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Village Voice, December 22, 1998
by Glenn Kenny
"I just want to give you an orgasm with the guitar," Gary Lucas says in the liner notes to his quite fulfilling 1997 album, "Evangeline." His Friday night show at the Knitting Factory, commemorating a decade's worth of gigs there, showcased him as a mind-bogglingly prolific plectrum Casanova, with stamina and inventiveness that left even the most ardent of his admirers limply wet with wonder and amazement. Four hours, two band configurations—power trio Gods and Monsters, who sound like what the Yardbirds might have had they not lost the plot after "Roger the Engineer," and the very funny Big Pishers, featuring a cheerful John Zorn, whose regard for Lucas is such that he put aside his differences with the Knit for this occasion—plus duets with Richard Barone, newcomer Danielle Gerber, and mutant folk stalwart Peter Stampfel, plus a healthy dose of solo stuff, this feast made clear why Lucas (proud as he is of the association) is occasionally irked at being constantly name-checked as a former Beefheart sideman. The finger-picking marvel's style encompasses as much Syd Barrett as it does Hubert Sumlin, and his sheer technique takes those styles places no one else could bring them. Alternating strong, soulful, inventive originals with a raftload of immaculately rethought and wide-ranging covers—"Autobahn," "Jack Johnson," the overture to "Tannhauser," and on and on—he contrived multiple orgasms. And when it was time to stop, he looked as if he wasn't even close to wanting to, God bless him.
Kronenzeitung (Austria) October 22, 1998
Boundless Musical Art
by Chris Thommark
Guitarist Gary Lucas encompasses with his
fantastic capacities the
boundless landscapes of the blues, folk and
rock—not to mention modern
improvisation. All of this he displayed at the
Treffpunkt Georgia in St.
Gary Lucas enjoys himself with acoustic,
electric and unusual steel
guitar. He's an amazing one-man show. Blues
which he sings himself,
vagabond and children's song, Jewish music from
his tradition, rock and
pop songs are his material. His dextrous fingers
are like a second
instrument as he plays his arsenal of electric
effects devices. In this
way his guitar chords and single note lines
achieve an orchestral
spaciousness, aggressive dissonance and rhythmic
dynamism. But Lucas
never loses his feel for what is tasteful and
pleasing to the ear.
Hi Fi Mundo, July 1998
Gary Lucas: The Dive and the Return
by W. C. Bamberger
Gary Lucas is a guitar diver. No matter how many times he
approaches the three-and-a-half octave sea of a guitar fretboard, he
finds new depths to explore, new treasures even within such sunken
hulks as the "Theme from Exodus" and "Lydia the Tattooed Lady." He
has been a diver of great technical skill since his first solo album,
Skeleton at the Feast. But, more recently, has he become the kind of
diver that poet Charles Olson insisted we all need to hear from:
after Lucas dives deep into the guitar (and more and more openly,
himself), he returns with important things to tell us.
First, some background fills.
Lucas began playing guitar at age 9, woodshedding hard on Exodus,
some of the hits of twang-wrangler Duane Eddy, and that high-e-string
delight of beginners, the Twilight Zone theme. While still a senior
in high school he extended the Twilight Zone connection by scoring
"Aquatic Ecology," narrated by Rod Serling. An English Lit major,
Lucas was also music director at Yale's radio station. He used this
Ivy League clout to make contact with Don Van Vliet in his Captain
Beefheart phase, and vowed he would one day work with him. There were
a few detours along the way—a Leonard Bernstein European Premier,
two years in Taiwan. When he returned to the US and told his parents
he was quitting his day job to concentrate on working with Van Vliet,
he heard those words so many of us recall with warm nostalgia: "The
guitar? Murray! He's talking about the guitar again!"
As if this were a more Quixotic career choice than that of English
Lit major. Lucas lifted himself into the Magic Band by his own
bootstraps: interviewing the band for the station, becoming Van
Vliet's manager, later a guest guitarist, then, after nearly a decade
as a Beefheart gofer, a full member of the Magic Band in its Ice
Cream for Crow incarnation.
For all his triple-jointed virtuosity and (overlooked) conceptual
originality, Lucas suffers in large part from the Ringo Syndrome:
everyone wants to know about his time with The Bea..., with
Beefheart. The Van Vliet connection, however, is finally only a
footnote to Lucas' work. Owing to Van Vliet's insistence on his
compositions being played exactly as he dictates them, identically
every time, Lucas and the other musicians who played this amazing
music were not themselves as they played. They were extensions of Van
Vliet's body, his rhythms, his dives into himself; they were cyborg
prosthetics which allowed him to overcome the limitations of being
one man. Putting aside the finger-busting solo pieces credited to
Lucas, it is impossible to listen to a Beefheart album and say, "That
guitar line sounds like Gary Lucas."
Lucas is not ungrateful for the chance of playing with Van Vliet,
whose music certainly opens up the imagination of any musician trying
to play it, but no Van Vliet hand-me-downs appear on Lucas' own
recordings. He has never recorded a Van Vliet composition on any of
his solo albums. "Hard Worken Fucked Over Man" on his first CD
alludes to an obscure Van Vliet track, and "I Feel Like Ah Syd" is a
sound-alike for the title of one of Van Vliet's late '60s
composition, but neither share the sound or spirit of Van Vliet's
music, which is as close to 100% body language made audible as Van
Vliet could make it. Van Vliet deliberately avoided allowing any
intellectual strategies to affect his approach, feeling that
intellect should be gracious enough to get out of the way and let the
body talk. This is not the case with Lucas, who has always allowed
his intellectual side to remain visible in his work, if sometimes
masked with the funny faces of irony or self-mockery.
