Gary Lucas   reviews  

GARY LUCAS, SECONDS Magazine, April 1996

By Steven Cerio & George Petros

Gary Lucas is among a minority of musicians capable of inexhaustible streams of ingenuity. Whether recording his own solo projects, or with the likes of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, Matthew Sweet, and Graham Parker, or creating soundtracks for the ABC news program "Turning Point" and the silent Expressionist film classic "The Golem," Lucas' tasteful mixture of guitar wizardry and compositional invention never falter. On his albums "Skeleton at the Feast," "Gods and Monsters" and "Bad Boys of the Arctic," Lucas pushes his guitar to even higher grounds.

In the early Eighties, amidst the retro upheaval and the gagging discrepancies of post-Punk, Lucas found himself backing Don Van Vliet a.k.a Captain Beefheart. Gary fitted into this position confidently, what with having jealously scrutinized the roles, note by note, of former Magic Band guitarists Zoot Horn Rollo and Winged Eel Fingerling. Lucas appeared on Beefheart's "Doc at the Radar Station" performing on French horn—although a solo guitar piece for him, entitled "Flavour Bud Living," was featured. On "Ice Cream For Crow," Lucas was mated with fellow guitar virtuoso Moris Tepper. The pair went to their dueling guitars with an intensity unmatched since Beefheart's earlier classic "Trout Mask replica"—the very same two-record set Lucas wore down while studying English lit at Yale in the early Seventies. Gary's contributions to Beefheart's music teetered on the edge of dissonance before leaning back into a decidedly intricate feel that mocks the dusty classic sliders like Johnny Winter and Ry Cooder (another Beefheart alumni).

Kickstarted by his Beefheartian sojourn into the world of vinyl, Gary made his way onto the discs of Eighties visionaries The Woodentops and swarthy songsmith Sweet. His six-string genius also spiced up releases by Sophie B. Hawkins and Jeff Buckley. Amidst his various solo recordings on Enemy records he found time to grace the sessions of king popster Graham Parker and MTV darling Joan Osborne. But the lion's share of Lucas' energy is reserved for his personal projects where he is free to wield his own visions.

On "Bad Boys of the Arctic," Lucas has created a work separate from his Beefheartian ancestry. "Bad Boys..." was designed to be user-friendly; it's full of twists and turns but you can count on a tasteful use of Blues, Folk, and Rock & Roll to hold it all together. Unlike most guitar- owned-and operated franchises, "Bad Boys..." makes great use of the lost art of songwriting and steers clear of Eddie Van Halen-isms and shredder leads. The rhythm deeds are tightly performed by drummer Jonathan Kane (formerly of Swans and LaMonte Young) and bassist Jean Chaine. Guest vocalists adorning this release include Dina Emerson and Sonya Cohen (pere Seeger's niece). Like Gods And Monsters, it is in a Cabaret style, something Lucas prefers due to the "boring" nature of "fixed groups." The Bad Boys of the Arctic crew seem as at home swingin' and bouncin' on "Poison I.V. League," as they do thrashin' out on the Dead Kennedy-esque "They Can't Believe He's Risen Again." Gary's solo piece, entitled "Children's March" is beautiful, showing the performer's writing skills and alarmingly intricate techniques—which is a brave act indeed in these days of gaudy Grunge insolence. Gary Lucas continues to play his guitar with a precise blend if intelligence, talent, and grace—things music fans desperately need, whether they're aware of it or not.

SECONDS: When you started forming your ideas, Jazz-Rock was pretty well established...

LUCAS: I didn't think that my ideas had much to do with Fusion because my real roots are in Blues, Garage Rock and Top 40 radio of the early Sixties. These are the nutrients I absorbed.

SECONDS: Like The Leaves?

