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The Wire (UK), June 1998
Guitars and Monsters
by Mike Barnes
"One of the big dangers and pitfalls of growing up is to completely
squash or eliminate the child", warns Gary Lucas. "I think the result is an ossified human being who has really lost touch with a sense of wonder." Encountering the guitarist as an adult leaves no doubt that the child inside is very much alive. Whether discussing his many and varied
projects, or the music that inspires him, the former Captain Beefheart guitarist can barely contain his enthusiasm. As a nine-year-old he felt 'ecstatic sensations' when he first picked up a guitar, and today he can still go 'unconscious' while he's playing. For someone who experiences music as a state approaching religious ecstasy, his childhood ambition was to become either a rabbi or a vampire is not to surprising. "They both seemed noble things to aspire to," Lucas remarks.
Throughout his solo career, the New York based guitarist has intermittently
touched down in Famous Monsters of Filmland territory—indeed, his group
Gods and Monsters got their name from a Frankenstein movie. Now, on a new CD, called Busy Being Born and subtitled "for children of all ages", he's revisiting the Jewish culture of his childhood through a mixture of original songs, Hebrew cover versions and 'Fleischerei'—a medley of Sammy Timberg's music for Max Fleischer's Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons. Aptly enough, it's released as part of the Radical Jewish Culture series on John Zorn's Tzadik label. "John has really been a terrific organizer and mover in bringing Jewish music in its various guises forward under that rubric", Lucas acknowledges.
"I've always had a love for Jewish culture," he continues. "I was brought up as a reform Jew, not tremendously religious but aware of my heritage. I'm one of the first people I know of, out of the so-called downtown New York scene, who did music that had Jewish themes. My first solo gig in Europe in 1988, at the Berlin Jazzfest, coincided with the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, which was the beginning of the pogroms when open season was declared on Jews in Germany. Once I'd ingested this information, I'd put together a piece to play at my performance and entitled it 'Verklarte Kristallnacht', a pun on Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht (Transfigured Night). It was a very personal statement."
Lucas continued the cultural exploration of his roots the following year with his live accompaniment of the 1920's German expressionistic film, The Golem, based on Jewish legend, which he still performs today.
It's ten years since Lucas played his first solo show at New York's
Knitting Factory on a "dare". These days, he picks his concert sets from a repertoire of around 300 pieces of original material and cover versions. His first solo recording was a take of Albert Ayler's "Ghosts", and he has subsequently performed pieces by, among others, Wagner, Bernard Herrmann, Kraftwerk, Syd Barrett, Blind Blake, Lalo Schifrin and even Chinese pop songs from the 1940's. Ranging across such a diversity of musics, he is unquestionably a guitar virtuoso, but its Lucas' characteristic wry humour and generosity of spirit that bind his wide-ranging choices into a coherent set.
"To me it's just an organic evolution of music that touched me and then
it's come back filtered through my sensibility," he comments on his eclectic tendencies. "Its like a feedback loop. To transform the familiar to try and make something extraordinary out of it—that appeals to me. There's a blue feel to just about everything I do, even the Wagner pieces, bending the notes. And it comes out in the Chinese music. The blues spirit is very close to Jewish music, Eastern music—in fact, to most spiritual music.
"I also have an almost missionary zeal to expose some of the more obscure corners of the music that I like. It's like when I wanted to be a rabbi, I feel an urge to raise consciousness around me. This could be a very 60's phenomenon," he laughs, "but I think it's important. I've got a lot of knowledge that I've accumulated over the years and I'm just trying to give it back."
Given his seemingly insatiable appetite for music, its difficult to comprehend that Lucas retired from playing for a while after Captain Beefheart's last Magic Band disbanded in the early 80's. Lucas had co-managed Beefheart for the last few years of his career with his first wife Ling, and had graduated from playing cameos on record and in concert with the group to become a Magic Band guitarist—just in time to play on the last Beefheart album, Ice Cream For Crow.
"When I left Beefheart I felt really adrift and rudderless," he admits, "because my mission in life had been to work with the guy and expose the world to his genius. When I was in college and saw his first gig in New York (at Ungano's on 1971), I made a resolution to myself that if I ever did anything in music it was to play with him—it was the highest thing I could aspire to as a player. So I feel lucky to have achieved that, but to be part of the whole thing was really hard work and psychologically tremendously complicated and anxiety producing. But I'm proud of my work
with him, absolutely."
The odd production job aside, Lucas more or less drifted out of music, until he was cajoled back into playing by the UK group The Woodentops (he appears on their 1988 album Wooden Foot Cops on the Highway). And a
throwaway comment by Arthur Russell during a session with avant rapper Sinclair finally convinced him to make a comeback. "He said, 'Your're
really at your happiest with a guitar in your hand," recalls Lucas, "and I thought, right, it connects back with my youth."
