Gary Lucas interviewed by Michael Bloom
On Friday March 23rd, guitar virtuoso Gary Lucas brings his band Gods & Monsters, including Jerry Harrison on keyboards, to Safari Sam’s in Hollywood. I only become aware of Lucas back in January while attending a book release on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, for Steven Lee Beeber’s The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGBâ€™s: A Secret History of Jewish Punk. Gary was on a panel with Beeber, punk auteur Legs McNeil (Please Kill Me) and writer/professor Vivien Goldman (The Book of Exodus). Lucas mentioned his love of Famous Monsters magazine on the one hand, and his nuevo soundtrack for the 1920 silent film classic The Golem. Since the panel was about Jewish punk, my question concerning Richard Meltzer’s influence on the era sparked his interest. When I got home and went to his website, garylucas.com, I discovered the immense latitude of this artist, and realized Scram readers would enjoy a full-length interview. Little did I know it would include stories about his experiences with everyone from Lester Bangs to Aleister Crowley. Here it is.
Gary Lucas with Yale Marching Band 1972, Photo by Jeff Johnson
You studied at Yale. Did you major in music?
Actually I studied English literature at Yale: Shakespeare, Chaucer, Victorian novels, stuff like that. I took one music theory course there for exactly one class, before quitting: when the professor played a recording of what is essentially the pop schmaltz tune “Love is Blue” (derived from a portion of Prokofiev’s “Lt. Kije Suite,” which is what he actually played), and asked us to write out the chords and bassline by ear, I knew a formal study of Music there certainly wasn’t for me–especially when one keyboard virtuoso jumped up front of the class, sat down at the piano, and proceeded to play it back perfectly to the class, by ear…I can read and write music okay, but prefer not to….it gets in the way for me, and I generally don’t need to for what I like to do with it…as Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet) used to say: “Music is just black ants crawling across white paper…”
Captain Beefheart was one of your musical influences, and you later became his friend and bandmate. What specifically about Beefheart’s music ‘inspired’ you?
I think the moment I became “possessed” was when I really listened to Trout Mask Replica a couple times…and having first drawn a blank on it outside the obvious spoken-wordjazz of “The Dust Blows Forward” and “Orange Claw Hammer,” couldn’t really get a handle on it. But gradually the structural beauty and sheer awesome “overwhelming technique” on display sank in, probably around my third listen to “Ella Guru”, which was the closest thing to a “pop song” with a hook I could readily grab onto…and I was smitten. This was after my initial sheer bewilderment/first acquaintance with the $1.98 cut- out of Strictly Personal which was just too grungy sounding to my ears after the surface prettiness of polished studio psychedelia like Sgt. Pepper, Traffic, “Good Vibrations,” Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle and other classics of the era I was enjoying…just sounded kinda amateurish and muddled on my first coupla listens, so I filed it away quickly, not to replay it till after cracking the code to Trout Mask. After that everything by Beefheart was sheer gravy, especially Safe as Milk and Lick My Decals Off, Baby, which I inhaled next (at the same time!) up there in New Haven in 1971…
You were a musician and “writer”, as well as Radio Station Manager at Yale. Can you talk about the early rock criticism that may have also influenced you…Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer and/or others? Did you ever get to meet these early pioneers? Any experiences you can share?
Actually, I was the Music Director at WYBC, Yale’s radio station, following in the footsteps of Mitch Kapor (early computer geek/visionary who invented the Lotus Spreadsheet and promptly retired at an obscenely young age)…and yep, I wrote music criticism while still in high school for Cogito, the Nottingham High underground paper, which was banned from being sold on the school premises by the reactionary administration. I remember reviewing Jeff Beck’s Truth and the Incredible String Band’s Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter albums for them…later at Yale I wrote for the Yale Daily News about Family, an English band I loved, and also wrote for Zoo World, a tabloid-sized newspaper rock mag out of Florida trying to take on Rolling Stone, a few articles/ reviews about Beefheart, about my experiences playing electric guitar with the Yale Symphony Orchestra in Vienna in ’73 performing Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass,” a review of King Crimson’s Lark’s Tongue in Aspic, said review of which was reprinted in the booklet accompanying their Young Person’s Guide to King Crimson and is the only negative review in there!
