photos by Ondřej Němec
l to r: Marie Benetkova, Vrat Brabenec, Gary, David Němec, and Richard Mader at the La France Club, Kolin Czech Republic 4/30/2002
As we pulled out of the parking lot in downtown Bratislava, the whirl of the unfamiliar cityscape offering jagged quick cuts of the placid Slovakian street scene, I caught a glimpse of a building sign that made my blood run cold.
Like my literary hero Isaac Bashevis Singer, I am constantly on the lookout each day for signs of Divinity...or otherwise.
The three big black-on-yellow letters of the sign in its entirety spelled "CAC"...which I rendered mentally as "KAK".
Sixties slang in the US Vietnam War-era for a quick, violent death...
As in "What happened to the sergeant?" "He kak-ed, man"...he bit it.
As in a junkie's OD...or some unforeseen cataclysm.
I shuddered involuntarily, and reached to tighten my seat belt.
From that point on, I was absolutely, horrifically, convinced I would see death that day.
Turning to the driver, my longtime Czech friend Richard Mader, a/k/a Faust, I asked him what "CAC" meant.
A department store chain, nothing more than that, he replied.
Still, I was determined to not let him take his usual 2pm swig of beer that day—he drove too fast for my liking anyway—as I wanted to make the next gig, a club in a little village outside Prague—in one piece.
To avoid kak-ing out...
I had been on the road in April 2002 for nearly 2 months in Europe on a grueling series of one-nighters—grueling in terms of the wear-and-tear on my mind, body, and pocketbook. Ostensibly undertaken in an attempt to promote my latest album "The Edge of Heaven"—my arrangements of lush Chinese pop of the 1930's—I had lugged my 3 precious guitars in heavy flight cases, my big pain-in-the-ass suitcase of electronic effects (christened "The Monster Case" in that part of the world by reluctant club factotums), my suitcase of promo CDs to give away and sell, one "Jeep" garment bag (yes, the automobile company made a line of luggage once upon a time), and one carry-on "Lucas" bag of personal effects—all 120 kilos worth—I'd lugged and schlepped all this chazerai around Europe for what seemed an eternity, criss-crossing the continent back and forth in an insanely repetitive zigzag, to whit:
London to Marseille, traveling by air, "only" charged 500 bucks overweight for the gear by wonderful British Airways (and they said I was lucky—it should have been 750 dollars by rights)—and of course the Monster Case came off the conveyor belt minus a wheel, a gaping hole in its undercarriage where some overzealous customs official had been searching for drugs.
Then by train with my customary first class Eurail ticket to Paris...
And then Paris to Bern, Bern to Vienna...
then flying back from Vienna to London again (this time charged only 150 Euros for the overweight—same airline, same 120 kilos, go figure)...then London to Berlin, Berlin to Paris again, Paris to Prague...
with lots of intermediate stops along the way.
Including a slew of promotional in-store dates all over France, serenading the good and curious folks in the provinces who bothered to show up and see this exotic, avant-garde American artiste pick acoustic 30's Chinese pop tunes on his ancient Gibson in the clean, tasteful confines of their local Harmonia Mundi Boutique du Disque.
There had been some really good gigs—opening the tour in London with a live radio broadcast on Charlie Gillett's influential world music show on the BBC; playing a collapsible outdoors venue lined with mirrors known as the Spiegel Tent designed in the style of an old French Music Hall, at the Amiens Festival—a gig packed full of fans, including row upon row of stylish young women...
And lots of media exposure, including a major interview about my work in the French daily "Liberation", and a filmed performance/interview in the new Vienna Kunsthalle for ORF—Austrian national tv—where I managed to shrug off a silly question about my trademark big black Borsalino hat with a supercilious, grinning throwaway line:
"I guess I'm just a Jewish cowboy!"
An instant sound-bite for the 6 o'clock news in the land of Jorg Haider and Kurt Waldheim, which I later regretted when I recounted that story to a director of a major Jewish organization in Krakow at the Jewish Culture Festival later that summer. (I redeemed myself slightly in his eyes by telling him I had avoided shaking hands with Waldheim at a magazine reception there later that evening.)
The international reviews for my new album had been across the board excellent, with Amsterdam's major newspaper De Volkskrant proclaiming it as my breakthrough. Hell, it was doing better in the marketplace then any of the 10 or so records I had put out to date!
I was riding a new wave of excited interest in my career—not only from the press, but also from the increasingly larger, more demonstrative crowds turning up at my shows now—after years struggling in semi-obscurity in the European hinterlands.
I had played every European tank town there was to play in the past, in Britain, Holland, France, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, the Czech Republic—and now I was getting excellent notices and regular bookings in upscale venues in the glittering capital cities.
And not just in Europe: from Royal Festival Hall in London to the Milk Club in Tokyo; from the Noga Theatre in Tel Aviv to Amsterdam's famed Paradiso.
But the plain truth was—I was tired.
Tired of playing one-nighters, tired of checking in and out of an endless series of faceless hotels, tired of jousting with my French record label about plans for the next follow-up album—tired of the lonely life of the solitary touring musician I had carved out for myself.
Tired and trapped on a carousel spinning so fast I couldn't jump off it for fear of hurting myself.
Caught in a vortex created by my own manic energies.
And the ironic thing was, I was a major aficionado of the British painter, writer and aesthetic philosopher Wyndham Lewis, whose self-styled Vorticist paintings and designs hung on the walls in my apartment in Manhattan—a mad maelstrom of hurtling lines, geometric shapes, and raging, rushing figures.