Since then he's rapidly made up for lost time, recording a number of solo
albums. Collaborating with the late Jeff Buckley and singer Joan Osborne
(he was nominated for a song-writing Grammy for his work with the latter),
and improvising with musicians like violinist Billy Bang, ex-Cecil Taylor
percussionist Greg Bendian, Zorn and Japanese multi-instrumentalist Hoppy
Kamiyama. His grounding in American blues, folk, R&B and the freer regions
of jazz—anything with "the sound of a human struggling", as he puts it—has enabled him to operate across the musical spectrum with ease. An Anglophile as a youth, Lucas still loves English psychedelia and folk
groups like The Young Tradition as well as guitarists Bert Jansch and John
Renbourn, and a musician they both influenced—Jimmy Page. One critic
even dubbed him 'The Anti-Page'.
"Folk Roots called me John Fahey on speed, or something. Fine, but what
the fuck?" he says. "I wouldn't pretend that I was a sui generis player, just burst out of the forehead of Athena, but I believe I'm not a prisoner of my influences. I've transcended them and created something unique to me.
"The Anti-Page thing I thought was OK because if he was into Satan I'm
certainly not in that camp, that whole Aleister Crowley bullshit," he
says, obviously still amused by the epithet.
Even going by his diverse tastes, two current Lucas projects might raise
eyebrows: Jet Stream Tokyo, which includes Electronica artist/DJ Riz Maslen (aka Neotropic and Small Fish with Spine) and vocalist Paul
Fredericks; and a collaboration with Future Sound of London. The musicians were introduced to each other through Oxide Records, to whom Lucas has licensed tracks for an upcoming live EP, Gary Lucas @ Paradiso. He heard their music and was impressed. Indeed, Lucas reckons his sessions with FSOL have produced some of his best playing.
Blowing free over beats is not new to Lucas. He points out that he has
improvised live before with Ambient DJs The Departure Lounge Crew in New
York. "That's why I knew this would work," he says, commenting on the FSOL collaboration. "I'm kind of a chameleonic player and I'm quick with the ear, so I can improvise over the music almost immediately. I'm also very interested in electronics. I carry a battery of electronic effects, most of them pretty primitive, in a suitcase. I've schlepped this thing all over the world. It weighs a ton, it's a real pain in the ass, but I'm addicted to them. I always thought it would be natural to combine my electronic stuff, my space guitar music, with samples and beats."
Lucas has reached a place where his career could go in a number of
directions, and he'll probably take them all at once. Among the projects
he is considering is a mainly acoustic album with cello and double bass;
John Zorn has invited him to record another album of Jewish themes; and
meanwhile, he's contributing a version of "Deboraarobed" to a Marc Bolan tribute album for Zorn's Great Jewish Music series. Though he says he would like to improvise more in a group context, for the moment his Gods and Monsters are playing second fiddle to his solo work and song-writing development: "There's a lot of woodshedding. It's a very solipsistic activity, but I'm kind of a loner in a way," he confesses.
A recent communication from ex-Can singer Damo Suzuki could lead to a
collaboration. "Damo faxed me and I talked to him tentatively. If it
works out we'll do something. I think he's great. He was a shamanistic figure, for sure. There was a Jim Morrison vibe—in the vocals, too."
The diversity of Lucas's music leads him in folk/roots hangouts and clubs
specialising in more avant music.
"That's the blessing and the curse of my career," he sighs. "The positive thing is that I really have the spirit of the root. I know I can play blues and folk music up there with anyone and really feel it—not in an academic, studied way. On the other hand I hate to be pigeonholed, because there's the other side to me that's striving towards the outer limits of expression."
In full-on blast mode, Lucas certainly touches the outer limits of guitar
playing. "Its like ecstasy when I play like that," he says. "That's my attempt at the wall of sound, trying to simultaneously plug every hole in the universe with notes on the guitar. I'm attempting to blot out the room with music made visible. My whole thing is trying to win people over, not alienate them, but still throw challenging music at them. I like
something where I feel like I've been tickled with a feather or prodded with a stiletto. That's what I try to do with the guitar: gently poke people in the guts, make them feel it in the heart or the groin, or some area in between."
Busy Being Born is available now on Tzadik's Radical Jewish Culture series (through Cargo).
Special Thanks to Nulsh and friend for typing in this article!
Les Inrockuptibles (France), May 12, 1998
The Music of a Survivor
The guitarist Gary Lucas, the American rock veteran who refuses to be stifled, was naturally one of the first to notice the genius of Jeff Buckley. Co-author of several songs of Buckley's youth, of the classics which became Grace and Mojo Pin, Lucas was the first to accompany Buckley on the scene, both as father figure and fan. He recalls some of the early stages of this "guy with the angelic voice", from first skepticism from Buckley's peers through his recognition.