My favorite music writers of my youth were definitely Sandy Pearlman and Richard Meltzer, they really blew my teenage mind with their outrageous and hilariously abstruse over-intellectualized analysis of what is essentially something as basic as the air one breathes (what music really is, or rather, its primary constituent). Richard was definitely much more tongue in cheek, Sandy more formally clinical in his approach, but together they represented a new NYC Jewish-intellectual driven (piss)take on what was hitherto considered to be, basically, packaged goods one consumed without too much thought beyond the fanboy enthusiastic gush of Crawdaddy editor Paul Williams (who I also liked, don’t get me wrong)…Lester, when he appeared on the scene, I instantly pegged as a sub-Meltzer derivative/disciple, but he quickly took up the cudgels on behalf of the music the Man can’t bust sincerely and with much brio, and exponentially expanded in stature, in my eyes, when Richard and Sandy more or less bagged it from the diurnal (diurinal?) grind of reviewing– Richard evolving into a general across the board cultural pundit once he got bored with what he saw as an essentially played-out medium (rockaroll) by the mid-’70s, Sandy morphing into a hip and witty lyricist/producer/Svengali for the Blue Ã–yster Cult and later the Dictators (Richard of course was along for the occasional lyrical ride with him). Those two were the best, in my book, and still remain so in the Golden Age of Rockwrite (Nick Tosches is up there too, there were a few more I dug also like John Mendelsohn…
I encountered both Richard and Sandy personally at different times, on different occasions–strangely enough, never together at the same time– Richard first, when he came up to Yale in my sophomore year there for some stoopid symposium on rock criticism (or something like that). We bonded and I later crashed at his pad on Perry Street (actually right down the street here in the West Village where I’ve lived for about 30 years now) a couple times when I’d come down to NYC for some r and r, he and his girlfriend at the time Roni Hoffman were always gracious that way in letting me stay at their place. I remember him keeping small dead animals in aspic (well, Jello) in his fridge as part of his overall avant- aesthetic, and a squawking nastyass parrot that, uncaged, used to flap and fly all around their apartment and occasionally excrete multicoloured, multitudinous parrot shit which streamed down a large mirror he had propped up against one wall in his front parlor and congealed into long colorful bas-relief Crayola-like streaks and strips on that mirror…their tv was on constantly, and the toilet didn’t flush too good there…
Sandy I met at the first (and only) Rock Writers of the World Convention in Memphis in ’73, basically a gigantic freebie gig for every dissolute no-account rock critic who could muster some kind of critical rep to get themselves on the Stax Records invite list. This was also where I first met Lester– Sandy blew into Memphis one night there on the heels of some BÃ–C gig somewhere in the general vicinity and we had cheeseburgers and talked to the wee hours. He impressed me mightily with his intellectual acumen and world-historical overview, totally brilliant and slightly crackpot conspiracy theories on everything under the sun and then some, I liked him a lot…both were as intellectually challenging/intriguing to chat with as reading their writings..
Lester later became a friend when I moved to NYC, and my best tale about Lester is when I had him and a bunch of folks like John Morthland over to listen to a first pressing of Beefheart’s Doc at the Radar Station album which I was helping to promote as Don V.V.’s erstwhile manager/guitarist–after hearing me perform my solo tour de force “Flavor Bud Living” on side two, Lester asked benignly: “So, which part were you playing, Gary, the top or the bottom?” “That was all me, Lester, in real time,” I replied…confounding the ear of the great Lester Bangs was one of the best testimonials I ever received to my guitar playing.
Jeff Buckley was a member of the earliest version of Gods & Monsters. You also co-wrote a few songs with him on his album Grace. Can you talk a little about your experience writing with him?