LUCAS: Stuff like that...Music Machine's "Talk Talk." Even the more obscure Psychedelic stuff like Autosalvage. When I first got a guitar, the first thing I wanted to play was Duane Eddy's "Dance With the Guitar Man." That and the theme from Exodus—that's what I aspired to play. You can see it was raunchy Rock & Roll and instrumental movie music; these are my twin loves. I was also partial to Classical Music. My parents were big on Broadway shows, so I had a lot of that around the house, too. I liked cheesy instrumental music but my real love was Rock Music. I was also influenced a lot by early Sixties Folk Music—Peter, Paul & Mary, Chad Mitchell Trio—and was pursuing that on the guitar. When The Beatles hit, my guitar style evolved. I was being driven wild by stuff like Jeff Beck with the Yardbirds and Eric Clapton with the Bluesbreakers. Beck was my guy. Danny Kalb, the Blues Project guitarist—I had lunch with him today. He was amazing. I would sit in my room and play Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, Peter Green, Danny Kalb, Hendrix—any guitarist that was doing something I could feel.

SECONDS: I also see a fingerstyle, banjo-like influence with you.

LUCAS: Exactly. I built my playing as a single-string Rock/Blues guitarist with heavy British Invasion influences. Then, I discovered Captain Beefheart's—Don Van Vliet's—music, and this was the big shift in my development and evolution as a guitarist. Hearing that, it was, "What are they doing? I've never heard a guitar played like that." I went to see him play his debut gig in New York City when "Lick My Decals Off Baby" came out. Warner Bros. had him tour; it was an artist development project and they had Ry cooder opening for him. This really rocked my world. I was the most incredible band and the music they were playing was sheer ecstasy. I remember thinking to myself, "If I ever do anything in music, I want to play with this guy." I made a vow with myself to pursue this. Everybody in the band exuded charisma—it was really heavy. The next year, he came back with a scaled-down band when they had that record "The Spotlight Kid" out. They had really toned down the Psychedelia. They were doing guitar solos—it was more conventional Blues Rock—but I still loved it. That's when I interviewed him. I phoned him and my voice was trembling. I was quite intimidated by him and then he came the following week for the concert and he was very affable and we hit it off. I made a point to go and visit him very time he would play a gig in the Northeast. I saw him a bunch of times at Town Hall. Bob Seger opened for him, Larry Coryell opened for him once. I never told him in this period, "Hey, I'm a guitar player and I'd like to play for you" because I didn't think I was good enough. Secretly, I'd be woodshedding in my house and listening to the records and thinking, "How is he playing this? It sounds like two guitars playing at once but I know it's one guy doing it." I sort of forced myself to learn a fingerpicking technique to be able to play it.

SECONDS: What were they doing?

LUCAS: They were using every finger of the right hand as part of the attack. It's great because it's a total contrapuntal approach; you've got the melody, the rhythm and a bass line all at once. In order to master what they were doing, I just sat and forced myself to learn it. One of the greatest compliments I received was when Lester Bangs asked me, "Which guitar did you play, the top or the bottom?" upon hearing my solo guitar piece "Flavour Bud Living" from "Doc at the Radar Station." I told him, "Lester, that's all me live—no overdubs."

SECONDS: The whole style was self-taught to begin with.

LUCAS: So they say. There's a lot of mystery about this. Beefheart is on the record as saying when the early Magic Band came to him they couldn't play and he taught them how to play. The band would totally deny it if you were to talk to them. Don...God bless him, I love him, but he's often prone to exaggerating. Having worked with him closely, it's not like I'm trying to play "pants the professor," but these guys went on the record as saying that they were woodshedding, too, in order to join his band, and were proud of their technique. They knew that in order to play with Beefheart, you had to have a certain facility. But Don did have input on it. When I recorded "Ice Cream for Crow," he would come over to me and say, "That's not it, man." He'd literally pick my fingers up off the guitar neck and put them on different strings just to fuck the chord up. He'd teach you little things like, "Shake the neck of the guitar when you hit this note." It would affect the playing, so he certainly did have an impact as far as the attack, the technique and what notes we were playing. But you couldn't hand him the guitar and say, "Show me." He himself wasn't a player.

SECONDS: He played the sax, didn't he?

LUCAS: Yeah, but it was a free kind of playing. Somebody said to him once, "All you're doing is blowing into it and moving your fingers over the keys" and he said, "That's a pretty good description of what I'm doing." I think he could really *play* all these instruments, but he really wasn't a technical player. He could play a beautiful piano solo for you but if you said, "Okay, do it again," he might not be able to because a lot of it was the wonderful creation that arises out of spontaneous guesswork when you're feeling your way through the instrument. He would say, "I've played this piano so much that now I can play everything I think of." Maybe he could, but he wasn't a reader. This is not to denigrate him at all—I think he's a fantastic musician, a genius of music. I never met anyone who could put music together like he did, but he put it together more like a sculptor than a composer of music who would chart stuff out.