GARY LUCAS—I'd always been a great admirer of Tim Buckley. At the time I was in college I had purchased Goodbye and Hello and Happy Sad...I found his music to be unrestrained freedom of such extreme beauty that it evoked the tragic. The news of his death in '75 was very upsetting to me.
WHEN AND HOW DID YOU GET TO KNOW HIS SON JEFF?
In '91, the producer Hal Wilner asked me to participate in a tribute concert to Tim Buckley that he was organizing in New York. Hal had just learned that Tim had a son who wanted to participate in the event. He asked me if I was interested in collaborating with him. I was certainly interested in meeting him—like Hal, I was unaware of his existence. I went to the rehearsal. There was a whole crew of the so-called Downtown New York musicians. I felt like a lost soul amongst all these musicians who were so cool with their indoor sunglasses. I immediately noticed Jeff. He already emanated an electricity, a unique charisma. His face was flushed with excitement, feverish, ready to play. When I introduced myself he said "OH, GARY LUCAS! I'VE READ SOME THINGS ABOUT YOU IN GUITAR PLAYER MAGAZINE." I was at once surprised and flattered by his reaction. He also knew that I had played with Captain Beefheart, who he considered one of the greats. The next day we began work on one of his father's songs.
WHAT IMPRESSION DID THIS FIRST WORK TOGETHER LEAVE YOU WITH?
We worked on a cover of The King's Chain, the title taken from the album Sefronia. I plugged in my guitar, put a little of my delay effects on, and started to play a few motifs of the song. The voice of Jeff rose. I had never heard anything like this, such a sensitivity joined with such a force of expression. I said to myself "this guy has got the voice of an angel!" At that time, if he wanted to, Jeff was able to make his voice sound like Tim. He didn't like talking about his father, but he was very familiar with his music. He knew the shadows, the lights, the follies, he was not able to escape all of this. At the end of the song I exclaimed "MY GOD, JEFF! THAT'S EXTRAORDINARY!" We went out to get a drink. It was a beautiful spring day, very sunny. We talked about music. Jeff grew up fascinated by Led Zeppelin. We were both big fans of the Doors and the Smiths. He wasn't more obsessed than I with technique, but he paid a lot of attention to the quality of the songwriting. We envisioned music as an energy, a pure expression, rather than as the pleasure of virtuosity. It is no accident that in the first instrumental version Grace was called Rise Up to Be, and Mojo Pin was called And You Will. Jeff and I felt deeply the spiritual power of music. We wanted to be the simple instruments, the simple keys that would unlock the locks and open the doors...this was about 6 years after I had started Gods and Monsters, a group with varying configuration where I multiplied the elements and musical approaches. I was looking for a voice that would add some stability to this. After I proposed this to Jeff he was very enthusiastic and accepted. We both knew that the two of us could work together.
WAS HE CONSCIOUS OF HIS IMMENSE MUSICAL CAPACITIES?
This was a guy who was very shy at times, delicate. He already had ambition and extraordinary talent, but it's as if all the pieces of his own puzzle hadn't quite come together. He had with him a cassette which he had recorded in Los Angeles. Some fantastic pieces...he knew it, but that wasn't enough to give him confidence. Over there people had told him that, if anyone was interested in his music, it was only because of the connection with his dead rock star father...they consistently insinuated that there was nothing there. I know this type of attitude well. It's always like that in the music scene. I know how many free spirits like Jeff had always been frightened then surpassed all those who were unable to break their own chains. He did not need advice, but a maximum of encouragement. We finished by playing together at the tribute concert to his father. I'm tempted to say that that evening Jeff "destroyed with happiness" the whole world. This was like nothing anyone knew, and it was of a ferocious beauty, like a slap. I also accompanied him on his first radio session, where he sang a killer version of Dylan's "Farewell Angelina." A little while later I learned that a major label with which I had signed a contract had decided to terminate it. I was very depressed. But the simple idea of working with Jeff revived my spirit. Everything became easy again.
WHEN DID YOU COMPOSE "GRACE" and "MOJO PIN"?
