Gary Lucas   reviews  



—Steve Ciabattoni

Like his former employer Captain Beefheart, guitarist Gary Lucas is given to fits of musical whimsy. What keeps Lucas from being just another New York oddball is that his talent is absolutely blistering, and as a bandleader (of the loose coterie known as Gods And Monsters) he uses his abilities for more than just technical amazement purposes. Lucas writes actual songs (he co-wrote a few for Jeff Buckley's debut), and with help from some female vocalists, Lucas refracts several known (and some unknown) song structures, often resulting in dark, frenzied rock punctuated by lightning guitar picking.

For Lucas, the genesis of a song can be anything: a dance hit (Arthur Russell's "Let's Go Swimming"); a pun ("Poison I.V. League"; or even Shakespeare's most famous and ominous stage direction from "The Winter's Tale" ("Exit, Pursued By A Bear").

In this way, Lucas is akin to a junkyard artist or surrealist montage-maker, turning disparate remnants and odd snippets into interesting, clanking chunks of sound. And in the case of tracks like "Jericho" and "I Want To Play Your Guitar" he's assembled elegant and beautiful songs.


"A Virtuoso of Effects Boxes As Well as the Guitar"

—Neil Strauss

Gary Lucas is a guitarist who doesn't like to play the guitar. He likes to play the flanger, the chorus box, the distortion pedal, the pitch shifter, the reverb, the delay and all the other effects boxes and pedals that can change the sound of a stringed instrument into an electronic symphony. On Thursday night at The Cooler, Mr. Lucas, best known for his stint in the early 1980's in Captain Beefheart's band, had a dozen effects units at his feet and at least that many on a table to his right. Throughout the performance, his hands were on these boxes as often as they were on his guitar. The result was a full-bodied, well-controlled layer of sound that allowed Mr. Lucas to accompany his own guitar lines.

The evening began with a handful of his one-man guitar-band compositions before the rotating ensemble that makes up his band, Gods and Monsters, started filing on and off the stage. With Jonathan Kane on drums and Jean Chaine on bass bolstering his sound during the second half of the show, Mr. Lucas backed off the effects, proving that he wasn't using them to mask any shortcomings in his guitar playing. He walked through blues, jazz, classical, Celtic and psychedelic guitar styles with equal proficiency. When the singers Dina Emerson or Richard Barone came on stage to transform free-floating instrumentals into experimental pop songs, Mr. Lucas know to avoid the pyrotechnics.
Mr. Lucas is a guitar academic. In his on-stage patter, he dropped the names of T.S. Eliot and William Shakespeare. On guitar, he quoted Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Robert Johnson and the composer Arthur Russell. Like many of rock's most original guitarists, his knowledge and ability were limited only by his vision. In Mr. Lucas' case, it's a vision of guitar and effects combining to form a music where film scores and pop songs meet.



Gary Lucas and Jeff Buckley certainly couldn't create a more impressive avant-rock resume. Lucas played guitar for Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band during the group's early-Eighties period that yielded "Doc at the Radar Station" and "Ice Cream for Crow." Buckley is the son of legendary jazz-folk-rock singer Tim Buckley, whose groundbreaking work was cut short by his untimely death from a drug overdose in 1975.

After working with Beefheart, Lucas kicked around, sitting in with groups like the Mekons and the Woodentops, while playing solo guitar gigs that were equal parts free jazz, psychedelic rock & roll and urban blues. Buckley, meanwhile, was living in Los Angeles, where he was working on demos. When the two met at a tribute to the elder Buckley at Brooklyn's place of art-rock worship, the Church at St. Ann's, they began writing together. Under the moniker Gods and Monsters, Lucas and Buckley now have a partnership (and a development deal with Imago Records) that churns out music that runs the gamut of rock's family tree—swirling energy that is a schizophrenic mix of psychedelic spinning, jazz improvisation and raw blues rambling.

The final Gods and Monsters lineup just might add an eighty-proof kick to the already immediate mix. After auditioning a number of rhythm section, the two have roped in Golden Palominos maestro and drummer Anton Fier and Pere Ubu bassist Tony Maimone—the same pair who put the power in Bob Mould's touring power trio.