The true Vorticist, Lewis asserted, observed the hurly-burly of the universe surrounding him calmly, serenely—peering out from within the still center of the cyclone.
In fact, the liner notes by a critic to my first album, "Skeleton at the Feast" referred to Lewis and his painting philosophy in a knowing description of my own turbulent music—always contrasted by stillness, and shot through with moments of absolutely icy calm and elegant beauty—and christened me a "Vorticist guitarist".
But at this, the penultimate stage of the tour, I was anything but calm—and definitely a long way from serene.
A couple of days before arriving in the Czech Republic on this tour, I had played in a famous jazz club in Paris, the Sunset, in a two-night engagement.
The gig was packed—picked and plugged as a must-see in all the French daily newspapers and rock and jazz magazines. The sophisticated crowd turning out included the film director Brian DePalma, ex-pat erotic photographer Roy Stuart, and sax player Steve Coleman. And lots and lots of new young fans, who had been hipped by the press and by the buzz on the street that this was a cool, not-to-be missed gig—waiting to hear me play the songs I wrote with the late Jeff Buckley (a superstar in France, now in death grown to iconic status)...waitng to hear my peculiar guitar arrangements of 30's Chinese pop classics, Wagner, Sun Ra, and da blooze...waiting to hear my own distinctive originals, rendered in a style I have christened "psychedelic primitive" for lack of a better appellation...bored students, fledgling guitarists, scene-makers, models, film people, dope dealers...waiting for me to walk on the water with my guitar.
The afternoon of the second night of my Paris gig, I made the mistake of eating some disgusting Chinese take-away in Montmartre, near my favorite hotel, the Terrass.
I took one bite of the congealed chicken, which looked like it had been sitting there swimming in grease for at least 24 hours, and hurriedly spit it out, heading soon after to the club.
After 2 sweat-drenched sets, where to the delight of the audience I threw off enough sparks to burn down the Beaubourg, I managed to drag my gear back to the hotel by 3am, after a seemingly fruitless search for a taxi.
Managing a maximum of 3 hours of fitful sleep, I rose at 6am to shower, pack, and prepare to vacate the hotel...
and then after a couple bites of a croissant, took a taxi in the wan Parisian morning light, numb, half asleep, to Gare de l'Est, where I was to commence a 14 hour journey by train to Prague.
Along the drive across Paris to the station, realizing I didn't have enough Euros on me to pay my cab, I made the driver stop at every Change on the way—all still closed!
I shoved the approximate amount of the fare in dollars in my driver's hand upon arrival, and the guy took it, grunting disconsolately while I managed to find a luggage cart...
and then, hunched-over like a plowman, with great difficulty wheeled my very remains and belongings onto the right track, throwing my bags pell-mell into the appropriate carriage of the TTG train.
Somewhere along this journey—a prolonged endurance test interrupted only by 2 changes of train—I began to feel that the stresses of the Road were finally getting to me:
The first change was in Frankfurt, where the porters of Deutsche Bahnhof failed to show up to help me transfer my stuff to the connecting train, despite my agent having called ahead to order them—this was always good for a laugh, me searching frantically for a luggage cart, then pushing my tottering heap of junk through the milling humanity, Sunday travelers all, trying to locate my next train, invariably parked on a far distant track only reachable by lifts that will not accommodate my luggage cart, sweating maniacally with only minutes to go...
The second change was in Dresden, where the porters were there waiting for me but the rickety lift was kaput, necessitating an Olympic-like relay involving 3 of them hand-carrying my gear up a stone staircase, then unceremoniously dumping my bags and me in the fusty old first class cabin...
Somewhere amidst the endless clickety clacking nirvana that for a dozen years had been my refuge, my meditative state—ahhh, to sit motionless, relaxed, on a European train racing through the flashing countryside, staring out the window with glazed eyes at the ever changing vistas, the rolling green hills and charming villages, on the way to the next town, the next gig, the next whiskey bar (no, that's not accurate...I am an unashamed tee-totaller)...there I sit, tired, clapped-out, drained from the night's jousting, but slowly replenishing my strength on the long train ride, summoning again all my energies and powers, ready soon to do battle in another venue, another town, another country with my trusty guitar/flaming sword/magic wand...
Somewhere early on during my 14 hour Paris to Prague rolling thunder reverie, I felt a sharp, painful twinge deep in my abdomen.
Like a crab clawing me in my guts, tenaciously...relentlessly...and refusing to let go.
Since the age of 20, when I was a student at Yale, I have been subject to attacks of illeitis—Crohn's disease.
Inflammation of the small intestine, no known cause or cure to date—although stress and diet are prime suspects, and Lord knows I had subjected myself to mega-doses of the first, and been abusing the hell out of the second, for years—necessitating 2 previous surgeries, in '85 and '98, that left my gut disfigured (look ma, 3 navels!), and me not much the wiser or the worse for wear, really; the surgeries merely alleviating the symptoms temporarily...until (as the title of one of my solo pieces put it), "The animal flesh comes creeping back".
And here it comes creeping again...
God no, not another fucking flare-up!
Cursing my fate, sweating profusely into my traveling clothes with this new worry added to my sack 'o woes, I managed to nurse my wounded viscera over the long train trip as calmly and as best I could.
Focusing on the lovely Rhine river vistas that run from just outside Koln to just before Frankfurt, the sun playing hide and seek through clouds that sometimes obscured the ruined castles perched nobly over the river heights, while sightseeing boats plowed the waves below them. Noticing the way the Elbe curled in a similar fashion to the Rhine outside the speeding train window as we made our way across the German border into the Czech countryside.