At that moment. A week before, I was in the worst of anguishes. And suddenly I created that music. The butterfly escaped from the cocoon...I wrote it in a state of indescribable trance. The music flowed out of me. I finished it all in 2 days, without pain. In any event, if you spend too much time working on a piece, it becomes too much. You reinforce the style too much. I've always tried to write fluid music, gripping and poignant, that even without words could create a strong emotional dimension. If an instrumental already has a dramatic power, imagine what can be done when you add a voice and lyrics of the caliber of Jeff! Jeff liked my music. He wrote the top line melody and the lyrics. I don't know if it was hard for him. He was always very mysterious about his creative process. And he would come back with something extremely original. It was a real collaboration, 50/50. At first Jeff didn't want to show me the words he had written. He didn't want to reveal himself too much. With Jared Michael Nickerson and Tony Lewis—the rhythm section of Gods and Monsters—we created a guitar bass and drums arrangement for Grace and Mojo Pin. Jeff came to hear us practice. I encouraged him to just jump in the water, assuring him that I had confidence in him. Then one day the musicians and I finally went into the studio to record the instrumental tracks of the songs. Jeff arrived at the session, and then he took a deep breath. In one hour, he worked out extremely sophisticated lines to the songs, impossibly beautiful harmonies, with a feeling very...oriental. The demo of Grace that was recorded that day seemed more mysterious than the version on the album. Jeff magnified the piece, he mixed in an unheard of range of darkness and pure ecstasy, of dramatic intoxication and sunny joy. This is what Captain Beefheart also knew how to do: to create beauty out of what could seem like a nightmare.
DID THE OPINION OF PEOPLE CONCERNING JEFF START TO EVOLVE IN THAT MOMENT?
On that day, in any case, you couldn't listen to him without being overwhelmed by his talent. He had already surpassed my expectations. He was constantly going beyond himself. When we were leaving the studio, we ran into some jazz musicians who were coming in the next session. "What is that fucking music? What the devil do you call that?" They seemed to be both enraptured and terrified at the same time. Imagine their surprise: Jeff was a gamin. Among musicians of his age he was one of the most advanced I'd ever seen and probably one of the most gifted that I've ever run into. With him, each song seemed to carry the hint of a future that no one had ever yet reached. We were in the most incredible of avant-gardes. Grace is not really a normal song, formatted for the radio. It's an ambitious piece, with powerful words and singing, pushed to the border of incongruity: and for all that, immediately poignant and accessible. In those days, in the weeks that followed, I didn't stop listening to the recording. I told myself that such music would shake the planet, could blow everything into the air. I had the cassette with me and I guarded it jealously: I didn't want anyone to steal it.
WHY DIDN'T YOUR COLLABORATION CONTINUE?
At that time, a label was financing Jeff and me to write more songs. We composed a dozen pieces. Believe me, they are just as good as Grace and Mojo Pin—I hope that people will get to hear them one day. Some of them really represent the best work I've ever done, and I know that Jeff had the same feeling. We gave several concerts in New York. Notably a new show at St. Ann's Church: Jeff was fantastic, the public loved him. But the next day, Jeff called me to say that he was leaving, that he wasn't ready to go forward with the group. This decision really annihilated me at first...it took me awhile to recover, but I accepted his choice. He clearly wanted a solo career. It bothered him not to be able to do things by himself. I let him follow his own path without bitterness. I recorded a new Gods and Monsters album, I was not crushed. But I won't deny that I hoped one day to make music again with Jeff.
YOU PARTICIPATED IN THE RECORDING OF "GRACE".
Jeff asked me if I would like to play the guitar on the two songs I had written with him. I was obviously interested. To be sure, I wasn't producing it, and I wasn't controlling it. But I was very proud of participating on this record. After that our paths parted. I didn't see any of his concerts, but I was aware of the cult that was developing around him and his music. I wrote him to congratulate him on getting to this level. He called me several times. One night while he was on tour, he left on my answering machine a long moving message, in which he talked about how happy he was that I was associated with the success of Grace, with the magic of that period. He also asked me to write some new music for his second album.
DID HE SUFFER ANGUISH AFTER "GRACE"?
I heard a number of stories about the interminable tour and difficulties which followed Grace. I hope he was happy in his life. The last time I saw him he told me he was going through a lot of stress before beginning his second album. The first album had come out 3 years earlier, the weight on his shoulders was increasing. But at the same time, it was he who wanted to sign with a major. Nobody forced him and he took it on himself. I heard all these rumors, according to which the record company was demanding that he redo the music. And also that there were sessions that he himself didn't like, and that he was in Memphis to write new songs. The last time I saw him was in February '97 by chance. The Knitting Factory had organized a big evening to celebrate their 10th anniversary. Jeff called me on the stage and said, "Come on, let's play Grace." The people went crazy. We received an incredible ovation. I asked Jeff what he thought about the music that I had sent him. "Oh, they're really beautiful, Gary..." Are you going to record them? "Oh...I don't know, you'll see..." It was always a little like that...at bottom, I realize that I can't really say very much about his personality except about his impressive dynamism. I believe that he was many different things depending on who he was with. A little like at school, when you're a kid: there are 7 different classes each day and you're not the same person in each class. I didn't try and confirm if he had included any of my pieces on his second album. The important point is that the music was there, that he found my songs beautiful and that he had told me so. He very much wanted to show that he could advance on his own. We were persuaded that we would find our way to working together again in the future. In a certain way, he was the ideal collaborator. That's something that I had never had and that I continue to look for. With him, it was only a question of music. There were no ego conflicts. There remain his records, and all the songs we wrote together. That's the most precious thing of all.