PROFILE: Gary Lucas' Gods and Monsters

—Mark Dery

"The musical landscape is completely moribund," says Gary Lucas. "It's one of the worst periods in memory, worse than the mid '70s. My music is so passionate in comparison to the pablum that's being spat up these days. I want to create waves of sensation by mixing references radically and playing passionately. I want to take the audience on a trip, then bring it back. I want to *sear* people with my guitar." Lucas, a frizzy-haired, 37-year-old adrenaline addict, sometimes seems in danger of being buried by the avalanche of ideas tumbling out of his guitar. Performing with his band, Gods and Monsters—their Columbia debut is scheduled for release this year—he uses acid-rock melodies to trace smoking curlicues in a boasting, bullying rap called "The Crazy Ray"; laces a cat's-cradle of fingerpicked lines through "Poison Tree," a country-folk number in open E minor that crosses an eerie, fog-cloaked English ballad with a barn-dance stomp; gives psychedelia its due on "King Strong," where squealing triplets, chordal thunderclaps, and tremolo-bar yowls take the listener on an aural journey down the "star corridor" from 2001; and pays homage to blood-flecked horror films on "They Can't Believe He's Risen Again," his hysterical, skittering lead slashing holes in the song's fabric like a shiny blade through a shower curtain. Nor is Lucas' taste in cover tunes any less eclectic: A typical set might include a Sturm und Drang interpretation of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries"; a crunch-rock reading of the wistful theme to the British soap "EastEnders"; a stumble through Pink Floyd's bad acid trip, "Astronomy Domine"; or a dobro arrangement of jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler's "Ghosts" (included on the A&M experimental music compilation Live at the Knitting Factory, Volume Two).

Lucas' cross-eyed vision of a musical world where Teutonic operas, daytime serials, '60s freak-outs, and country blues overlap makes complete sense, given his background. Raised in Syracuse—he calls it "the armpit of New York State"—Gary began studying French horn and classical guitar in fourth grade and took up electric guitar in junior high. Initially drawn to the chiming folk-rock of the Byrds and Donovan, the young player underwent a conversion in the summer of '67 when exposed to landmark records such as Jimi Hendrix' "Are You Experienced" and the Blues Project's "Projections". "Everything was exploding," he recalls, "and I really wanted to be part of it, so I got into electric guitar, especially the Yardbirds.

Jeff Beck completely reinvented blues-rock for me. I thought his whole comedic approach, his insouciant phrasing, was really funny. I also liked David O'List, who played on the first Nice record—he sounded psychotic. And I loved Syd Barret's attack—his playing sounded like a chicken being decapitated."

Lucas earned his live stripes playing frat-house parties at nearby Syracuse University and acquired studio experience when he performed the acoustic guitar soundtrack to a Department of Forestry film called Aquatic Ecology, which Rod Serling narrated. Majoring in English at Yale, he found time to play lead guitar with the Yale Symphony Orchestra at Vienna in the European premiere of Leonard Bernstein's Mass and engage in "half-time hijinx with the infamous Yale Marching Band, playing the 'Theme from Shaft' from the sidelines with a huge 200-watt Marshall amplifier and a wah-wah pedal." After graduating, he moved to Taipei, Taiwan, where he ran the overseas office of his father's import/export business and played in a proto-punk Chinese/Swedish group whose Taiwanese name translates as "bullshit." One night, in a seedy club straight out of a Mickey Spillane novel, the band's 10-minute rave-up on "Gloria" goaded the crowd into Dionysian madness. The lights went out, bottles flew, and Lucas heard someone say, "His fingers—oh my God, help me find his fingers!" "A gang member had chopped two fingers off this Chinese-American kid," remembers Lucas, "and there was blood all over the walls. Later, I testified against this punk gang, and the people at the embassy said, 'Gee, if I were you, I'd take the first plane outta here!' It was obviously time to go home."

