Gary Lucas - The Man of the Hour

It comes from a 1980 show at Toad's Place in New Haven. It's the half-chuckling, half-growling Don Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart), and he tells the crowd, "We'd like to have a Yale University honor graduate in English literature, Gary Lucas, play Flavor Bud Living, from an album, Doc at the Radar Station."

Lucas, a skinny young man with curly brown hair, proceeds to strum bizarre chord voicings like a juke-joint bluesman, to pick out weird melodic intervals like a fusion soloist, and to jam everything into a minute-long, unaccompanied guitar instrumental. When he's done, Van Vliet proclaims, "Man can play guitar."

Yes, he can. Since getting his start with Captain Beefheart, Lucas has made his inventive guitar parts felt in the worlds of jazz, art-music, TV-and-film music, rock, blues, electronica, folk and various combinations of the above. But while his fellow musicians admire him and gladly collaborate, the general public hasn't paid much attention. Maybe this is because Lucas tours more in Europe than in North America. Perhaps it's because he has recorded for several different tiny labels. Then again, it could just be because of his very real eclecticism.

To give some shape and coherence to his 20-year career, Lucas has now released the compilation album, Improve the Shining Hour: Rare Lumiere 1980-2000. Most of the 18 tracks are previously unreleased, yet they manage to touch on almost every aspect of the guitarists resume.

The Beefheart years are represented by two live tracks from New Haven (including the above version of Flavor Bud Living). Lucas brush with mainstream success -- the Grammy-nominated Spider Web, which he co-wrote and co-performed with Joan Osborne for her multi-platinum Relish album -- is redone in a new version with New York Dolls singer David Johansen. Lucas TV-and-film work is represented by two pieces of unsettling background music written and recorded for ABC News documentaries.

Three solo pieces showcase his acoustic-guitar work; two more find him on electric guitar. Lucas rock band, Gods and Monsters contributes an example of his alternative-Jewish music. Then there are collaborations with Holy Modal Rounder Peter Stampfel, Bad Seed Nick Cave, French punk singer Elli Medeiros, jazz heir Eric Mingus, Bongos singer Richard Barone, art-pop chanteuse Mary Margaret OHara and hip-hops DJ Spooky.

Lucas other albums include 1992's rocking Gods and Monsters, 1994's song-oriented Bad Boys of the Arctic 1997's acoustic Evangeline, 1998's alternative-Jewish-music project Busy Being Born and two live solo albums recorded in the Netherlands, 1991's Skeleton at the Feast and 1998's Paradiso. Tying all these various projects together is Lucas distinctive guitar sound -- energetic in its attack, lyrical in its themes and unpredictable in its variations. Why did you want to put out a career retrospective at this point?

Gary Lucas: It's been 20 years, which is a nice round number. I wanted to tie together certain threads in my career and I wanted to expose people who might know me for one thing to different things they might not have heard. I wanted to show how I could move uptown and downtown. Too much of the avant-garde is an avant-ghetto. Jim Morrison had a song called The Changeling. [Lucas sings,] I live uptown and downtown and I move all around. That's what Im like; I'm a chameleon. Why do you like working in so many different genres?

Lucas: Why go through life with one hand tied behind your back? It's a big world. To devote yourself to one small corner of it seems very limiting. It's not eclecticism for its own sake; I really do like all those [genres]. On the other hand, it does limit my career. If you ask five people what Gary Lucas does, you'll probably get five answers. That makes it hard to market my music. When most people think of an experimental guitarist, they think of someone playing electric guitar with a lot of weird effects, and you do some of that, but you also play a lot of very pretty melodies on acoustic guitar. What's the common thread for you?

Lucas: To me, the beauty of guitar playing, experimental or not, is the human voice struggling through the instrument. When I'm playing without the benefit of electronics, I'm able to get closer to that goal. But I'm trying to do the same thing with my electronic playing. To me they're equally valid. The guitar can't enunciate words, so what quality of the human voice are you trying to capture on your guitar?

Lucas: The sound of human emotion, that tense area where peoples voices are raised in anger or orgasm. That kind of moan is central to human beings. It's that ecstatic wailing or crying you hear in prayers, whether it's qawwali or gospel singers. And that's why you bend your strings so much?