TODAY, JEFF BUCKLEY RISKS BECOMING A MYTH.
He wouldn't have liked that, he knew enough about this in connection with his father...he was very realistic about the enterprise of "mythification" that was constructing itself around his personality. He didn't dream of being a hero, and he didn't have any heroes. If both of us loved a punk like Jim Morrison it was just because of his excessive and pathetic side. Now, if the legend can enable more people to discover and love the work...I would like it if there would always be more people who were touched by Grace. These songs are like beacons, guides, fires of emotion. The night I learned about his death, I couldn't sleep. I composed several pieces. These were compositions of great emotional power, I think. I don't know what to do with them. Jeff would have sung them...they always have a mixture of darkness and ecstasy along with this idea of regeneration, of rebirth. This is a recurring myth of history, very much in the music of Jeff. If it wasn't so tragic, you could see his disappearance as an awesome poetic symbol...I would like to say: he went to the river, into an element in which the universe had its origin, from which life emerged...I don't want to shock those who are close to him with inappropriate words, but...something seems to give sense to this stupid and tragic event. Jeff didn't die in an airplane accident. There was something in his disappearance that was...natural. I believe in this idea of regeneration. I feel it true in everything. It incites me to believe that you have to always keep on going, believe in your dreams and in this way never die. In what Jeff sang, there was always a clear beauty, an ascension, even in the most tormented moments, the most somber. One can always use the grand words, to speak of "his cosmic majesty"...Me, I think that this happens on a more human level. If Jeff was and remains so remarkable, it's that his music was always that of a survivor.
Les Inrockuptibles (France), May 16, 1998
Groundbreaking musician not well known here, fellow traveler with Captain Beefheart, Jeff Buckley, as well as John Zorn, guitarist Gary Lucas produces his most accomplished record to date, Busy Being Born, a collection of Jewish music for children of all ages.
"You're looking for who? Gary Lucas? Ah yes, the actor! Oh, he's a regular, he won't be late." The manager of the White Horse—an old wooden pub in New York—was a little mixed up. But we can excuse him. The elusive guitarist Gary Lucas is not that well known in his own Greenwich Village but this should not really surprise us. The man, to be sure, remains hard to pin down. For 25 years, Lucas, untiring and groundbreaking musical explorer, composer, performer and producer, cannot be limited to any one style, form or family. As a preamble to one of his disquisitions—rich in digressions and sonorous laughter—he warns us gravely: "For me, the death of music is the logic of publicists who try to place everybody into a specific category. To say of someone that he is a 'blues guitarist' or 'rock musician', that he is part of the 'avant-garde', or that he composes for the 'mainstream'." We take you at your word, dear Gary: the simple prospect of having a resume of your activities past present and future would give us many anxiety attacks and migraine headaches. Lucas is the type of musician without complexes or prejudices, who, not happy to just frequent the most underground circles and areas, finds the means to move from one creative world to another when they're separated from each other. We should say that when he was the lieutenant of Captain Beefheart (in the last years of his activity) that there were aesthetic distances to abolish and false gaps to cross. For example, being today a regular at the Knitting Factory—the temple of improvising New Yorkers—doesn't prevent him from composing for a more mainstream artist like Joan Osborne. And having played the electric guitar with Leonard Bernstein doesn't prevent him from collaborating with Iggy Pop. His travels go in all directions, and his travel companions include a strange parade of names like Lou Reed, Allen Ginsberg, Arthur Russell, Matthew Sweet, Nick Cave, Tim Berne, Jeff Buckley (for whom he wrote "Grace" and "Mojo Pin"), Jean-Francois Pauvros, and again, very recently, Elli Medeiros. The stubborn spirit in which "to be curious about everything" means "ready to eat at any table", to which Gary Lucas replies that yes, he has the appetite. And having the appetite does not mean greedy to eat a lot, but dreaming of being a worldly diner.
"In my case, the diversity is a natural function, not a technique. Thanks to this, I have been able to gain my own freedom: today they invite me to play at festivals of jazz and of rock, blues, folk, classical—even electronic music...admittedly the coin has another side: for many I'm a musician difficult to classify." The child Lucas is not the type to spend his nights lining up all his toys in order: one imagines him preferring the beautiful chaos of disorder. The story of how he first awakened to music confirms this, where he was first surrounded by an eclectic mixture of sounds from his parents' record collection (Offenbach, Wagner, the musicals of Broadway), followed by the first sensations of pop-rock heard on the radio (Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys), the electrifying discovery of the blues, and finally the liturgical songs heard in his Hebrew school when the young Lucas was preparing for his bar-mitzvah. "As a child, I felt for a long time a confused sense of loss which this great range of music succeeded in dissipating. But the practice of the guitar is what finally freed me."