Finally, after warily filling my belly in the dining car with the medicinal palliative of chicken noodle soup (and how bad could that be?), I arrived close to 11pm at Prague's Holesovice station, where I shared a warm reunion with my old compatriot and collaborator Richard Mader, a/k/a Faust (a legend in the 60's Czech underground rock scene with his group UrFaust...and a big fan of Goethe, obviously). With Faust was a smiling young Czech music promoter named Stepan Suchochleb, who had hooked up a gig for me a couple nights later in the Central Bohemian town of Kolin, through which runs the river Elbe.
We shook hands all around, then after transporting my gear to Faust's car and driving into the leafy Prague suburb of Dejvicka, I went to sleep on a couch in Faust's flat almost immediately—we had a long day's journey by car next day to the heart of, or rather a corner of, the fabled land of Slovakia—recently split off from Czechoslovakia.
It was to be my first appearance in Slovakia ever, after years of gigging in my ancestral Czech homeland (I am literally of Bohemian lineage). A gig in the capital Bratislava, in fact—funnily enough not all that far away from—Vienna. Again.
(I was not amused. This tour routing had been a real, uh, side-splitter...).
The show in the Metro Club Bratislava that night went well...a new joint that had the look of a spruced-up beer keller, Czech style; the bearded, older, mostly male crowd eating up my electric guitar pyrotechnics, the bluesy finger picking on my battered old Gibson acoustic, and the reedy banjo-like tones of my 1920's National steel Duolian.
I forgot pretty much about the fire searing my belly the moment I hit the stage...only suffering a spectral lancing pain when I introduced a number by "my former employer Captain Beefheart"—right at the precise moment when I uttered his name. (Maybe this was long distance remote-control payback by the fabled Don Van Vliet, reputed to have ESP powers—hell, I'd seen them in action—and ever-so jealous of his former employees going out on their own to make music in the world).
And now, after a night's restorative sleep at the promoter's flat, and a peaceful lunch with Faust overlooking the beautiful blue Danube river which runs through Bratislava, I was confronted with this spectral "CAC" sign glimpsed on our drive out of town—
A sign which I was certain was a premonition of death!
And I am not ordinarily a superstitious sort. I have been known to readily travel and play on Friday the 13th, for instance. Also on the Jewish Sabbath.
But there was something about this particular momento mori that seized hold of me that day and would not let go—much like the crab clawing intermittently in my guts.
Never in my life before or after that particular moment had I or have I ever had such a certainty about anything.
No doubt about it. The CAC sign had triggered an idée fixe, an obsession thrown up out of my subconscious.
I had been given a vision that I was going to see death that day.
I told Faust about this. He laughed uproariously.
"Slow down!" I demanded angrily. "Put on your seat-belt! And no beer at the next rest-stop!"
Brushing aside my fears, I attempted to relax as the car sped fitfully through the traffic on the highway.
Having forbidden Richard to drink before driving any further that day, we managed to make it in one piece all the way back from Bratislava into one end of Prague and out the other—
Stopping on the outskirts of the proud old city for dinner at a village hotel, whose terrace afforded an excellent view of the sun setting over an ancient ruined castle as the shadows deepened in the twilight.
Another half hour traveling over dusty back roads, and at last we found the tiny hamlet of Kolin—a few rustic houses and shops that whizzed by in an eye's blink—and finally our destination, the La France Club.
Approaching the low slung wooden shed, I noticed a crowd of fans had already gathered outside—fans who cheered when they spotted us. One of them came forward for an autograph.
Inside were two rooms separated by a hall hung with posters of previous acts who had played there, including some famous musicians like Elliot Murphy and my friends the Plastic People of the Universe, the legendary dissident Czech band who were tight with and had been in prison with the Czech president, Vaclav Havel. Tonight I was to play solo and also to be joined for a jam with the Plastic People's fiery saxophonist, the bony, gaunt-faced Vrat Brabanec.
To the left of the hall was the entrance to the bar/restaurant. Sticking my face in there briefly, my senses were assailed by the typical beer-guzzling scene going on inside: fat biker types and farmers dousing and sousing themselves silly in a haze of cigarette smoke and steam from the kitchen, the doors of which swung open every few seconds to reveal a primitive, unhygienic, downright filthy cooking operation. Despite my reservations about the overall cleanliness of the joint, I gobbled a quick parek (the Czech frankfurter, this particular one of very dubious provenance) with Faust, and then went back through the hall to scope out the room where I'd be performing that evening.
Stepping into the dim, musty space, a matching gloomy depression settled over me.
The room was garishly painted in neo-psychedelic day-glo motifs of flowers and psychotropic mushrooms left over from the late 60's hippie hey-day—but probably had been rendered only 2 or 3 years previously. The painting was caked on the walls like mud, and none too skillfully, parts of the grand design already chipping and flaking off to reveal the grey cinderblocks beneath.
The stage was on ground level to the audience—only some wan, worn greenish astro-turf indicating where I was to stand and deliver.