SECONDS: He and Frank Zappa had a pretty famous feud...

LUCAS: I have a story about that. When we came to do "Ice Cream For Crow," the last Beefheart record, Don wanted to use some tracks that had been produced by Frank and recorded a couple of years earlier for a record that never came out called "Bat Chain Puller," the forerunner of "Shiny Beast." So when Don was doing "Ice Cream For Crow" for Virgin, the idea was, "Why don't we get some of these tracks back and then we can save money on this record? They're great tracks and Frank probably won't want them." I was acting as his manager at this point—as well as his guitar player—which was a role I never relished [being the manager, that is]. So we tried to get these tracks and I called up Frank's manager and he said, "I'll talk to Frank." He then called back and said, "Frank says 'okay.'" As the project approached, I would call the manager back to ask if he would send us the tapes and he stopped taking my calls. Don was really mad, "Shit, Frank's jerking us around." So I said, "Why don't we just find him? What does he want them for?" This is like the summer of 1982 and we called and we still couldn't get Frank on the phone. Then we talked to his wife and found out he was rehearsing on a soundstage that Zoetrope—Francis Ford Coppola's studio—was renting out to Rock groups. So we said, "Let's go visit Frank." Don and I drove down to this studio and there is Frank with his fifteen-piece band about to leave the next day on a tour of Europe. In the audience watching the rehearsal are all of these ex-Mothers and ex-Beefheart musicians all hoping that Frank would give them the nod and say "I want to work with you again." It was really sad. I saw Dweezil Zappa there hanging out. From the corner of his eye, Frank saw Don and he kind of whirled around to confront him. Don said, "Frank, you know what we want, don't you?" in an authoritative voice. Frank said in a hostile voice, "No Don, what do you want?" I was like, "Oh man...I thought these guys were childhood friends." Don just said, "Gary?" and I went into my schpiel, which was, "Frank, we've been trying to get ahold of your manager because he promised we could get these tracks that you have the rights to for our record we're doing for Virgin." He said, "That's right. I heard about that...I changed my mind. Unless you buy all the masters back from me, it's not worth it for me to split up the set. It won't be worth that much out there in Beefheart-land." I was thinking, "What a disrespectful thing to say, 'Beefheart-land'. He looks at it like a freak show." I said, "Look, you promised us those tracks. We've got a fifteen-minute hole on this record that was predicated on getting these tracks to fill the time and now you're telling us we can't have the tracks. You really put us in a bad spot." Frank wouldn't look me in the eye. He kept studying the ground. He was embarrassed because he fucked us. Then he said, "How many minutes do you need?" and I said fifteen and he said, "Well, I've got a track called 'Do You Want A Pepsi?' Don sings on it but it's my tune." I said, "Do you really think we want to put a Frank Zappa tune on a Captain Beefheart album?" Don, meanwhile, is chanting the lyrics to "There Ain't No Santa Claus on the Evening Stage," which is a song about, among other things, show business. He just started chanting it, like "I'm oblivious to this bullshit." We walked away and it was like, "Great to see ya..." I got out in the car and I was really crestfallen. I said, "Don, this is terrible." He was like, "Gary, that was great. I'm really proud of you. That's the best thing any manager ever did for me. The way you talked to him, and he was so embarrassed he couldn't look you in the eye...thanks a lot." What are we going to do?" He said," Don't worry." That night, we went back to the studio for a rehearsal. He took a hit of pot, which is something I didn't see him do too much, and he just came up with all the music for the last track on the record, which was called "Skeleton Makes Good." It was beautiful. He came up with the goods under pressure. That story was later recounted by Frank in a book called "The Real Frank Zappa." He has a thing in there like, "The last time I saw Don, he came to a rehearsal." It doesn't mention what went down at all. It was kind of patronizing. I love Frank though I never knew him that well. I met him a couple of times with Don and both times I thought he was not very nice. His whole credo was "I don't have any friends, you can't have any friends in the music business"—he really believed that. Don had a much bigger heart.