(It should be noted that it was Lucas who engineered the meeting
between Van Vliet and Julian Schnabel. This led to Van Vliet's entry
into the legit art world, allowing him to make a comfortable living
for the first time in his life. Lucas deserves much credit for being
the catalyst for what is surely one of the most significant cultural
identity switches in our half of the 20th century.)
The Magic Band connection has been brought up here in order to
out that Lucas does share one thing with Van Vliet, something not
narrowly musical. Lucas gives us a revealing nod in its direction by
recording the theme to Cool Hand Luke on his CD Evangeline. In the
film, Paul Newman's Luke is a man at the point of a flying wedge of
collective wishes. Behind him stand any number of eggers-on, of
Cool-Hand-wanna-bes, whose pressure leads Luke to extend his stunts
to greater and greater degrees of difficulty. What Luke feels about
his stunts remains opaque, even as they wear him down and finally
destroy him. What is clear is that he is a vehicle for the needs of
the penned- in populace: he manifests all the reckless defying they
wish they had in them. (Jack Nicholson's character does the same in
One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.) Don Van Vliet did it for all the
latent verbal/musical outsiders among us out here, and Gary Lucas has
been doing it for all of us guitar- wizards-in-potential whose
fingers lag behind our wishes.
Lucas has to this point been known primarily as a small-hall guitar
hero. Reviews of his albums and live performances remain obsessed
with his technique, his speed, his mastery of effects boxes. It is
pointed out over and over how he has reinvented the art of solo
guitar playing by finding ways of accompanying himself in (near-)
All of this is true, but seeing Lucas in this narrow way—from the
wrists on down—is a view that now needs to be left behind, because
Lucas has things on his mind which extend beyond being the point man
for the Outre Guitar Army. Those who work along the front edges of
any art or science tend after a time to have interests different from
the rest of us, to have different reactions, to have different views
before their eyes. Two of the most common ones (think Poe, think
Rimbaud, think Dylan) are the macabre and the spiritual. Lucas has
shown an open interest in the first (calling it a "lifelong
fascination" on his website), and a half-concealed interest in the
second. He has recently begun combining the two, and the results (on
Busy Being Born) are compelling.
The macabre element has been overt at least since Gods and
has in fact been so prominent that Lucas himself jokes about it. In
his spoken intro to "Judgement at Midnight Suite" on his 1997 CD
Evangeline, he tells an audience how he has written music to
accompany ABC News documentaries on the Exxon Valdez, handgun deaths,
the Oklahoma City bombing, a death row inmate. "Whenever there's
death in the air somebody up there goes, 'I wonder what Gary's
doing?' But, I love life!" Lucas says, even while pointing out that
his first CD was called Skeleton at the Feast.
This first CD is all instrumental, and it spawned the Gary the
Guitar God following. The album is brilliant, at times even
astounding, filled with unique strategies for multi-layered solo
playing. It was all recorded live. "Strong Seed," starts off the CD
simply, with only some unremarkable echo delays to alter the sound.
This is only a modest overture to what Lucas will do here.
"Guerrillas in the Midst" is a much more complex piece. The guitar
fades in and out, doubles itself, plays against itself, sets up
ox-bows and maelstroms of notes to sail through, with the whole thing
seemingly mounted on huge metal bedsprings which bend and pop back up
with huge sproings. In the spirit of the punning title, Lucas quotes
Zappa's "King Kong" here. Zappa's jazz waltz becomes a shimmering
electric fugue in Lucas' hands. "Robert's Johnson" is a tribute to
the legendary 1920s blues singer. Lucas' National steel faithfully
recreates the sound of a blues 78—played at 156.
"Hard Werken Fucked Over Man/The Reckoning" is the first truly
astounding, insistently original track. Lucas sets up a repeating
two-chord pattern that sounds as if it is being played on an electric
anvil, and against this he sets sounds as unworldly as those Hendrix
might be playing in his afterlife, blues licks as wire-thin as Earl
Hooker's on "Two Bugs and a Roach," and faux reverse effects that
spin the music like a runaway ratchet. The guitar becomes almost pure
sound, a monstrous creature heard through the echo chamber of a
missile silo as it climbs toward us.
"Hitchcocked" is a medley of themes from Fat Alfred's movies,
including Vertigo and Psycho. His shimmering, echo-heavy renditions
make good use of a volume pedal to layer on the drama. The
"squareness" of the melodies, however, undermines his efforts, and
might make us wonder why he chose them. In view of the music Lucas
has made over the years, it now seems that these seemingly slick
commodity compositions are actually a first hint of Lucas' developing
Two other tracks here are so far removed from guitar as we know it
that they become musique concrete in part. One of these includes
"Aguirre," which may be from the Werner Herzog film—a film of
delirium in a world haunted by animism and mystery, with little hope
of redemption—though the credits make no mention of the film.