As Faust and the club staff trundled in my guitars and some small Marshall amps, replacing some local amps of uncertain origin that looked none too powerful, I was flooded with intense disgust—
Revulsion for the sad tawdriness of the roadside club I was about to perform in, after playing the much tonier big-city venues I had been growing accustomed to (Lenny Bruce's description of the jazz clubs he frequently worked in as "toilets" seemed particularly apposite here)—
Also disgust for my itinerant vagabond lifestyle:
Here I was, a Yale graduate and national English Award-winner, bouncing for years from toilet to theatre to Royal Festival Hall to toilet again, yo-yo-ing hither and yon to stir up crowds with my guitar playing—and this with my encroaching health problems; the usual money worries of the freelance artist (I was barely breaking even on this 7-week promotional tour, with many too many days off); a disaffected, long-suffering wife waiting for me in New York seriously un-amused by my long absences to go and raise hell on the road; and of course, "time's winged chariot drawing near" (pace John Donne, whom I had studied at Yale).
I was just on the cusp of 50, an age when most of my peers were well settled down with the requisite wife and kids, and lots of disposable cash. Some of my Yale undergraduate buddies were now burgeoning multi-millionaires running media conglomerates.
I, Fortune's Fool, was the eternal man-child trapped in an aging, decaying gut bag trying to turn on the multitudes to Something Wild when the majority of them were quite satisfied by Destiny's Child, a/k/a the same old same old...
Trying to get 'em to march to the sound of a different drummer (Me) when these days they all too happily got their groove on courtesy of drum machines.
"Listen to this you idiots, it might be good for you!"
"Ahhh, piss off!"
I was tired of throwing myself repeatedly against walls, for sure—you could absorb the impact just fine in your younger days, maybe it was even a bit fun, like wilderness training, or extreme sports, sorta like boot camp—good preparation for later life—it sure hardened your shell into a crusty exterior, and you prided yourself that you could take anything.
Except that this was later life.
Gazing around me at the tacky faded walls and inhaling the unmistakably low-rent schlocked-out vibe of the place made me feel extremely sorry for myself—my copious reserves of self-pity welling up now on the order of "How did a nice Jewish boy like me wind up playing in such a frowsy little dump like this??"
After all (pulling myself up by invisible bootstraps—Ahem!—and pumping some adrenalin into my deflated Ego)—
I, Gary Lucas—world-class guitar hero, Grammy-nominated songwriter, and film and tv soundtrack composer—was approaching legendary status as an underground cult musician on-the-verge-of-wider-recognition after a decade-plus spent duking it out in the unholy music wars.
Have guitar will travel!
Hadn't I barnstormed in over forty countries world over, from Tel Aviv to Tokyo to Trieste playing solo and with my band Gods and Monsters? Hitting the international rock, jazz, folk, blues, electronic and avant-club, theater and festival circuit hard—all genres and styles were as one to me, all grist for my multifaceted guitar playing.
The roster of celebrated musicians I had worked and collaborated with over the years read like a Who's Who of Modern Music: Leonard Bernstein, Lou Reed, Nick Cave, Bryan Ferry, DJ Spooky, Joan Osborne, Bob Weir, Allen Ginsberg, Dr. John, Iggy Pop...
That same year I'd been profiled and photographed for a feature article in the prestigious International Herald Tribune ("The secret of my success is just showing up," I dead-panned, having never missed a show once booked). I'd had my mug in the Village Voice Centerfold and even been the cover-boy for the Jewish Forward weekly, the biggest Jewish newspaper in America!
My multi-cultural multi-stylistic guitar explorations were finally paying off—my new 30's Chinese pop CD, on the trendy French Label Bleu—a government-backed label boasting the crème de la crème of world music and jazz atists—was selling better than any other release of mine, and was #1 on the World Music Charts Canada that very month.
I had had a very good year in fact through a combination of gigging, soundtrack commissions for tv and commercials, album contracts, and songwriting royalties. I had scored an Oscar-nominated documentary for classy, legendary Maysles Films ("Gimme Shelter", "Grey Gardens") that was to premiere on HBO that fall—seemingly a big window opening for me in primetime.
And I had a slew of lucrative festival gigs lined up in exotic cities that summer, including Artist in Residence for a week at the Quebec City Summer Festival, another week at the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow—plus my first appearance ever in Atlanta over Labor Day weekend at Dragon-Con, the largest science fiction festival in America, where I would perform my original music live to the 1920 silent horror film "The Golem" before thousands of fanboys and girls.
Yet I felt truly miserable and pathetic standing there in that threadbare, tacky and supremely un-kosher club in Kolin.
Suppressing my self-hatred with the same deliberate act of will that I had used to set aside my death premonitions earlier; ie; "this shitty club is just a temporary blip on the road to (fill in the blanks)", my wandering Jewish soul reconciled itself to the moment at hand just as fast as disgust had welled up within me.
Was this not the same kind of honky-tonk roadside attraction my musical idols had worked in over the course of their long careers?
Hank Williams, Howling Wolf, Beefheart, the Stones, Dylan, Robert Johnson—all had played scummy joints like this as part of their dues-paying...
And, hate to admit it—but didn't I actually ENJOY playing toilets like this every once in awhile??
To get down in the dirt with my fellow man and roll around in it—to taste the nitty-gritty?
To wallow in the primal muck of ur-blues, to get down to the brown—
To "hit it in the breadbasket, and finger fuck the Devil"? (An oft-quoted Beefheart-ism).
Yep, that same stone outlaw blues spirit had grabbed ahold of my soul again, goading me on to wreck havoc in the honky-tonks, to jump steady in the jukes, to transgress, trespass, and party down on the playing fields of the Lord...to court danger; in short, to traffic, pander, meander and dabble in baaaaad vug-um (another Beefheart-ism).
In point of fact, there were as many sides to me as my guitar playing. A bar-mitzvah-ed English scholar and Yale graduate who had once upon a time wanted to grow up to be either a rabbi—or a vampire.