SECONDS: Do you find what you're known for most are those Beefheart years?

LUCAS: I hope not. In the last year or so, I've kind of felt that my audience expanded to the point where they know they know me as "Gary Lucas, guitarist and songwriter." I never went after the Beefheart thing. I never did Beefheart music on my records. I was angry because the record company put a sticker on my first solo album saying "ex-Captain Beefheart." Then I thought, "I'm not ashamed of it. If that's a hook that will get people to listen to what I'm doing, then that's fine." What am I supposed to do, deny I ever worked with him?

SECONDS: He's an influence, but would people really get their hands dirty and go into Beefheart-land?

LUCAS: He always suspected that people liked him because he was a hip name to drop. When the New Wave movement talked about him, he would say, "I feel like a hood ornament on a Rolls-Royce." The way he was treated by the industry, he felt like the token weirdo artist they would have on these labels for credibility.

SECONDS: How did the chicks like him?

LUCAS: He would say to people, "My music is for women because they know." Frankly, it was for weirdos and intellectuals, mainly nerdy boys. Not your surfer types—it was more Beatniks.

SECONDS: Did he have groupies?

LUCAS: He had some...he would occasionally...he was married, so his wife would be on tour with us. But he had stories—"I fucked Janis Joplin on the roof of the Avalon Ballroom!"..."I had twenty-three women after I played The Whiskey in 1966."

SECONDS: Okay, how did you get together the Gods and Monsters band?

LUCAS: After the Beefheart thing fell apart—it fell apart because he didn't want to do records anymore...we had a contract with Virgin to make one more after "Ice Cream for Crow" and he was like, "I only want to do painting now. I hate the music business. Help me get into painting." Which I did—I hooked him up with Julian Schnabel and the Mary Boone gallery. Then I said, "Look, I joined you to do music, not to be your art pimp. You can make another record if you want, I would play with you if you wanted, but I don't feel like I want to continue to work for you as a manager if this is what you're going to do."

SECONDS: What else were you doing?

LUCAS: I had a day job working as a copywriter for CBS Records, which I did for about thirteen years until it rotted my brain. I was working on stuff like The Clash—I came up with the line "The only group that matters." I wish I got a royalty for that.

SECONDS: Any other good lines you came up with?

LUCAS: Yeah, "Can you take 12" of Judas Priest?" I did a lot of funny stuff over the years including the Beastie Boys. They had me working on most of their so-called New Wave stuff. I had a day job, even when I was with Beefheart. I would take leaves of absence to go pursue playing with him. Then the Knitting Factory started up in New York. Michael Dorf, the guy who ran it, said to me, "You played with Beefheart? think he would play here?" I said, "He's out of music now, unfortunately..." but it gave me the idea that it would be a cool place if I wanted to play. So, I germinated and germinated and finally somebody just dared me. "Why don't you put a show together?" So I did and in May of 1988 I played my first solo show. Suddenly, it was like, "Why have I waited so long to be playing?"

Coming off of Beefheart, I needed a few years to decompress. I was getting offers to join bands, but how do I go from playing with the number-one Avant-garde group in the world to playing with anybody else's band? That's why I formed my own group. I was insecure about being a songwriter at first. I knew I could play and I had a unique style, but what could I do with it? The First Gods and Monsters show, I had two bass players and the drummer Tony "Thunder" Smith, who played with Jeff Beck and Tower of Power. We were all instrumental at first. Then I started writing songs. I got an idea based on what The Golden Palominos and Material had done, which was to use different singers. I liked the idea of Cabaret in Rock Music. Fixed groups can get boring. The idea of different people was appealing. I had a rapper and a scratcher in the group; it was great. Matthew Sweet was in there for a minute between deals, and Julia Heyward was singing. Out of this, I was approached by Columbia to do a record—this is a torturous story, too. They said, "We love your group, but we just see it as you and the girl." And they said, "You can leave your job, too." I did a deal with them and we were signed to a contract for two years but nothing ever came out. It was a lot of going back and forth over what producers we were going to get. Finally, we talked to Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth. They and Jack Nitschze were going to do half and half. The guy who signed me at Columbia left and the next guy who came in didn't like the project and tried to get me to change it. My singer Julia balked at that and they dropped the whole thing, saying, "Even with your written contract, you can't afford to sue us." I got advance money, but it was a frustrating waste of time. Shortly after that, I hooked up with Jeff Buckley. Again, he was enthusiastic and we went in and did demos, but he decided to do his solo thing. I love the fact that he recorded songs we did together. I'm writing a lot now for other artists. I also contributed a song for Joan Osborne's debut album.