There are a couple of folkish tunes here, showpieces for Lucas'
fingers—so they don't become jealous of all the attention given to
the effects boxes. But they suffer a bit by comparison to the more
His "Christmas in Space Medley," alone, could have created for
a cult as huge as that for Bobby "Boris" Pickett. Lucas combines
"[Ring Christmas] Bells," "Little Drummer Boy" and Hendrix's "Are You
Experienced?" into a brilliant package. The first is played as a
deliberately wobbling round, with distinct lines against a bass
ground. The insistent 3/4 of "Bells" gives way (a bit too abruptly)
to Lucas drumming on dampened strings; this is electronically set
aside, and Lucas proceeds to play a banjo-sounding version of the
"Drummer Boy" melody against it, then hop up into an almost purely
electronic-sounding statement of the same. The strum/drum sound then
slows and becomes recognizable as the background chuffing of the
The CD concludes with more than a half hour of music
written by Lucas and keyboard player Walter Horn for the silent film
The Golem. The Golem is a mythical man created from the earth by a
rabbi—a "Jewish Frankenstein" as the CD notes have it. The music is
appropriately spooky and deliberately gauzy, as if a scrim had been
erected between the recording and the listener—the grain of an
old-time movie screen. This is music in black and white, with the
misty keyboards evoking the mysterious streets of German
Expressionist cinema. The "M" in the music here is "M" as pronounced
by Peter Lorre. Whether or not Lucas believes in the possibility of a
Golem, his music makes us believe that we live in a world where it is
certainly a possiblity.
With titles like "Skin the Rabbit," "Poison Tree," and "The Brain
from Planet Eros," Lucas' interest in the macabre is stamped all
over his first band album, Gods and Monsters, from 1992. The first
track, "Glo-Worm," begins with a sound like a thermin clearing its
throat. This gives way to a guitar played as high and fast as the
Methedrine Donovan Leitch warned against way back in 1967. When the
rest of the band comes in the groove is infectious, but the mix is
so insistently treble that it can make you squint. "Skin the Rabbit"
has a structure that alternates between guitar and bass, drum and
handclap sections, with grungier chorus music. If there wasn't a
dance mix of this, there should have been. Kit Smart said that when
black blooms it is purple, and this certainly applies to the lyrics
here; they are the macabre in full blossom. "Kiss the fur and feel
the light / Dark hare of the night / Join the feast . . . feed the
beast / the blood is calling," the vocalist sings. (His name is Rolo
McGinty, not Ozzy.) This track features some of Lucas' most agile
"Poison Tree" is sung by Mary Margaret O'Hara, my
favorite of the vocalists I have heard join in with Lucas. O'Hara is
also the vocalist and co-writer of a track Lucas contributed to the
Darn It! tribute to Paul Haines album. There O'Hara stutters and
squawks as Lucas chases her through the melody, his dobro sounding
like a brass coal shovel close at her heels. (These notes will not
otherwise concern themselves with recordings Lucas has made as a
sideman on other people's albums, his productions or songwriting for
other performers. Also, this is a sub-arctic Gary Lucas review: Bad
Boys of the Arctic isn't included here.) O'Hara sings the attractive
melody so happily we have to back away from her voice a step or two
to credit the words: "Tree of life bears bitter fruit / Harvest
yields the iron boot / . . . Snake awakes and glides to the side /
Allowing God to run and hide / But Eve and Adam won't let him be /
Curled fast around the poison tree." But believe me, they sound
Following this, Lucas plays "Jack Johnson" (from one of
Miles Davis' least loved albums) as a raw-wa workout; the bass and
drums here are at their best. "Whip Named Lash" is well-played,
rhythmic filler, and "Fool's Cap" is Kottke-ish—the guitar's tone
is exactly that of Kottke's "Bean Time" on Greenhouse. On "Astronomy
Domine" the band imitates some kind of industrial stamping machine;
the singer allows one or two notes to escape to create the melody.
Lucas' guitar has the only free sound in town.
"The Brain From Planet Eros" is a wonderful B-Movie of a song. If I
had been the A&R man I would have run into the streets yelling
"Single! Single!" A touch of porno-sounding dialogue in (possibly) an
Asian language starts off the track. Lucas then proceeds to out
Fripp-and-Eno every electronics nerd you've ever heard. The
percussion must have been sampled from those pots and pans the Saturn
Man landed among in "Haunted House." Funny, frantic and played as if
every cell in his body had been pumped full of Viagra. "Dream of a
Russian Princess," which follows, is a pretty trifle. "The Crazy Ray"
is a mock dance craze declaration, with punk funk music and a
wonderful serious/silly vocal.
Head-bangers get the last nod here. The final track, "King Strong,"
is at once spacey and heavy, the drums almost deep-throating the
wriggling vibrato of the guitar. This is what metal should be and
almost never is—open as the sky and majestic as a granite
cathedral, the guitar bouncing freely around the periodic table of
elements. Bye, Vai; vamoose, Van Halen.
Evangeline (1997) opens with "The Animal Flesh Comes Creeping
Back," a title which marks Lucas as the Poe of acoustic guitar. (John
Fahey is its Melville.) But this is a much lighter CD, in all ways,
than the two abov:, Lucas' version of a "folkie" album. "Animal
Flesh" sounds like "Cripple Creek," but with quirky corners not
present in the clapboard predictability of that standard. The chord
vamp of "Evangeline" is a descendent of "8 Miles High," but with
something ominous in how it crawls up and down the scale. The lyrics
are unabashedly romantic, slightly mysterious, and lovely.
