La Jornada Semanal, September 2017Gary Lucas: musician, traveler and teacher
By Juan Gabriel Puga
Gary Lucas, considered one of the top five live rock guitarists today, was recently in Mexico to offer two master classes and two concerts, held at the Benjamin Franklin Library of the United States Embassy. Lucas has collaborated with great rock figures, mainly with Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, of which he was a member for several years and where he cultivated a close and productive friendship with Don Van Vliet, the Captain's real name. Throughout his career, Gary has alternated with legendary musicians such as Rockette Morton, The Mascara Snake, Drumbo, Zoot Horn Rollo, Antennae Jimy Siemens, as well as great rock performers such as Lou Reed, John Cale, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, Bryan Ferry and Allen Ginsberg, among others. He is a musician who constantly travels, does not stay long in one place and is daily heard of him, which he sends through social networks, from all corners of the world. He formed an alliance with Jeff Buckley and from this combination emerged several classic songs. A song he co-wrote for Joan Osborne was nominated for a Grammy for, and he has recorded more than thirty albums.
Gary begins his master class standing, on a small stage, equipped with an amplifier and a series of pedals. Nobody accompanies him. For some time many of his concerts and albums have been without collaboration and the truth is he does not need it; his turns and evolutions along the guitar's arm are crisp, fluid and rich in movements and figures, alternating with explanations and comments about his music and his guitars: an old Gibson acoustic model 1942 provided with a pickup, a true jewel whose sound has not suffered a decline despite the years. The other is a 1966 Fender Stratocaster, a vintage model valued at thousands of dollars that Gary only sees as an old guitar. After a few turns on his guitar, the musician begins his interview.
"I was thirty-eight when I began to work with singers; now I'm sixty-four, like the Beatles song, I’m technically old, but the important thing is that I still feel young and my guitar makes me feel young. Well, the thing is, I was looking for a singer in New York and Jeff Buckley said "Yo!". I replied that I still had to compose some music for the project. What I liked the most was to compose for a singer, because until then I had only written instrumental pieces. We decided then that Jeff would write the lyrics and I would write the guitar music, so I wrote two pieces for him in a week, I recorded them and sent them to him. This is one of them going on..." Gary runs a fragment of the piece "Grace", but without Buckley's voice...then explains: "The tuning used in this piece is known as drop d running that is, with the normal tuning of the guitar, but the bass is tuned a tone down, in d (Re)". Gary makes a detailed explanation followed by an improvisation in a style that inevitably revives the spirit of Captain Beefheart, who mysteriously becomes present during the performance. "And that's how the song "Grace" was written. I tried a little bit of everything, I recorded one part after another, I experimented with different combinations, until I managed to make it whole, like a sculptor who works with the marble trying to shape the pieces until it gets the best look. And this is what you should do when writing a song; there is no right or wrong way of doing things; who should be pleased is you alone, always. Do not think about the public, do not think about your fans, your dad or your mom, only you should be satisfied, happy, that is the key." Speaking of some of the albums he has recorded, he mentions the instrumental " Money Jungle", which was composed by Duke Ellington, which he performs as a solo. "I think it's a beautiful title for his album, because it describes the music business very well; it is a jungle of money...for this I transcribed his original for solo guitar, it took me a week to work up, I hope you like it..."