Yes, there was a Dionysian side to me that absolutely loved the road...that lived for filthy honky-tonks as embodying that whole bluesy beyond-the-law romantic guitar tradition...
"Tour"? Did you say, "Tour"?
Bring on the next Tour...
So I pulled myself together, mentally calculating how much money I had left lying safe in a vault in my adopted hometown Manhattan—
Not enough for sure, but if I got rolled here tonight or went down in the line of duty (that premonition of death again, that scent of danger out here on the godforsaken margins of the music biz), I had enough waiting back home to cover my losses—
And got down to the tedious business of setting up my guitars, my effects table, and my foot pedals—I was traveling without a roadie or a driver this tour as usual to try and eke more shekels out of the long 7 week haul.
Then it was on to the actual Sound Check, testing out the squawking, typically malfunctioning PA system. The one that came with this particular gig was manned by a tongue-tied, furiously blushing boy who could barely speak, let only speak English (my Czech vocabulary, sad to say, consisted of "parek", and that was about it...once on the Czech version of the Today Show a couple years earlier, in front of millions of breakfast time viewers, the host had said to me, chuckling, "I see your family name was originally Lichtenstein. Hey, we've got a Lichtenstein Palace here—you must be a blue-blood!" "Not at all," I replied, "When I cut myself shaving it's red, believe me." And as if to verify my non-blue-blood status, "parek" was the only Czech word I could come up with when the host quizzed me later in the show on my native language skills).
Sound check over, I retired to the smoky bar with Faust—there was no dressing room in this place—and over the course of a fruit juice for me and a beer, naturally, for him, my spirits lifted as we watched the people arriving in droves.
Stepping outside for a moment, sun going down fast, I watched as car after car, headlights a'blazing, turned off the road and into the club parking area.
One hour later and the music room had completely filled, about 200-plus Gary Lucas fans, all crammed into that stinky little room.
They had driven into Kolin from all over the country, as it was my only appearance in the CR this tour. There was even a fan that had made it all the way from Switzerland, for chrissake, where he'd read about the gig in a music rag. After a dozen years or so slogging the Euro-theatre of war on the festival, club, and hellhole circuit, I was surely a known commodity on the Continent—unlike in the US, where I had early on recognized the near impossibility of breaking through to my culturally-benighted fellow citizens with my brand of art-guitar virtuosity.
Americans seem to want to kill their artists, unless they have a lot of money behind them. They are huge suckers for anything that hints of mint, more-than-willing pawns in the marketing campaigns of large corporations.
In Europe, there is a café culture operating (still, but barely) that reflects thousands of years of genteel intellectual curiosity about the recherché, the non-mainstream—the rare, precious, and beautiful artists and their artifacts nominally trampled underfoot by American boot heels.
People in Europe will normally seek out curious and "difficult" entertainment much more readily than here—and savor it, analyze it, discuss it, relish it for its aesthetic value alone, fuck the marketing strategy.
They take great pride in recognizing the cast-off geniuses of other lands—foreign artists who've received the bum's rush at home are many times more likely to be embraced there with eager open arms.
Consider the hero's welcome given to many US avant-jazz musicians abroad for instance, musicians who have historically been so much better received in Europe than in their country of origin that many of them expatriated there for good—a strategy that had crossed my mind more than once.
Take me for instance (please), pretty much a prophet without honor in my own land, lionized as one of the best guitarists alive by critics and fans elsewhere.
Especially in Europe, thank God—where I definitely had a fan base.
And these Czech guys and gals—my peeps!—were with me that evening as one from the get-go, God bless them.
When it was my time to play, I strolled onto the stage, strapped on my trusty 1942 Gibson J-45—and let her rip:
Commencing with my surefire tour opener, a rock 'em sock 'em medley starting with the rapid acoustic finger picking of my original composition "Level the Playing Field"; then sliding smoothly into what Frank Zappa used to refer to as a "body advertisement", my late friend Arthur Russell's "Let's Go Swimming", with breathy vocals tenderly imploring the audience to come and, uh, swim with me;
A fuzz-toned explosion, sampled and held by one of my digital delays...segue-ing seamlessly into the hyper-electric slap-back echoed wah-wah'ed vortex of a head-cleaning slide-guitar rendition of "Amazing Grace"—ending with a taste of the prancing acoustic fantasy-dance "It's Like a Wheel".
From the moment I began, there were sparks flashing from my fingertips and smoke rising from my amps and effects table.
And when I ended the medley, the audience absolutely erupted with cheers.
I ran my eyes over the crowd pressing forward to get a glimpse of me in the confined sweaty space. Bearded macho alpha-males, shy intellectuals, saucy young ladies rolling their eyes at me—the exotic American import—imploring, daring me to focus on them.
I had most of the crowd in the proverbial palm of my hand, hooked from the first note—smiles breaking out all around, eyes closing and dreamy expressions appearing as I took them on a trip inside the outside world of Gary Lucas.
My 1926 National steel blues workouts "Let My People Go" and "Police Dog Blues" brought out more cheers and shouts—
And now they were with me totally—one skinny long-haired dude dressed all in black (like me, although without my trademark black Borsalino hat) jumping up and down like a mad hopping frog, whipping his stringy hair around his head and whooping it up after every number like an old-fashioned Deadhead.
No, none of them had ever heard guitar played quite like that before.
I kept up the pressure for a good two hours, flourishing my trademark eclectic repertoire like a bloody flag before the crowd oozing sweat, blood and "precious bodily fluids" (pace "Dr. Strangelove").