In his notes to "Wedding March," Lucas reminds us that this was
written by Richard Wagner for his opera Lohengrin. Lucas arranges the
march New Orleans funeral style—a somber first half, but a
whirling, syncopated dance tune in the second half. Lucas also plays
the Overture to Tannhauser. This is Wagner as One-String-Sam, the
melody moving in slow steps in the middle strings, against a rubbing
of chords. "Apismatisin'" is a folkish number which evaporates
quickly after each hearing. This pokes fun at religion, as does "Sail
Up." "Sail Up" is much the better tune, however: as symmetrical as
an Oscar Wilde quip, the guitar imitating a happy banjo.
"The Wall," and "The Songstress on the Edge of Heaven," are both
from Chinese movie soundtracks. Lucas plays these in open A tuning
(open G tuned up a full step). These are wonderful pieces, with the
guitar evoking a pipa, then a koto. All in all, the sound of silk
coaxed from nickel and brass. "Ah Feel Lik Ah Syd" is a return to the
style of Skeleton at the Feast, with toad-squashing slide sounds run
through effects boxes; vari-speed effects rule over floating heads
and wave-as-he-flashes-by dexterity. "A Wandering Minstrel Eye" is a
modal instrumental, bright as any happy wanderer.
"Police Dog Blues" is the same arrangement we all learned from
Baxter's Guide to Blues and Ragtime, but Lucas is more at home with
its speedy pull-offs and slick rhythms than are most of us. Lucas'
nod to the blues originals continues with his "Judgement at Midnight
Suite." This could have been transcribed from some lost recordings of
Blind Willie Johnson. Lucas' playing is just as spiritual and just as
spooky as was Johnson's. Lucas then switches not just decades, but
planets—going from earth to Saturn for a Sun Ra tribute, the best I
know of since the MC5's first album. When Ra sang "We're opening up
the doors of the outer space employment agency," Lucas must have
given the best interview.
Lucas almost certainly has already gone home when it came time for
the last tune, "Cool Hand Luke," to be recorded. Surely this is the
sound of a guitar playing itself: light as air, certain, paced at a
graceful canter. It was gracious of him to give his instrument the
Fans barely had Evangeline unwrapped when Lucas' most
recent CD, Busy Being Born, appeared. It has none of the
caterwaul-of-sound effects of Skeleton, none of the rock punkiness of
Gods and Monsters. In its acoustic simplicity, it is seemingly of a
piece with the beautiful Evangeline. This is certainly one way of
looking at it. If there are no romantic ballads here, there are
Jewish melodies, and Broadway songs to stir the sentimental slob in
us all. There are smoking-thumbpick instrumental takes on themes from
1940s cartoons and a Marx Brother movie, a parody of an early-60s pop
song, a pseudo-oriental movie theme to compare with the Chinese songs
of Evangeline. All the right things can be said about Lucas'
technique on the new CD, all the usual superlative suspects rounded
But we might ask ourselves the question Lucas seems to have asked
himself: once technique is no longer a hinderance, once a guitarist
(or any other artist) has practically no limitations on what he can
do, what is he to do? Coast? Make the same album over and over again
under another name? Or make himself busy being born as something
more? I believe that, for Lucas, the second answer was the only right
one. Because there is another way of looking at this new collection,
and I believe Lucas means us to find this other way, means us to be
stirred and disturbed.
Submitted for your approval: Busy Being Born is an album of
eschatological doubt, of gnostic leanings; that is, of doubts that
God exists, or if he/she does it is in the form the Gnostics knew: an
alien, unreachable God, one occupied with battling a hostile
universe—as are we. The title is taken from Bob Dylan's "It's All
Right Man (I'm Only Bleeding)." Lucas quotes the line on the back:
"He not busy being born is busy dying." This stray line is much more
meaningful once it is put into context by the music Lucas records
here, and by the every-clue-deepens-the-mystery notes he wrote to
The liner note to Lucas' arrangement of the haunting
faux-Asian theme to the film The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao, for
instance, reproduces a bit of dialogue, words which also describe one
of the faces of the album:
"The whole world is a circus, if
you look at it in the right way. Every time you pick up a
handful of dust and see not the dust, but a mystery, a
marvel there in your hand . . . every time you stop and
think, 'I'm alive. And being alive is fantastic...' Every
time such a thing happens, you're part of the circus of Dr.
Lao." Maintain that childlike sense of wonder [Lucas writes] and
you're busy being born.
But, as the CD as a whole points out, this wonder has to be
maintained in the face of a number of obstacles, amidst fears and
shivers. Because being childlike with wonder isn't enough to let us
be busy being born: we have to struggle to understand our world,
struggle to grow a little each day. As Dylan's line points out, there
is no standing still: either we gain ground or we lose it. I believe
this is in large part what Lucas means to point out on this CD: that
unless we are striving, unless we are working to recreate our life
again and again, to move ourselves up the ladder we wish to
climb—that of potential, of happiness, whatever floats our
boats—then we will slowly wither, slip back into darkness. We are
in this alone, he wants us to understand, and we darn well better act
Am I broadcasting the news that "Paul is dead?" Am I
reading into the album what isn't really there? What's the tale of
First up here is an instrumental version of "Adon Olom."