Gods and Monsters has evolved in many ways. Even when the deal with CBS collapsed, I was determined to get the work out. I had all these tracks I had done with Rolo from The Woodentops and Mary Margaret O'Hara.

SECONDS: Who is she?

LUCAS: She is a great singer who lives in Canada and has done a record on Virgin. There's quite a cult around her but she's reclusive and doesn't record often. She has an amazing voice. She's like a little Beefheart in her own right. Before the deal with CBS broke up, I went to them and said, "I'm working a lot in Europe as a solo artist and I need to get a record out there." So they gave me permission to do a solo album with Enemy Records. It was the first one, "Skeleton at the Feast," which got amazing notices. I've had press that people would kill for—not that it affects your record sales. I can't go into a bank and say, "They called me a genius again. Can I get a loan?" This magazine in England, Folk Roots, voted "Skeleton at the Feast" one of the top ten records of 1991. In the review, the guy said it's "John Fahey on Speed." I liked Fahey, but...

SECONDS: How about Speed?

LUCAS: No, I thought that was the worst fucking drug, even though a lot of the music I liked was amphetamine-derived. I'm naturally speedy and when I tried it, it was just disastrous. I was up for three days checking my heart every ten minutes and looking in the encyclopedia to find out what my heart rate should be. It shrunk my dick down to nothing and I couldn't beat off. It was profoundly depressing.

SECONDS: If people could come away with anything from checking out your music, what would you like it to be?

LUCAS: I'd like to think they had a really good time grappling with it. It's not the easiest music; there are a lot of twists and turns, but it was designed to be user-friendly. I'm not out to alienate people with noise—anybody can do that. Or put a wall between themselves and the audience and say, "This is my art—fuck you." I'm reaching out to people. I'm trying to communicate something. I want them to feel they've heard something unique and yet with a resonance. It's all been done. The way you combine it and the spirit you put behind it is what makes it move. It's trying to find that spirit and give people a piece of that spirit. The reason I'm still playing is because someone will come up to me at the end of a gig and say, "I was in a shitty mood tonight but I'm really glad I came out and heard you. Thanks a lot, I'm in a better mood." That's what keeps me going.


SECONDS: Tell me about your favorite guitar.

LUCAS: I have a Fender Stratocaster from '63 which I got for two hundred bucks from probably a hot guitar ring that was operating in the mid-Seventies. Also a Gibson reverse Firebird from the early Sixties. They're both incredible guitars, and I haven't customized them much. Then I have a Gibson acoustic J-45 from 1946 which I love. I do a lot of my writing on this guitar. It was sold to me by the late John Campbell, who used to work at Matt Umanov, which is my favorite guitar store. I have a National steel guitar from the Twenties, which is another thing that I love. It was featured on "Skeleton" a lot and there's a track on the new record called "The Nightmare of History" where you can really hear it. I like that whining thing in guitars, I like a guitar that sounds like a voice.

SECONDS: What do you play through?

LUCAS: Right now, I have two good amps that I use a lot. One is the Roland JC-120, which is a good, all-purpose, clean, transistorized amp—I don't have to kill myself to drag it around—and a small Gallen Kruger. I use a lot of effects, but they're old ones—no rack effects, they're too hi-tech for me. A lot of Boss pedals and some old Electro-Harmonix digital delays. I'm into the delays. I put the delays up on a table and I'm constantly switching and dialing up sounds I want and modifying the sounds as I strum. If you listened to any of my records, you wouldn't think it was a machine making these noises. You can hear a human struggling through it all. That's why I like guitars—because the strings seem like an extension of the nerves. My whole trip with the guitar is to drive people crazy with it. A guitar is like a stiletto. A little pain is good for you.