Jeff Buckley with Gary Lucas, 1992, photo by Chris Buck
Sure, it was profoundly easy, in a way…much easier than a line by line thrash-out with another collaborator– I would first come up with fully realized instrumental compositions …motifs, chord structures, rhythms intact, all there…mail them or play them directly to Jeff…he’d go away, sometimes for months, usually just weeks…and damned if he didn’t always come back with PERFECT lyrics and a PERFECT melody line that sinuously entwined/enshrined itself inSIDE the matrix of my instrumental, for all time…only once or twice did he offer any modification at all to the basic underlying music, such as asking me to repeat one section of “Mojo Pin” to stretch it out to double verse length because he had more lyrics that he wanted to fit in that section…and he added a vocalese section over the bridge to “Grace” when he came to ultimately record it for his one and only official Columbia studio album (which, incidentally, was named the #1 Modern Rock Album in Mojo last year, their criterion being any album released since they began publication in ’92… Number One, my honeys– over Radiohead, U2, Dylan, Bright Eyes, Arcade Fire, Outkast –over any other artist/album you might care to name…and yep, I co-wrote 2 songs on that album, the title track and the opening track–actually I wrote about a dozen songs with Jeff Buckley–and five of them still haven’t officially been released…several of them as good, if not better, than those hits of his that I’m known for…
Jerry Harrison produced the latest Gods & Monsters album Coming Clean and appears with you in your upcoming show in LA. Can you talk about what it is like to work with him?
Jerry’s a cool customer, very diligent, a bit of a technocrat– and a good guy to have in your corner, another renegade Ivy Leaguer (he and my bass player Ernie Brooks were roommates at Harvard before joining the Modern Lovers)–he has a way with sound I totally respect…also a way with a keyboard that treats the sounds he produces more like sonic architecture than music per se..
How many different instruments do you know how to play? What do you think about “odd” instruments like the theremin? Are there other “extraordinary” instruments you know about?
Basically I can play the guitar really well… and also several different brass instruments not so well (my primary brass instrument was French horn, which I was more or less forced into playing having scored a perfect score on a musical aptitude test that our fascist band leader had all the kids take in order to winnow out those with enough inclination to fill the ranks of the school band and orchestra…French horn was hard enough, as if you look at a photo of me closely it will become apparent that I barely have enough upper lip for a really good embouchure! I can also play a little trumpet, baritone horn, Euphonium…also bass, a bit of rudimentary piano, harmonica, percussion, vibes…you know, if I had some of these instruments lying around my place and had lots of free time I could get much more proficient on many of them I’m sure, as I have a really good ear and am naturally “musical” by nature…but due to lack of space and general boredom with the rote mechanics of “practicing” I choose/chose not too, would much rather read, for instance…or waste hours on the computer…the guitar pretty much says it all for me, a virtual orchestra at your fingertips.
Theremin–I actually had a brainiac/certifiable genius friend attempt to build one for me in high school after getting fired up to possess one after reading about Lothar and the Hand People in the pages of Hit Parader (the ur-Crawdaddy, and the only music mag worth reading before that , and later, Rolling Stone, in the mid-’60s…at once both laughable and fantastically “wrong” lyrics throughout its pages, which was the primary reason most people bought it for!…but actually, for me, it boasted spot-on reportage of early progressive/psychedelic weirdness a’sproutin’ in the music biz courtesy of editor/writers Don Paulsen and Jim Delehant….anyway this genius friend (a Harvard boy, natch) never got my theremin really working, it basically squawked and made uncontrollable rude noises, waving your hands in front of the antennae basically made the cacophony worse (this mad scientist is now an ordained minister and high mucky-muck in the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church–he was actually married in a mass Moonie wedding ceremony at Madison Square Garden in the mid-’70s).
Extraordinary instruments–Percy Grainger, whose music I like alot and have covered in the past (a solo guitar arrangement of “Children’s March” a/k/a “Over the Hills and Far Away”, on my compilation album Operators Are Standing By) reportedly invented an electronic gizmo in the ’50s which produced sliding glissando tones–which sounds like a proto-theremin to me…
Your side project the Golem is quite interesting. The Golem, or a humunculus, is a creature born out of the mythology of Jewish mysticism; and is steeped in both kabbalistic and alchemical traditions. Do you have any interests in these areas of magick? Do you have much knowledge of Aleister Crowley, and other mystics who have influenced musicians such as Jimmy Page and Carlos Santana? Are there any mystics you think are worth exploring?