In his liner notes, Lucas calls this "the Jewish fight song." The
title means "Master of the Universe." There are three versions of
this here, each different. This first version might be called a "free
jazz" arrangement, with scrubbed guitar and atonal saxophone by John
Zorn. This Master of the Universe rules over a primordial chaos. This
is followed by a very straight rendition, with first-position
sounding guitar chords, Hebrew lyrics and wedding reception style sax
baas. There is a call-and-response chorus more "Yellow Submarine"
than Amen Corner. And there is something darker here, too. Beneath
the out-chorus of voices someone twice pleads, "Hide me . . . Hide
me!" And after the song concludes Lucas asks in a near-whisper,
"Where are you? Are you here?" There is, of course, no answer.
Instead, there is the acoustic instrumental "Shekhinah." This word
has many interpretations, and is used differently in the Torah and in
Kaballah. Lucas provides one of these: "Sparks of the divine, in
Kaballah the female spiritual energy of the universe, the Queen of
God's King." Lucas' melody moves up and down the middle strings of
his guitar, with clusters of notes from the high strings sounding
very much like sparks. Shekhinah, as Lucas points out, is the female
side, and for Kaballists this meant the passive, accepting side; also
the side which is hidden from our view. Again, the suggestion of
After all this doubt comes Lucas' "anti-lullaby," "The Sandman." As
is the case for much of the music here, the guitar is secondary to
the singing. The lyrics are far,far from "Rock a'bye":
strutting and fretting his hour on the stage
the sandman creeps closer and now turns the page
with fingers all frozen and ice in his eyes
the sandman now beckons the ghosts start to rise
We are surrounded by darkness, the song reminds us. Childish fears
have it exactly right. To sleep is to give in to darkness, to sleep is
to invite the abyss: this tracks features the return of Zorn's atonal
"Cosmic relief," Lucas calls "Sunrise, Sunset" from Fiddler On the
Roof. This is played beautifully, lushly. But, it should be recalled
that this Broadway show means to evoke a sometime and somewhere very
far away—the Jewish villages of pre-Holocaust Europe. If there is
"relief" here, it is of a dark character, the same kind expressed in
an old New Yorker cartoon: "I heard some good news today, dear," a
man tells his wife. "We shall pass this way but once." The second
Fiddler tune here is "Tradition." There is nothing traditional about
the way Lucas plays this song. The melody is fragmented, reglued,
turned inside out, played every way imaginable, except traditionally.
The point is clear enough: the old passes away; tradition has to be
reinvented if it is to survive and thrive.
"The Mensch In the Moon" is one of the songs here, all clustered in
the middle of the album, which resist being enlisted into any litany
of doubts. But then, every choice here is a personal one, and these
songs certainly have meanings for him we cannot even guess. The music
to "Mensch" was originally part of Lucas' Golem soundtrack, but here
has nonsensical words. This may be simply a silly song after a dark
chorus—or (and each listener will haveto make the call, decide if
the stretch is too painful) it may be saying that Jews have no home
on this entire planet.
"Lydia the Tattooed Lady," the old Groucho Marx number, is almost
unrecognizable in Lucas's arrangement. Whether this seems silly or
serious will again depend on how you view the rest of the album. If
it is a children's album, this is just speedy fun; if you feel the
doubting, then whispers of Kafka's penal machine, or even The Camps
will come to mind. "Crawlspace," which follows "Lydia," again
suggests there is nothing whimsical about Lucas' intentions here. The
lyrics tell of a place where the singer and his friends can hide from
adults pressures: "the big old world we'll soon replace / now we're
in our crawl space." The world is something to escape from, to hide
"Dayenu/Dredidel," is an instrumental medley of two Jewish
holiday songs. "Fleischerei" is a medley of songs from such cartoons
as Popeye and Betty Boop, songs which were created by Jews living in
Queens. "A Hundred Pounds of Clay" substitutes new words for those
Gene McDaniels sang nearly 30 years ago. God makes a dreidel, a
golem, and a bagel, but no people.
"Dr Lao" is followed by "Abie the Fishman," a tune inspired by a
Chico Marx routine from Animal Crackers. But there's no burlesque
here, rather something grotesque. In the film, Chico exposes a fake
aristocrat as someone he knew long ago in his old neighborhood,
catches him trying to deny and erase his Jewish past, his Jewish
identity. "Abie the Fishman," avoice chants over a repetitive guitar
part. Then an arrhythmic, Cecil Taylorish piano suddenly enters and
smashes the childlike chant; the voice is screaming the words before
the track is over. This is the sound of the hypocrisy of "passing,"
the terrible effects it can produce.
Lucas follows this closely with a lovely, harmonics-sparkled solo
version of "Hinay Ma Tov," a hymn reminding all "How Good it is for
Brethren to dwell together in unity." Lucas' note adds an "Amen."
Lucas' childhood fave "Theme from Exodus" follows. The original is
triumphant, almost martial, but the arrangement here is wistful,
nostalgic. "We once were delivered," the music seems to say. "And
now. . . ?"
By this time the CD is nearly done. Anyone following my
argument here is free to pause and decide for themselves whether
Lucas has given us a (perhaps slightly eccentric, but true)
"children's album," or something more ambitious, something to help us
all remember we have to keep growing.
The album completes a circle by ending with "Adon Olom" yet again.
This is the vocal version [track 2] with the instrumental backing
removed. Once again there is the sound of someone pleading, "Hide me!