I am taking the crowd with me on a long, strange trip—mixing up the medicine, dashing and jolting expectations with a mixture of demonic and divine ecstatic music—my typical modus operandi.
Breaking things up in the middle of the set with a violent blues duet with Brabenec, his saxophone wails surging and swelling in tandem with my electronic sonic action-painting and shrieking electric blues.
Then more trademark guitar dementia—a potted history of musical culture high and low compressed into 2 hours and reverberating from the 18 strings of my 3 guitars, the strings feeling like an extension of my supercharged nervous system, hotwired into my inflamed viscera.
I finished the show with my customary apocalyptic medley.
It began with an eerie rendition of one of my all-time favorite Robert Johnson tunes, "Hellhound on My Trail".
Hearing my rendition of this music live from Lincoln Center one night on the public radio in NYC, the folks at Maysles Films (as mentioned, the company responsible for "Gimme Shelter", the documentary depicting The Rolling Stones debacle at Altamont where a young black man was knifed to death) were inspired—I would like to think compelled—to look me up on the internet (they didn't know jackshit about my music or that I even lived in New York, after 25 years of playing gigs there!) and offer me the job of scoring music for their new documentary.
My version of this sad, doom-ridden blues classic had real ghosts lurking in the vast caverns of sound carved out by the creaking and shuddering tones of my mournful slide guitar.
I delineated each sobbing line of Robert Johnson's original vocal with sweeping, exaggerated bravado, drawing out each verse deliberately, trying to literally stop time as my glass slide vibrated the strings of my guitar on one long sustained note...
And then with a tweak of the hand on a knob on my digital delay sampler, the note became a falling electronic pitch, actually my sampled guitar tone, sliding down down down into the abyss, the fiery furnace, the primordial Pit—
And off we rocketed into one of my demonic originals: "One Man's Meat". A haunted insistent riff that began quietly with a muted "Ghostriders in the Sky" motif, then swelled and rumbled along like a stagecoach to hell with a full-tilt statement of the main theme.
Followed by a particularly nasty explosion of aleatory psychedelia in the break, flinging wildly all the colors of the dark (pace Tim Lucas) in my palette onto the sonic canvas I had created, hunching over my effects table and moving my hands rapidly from the guitar to the effects and back like a mad scientist fingering his flasks and beakers, throwing switches and summoning up lightning bolts and the screams of the damned—
And gasps and cheers from the hypnotized throng.
Drained, but flying on adrenalin, I did two more encores, the seething crowd yelling more...More...MORE!!
"My father, whose father came from Bohemia,"—a roar of approval from the crowd—"told me always to leave people wanting more...
So that's it! See ya!!"
I imperiously turned my back on the throng—there was no dressing room to disappear into, it was that cramped a place—and started putting my guitars back into their sticker-encrusted flight cases. The lights came up, revealing the sordid grimy surroundings I had managed to wipe out totally a minute or so before by painting the air black with sound.
A slinky young woman who had been eyeballing me all through the concert approached:
"When you told us that story about your father...that meant you would play more for us, yes?" she asked in a seductive tone.
"Nope, sorry, I've been playing for over 2 hours now—I'm really shot."
I resumed my packing up as she strode off, pissed.
One of my oldest friends in the Czech Republic came up to me next, whose face I had glimpsed in the crowd during the show—my good old pal David Němec, a handsome, sensitive middle-aged Czech intellectual whose wife had once fronted Pulnoc, the Plastic People offshoot band I had jammed with in NYC many years before. Now Misha stayed at home with their babies and David's mother, Dana, a famous Czech dissident active in the Charter 77 Movement with their old family friend Vaclav Havel, while David alone came to my gigs. Except this time he was with his brother Ondřej, who spoke very little English.
On this occasion David was wearing a big black and white Gary Lucas tour tee-shirt which I had given him some years before, which sported my blown-up visage, a photo of me peering through Victorian opera glasses looking out at the world daintily and curiously, a dandy in aspic in a hardscrabble world of pain.
"Why didn't you tell me you were playing here? I just learned about it yesterday from a friend, and got my brother to drive me here from Prague."
We hugged each other while his brother started snapping shots of the two of us with his digital camera. Faust, who had been over in the back of the room by the mixing board during the gig, trying to cajole the lame soundman to get his shit together, came over and joined us, and soon he and David were reacquainting themselves over a couple of beers.
After an hour or so spent cooling down, after packing up my guitars and getting my electronics all safely back in their cases, and after listening to David and Vrat Brabanec engage in an endless drunken rambling colloquy about the merits of a particular local band, I decided it was time to split back to Prague, where I was staying in Faust's flat.
I said a fond goodbye to David and his brother, who took off for Prague in their sports car first—
And then about 10 minutes later, after making the rounds of the club one more time with protracted leave taking and backslappings with the promoter, staff and assorted fans still hanging out there, I went outside into the dark night with Faust and climbed into his vehicle.
I was happy, exhilarated from the gig...even my abdominal pains had receded to the point of not noticing them at all during the show.
Yet in the postpartum period after playing, in the empty reveling back in the bar, in the midst of the inane intoxicated chatter all around me, some of those same disquieting feelings of empty worthlessness, of general disgust with my life and music career, had resurfaced.
Still, it had been a landmark gig. The crowd was buzzing from the intensity of my playing, and it was sure to add to the luster of my legend in that corner of the world. And that's what you had to do to make it as a musician: keep blazing trails, lighting fires, setting off explosions live in the flesh in as many territories as you could possibly hit.