Gary Lucas plays his live score to The Golem at 2003 Venice Biennalle, photo by Riccardo Schwamenthal
Yep, I have read a bit of Gershon Scholem and a smattering of the classic texts, but find them pretty unreadably dense and, well, boring, to tell you the truth–as I do alot of overtly religious texts of any persusaion…I’m sure Madonna and Britney and Paris know alot more about Kaballa hthan I do!…I’m interested in the concept but in a much more culturally curious way, rather than as an actual practitioner–the way I heard it, Kabbalah was an area of Jewish philosophy reserved for elderly tzadik-types who could only be entrusted or could only handle the discipline of studying it thoughtfully after years of preparation (that’s what my brother the Orthodox rabbinical student told me anyway)…not something for the casual browsing bourgeoisie…but hey if watered-down Kabbalah ushers in an era of world peace, I’m all for it…alchemy too– yes I like looking at alchemical art and reading stories about Paracelsus and such,and have perused texts in the past– but not to the point of obsession…Crowley of course I find fascinating, having read several biographies, piqued by Colin Wilson’s classic account in his book The Occult…I loved Crowley’s Diary of a Drug Fiend which I read coming down from acid in Taipei after fireworks and a wild motorcycle ride the night of the actual Bicentennial…I certainly am aware of Jimmy Page’s interest in Crowley regalia/property. This could have further propelled me to investigate him as I used to dig Jimmy Page alot as a player/producer/composer (I’ve been called “the anti-Page” by Roy Trakin in Hits–hey, I am NOT anti- Jimmy Page!)…
Mystics I like? Wyndham Lewis would have abhorred that appellationâ€”but check out his book The Wild Body, esp. the essay “Inferior Religions;” also his novels Tarr (the original version), The Apes of God, Self Condemned and The Childermass–critical philosophy such as “Time and Western Man,” “Men Without Art”, and “The Diabolical Principle and the Dithyrambic Spectator”–plays like Enemy of the Stars and The Ideal Giant–magazines like his Blast and The Tyro–and all of his paintings and drawings, which are fucking unbelievably beautiful–and tell me Lewis is not a mystic genius, and a prodigious one, right alongside James Joyce and other seminal 20th century modernists (Joyce was a peer and a friend of his actually)– shamefully unsung…Don Van Vliet is another one, for sure, and I have the distinction of turning Don into a rabid Wyndham Lewis fan and partisan…in music, Arthur Russell was pretty damn intuitively on the mystic wavelength…there are very few others…
What is the last really good book you read, and who are some of your favorite authors?
A Terrible Love of War by the Jungian scholar James Hillman–essential reading to make sense of our current precarious teeter-totter on the lip of the abyss… Isaac Bashevis Singer my favorite author, Ulysses my favorite book…I also like Knut Hamsun, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jim Thompson, Phillip K. Dick, Saul Bellow, Lewis of course, Isaac Babel, Apollinaire, Nabokov…. I’m sure I’m leaving some out here…
What kind of food and drink do you enjoy?
I love Chinese, Indian, Italian, deli, steak w/ frites–I’m easyâ€”I love sweets and chocolate too much…I don’t drink reallyâ€”but occasionally like to sip liquers (Becherovka, Slivovitz, Amaretto)–my favorite Scotch is Laphroaig (10 years aged smoky single malt)
Gods & Monsters has been around for some time, in many incarnations. You developed the title before the movie with the same name, I presume.
Yep I came up with it from the same source that film derived its title from (the original Bride of Frankenstein,where fruity Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Praetorious toasts maniacal Colin Clive as Dr. Frankenstein with the immortal line: “To a New World of Gods and Monsters!” Used to run it as a sample in our show, right after our little “Ride of the Valkyries” heavy metal fanfare…
Gods and Monsters live at the Bowery Poetry Club 2007, photo by Eva Apple
photos courtesy Gary Lucas