. . . Hide me," once again there is the final question, "Where are
you? Are you here?" a cappella, this time.
A cappella, of course, means unaccompanied.
Skeleton at the Feast (1991) Enemy Records EMY 126-2
Gods and Monsters (1992) Enemy Records EMY 133-2
Evangeline (1997) Paradigm Records PME 0012-2
Busy Being Born (1998) Tzadik Records TZ-7121
JAMtv Jacked!, July 1998
By Deb DeSalvo
It's been barely a year since Buckley waded into the Mississippi for a sunset swim and was sucked under, his body surfacing in Memphis Harbor six days later on June 4. His friends are still suffering, some too much to speak. Buckley's long-time friend, Rebecca Moore, gracefully declined to be interviewed, saying, "When I find the words, I'll be glad to talk, but I just haven't found them yet." A year is a blink in mourning time.
Buckley moved in with Moore when he left L.A. for New York in 1991. Gary Lucas, the innovative guitarist most widely known for playing with Captain Beefheart, had convinced him that New York was "a more conducive place."
And it was. In the early '90s, New York's downtown music scene thrived on the way crusty punks and dreamy-eyed folkies, poets and jazz musicians rubbed up against each other on the streets of the East Village, cross-pollinating like horny buzzing bees.
Only in New York is there a tradition of the best bands being led by poets—like Patti Smith or Jim Carroll or Soul Coughing's M. Doughty or Drunken Boat's Todd Colby. Only in New York do rock singers grovel to read from their notebooks on Monday nights at the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church on 2nd Avenue. Only in New York are you a nobody if you aren't given five minutes to sing, read, or honk your saxophone at the New Year's Day Marathon at said church. Where Patti Smith first performed after losing her husband and brother. Because her tribe was there.
The tribe was knocked out by Jeff Buckley. In a town crawling with brilliant musicians he was a phenomenon. "I saw Jeff perform at the Tim Buckley tribute at St. Ann's Church in Brooklyn," says avant-garde composer and guitarist Elliott Sharp, "and all I can say is that I was struck by the beauty and power of his voice—certainly a ghostly reminder of his father."
Producer Hal Wilner had asked Lucas, who was a huge Tim Buckley fan, if he would collaborate with Jeff on "The King's Chain" for the tribute.
"He looked uncannily like Tim," Lucas recalls. "He was standing there vibing, electricity shooting out of his brain, rolling his eyes. I was immediately attracted to him, like, What the fuck is this guy trying to do? Every other musician was standing around trying to be ultra cool, like 'I'm in my downtown musician bag and I might as well be wearing shades'.
"He said 'You're Gary Lucas?' I read all about you in Guitar Player,' so I was very flattered. He came back to my house and I spread out my electronics. I created a loop with some Eastern-sounding singing and he started to sing through that amp over there, and I was just sent. I said, 'You're a fucking star!' and he said, 'Really? Everybody in L.A. hates me and they all say if anybody likes me it's because of my dad.'
"So I said 'Move here and shake that off; this is a more conducive place.' I took him to the White Horse Tavern and we really bonded. I decided to revamp Gods and Monsters with Jeff as my singer. Then we did the show at St. Ann's, and he just destroyed everybody. I said to myself, I've encountered a miraculous talent and he's a sweet kid and I'm gonna do my best to make this work."
Buckley returned to LA and Lucas went on tour with James Blood Ulmer. Meanwhile Lucas wrote the music to songs Buckley would re-name "Grace" and "Mojo Pin."
Buckley returned to New York in August to record with the band. According to Lucas, Buckley, "bluffed his way through the songs in rehearsal. But when he came to sing his tracks he had every note worked out in such a cool way."
Lucas credits Buckley's mother with helping develop his astounding musicality. "Everybody says Tim Buckley was the major influence on Jeff and, in fact, he knew his father's catalog backwards and forwards and could sing any of the songs just like his dad if he wanted. But his mother, Mary Guibert, encouraged him and instilled a love of music, whereas he had a lot of negative feelings regarding his father and the whole abandonment issue. She has an amazing voice. I heard her sing "Amazing Grace" at a memorial service for him and it gave me shivers. That's where he got so much."
Lucas went on tour with Nick Cave and brought a cassette with him, "but I was so awestruck by Jeff's talent that I didn't play it for anybody." Shortly thereafter, he and Jeff performed in Lucas's apartment for some Imago execs who agreed to pay for Jeff to move to New York and to finance a showcase for him at St. Ann's.
Buckley was still unsure of his abilities, however. At his first show with Gods and Monsters, at the old Knitting Factory in October of '91, he was mesmerizing but painfully shy. "We did a duet of 'Bluebird Blues,'" Lucas recalls. "It was semi-improvised country blues and he sang his ass off. Then we brought the band on and did a few songs. There were a lot of musicians there, like John Cale and Nick Cave. It was overwhelmingly great but Jeff was insecure because Nick and Cale didn't stick to the end. He was very rattled. I had to spend a long time convincing him that it was so strong that they probably didn't know what to say."
Despite Buckley's misgivings, the concert at St. Ann's "went fucking great," according to Lucas, who has a tape he says will come out "sometime, with his mother's blessing." But the next day Buckley informed Lucas that he was leaving Gods and Monsters to pursue a solo career.
"I felt destroyed," says Lucas, "I didn't talk to him for a long time. Things were rough between us for awhile."
