas' guitar curlicues around, and then explodes, it. (The track is also a reminder that Lucas, who also co-wrote BuckIey's signature song "Grace," was the most potent of the singer's musical cohorts.)
"Mojo Pin" is also one of two tracks here to feature Gods and Monsters' new drummer, the great BiIIy Ficca, who also still anchors the landmark band he began with, Television. (The other song featuring Billy is the uncannily beguiling psych-folk workout "Fata Morgana.") "I love playing with him. And I consider Ernie my brother--without his prodding I don't know if I would have finished this record," Lucas says. Aside from the core constituency of Gods and Monsters, Lucas has high praise for saxist Jason Candler, now a full-time member, and trombonist Joe Hendel, who helps take "One Man's Meat" higher. Jerry Harrison, of Talking Heads and his own Casual Gods, who mixed this record's title track, has also taken the stage with Lucas and company, and it's a combustible combo. "When we're up there, everyone really inspires each other." Lucas, who studied English Literature at Yale, sometimes notes that his own name can be translated from Old English and Latin as "spear of light." Well, if you can hear light, "Coming Clean" will prove that right now the spear is sharp indeed.
Film critic for Premiere magazine and a writer for Rolling Stone and The Village Voice