Lucas: Exactly. I think the voice of God is heard through the bent note. That's why Miles Davis is my favorite musician; I hear more in one of his cracked notes than in all the flawless notes ever played by Wynton Marsalis. That's why Jeff Beck is my favorite rock guitarist, because he could really squawk. That's why I like Hubert Sumlin, because he had that real feral sound. That's what I'm going for. I'm Jewish, and Captain Beefheart used to say he preferred Jewish players because they really understand suffering. That was a joke but with a serious subtext. As intellectual an approach as I have, I'm trying to wrench as much emotion as I can in each note. I heard it in the Cantor's wailing in my synagogue growing up. That's the essence of the blues. The blues seem to crop up in your playing a lot.

Lucas: In everything I do there's an element of the blues. I always bend notes to produce little flurries and growls. I use electronic guitar strings on the acoustic instrument so I can bend them more easily. Even when I'm playing Wagner or a Chinese pop tune, I bend the strings and put a little blues spin on it. The opening track of the new record comes out of the British folk movement, which I've always loved, but even that has some dissonance that comes out of the blues. Have you always loved the blues?

Lucas: Even when I was a kid growing up in Syracuse, I loved blues, but my knowledge was the British regurgitation of the originals. When I joined Captain Beefheart, he communicated such a passion for the blues that it forced me to go back and look at the real thing. He would always rave about really obscure artists such as One-String Sam and Lightnin Slim. And once you've heard the originals, the others dont seem so important. I could listen to that stuff forever; that's my favorite kind of music. At the same time, I have nothing against white guys who do it well. I think Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac is a beautiful distillation of that music. You pursued Beefheart, interviewing him on the radio and becoming his manager, before you actually played in his band. What drew you to him?

Lucas: He took the elements that appealed to me -- the most-deep, deep country blues, free jazz and rocknroll -- and fused them. His voice to me was an extremely moving experience in itself. I think his music is right up there with [Igor] Stravinsky and [Duke] Ellington, his poetry right up there with e.e. cummings and Allen Ginsberg. But at the end of the day, it was not a music that could be apprehended by the general public. It was basically the province of high school nerds and intellectuals, such as myself. Although I find it incredibly sexy and emotionally powerful as well as intellectual. Why did he quit the music business in 1983?

Lucas: He really wanted to be taken seriously as a painter, and he felt he would never get a fair shot at it if he continued his music. I know how that is. I was a copywriter at CBS and I won awards for it, but I knew I would never be taken seriously as a musician if I tried to do both. I think Don was fed up and heartsick at throwing himself at the wall year after year and not really reaping the rewards he saw lesser musicians earning. You quit playing for a few years, too.

Lucas: Coming out of the world's number-one avant-rock band, I felt, "How can I ever measure up to this?" There were a couple years where I floundered, not sure what to do. I produced some jazz records by Tim Berne and Peter Gordon. Then this British band, the Woodentops, who knew me from Captain Beefheart, asked me to play on their next album in 1986. I said, sure. I went to London to cut tracks with them, and I realized this is what I should be doing. I'm happiest with an axe in my hands. Then someone dared me to put a solo show together in 1988 at the Knitting Factory. It was just me with two effects boxes, a fuzz and a digital delay. That night I realized I could move a crowd all by myself. The New York Times reviewed my second Knitting Factory show and called me a "Guitarist of a 1000 Ideas," and that launched my career. A month later I was at the Berlin Jazz Festival. The one aspect of your career that this album doesn't touch on is your association with Jeff Buckley. Why not?

Lucas: I wanted to include some of the unreleased songs that Jeff and I worked on, but his estate wouldn't give me permission. You co-wrote two songs, "Grace" and "Mojo Pin", for his debut album and played on them. What else did you do together?

Lucas: We wrote another dozen songs that are just as good. I'd come up with music that could stand on its own as an instrumental. I'd give it to Jeff and he'd come back with a lyric. I could totally trust him. He was in my rock band, Gods and Monsters, for about a year. I had this vision of a band that would have been a cross between the Smiths, the Doors and Zeppelin. Jeff would have been the perfect lead singer for me, because he sang like an absolute angel, a dirty angel. But it wasn't to be; he really wanted to do this solo thing. Still it was a great experience for a year.

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