Two years later, though, Buckley turned to Lucas for songs and guitar playing on Grace. "I play space guitar and open the record with guitar and I doubled some guitar parts. He had a wonderful tour and I was really bitter. But when I saw him play I thought, 'Hey, maybe it wasn't so bad,' because he had this thing about having the band stand far behind him. We had quarreled about this at St. Ann's, in fact. He said "Keith always stands behind Mick," Lucas remembers, chuckling.
Lucas and Buckley last performed together at the Knitting Factory's 10th anniversary show Feb. 4, 1997. "We did 'Grace,' and everybody was like 'Yeah, we've been waiting five years to hear this.' It was ecstasy and telepathy all over again. I was waiting to get a call to maybe go to Memphis to do something on the new record, and then . . . ."
Overcome, Lucas gets up to find some Kleenex. He returns to his chair and eases into it, sighing "He was the best singer I ever worked with."
Considering that Lucas has played with Patti Smith, Joan Osborne and many other great singers, that's high praise.
"It was very clear that this guy had magic," agrees Knitting Factory owner Michael Dorf. "As a person, he was shy but very sweet. When Rebecca Moore was recording Admiral Charcoal for our label in '96, he was involved in every session but wouldn't take a credit. I'll always remember him saying, 'Don't screw Rebecca!' Not sexually, but business-wise. He was showing this real care about her—protecting her."
Poet Wanda Phipps was friends with Moore, who introduced her to Buckley: "I didn't notice him at all, but then I saw him perform at Sin-é Cafe (Sketches includes a photo of Buckley playing Sin-é's upright piano). When he sang he was gorgeous. It was like some channeling of the divine.
"I was running Monday night readings at the Poetry Project and I went to Sin-é after the readings every week. My friends thought I was crazy because I kept going back, but it was never the same. He didn't want to perfect a song in a certain form; he kept improvising—finding what else was there. Often people didn't pay much attention to the performers at Sin-é, because it was free, but once Jeff would start to sing a huge hush would descend and everybody'd be totally rapt."
According to Phipps, Buckley performed some covers at Sin-é, including "I Am Calling You," from the movie Baghdad Café, "Strange Fruit" ("He sang it once and it was almost too painful for me to listen."), and "Lilac Wine," as well as songs that ended up on his albums, like "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen.
At Moore's birthday party, Phipps and Buckley "had a long talk about life and work; about crying in the night in despair and how we were both Scorpios. After that there was a kind of bond, even though I'd just run into him on the street and he would kiss my hand. He noticed details other people wouldn't notice; like if I'd changed my hair, he'd touch it and ask what I'd done to it. He had this way of focusing in that made you feel like the most valuable human being on the planet."
After he became famous, Buckley played unannounced gigs under aliases like the Crackrobats, Possessed by Elves, Crit Club, and Topless America. When Phipps booked him with Homer Erotic and Maggie Estep at Mercury Lounge, Buckley asked her to bill him only as "special guest. He said he didn't want the suits to come down and make it all weird, he wanted it to be just us. But it was packed anyway."
Once Phipps went to see him at Sin-é and "there was a huge swarm of people crowding around him. I was about to leave but he grabbed my arm and held onto it really tightly so I couldn't move. Just to make sure that after all the rabid fans disappeared I could say whatever it was I'd wanted to say to him. He was really considerate and thoughtful that way. He had a nurturing way that made you feel full and joyous long after you'd parted." Phipps dabs at her eyes and is silent for a few minutes.
Have any of Buckley's albums captured what he could do live? Phipps pauses before answering: "No, although Live From Sin-é did it best. Listening to Sketches I realized that even though it seemed when you saw him live that you were eavesdropping on him in private, there was actually an intensity that's missing on Sketches because he wasn't performing for anyone but himself."
Phipps didn't speculate on Buckley's mental state before his death, as she hadn't talked to him in awhile, but Dorf says, "He was really excited and happy to be working on a new record, and was in a hyper state of challenging himself. And took that too far, perhaps. We don't really know what happened. Rebecca got a phone call from him within six hours of his drowning that was kind of predictive. It's horrible to have known him and have him die—like he did. I played 'Grace' over and over again. In a weird way, many of his lyrics indicate a kind of 'follow the father' premonition. It's a poetic story, really, though a very sad one."
"I hope people will just remember what a brilliant artist and wonderful person he was," Phipps says quietly. "Once when Jeff was playing at Sin-é he saw the tree man outside—the guy who used to walk around the East Village with a bag of leaves on his head and tree limbs tied to his arms. Jeff asked him to come in. He said he was a singer, too, so Jeff asked him to sing a song and played the guitar for him. It was really sweet."
Hits, June 26, 1998
One Jew's Blues
Time to say shalom to the dome of Gary Lucas
by Janet Trakin
It's Gary Lucas' tenth year anniversary as a solo artist, and "Busy Being Born," his fifth solo LP and first on John Zorn's Tzadik Records, is his most personal to date. It comes hard on the heels of the nascent Jewish Alternative Movement and is a collection of Jewish folk songs and prayer tunes culled from a rich childhood in Syracuse, N.Y., handed down to "children of all ages."
If most religious and political movements lack a sense of humor, this collection is both culturally dense and spiritually uplifting. You can tell Lucas and friends had a fun time doing it, and you don't have to be Jewish to appreciate it...although it helps.