Thus then the story of a man about whom one cannot really say if he is playing the music or if he is being played by the music. "When I was a kid, the adults would say, 'What terrible faces you make when you play!' The guitar is a terribly tactile, physical instrument. I always have the impression that the strings are directly tied to my nervous system and they draw upon what I'm feeling in my innermost depth. That's what struck me when I first heard someone like Jeff Beck: I also wanted my guitar to speak, to roar, to tell stories and carry on a conversation. Nothing to do with the practitioners of guitar-pastry, who utilize the instrument as a simple tool for showing off."
Driven by his instinctive curiosity, the New Yorker, for 15 years, has spread his wings like a butterfly, sowing his oats in many free experiences—in 75, he was the guitarist in a garage-band in Taiwan—refining his technique that permitted him to become an intelligent virtuoso and to pursue successful explorations covering gradually the totality of musical universes. After the Beefheart adventure—which ended in 85 with the retirement of the chief—Lucas, without losing his penchant for the collective project decided that he should also sail on his own. There followed several albums under his own name and an astronomical number of solo performances given in the four corners of the world in which he gave free reign to his unleashed imagination. Lucas applied the always astonishing principle of the "one-man band", to which he adds an extraordinary energy and a pronounced taste sonic exploration, in a style always unique in forging together in the same approach the respect for yesterday's musical languages and understanding of a need to transcend them. Not to mention his playfulness, which leads him to probe into the musical universe which formed and accompanied his youth—on disc as well as in concert, it is not rare to hear him range from the Overture to "Tannhauser", the soundtrack to "Psycho", to Chinese pop tunes of the 50's.
Today, with Busy Being Born—released on John Zorn's brilliant Tzadik label—Lucas gives us what he calls his "Jewish music for children", combining personal compositions and adaptations of liturgical music, traditional themes, and again film music. It is without a doubt his most personal record, and for that reason the most accomplished—as he explains. "I grew up in a Jewish family of very open spirits, but one which accorded great importance to tradition, history, and memory. And these values were conveyed especially by religious education and music. If this project is particularly close to my heart, it is because that it has become a sort of documentary of the places and of a very specific epoch of my life. But it is important to me that the record is not limited to this, and that the listener should approach it from a lighter, more playful perspective."
The great success of the record is this: for Lucas, utilizing very charged material represents a gamble—establishing a sort of emotional topography where the most intimate memories join collective history—and as a pretext—to profit from this theme by adapting a musical approach that denies itself no liberties and that offers a sort of synthesis of past works. Avoiding the potential traps in this—a solemn mono-chromaticism on the one hand and a derivative system on the other—Busy Being Born is a record which is both uninhibited and ardent, engaged and amused. Consider the very subtle manner, devoid of all preachiness—in which Lucas' mystical interrogations are evoked—"Not a day goes by without my looking for signs of the existence of God", he confides to us. The music is fitting, graceful, of a jubilant intelligence, profound and immediate, often audacious and always understandable: it is made in the image of a man who has known how to trace his own personal path far from both nostalgic aberrations and the sirens of modernity. For the entire length of the album, whether he is performing alone on his guitar or backed up by his very tight band, Lucas succeeds for the first time in channeling without smothering the eloquence of his playing. And what at first appears to be a simple juxtaposition of musical vignettes reveals itself as having a formidable coherence. "Almost in spite of myself, the record became a kind of concept album; all of the songs relate to each other through certain passages more or less secret, more or less conscious. Today, keeping in mind the obvious differences, I have the sort of impression of having realized my own "Sergeant Pepper's". Or, to put a more Yiddish spin on it, my "Sergeant Schlepper's..."
Billboard Magazine, April 11, 1998
Lead review in 'Pop' section
Busy Being Born
More "Radical Jewish Culture" from avant-impresario John Zorn's Tzadik label. Guitarists' guitartist Gary Lucas has been a fixture on the downtown New York scene for years, solo and in league with such luminaries as Captain Beefheart, Joan Osborne, and the late Jeff Buckley. "Busy Being Born" is his album for "kids of all ages," based on Jewish themes. He essays traditional folk tunes and synagogue sing-alongs on a variety of electric, acoustic, and National steel guitars, putting a virtuosic spin on his heritage as well as adding a healthy dose of humor. Vocal originals like the anti-lullaby "Sandman" abut instrumental takes on famous melodies from "Fiddler On The Roof" and "Exodus," and there are even fantasias on Marx Brothers and "Popeye" airs. Zorn adds some apposite sax to "Adon Olom" and other tracks, but the highlight is Lucas' haunting solo rendering of the psalm "Hinay Ma Tov." Tzadik is distributed in the U.S. by Koch International.