The music emerges from Gary's Strat through a small combo of brain and speaker Vox; in their sounds are combined an echo and some eventual effects that come from several pedals; chorus, echo, reverb...when he finished his execution of more than five minutes he comments: When I determined to do "Money Jungle" as a solo I said: 'I can do it' And before I began the arrangement I asked myself: 'In what tonality is it?' In the tonality of e minor, so I tuned my guitar in the lower e and then I listened very carefully and compared my arrangement to the recording on the album 'Money Jungle', which includes Duke Ellington on piano, Max Roach on the drums and Charles Mingus on the acoustic bass. Charles was part African-American and American Indian and, if you did not know, a native of Nogales, Arizona. He loved Mexican music also, and check out his album 'Tijuana Moods'. So I sat in front of the speaker, listened and took mental notes, voices, harmonizations, until I was satisfied with my own version that can be heard on my Soundcloud page; this I will also record next month on an acoustic album that will be produced in the Czech Republic." Then, Gary completed the piece "Grace" on his acoustic guitar. Then he went on: "Elmer Bernstein is one of my favorite composers, he made music for the films 'To Kill a Mockingbird' and 'The Magnificent Seven', and also composed the theme to a 1962 film called 'Walk on the Wild Side', (which is not about Lou Reed's piece), which features Jane Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck and Capuccine. This is my version of the music of this extraordinary film that everyone should see"...the notes of "Q and A" are left to be heard in a cosmic and bluesy version. At the beginning of his class he had already executed a fragment of this one in order to expose his method of tuning in open g (sun). During the question session, I had the opportunity to inquire how he had done to "take" so faithfully the piece of Beefheart called "My Human Gets Me Blues". He replied that he had done it by ear; clarified that he does not write out music, not in the sense of writing notes on music paper, and mentioned the concept that Captain Beefheart used to express about music: "Music is just black ants crawling on a piece of paper. I don’t write songs, I make monsters." "Besides," he said, "I have a good memory."
Among the audience who attended to admire and listen to Gary's music were a good number of children who enjoyed and were amazed by his talk and performance. The entrance was free and the event, just like the previous time that Lucas visited us, was for the benefit of children with disabilities. When asked about a possible performance of the Magic Band, he replied that for now he does not need anyone. Gary bade farewell to the audience with "Sure 'Nuff 'n Yes I Do," an unforgettable piece by Captain Beefheart from the album "Safe as Milk".
United Mutations, June 2017Review of Gary Lucas' Fleischerei featuring Sarah Stiles - "Music from Max Fleischer Cartoons"
Gary Lucas does his own thing. Whether it is playing experimental acoustic or rock music, making electronic soundscapes or providing soundtracks to movies, Gary Lucas does it without taking into account if it is the popular thing to do. He's never been part of a hype or a scene. He creates them.
Gary's latest project is a tribute to the music from the Max Fleischer cartoons. Max Fleischer was the animation pioneer who created Betty Boop and Popeye. In the liner notes of the album, Gary Lucas recalls watching these cartoons in the early sixties.
For his Fleischerei project, Gary recruited vocalist Sarah Stiles and longtime collaborator and trombone player Joe Fiedler (Fast 'N' Bulbous!!). The sexted was completed by adding Michael Bates (double bass), Jeff Lederer (woodwinds) and Rob Garcia (drums).
The result does sound rather special. I like the music and the arrangements. I would have loved it if it had included animated movies. It would have been perfect if the songs would have been sung by the animated Betty Boop (or Olive for that matter). Still, a nice project.
Out on Cuneiform Records
Downtown Music Gallery NYC newsletter, March 2017Review of Gary Lucas & Tóni Dezső - Gary and Toni Go Nutz!
Featuring Gary Lucas on guitars & effects and Dezső Tóni on alto & baritone saxes plus guest Attila Dora on tenor sax & bass clarinet.
This disc was recorded in a studio in Budapest, Hungary. A few weeks ago (in January of 2017), I reviewed a fine trio CD with Gary Lucas and two musicians from Hungary, a vocalist named Enikő Szabó and a saxist, Toni Dezso. Longtime Downtown guitar great, Gary Lucas, keeps busy by developing musical collaborations from around the world, especially from eastern Europe. I didn't know about either saxist here, Toni Dezso or Attila Dora, but they sound like all three are kindred spirits. Commencing with an acoustic guitar bathed in layers of effects, Mr. Lucas sails in with that space-rock like sound, a ghost-like sax sailing in the distance. Both saxists appear together on 4 of 13 tracks here and sound fine together.
On "The Nervous Smokers", Mr. Lucas adds a bit of ragtime like flourishes with both saxes playing connected patterns around him. Both reedmen work well together, trading lines on bass clarinet and bari sax on "Trout Fishing in Trump Amerika" which Mr. Lucas adds several waves of echoplexed guitars. I like that much of this is laid-back yet still hypnotic with the tone sound of the guitars altered somewhat on each track. The music here is often like a soundtrack to a series of imagined scenes from a movie. Neither saxes do any screaming or go very far out, they work hard to add shades to the many sounds that Mr. Lucas comes up with on his ever-changing guitars. The cover art is a cartoon of a man and skeleton duking it out on a battle field. The title, "Gary and Toni Go Nutz!" seems misleading since rather than going wild, these two work well together and complement each other in different ways. They do go wild here and there but seem to favor some more restrained sections as well. A healthy balance of extremes makes this a successful disc.
