Heerlen My City (Netherlands), July 2023
American director, writer and actor Orson Welles became world famous in 1938 for his radio play "War of the Worlds". That was interpreted as being so lifelike that some people in New Jersey fled because they thought their state was being attacked by aliens. Three years later, Welles presented his most famous feature film; the extremely innovative "Citizen Kane" for the time. The film is still known as one of the highlights of cinematography.
Interview with Gary Lucas
Don Van Vliet rattled firmly at the gate as Captain Beefheart in 1967 with his debut album "Safe As Milk" and released his own Citizen Kane two years later with "Trout Mask Replica". An album that is to this day hailed as one of the most innovative and important records of all time. Welles and Beefheart. Cinema and music. Two different universes that meet next Friday (July 7) in Heerlen. Heerlen My City- reporter Marco Smeets found out what to expect and how this came about.
The search begins in 1938 when Orson Welles loses his unfinished film "Too Much Johnson". About thirty years later he accidentally finds the film in excellent condition, but in August 1970 the film cans fall prey to a fire in Welles' villa. "Too Much Johnson" seemed definitively in the past. Because in 2008, a copy of the roll print turned out to have been unnoticed for years in a warehouse in the Italian town of Pordenone. How the film ever got there is unknown, but in 2013, after five years of restoration, she finally had its premiere.
The film was produced at the time as part of a stage production in which live performance and film would be mixed. It is a slapstick comedy without a spoken word, which will be musically accompanied in Heerlen on Friday by the famous master guitarist Gary Lucas. Lucas has experience with these types of live soundtracks, something that comes from his fascination with cinematography:
'I studied film history and filmaking at Yale and Andover and was director of the Yale Film Society. I am especially attracted to horror, science fiction and fantasy but I have worked with a much wider range of films so far, mainly classic European arthouse films.'
In 2016, he added "Too Much Johnson" to that list. 'When I heard of a long-lost Orson Welles movie, I had to see him. Something told me that he would perfectly match my playing style.'
The first performance took place in New York and last year there was the European premiere during the Noorderzonfestival in Groningen.
Because it's a silent movie, Lucas has free rein. It is therefore not surprising that a large part of the music will be improvised. 'This kind of scoring is constantly changing. I play it differently every time so it stays fresh. Some of the music is composed and fixed, but about half of the soundtrack consists of improvisation. This inspires me to discover something new every time I see the film that I can respond to immediately.' Thus, the performance in Heerlen is also interesting for the people who were there in Groningen: 'The people who saw me perform there will hear a completely new score on Saturday.'
Gary Lucas is less known to most for his film work but all the more so for his role as guitarist for great artists such as Jeff Buckley, Nick Cave and Lou Reed. However, the name that sticks most to him is that of Captain Beefheart a.k.a. Don Van Vliet. Lucas recorded two albums with him in the early 1980s, joined his live band and briefly became his manager.
Captain Beefheart pushed musical boundaries in the 1960s as Orson Welles stretched the boundaries of the film two decades earlier. But Beefheart not only stretched the boundaries, he – like his childhood friend Frank Zappa – regularly broke right through them. Radio maker Tim op het Broek (kink.nl) is co-organizer of the Annual Mosae Zappa festival in Heerlen where Beefheart's music invariably passes by for that reason: 'Captain Beefheart is a completely unique figure within music who had a crush on all music laws. He started out as a lover and interpreter of the Delta blues. Those influences can still be heard well on the first album Safe As Milk, but soon he developed his own sound that is most close to Avant Garde. Don couldn't read or write notes but composed using sculptures. Sometimes he whistled an (unsteady) melody on a tape, with which his Magic Band could get started. In addition, he had a powerful voice. The album "Trout Mask Replica" (produced by Frank Zappa) is still a source of inspiration for many experimental bands.' Beefheart's influence also extends far beyond Avant Garde. Tim about that: 'He was also an example for punks like Johnny Rotten. Partly because of his non-conformist attitude.' And then there are his texts, described by Tim as 'poetic and inimitable.'
Don Van Vliet retired as a musician in 1982, retired to a caravan in the Mojave Desert and made waves as a painter until he died in 2010. Gary Lucas has honored the man ever since. By continuing to promote his music, most recently even with a global series of Beefheart symposium shows; a lecture with rare clips, art and live music. That symposium will therefore be linked to Too Much Johnson in Filmhuis de Spiegel. The fact that Lucas chooses to honor Beefheart in Heerlen and not something of the perhaps more famous artists he worked with has a clear reason: 'I see the Netherlands as the number one fan base of Don's music. It is always an honor to speak of him here, show rare clips and beautiful paintings of him. And of course to be able to play his unique music on my guitar.'
In this way Heerlen can prepare for a special evening around two absolute grandmasters. A seemingly golden combination that makes you curious about its creation. It turned out to be a one-two between Geert Pizlo (director-director of Filmhuis de Spiegel) and Mireille Brouwer (Lucas' manager). The latter says: 'Actually, it came about during brainstorming. What if you bring a world-class artist like Gary Lucas to Heerlen? Then how can we best let Gary Lucas come into his own in such a great location as theater Royal and at the same time build a bridge to the audience that is probably only familiar with one side of his musical work? Gary Lucas is also a pioneer in live film score and takes you to an alternative reality full of creative possibilities.
And that's where Beefheart comes in. 'It was therefore obvious to let the evening pass into his Captain Beefheart symposium after the break. The album Trout Mask Replica has been around for 54 years now and has not lost creativity yet. Like Too Much Johnson, it's avant-garde at its best.'
Geert Pizlo also drops most of the credits at Gary Lucas: 'The link originated with Gary himself. He has been essential for us to host this event. Stand alone we both may not have even shown anything, but it is precisely this combination that makes it fantastic in our eyes. As with Orson Welles, Gary Lucas' history also fascinates. I mean; his musical past doesn't lie about it!'
There is clearly no lack of enthusiasm on the organizational side. Can we therefore perhaps expect more events like this in the Royal? Pizlo: 'Filmhuis De Spiegel indeed intends to look for the edges in its programming where possible. It looks at the widest possible range in the audiovisual spectrum. The Royal Theater is also extremely suitable for this. Of course, showing the artistic film remains our core business and we will not get in the way of the Nieuwe Nor and the Theater. But we're definitely looking at events and programming that go beyond just showing movies!'
Too Much Johnson, Gary Lucas and the Beefheart Symposium Show can be admired at the Royal in Heerlen on Friday 7 July at 7pm. Afterwards there will be a Q&A and meet & greet with the artist. More information can be found on the website of filmhuis de Spiegel.
Text: Marco Smeets