Alternative Press, February 1998
Vocally, Lucas sounds like some ragged, spaced-out '60s folk troubadour, fueled by mythical/mystical visions. Instrumentally, he's a tad more sophisticated (without being slick), resembling a younger John Fahey, both in his bizarre song titles ("The Animal Flesh Comes Creeping Back," "The Songstress On The Edge Of Heaven") and his willingness to appropriate and arrange music from virtually any genre. (Would you believe Wagner's "Overture to Tannhauser" and the "Wedding March"?) But Lucas also compares favorably with Ry Cooder, not only with his prodigious guitar technique and his fondness for bottleneck and other traditional blues styles, but also as soundtrack musician/composer for TV documentaries—which parallels Cooder's own film-soundtrack work. Captain Beefheart enthusiasts will probably know of Lucas as the guitarist on the Captain's last recordings, but Lucas reaches for the outer limits only on one splendid tribute to Sun Ra (a kindred spirit to Beefheart if there ever was one). Elsewhere on this session, Lucas dispenses plenty of other treats, including lively Doc Watson-style country blues, dark slide-guitar impressionism, and the two Wagner pieces. I'll bet he didn't get to do Wagner when he was playing with Beefheart. (Paradigm, 67 Irving Pl. S., New York NY 10003)
Tone Clusters, February 1998
(Paradigm, USA—CD only)
Well, yes. Without a doubt the former Captain Beefheart's Magic Band guitarist is an ultrawhiz, and we've known that for some time. For anybody who's forgotten here's Evangeline, mostly done on solo acoustic six- and twelve-string, much of it recorded live, and it's frankly a killer. Name the genre and it's here in bas-relief. Low-down dirty blues a la Jorma Kaukonen ("Sail Up," "Police Dog Blues"), Fahey-like slide guitar orgasm ("Ah Feel Like Ah Syd"), classic folk ("Evangeline"), and some other things you'd never expect. Like the koto-flavored "Songstress on the Edge of Heaven" or some Richard Wagner covers (!) ("Wedding March" from Lohengrin, "Overture to Tannhauser"). And they're all tossed off with an infectious grin and a can-do there's-more-where-that-came-from air. Rounding out this delightful set are some instrumentals, such as "The Wall," "A Wandering Minstrel Eye," "The Animal Flesh" in two versions...aw, heck, it's all good. And the recessional is the theme to "Cool Hand Luke." Get this now.
Vintage Guitar, January 1998
This is just one of those incredible records that defies description. Lucas has been around awhile. He played in Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band and has done studio work with tons of people you'd know. He has also led Gods and Monsters for a few years.
Here he plays solo (using electric and acoustic) and the results are, for the most part, stunning. From the monster-speed fingerpickin' of "The Animal Flesh Comes Creeping Back" to the sound fest of Sun Ra's "Interstellar Low Ways," to a nice cover of Blind Blake's "Police Dog Blues," there's really nothing to say except this is fabulous. Lucas is a master of almost any style, from classical to movie themes. Yes, the final cut is a killer version of "Cool Hand Luke."
There's literally something I could talk about on every cut of this CD, but you get the idea. If you like great players who are quirky enough to put a killer version of the "Wedding March" on their CD, you'll love this. If you can't find it at your store, write to Paradigm Records at 67 Irving Place South, 3rd Floor, New York, NY 10003.
Schwabisches Tagblatt (Tubingen, Germany), January 26, 1998
Apocalyptic Cookie—Gary Lucas and his silver Steel Guitar in Zentrum Zoo
An old Western guitar from 1946, a 1963 Stratocaster and the matte silver steel guitar that looked as if they had been played by Napoleon. "I like old things," explained Gary Lucas, which didn't really seem relevant since he was equally virtuosic in working with new things.
Thursday evening in the Zentrum Zoo. A man who used to play with Captain Beefheart was serving up Wagner, and other things of course. The overture to "Tannhauser" played on the Western guitar was no joke. Lucas, who had already played at the Zoo once before in 1991 (at the time was releasing his critically acclaimed album Skeleton at the Feast), can and must operate in this way. Whether he's releasing storms of noise or whether he's threatening the jobs of countless orchestra musicians, as an artist and as a musician he's one of the Greats.
While Lucas was playing his Fender with whip-cracking tones, he propagated uninhibited freedom. Then he would use the effects in ways in which he really invented. He played a piece for his recently deceased musical collaborator Jeff Buckley, something that floated between a peace pipe, Jimi Hendrix and the night bombing of Dresden. The guitarist plays alone and with his echo boxes, flips of the controls, glows like a child confronted with a mountain of sweet berries when it sounds particularly beautiful or otherworldly.