We sped along the twisting country road away from the club, under a slate-black sky, silent in our own thoughts. No stars or even streetlights out there in the wilderness to illuminate our path. Ten minutes down the road, and we were peering out for a sign on the road to guide us onto the main highway back to Prague.
I had only seen it pitch black like this once before, and it had been on a country lane outside Prague similar to this one.
Faust had put me up in a hotel out in the sticks a couple years earlier during the making of our album "The Ghosts of Prague", and one night he had taken me to yet another roadside bar for a communal hootenanny, Czech style. After a couple hours of hearing American folk songs retooled with Czech lyrics that bore no resemblance to the original song lyrics, and fed-up with the communal drinking, which I never could partake of anyway (medical reasons primarily, but also aesthetic—I had been a big grass smoker back in the day, and found that high vastly preferable as a musician in comparison with booze), I excused myself and made my way away from the club down a sloping dim road, where a thousand meters or so further theoretically lay my hotel.
Only a thick fog had set in while we'd whiled away the hours in the bar. I had left the confines of the cozy pub only to plunge into a swirling fog so thick that I was prevented literally from seeing my hand in front of my face.
I shuffled farther and farther into the swampy miasma down the inclined road, and glancing back, noticed the roadside bar behind me had totally disappeared from view—just thick inky blackness before me and behind me.
A real chill came over me then—something qualitatively different from any other fear I had ever experienced. A feeling that I was helpless in the presence of some unnameable dread lurking somewhere behind, or even alongside me.
I groped with my hands for the hotel front gate...and found just icy coldness there instead.
I panicked. I wheeled around and bolted back up the road. To the warm fires of the bar and a jovial Faust greeting me with: "Ah Geddy, so good to see you come back again...you look a bit cold....you sure you don't want to try some excellent Czech beer?"
I made Faust walk me back down the road an hour later when I got my nerve back to go and try and locate my hotel, which now was creepily semi-visible in the dense fog. Faust chuckled and swore at the sight: "My God, it's a real Hitchcock out here!"
Now Faust was silent in the car next to me, both of us intent on finding our way through the obsidian Czech night once again. There was no fog on the ground out here; still we could barely make out the denuded trees swaying silently in the night breeze as we motored across a deserted landscape cloaked in darkness.
Over a rise, and then...
There was some kind of light ahead before us.
We drove up suddenly, abruptly, on a car parked along the side of the road, its emergency lights flashing...
And what looked like bloody animal parts and rags littering the highway before us and then around us.
We sped through this scene quickly, uncomprehending, one hundred meters down the road past the car—and then I made Faust stop short:
"Jesus, it looks like an accident back there! We should go back and see if they need any help..."
Reversing the car, we slowly backed up to the scene. Faust rolled down the window to his left.
Looking out across him from the passenger seat, I saw David, ashen-faced, crouched over a mangled body lying prone face up on the side of the road.
His brother was standing and wandering distractedly nearby, speaking rapidly into his cell-phone.
David was kneeling over the body and stroking the long hair of the unknown guy lying on the ground, murmuring softly to him.
Faust fired off a rapid hallo to David, who looked up and responded to him in a slow-motion dazed kind of speech, delivered in total shock.
He then resumed ministering to the unfortunate lying on the pavement.
I noticed, horrified, that David was still wearing my big Gary Lucas black and white tee-shirt.
He was bending over and whispering to the kid.
"Helping him to die," he later said.
It was too grotesque.
"David says he thinks this guy was a fan at the gig," Faust sorrowfully repeated, translating for me.
I suddenly remembered the Deadhead dude all in black with long hair streaming down his face, jumping up and down maniacally while I performed.
"The guy was walking drunk in the middle of the road when they struck him with their car going 100 kilometers an hour. They didn't see him—he's wearing all black. He shouldn't have been walking drunk like that in the middle of the road! His brother just phoned the police, they should be here any minute. They said the guy just flew through the windshield on impact and was torn to pieces—he's lost a hand and a foot on the road. Luckily Ondřej wasn't drinking so he thinks there shouldn't be a problem with the police, it was just an accident...he shouldn't have been walking where he was walking."
"Shouldn't we stay to help?"
"No, there's nothing we can do for them—let the police and the ambulance come. Come on, let's get out of here."
We drove off. Way down the road in the opposite direction I saw flashing spectral lights, and down an off-ramp and onto our road came the flashing ambulance and police car.
Driving away in the opposite direction, I am in shock now myself.
The last sight this guy saw, as he lay dying, was my face, on David's tee-shirt. Looming over him.
Somebody he was just cheering for.
Somebody who drove him mad with excitement.
Rock 'n Roll!
Did my guitar hellfire, my mimetic musical psychosis, inspire this guy to intoxicate himself even more—to render himself so delirious, to the point of insensibility,
that he couldn't hear the car coming?
I feel connected inextricably to this ghastly occurrence.
On this ghastly night.
Rolling into Kolin and playing my music and my heart out to whomever was there to listen.
Casting my bread upon the waters.
Hurling my music at the crowd like a stone thrown into a pool causing ever widening ripples.
Creating a vortex that just may have dragged the kid down.
And then I remember:
My death premonition earlier that day.
"He kak-ed, man."
Is this what my glorious "career"—my Gods and Monsters mythos, my love of the outré, my Wyndham Lewis/William Burroughs/Aleister Crowley rock 'n roll lifestyle has been leading up to?
Am I my own Golem?
I feel a pain sharp in my stomach again.
I feel sick unto death.