—Bruce Lee Gallanter, DMG
Classic Rock Lifestyle Italia, March 2017O Captain, My Captain Beefheart!
English original of Gary's interview first done over the net with Gabriele Marino and then translated into Italian (see the article here):
Gabriele: Don Van Vliet has always been considered a "visionary" artist—An artist gifted with a powerful, personal, unique imagination. According to your sensibility, which features of his musical approach led to making him such a cult figure within popular music—A "true American Maverick"?
Gary: The guy absolutely followed his own path in every aspect of his artistry and life. I never met anyone remotely like him. Vis a vis his musical approach, to be able to marry Delta blues with free jazz the way he did (such genres forming the basic constituencies of Don Van Vliet's music) is without precedent and to my ears has still never been equaled, although many epigones sprang up in his wake, filtering various stylistic aspects of the "Beefheart Sound", with varying degrees of success.
Gabriele: Do you think that the music of Captain Beefheart has generated true heirs? Or it is more correct to talk about a widespread set of artists and bands that have been influenced by him (eg. Tom Waits, Pere Ubu, Nick Cave, PiL, Half Japanese, Eugene Chadbourne, Old Time Relijun etc. etc.)—But not "true heirs"?
Gary: I would say that many of these artists were influenced by Don's work, yes. Some carried it off with more panache and success than others, let us say. I mean I loved The Birthday Party, for instance. Nick Cave is a friend and collaborator of mine, I worked with Eugene as well.
Gabriele: When I was a teenager and listened to "Safe As Milk"'s outtakes for the very first time—in the Buddha compact disc re-issue—I remained stunned: in those instrumental tunes I already could hear most of so-called post-rock, in nuce. The post-hardcore, math-rock, the Lousville scene structures and sound, in a crude and yet fertile ante litteram synthesis. Am I wrong? And where do you think such an anticipatory capability—which everybody acknowledges to the Captain—lie?
Gary: I just think Don was on to something truly original from the get-go in the mid-60's. Talk about a guy who was eons ahead of his own time.
Gabriele: Do you think that "Trout Mask Replica" obscured the beauty of all the others musical works by Don & the Magic Band? I know you are particularly in love with "Lick My Decals Off, Baby" (1970)...
Gary: No, I think that album clarified for that precise moment for the ages that Don had the most original and forward thinking ensemble concept in music bar none. Decals further refined and amplified on that promise, which is why I prefer it. But they are both incredibly advanced and groundbreaking musical statements.
Gabriele: We have testimonies of Don's visual art dating back at least to 1962. Do you think that his way of painting reflected his approach to music (and lyrics)? And that, for both, the adjective "Surrealist" fits well? (For example: I personally do not agree with those who define Don's music "Cubist Blues"—Don's music seems to me not so into "giving the rendition of different perspectives at the same time" [Cubism], but more into putting together, in a strange and creative way, different elements, musical images that become meaningful just because of such diversity, such a clashing juxtaposition [which is the Surrealist view upon art: the "chance meeting of an umbrella and a sewing machine". according to Lautréamont]).
Gary: Yes I would agree with you here, definitely surrealist and dada-esque rather than cubist. But I would also add "Vorticist" into the mix...because when I turned Don on to the original artwork of Wyndham Lewis, who founded that movement—the most advanced and creative avant-garde art movement in Britain circa 1912 for a few years—Don himself recognized affinities in the Vorticist's particular visual thrust with his own musical output. You might see Don's role as the still center/node in the eye of the sonic hurricane that surrounded him onstage and on record—which is a very Vorticist concept.
Gabriele: Can you recognize a prominent motif within Don's visual production?
Gary: Yes he loved to paint nude black women :-) There are quite a few of them in his oeuvre. Also canines.