But it's a whole other sound when he takes up his steel guitar. It's more bluesy sounding but just as playful. And with a mellifluous voice he tells us the story of a guy who was so cool that he didn't want to see any more humans, so he goes into the desert and there he meets a woman who is just as cool as he is. As luck would have it, his B string broke at just that moment.
And then: "It was a big hit in Shanghai," says Lucas who packs in evergreens from China. "I simply like music," he says as this artist from the New York Knitting Factory scene explains such selections. "Ah!" answers the audence telepathically as if from one mouth. And the critic asks himself at the end of this multi-dimensional apocalyptic guitar adventure where he might round up even more people to come and see Lucas.
Tageszeitung (Bremen, Germany), January 23, 1998
A Cornucopia for String Lovers—Guitar Festival in Kito Club
The guitar festival special that has been playing since Tuesday in the Kito is a festival of guitar individualists and musical explorers with their own ideas and concepts, always good for adventure and innovation. The American Gary Lucas, who opened the 3 day festival, belongs—like his colleague Marc Ribot—to the extraordinarily many-sided string specialists. His stylistic universe reaches from hard sound experiments through to blues, folk and all kinds of songs up to rock. As a soloist the New Yorker spares us nothing. Without pause he jumps back and forth between different corners of his musical world. This can disorient some listeners, but the warmheartedness and confidence with which he guides the audience through his program is disarming.
Gary Lucas had three guitars with him in the Kito: an antique National steel, a regular acoustic guitar closely miked, and an electric guitar. And he had a huge arsenal of effects devices with which he manipulated the sound of all these instruments. He skillfully uses echo, delay and other memory effects to add levels for accompaniment and additional sonic levels. He brings the music to extremes of psychedelia, but the passionate roar with Lucas is not a technical show-off but stamped with the joy of sound and play.
In contrast to these high-flying moments stands his taste for traditional forms which he plays with the acoustic instruments. On the steel guitar he plays mid-40's country blues, rags and folk-related music, here and there with special, slightly sly variations.
He also has in his horn of plenty obscurities such as instrumental versions of Chinese songs from the 30's and 50's, a reworking of the "Tannhauser" overture for the acoustic guitar, arrangements of children's songs and cartoon music, and pieces by his early hero and and first employer Captain Beefheart. His own compositions break out into different directions. Sometimes he sings, but his voice is more an accompaniment for his guitar playing.
Much of what the American performed during the course of the evening had the quality of small dramatic theatrical vignettes, and one had the impression that the music played itself, and that Gary could step aside and enjoy the music with love and dedication. A peak moment was his dedication to the recently deceased Jeff Buckley, with whom, among other things, Lucas wrote the song "Grace." Lucas played the instrumental version written by himself; it was powerful and furious, the way Buckley played it with his own quartet. At the end of the concert, the good-natured guitarist could not tear himself away from the enthusiatic, receptive Kito audience.
Nachrichten (Wels, Austria), January 16, 1998
In Schlacthof: The Orchestral Might of Gary Lucas
The electronics are his witch's cauldron, the electric guitar his magic wand: the American guitarist Gary Lucas visits the Schlacthof in Wels for the third time and excites his audience.
Thunder, scratching, drones, shrieks, rasps, hammering. But also melodic magic, beautiful country song ballads and Wagner adaptations. So multi-faceted is the musical spectrum of this musical daredevil Gary Lucas from New York City, who was born 39 years ago in Syracuse, New York.
For a good 10 years Lucas has been in the New York musical world as a professional guitarist, and he is the classic representative of the New York Downtown scene. It is important to understand that the NY Downtown scene is much more than a mere geographic term and refers to a musical sensibility: Music from the Melting Pot "Big Apple," which is interpreted by different artists in many different ways with no stylistic stamp. So Lucas mixes in sovereign fashion hard rock, blues, jazz, avant-garde and country music in order to finally construct his unmistakable sound cosmos. Most of his songs are unique and original compositions, mixed in with covers of well known songs.
Lucas had three guitars with him which were used for different styles. There were two typical electric guitars which served as sonically orgiastic magic wands for heavy rolling hard rock pieces in which Lucas wields his wonder control desk to bring forth quasi-orchestral power.
But as soon as Lucas leaves the control desk and picks up his silver-colored guitar and plants himself comfortably on a chair, it becomes intimate like a graveyard. Then, his clearly articulated dulcimer-like tones took on the aura of a campfire cowboy singing alone in the night. One of the most beautiful moments in the evening was the "anti-lullaby," sung in Lucas' rugged voice in which a truly loathsome Sandman terrifies the children.
Most of the songs, to be sure, were somewhere between the heavy hard-rock and the lyrical country sound, for example, a very interesting example of stage music from Wagner's "Tannhauser": rarely before have old Richard's works been performed with such drive and energy. There was no denying the truth of Lucas' whimsical claim: that Wagner was the original King of Heavy Metal.