I have never seen death so up close and personal before.
We'd rolled past his severed bleeding hand. His severed foot near the stump of his leg. His empty sneaker, he was literally lifted out of his shoes by the car's impact.
"Cut to pieces..." I repeat inanely, a chanted refrain from one of our songs from our "Ghosts of Prague" album, sung by a chorus of malevolent screaming harpies.
Our joint creation, a musical phantasmagoria invoking the spirits and ghostly legends of past Czech epochs.
Faust isn't amused.
"That's life" is all he says, grimly and repeatedly, hard-boiled—as we make our way back to Prague.
No, my friend.
A week later, I'm back home.
After shutting down emotionally and trying but failing to suppress the memory of this grisly scene, I leave Prague after a day in the studio with Faust and friends, attempting feebly to improvise to a series of fantastic paintings—monsters, demons, bizarre interplanetary landscapes—that Faust hauls down to his basement studio for inspiration courtesy of a Czech painter friend with some interactive CD-ROM scheme in mind a la "Pictures at an Exhibition"—and take the train on a sunny spring day back along the Rhine, and go on to play Amsterdam numb, on auto-pilot, to the largest crowd I've ever gathered there in over a dozen years of playing to my Dutch fans...and at the Paradiso to boot. Fans waiting at the stage door, big cheering crowd, multiple encores, superb reviews...
I feel nothing from this—it all seems a terrible, unfunny joke.
Is this my reward?
And then I fly back to New York.
When I get home, I call David.
He's out of the hospital where he lay for a week with lacerations from the flying glass which shattered over him when his brother plowed into the guy.
Luckily, he had been strapped into the passenger seat with his seat belt on, and dozing, when the collision took place.
"I am okay, Gary. Really. I was cut up by the glass and had to go to hospital, but now I am better."
"And the victim?
"He was that long-haired guy all in black jumping up and down and howling after every one of your songs. He shouldn't have been in the middle of the road like that. A German tourist, they found his wallet on him."
Yes, it was the intense Deadhead I'd noticed.
"We have to go to court soon to testify.
But it's going to be alright—it was an accident."
And then he tells me some astonishing, frightening news:
"But do you know what night of the year this happened on—April 30th?? "
"Walpurgisnacht. Witches' Sabbath."
"Walpurgisnacht" by Stefan Eggeler (1922)
I know Walpurgisnacht.
Me and my Gods and Monsters boys attended a Walpurgisnacht party a year before on the outskirts of Schonburg, a small medieval village in East Germany.
Outside of my German friend's housing complex at the edge of a field, in the dead of night.
Bonfires burning in the fields, bratwurst roasting on spits, families gathered, much drinking, kids cavorting dressed up as witches and demons.
The church silent and shuttered on the hill, ghostly in the distant moonlight.
But it tolled the hour every hour all night...
Folks beating on tin pots and pans with sticks to drive off the evil spirits that roam the land on that night.
Making a din...
Much like the break in "One Man's Meat"...
But there were no bonfires burning in the Czech countryside that night.
I look up "cac" in the OED.
Bad, bad vugum all around.
"Cac" is the Old English root prefix of pretty much everything odious.
Cacistocracy—government by the worst.
The root of caca—baby shit.
To "cack"—to evacuate the bowels...
I call Faust and tell him all this.
And remind him that in the Goethe poem with the same title as his nickname, there is a serious Walpurgisnacht scene set in the Harz Mountains of Germany.
Where Der Teufel takes Faust up to the top of the highest mountain, the Brocken, and reveals to him naked witches dancing around a bonfire.
Faust says nothing in response to this. Doesn't even laugh.
I am in serious despair now about my career, my collapsing health, my worthless self-image, my guilty conscience for dabbling in the unknown—for fucking with people's heads...
The pain in my gut is much worse now, I'm on Prednisone again.
Should I quit this hollow dumb show, this sad business of music, before it's too late for me?
I call my Catholic mystic friend Francis McCarthy in California, who was in school with me, and who once felt touched by the hand of God in a hospital where his AIDS-stricken friend lay dying. I tell him this story and ask him for his advice.
He tells me that what happened out in the Czech countryside was a sign from God...and that I should take a cold hard look at my life and my wicked wicked ways (pace Errol Flynn)...beg Him for forgiveness...and ask Him what I should do next.
Ask Him for another sign...
"You've always been attracted to this dark, lonely, God-less music Gary. The blues, the Rolling Stones...you should just concentrate on stuff like your 30's Chinese pop songs."
"Do you mean to tell me that all these death-metal bands are all going to Hell because they're singing about Lucifer??"
"I didn't say that...all I'm saying is—you've been given a Sign. And now you have to decide what you're going to do about it."
You'll make a Catholic out of me yet, I say.
No, I just want to make a better Jew of you, he says.
I recount my Czech ghost story to another close friend, Peter Feldman, an account exec and music producer at a big ad agency. Who tells me:
"Bullshit! It was an accident!! Don't give up your music career now. It was a fucking accident—not a sign to quit...Go the distance!"
Well, after long, hard reflection...
I'm doing it to death.
In the words of the song—
"It's too late to stop now".
April 30th 2017
Postscript: That's my story, and I'm sticking with it—fifteen years later on Walpurgisnacht.
A lot of water has flowed under that particular bridge since I first set this story down in 2002.
Never before had I received a premonition like that, and never again subsequently.
You tell me:
What are the odds of receiving such a vision...
and seeing it unfold later that evening—
"in real life"??
Gary Lucas at Faust Studios Prague 12/10/2013