Gary opens and closes the CD with "Adon Olom," this writer's personal favorite, marking the closing of the Jewish service and it's accompanying sense of joy. His rootsy version simultaneously brings one back to their youth and updates a sublime tradition. Other '60s favorites and perennial classics include stirring, iconoclastic renditions of "Fiddler on the Roof" standards "Sunrise, Sunset" and "Tradition," the latter cranked on the National steel guitar and a soulful take on Ferrante & Teicher's theme from "Exodus."
Lucas also sports a track, "Breath of Bones," on the Knitting Factory's Jewish Alternative Movement CD, with Gods and Monsters, the group which once featured the late Jeff Buckley as his bandmate. He's also working on some electronica projects in a U.K. studio with Future Sounds of London for their upcoming Virgin Records album. Spanning the globe, Lucas also has a project called "Jet Stream Tokyo" with some young English DJ techno-kids.
The always-loquacious Yale grad, one-time Captain Beefheart band member and music industry vet (he once toiled as a copywriter for CBS, coining the term "The last band that matters" for a Clash ad campaign) made it easy for HITS' abused substitute teacher Janet "Down the Up Staircase" Trakin by speaking slowly and spelling out the big words.
JT: How do you explain the Radical Jewish Alternative Movement?
GL: I wouldn't say it's anything more than Jewish people doing music. I don't think there's any real credo or philosophy behind it other than to allow artists who are Jews to make statements that involve some aspect of Judaism in their music. I don't think there's an agenda that anyone is pushing. It's not a political organization, but it does have a '60s feel to it—it's a Radical Jewish Culture Alternative Movement. But in fact, we're just trying to open the doors for more freedom of expression as artists. It's a beautiful thing.
JT: You're now on John Zorn's Tzadik label.
GL: I think John Zorn's got the hippest label going. It's a real artist-oriented label. He doesn't interfere in any creative decisions. He treats artists very well. I feel a sense of kinship and support. He's a mensch. A macher and a mensch. He backs his artists. He got it right off the bat. For this album, I had an inventory of 20-30 different pieces. I only used 15 or 16 of them. "Chad Gadya" is high on the list for the follow-up.
JT: "Adon Olom" rocks.
GL: In Hebrew school, we'd really rock the place with "Adon Olom." Kids would start marching around the class. It was the Jewish fight song.
JT: I didn't know you played with Patti Smith. When was that?
GL: It was a sad occasion. This year, I had a lot of people die on me that I loved. Jeff Buckley and the critic Robert Palmer. He gave my Gods and Monsters album a four-star review in Rolling Stone. He really dug my music. They had a a memorial tribute concert at Tramp's night club, and I went along with my guitar. I had just come from a rehearsal, and they asked me to play at it. Because I was his friend, I agreed. I did a solo piece, "Hurly Burly Coming Down." Patti got up there with Lenny Kaye and Oliver Ray, her other guitarist, and she did a piece playing clarinet, saying Palmer, a fellow clarinetist, loved her clarinet playing—and he was the only one who did. She said from the stage—and I'd never been introduced to her—"Gary, I want you to come up here." I was really touched. I felt really comfortable, even though we didn't really know each other. She said she wanted to do a real gospel song and she was pretty good. I thought her vocal was amazingly soulful, she's quite a good blues singer. We rocked out. I think she's one of the greats. I hope to do more with her someday.
JT: You dug deep into your childhood memories for this album.
GL: The fact is we should all cultivate our inner child. That's important as far as your development as a human because once that becomes affixed, and you shut it off, you stop growing. When you're a child, you're totally plugged in with a sense of wonder to the beauty of the world. Every day is like a different astonishing thing. Unfortunately, the older you get, the world has a tendency to beat it out of you. Society seems not to want to tolerate too many people who are too enthusiastic about anything. They want you to be miserable. In their jobs and under the knuckles of a corporation. I have always fought against being stifled.
JT: What inspired you to do this album?
GL: I had the idea for awhile of doing an exploration of my roots—specifically my Jewish roots. I've always been interested in my heritage and the older I get the more I'm finding out about my background. I ran into John Zorn at Tower Records last year, and he said you should call me up, I have this new label, and we should talk about doing a record. I've known him for a long time. He's one of the heavyweights in New York—a real treasure. I give him big props because he's the main organizer behind the so-called Radical Jewish Culture scene with his label. To tell you the truth, I believe I'm actually one of the first people on the so-called downtown New York scene to really do Jewish theme material within the context of my own music.
My first solo gig was June 7, 1988 at the old Knitting Factory. I rocked the house. It convinced me to do this full-time. I got such a great response. Things happened pretty quickly after that. I started to get write-ups. I found myself at the Berlin Jazz Fest in November, 1988—my European debut. It coincided with the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the beginning of open season on Jews in Germany and the pogroms in 1938. As soon as I realized that, I composed a piece to play there that evening which I titled "Verklarte Kristallnacht." It's a pun on Arnold Schoenberg's famous expressionist classical piece "Verklartenacht." I called my piece "Verklarte Kristallnacht" or "Crystal Night." Schoenberg's was "Transfigured Night"; mine was "Crystal Night."
What I did was search and ruminate in my unconscious roots to create an abstract improv based around Jewish themes that floated in and out of the piece. Some of the music became "The Golem," which was my second Jewish theme project in 1989.