And go home he did—to Captain Beefheart's Magic Band, with whom he had dreamed of playing since seeing Beefheart perform at a tiny nightspot near Yale in the early '70s. He and Don Van Vliet—the good Captain's real name—had kept in touch, and Beefheart welcomed him aboard. From 1979 until 1983—when the gravel-throated Dadaist abandoned music for painting—Lucas was his featured soloist and manager.

On Beefheart's Doc at the Radar Station (Virgin), Lucas steps into the spotlight for the solo piece "Flavor Bud Living," a dreamy rubato study full of sharp trills and piquant intervals. On "Ice Cream for Crow" (Virgin), he takes another bow with "Evening Bell," a bluesy tour-de-force full of kinked melodies and impossible chords, written by Beefheart as a Lucas showcase. Composed on piano, it demanded a highly idiosyncratic finger-picking approach, a cross-pollination of classical technique and a contrapuntal folk style reminiscent of British folk guitarist Bert Jansch, whom Lucas admires. "I said, 'Don, you want me to play exactly what you're doing, but you're using ten fingers, and there are only six strings on a guitar!' He said, 'Well, you better find another four!'

"I was a classically trained guitarist, well-versed in music theory, but when I started learning these Beefheart pieces I had to invent my own techniques. The tonal center of "Evening Bell" was D, so I detuned the low E down to D, and that enabled me to play the piece very closely to the way Don played it on piano. He used the sustain pedal a lot, and I tried as best I could to imitate every move. Beefheart always said, 'The guitar is merely a stand-up piano, sir; that's how I write for it.' He showed me new ways of approaching the guitar, like this idea of contrapuntal fingerpicking. Most people never get beyond Elizabeth Cotten stuff—you know, Travis picking—but I was using my whole right hand, pinky and all." Lucas also recalls the time the bandleader instructed him to play as if he were balancing a bowl of red jujubes in one hand, and the time Van Vliet expostulated his "Exploding Note Theory," stating that every note should be played as if were a bomb bursting in air, "with no relationship to what came before or after it—bang! bang! bang!"

Lucas remains true to Beefheart's aesthetic. Backed by Gods and Monsters—country yodeler Julia Heyward, bassists Paul Now and Jared Michael Nickerson, and alternate drummers Tony "Thunder" Smith and Tony Lewis—he rattles off strings of notes like a turret gunner spitting shells. He runs his sunburst '63 Fender Strat and red '65 Gibson Firebird (both strung with light-gauge D'Addario rock strings) through a maze-like signal chain: "My pedals sit on a percussion stand," he explains. "I go through a [Dunlop] Cry Baby wah into a T.C. Electronic Sustainer/Equalizer, a Boss Digital Metallizer, a Boss Flanger, another equalizer, which I use as gain-stage control, and then into a noise suppressor, a DeArmond volume pedal, a Whirlwind box—an effects loop with a gain stage—and then into a Boss Pitch-Shifter/Delay, a Boss Chorus, and then into another Pitch Shifter—which I manually manipulate—and then into a DigiTech 8-second delay, an Electro-Harmonix 16-second delay, an Alesis Midiverb, and a second Electro-Harmonix delay. At that point, I split the signal, running the direct sound into a Gallien-Krueger 250 ML and the effects into a Roland JC-120."

Lucas' signal processing was inspired by avant-garde vocalist Urszula Dudziak, known for vocal acrobatics done with harmonizers and delays, and by Bill Frisell, whose processed, spiraling lines caught Lucas' ear when he produced Tim Berne's Fulton Street Maul (Columbia), on which Frisell played. "Frisell is great, but the new gods—Van Halen, Vai, Satriani—don't really do it for me," growls Lucas. "Music is not about a million notes a minute; it's about making one note count with emphasis, tone, and vibrato.

"What's lacking these days is people using their left hands. That's the most expressive way to play—bending notes, really making them sing. Not many people have the strength or knowledge to do that." His style, by contrast, is based on human-sounding groans and squeals. "It's something you find in Hebrew cantillation, in the blues, and in South Indian singing," observes Lucas. "I think the voice of God speaks through a bent note."