Gabriele: You spent a lot of time with Don. During—and after—his musical career, what did he listen to? Did he follow the contemporary rock scene from the Eighties, for example?
Gary: Not at all. He loved the classics—Son House, John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, Stravinsky, Beethoven's late quartets, Leadbelly, etc. Some choice old and sometimes obscure r&b and blues by folks like Nervous Norvous, Slim Green and the Cats from Fresno and One String Jones. I turned him onto 30's Chinese pop by Chow Hsuan and Bai Kwong which he loved. He had impeccable taste in music.
Gabriele: What did Don do after he decided to quit the music biz? Was he completely absorbed by his visual artistic side? Did he continue to sing lyrics or play harmonica and clarinet etc. in his free time?
Gary: Well he never stopped—he couldn't—his output was volcanic. He had decided though to concentrate solely on the visual side of things to make his living though at the time I left in 1984—under his real name.
Gabriele: How was Don as a person—Beyond music, painting, art—In case there was a Don beyond music, painting, and art, obviously :) ?
Gary: He could be the most charming, gracious, and graceful person. An enchanting story-teller and spellbinder overflowing with Joycean imagery and dextrous wordplay and verbal allusions so refined and up in the air, of the highest wit, that most folks couldn't keep up with him, much less understand or relate to. I could, though, which is why we were so close. He knew I "got it". His verbal flow was hypnotic, and he could stay up prodigious amounts of time just musing aloud conversing with you. Absolutely fascinating and you felt you were sharing a very special moment in time speaking with him. He would see, hear and channel spirits, read signs in the landscape surrounding him, and be able to communicate their essence to you. He had a dark side though, which has been well documented. When you were in a one-on-one with him, he kept his dark side mostly hidden. Under pressure with the band or a lot of people around him, he could become a very imperious and selfish taskmaster, to put it mildly. I don't want to dwell on this aspect of Don though, and choose to remember the kind, noble and big-hearted Don Van Vliet. The other side was part and parcel of his "artistic temperament", which was mercurial to say the least.
Gabriele: Some music historians and critics refuse to consider Don an intellectual proper, maybe because his artistic research was not inside the academia. But we have precise testimonies of his cultural tastes, references, and studies (eg., http://garylucas.com/www/rvw/LewisLetter29_.pdf). Was Don an intellectual, a kind of independent—and free—researcher, or a true gifted idiot savant?
Gary: He was definitely an intellectual who had no formal schooling or training—he rejected that whole trip at an early age, when he dropped out of Antelope Valley Junior College. He didn't need that to produce his art, it only got in the way. And having gone to Yale myself, years later I realized I didn't need it either. I liked reading the literature I was supposedly studying, but I rejected most of the "academic" way of dissecting it as not being relevant to my own critical thinking. Another reason we bonded—we were both renegades in that way.
Gabriele: Can you tell us more about how Don actually worked for composing music? We have accounts of how he used to whistle or sing a given melody and then the figure who he had invested, from time to time, with the title of "musical organizer" of the Magic Band (eg., John French aka Drumbo, in the Sixties) had to translate it into score. You have already defined—and I totally agree—Don as someone "sculpting"—and not "composing"—music—Can you please explaing such notion a little bit more? Did he use alternative notations (eg. visual ones)?
Gary: Yes at times Don would draw a picture to extract what he wanted from you musically. For example—right before I recorded the solo guitar piece "Flavor Bud Living" in 1980 for "Doc at the Radar Station"—which put me on the musical map—he handed me a sheet of stationary from the Western Exterminator Company he'd ripped out of a pad lying around Soundcastle Studio in Glendale (near where he was born). On it had had drawn with his red magic marker a bloody smudge over the hapless rodent, with the instructions "Play Like You Dyed" inscribed to me. So that is how I played it!
Gabriele: You have a personal collection of Don's memorabilia. Would you please be so kind to send me some pics of them, with a brief comment maybe? Do you have a special favourite in Don's published visual production? Gary: yes here it is for you—this is only a partial selection: http://garylucas.com/www/dvv/
Gabriele: Thank you SO MUCH for your time, dear Gary.