W.C. Bamberger on Gary Lucas

Gary Lucas: The Dive and the Return
by W. C. Bamberger

Gary Lucas is a guitar diver. No matter how many times he approaches the three-and-a-half octave sea of a guitar fretboard, he finds new depths to explore, new treasures even within such sunken hulks as the “Theme from Exodus” and “Lydia the Tattooed Lady.” He has been a diver of great technical skill since his first solo album, Skeleton at the Feast. But, more recently, has he become the kind of diver that poet Charles Olson insisted we all need to hear from: after Lucas dives deep into the guitar (and more and more openly, himself), he returns with important things to tell us.

First, some background fills.

Lucas began playing guitar at age 9, woodshedding hard on Exodus, some of the hits of twang-wrangler Duane Eddy, and that high-e-string delight of beginners, the Twilight Zone theme. While still a senior in high school he extended the Twilight Zone connection by scoring “Aquatic Ecology,” narrated by Rod Serling. An English Lit major, Lucas was also music director at Yale’s radio station. He used this Ivy League clout to make contact with Don Van Vliet in his Captain Beefheart phase, and vowed he would one day work with him. There were a few detours along the way — a Leonard Bernstein European Premier, two years in Taiwan. When he returned to the US and told his parents he was quitting his day job to concentrate on working with Van Vliet, he heard those words so many of us recall with warm nostalgia: “The guitar? Murray! He’s talking about the guitar again!” As if this were a more Quixotic career choice than that of English Lit major. Lucas lifted himself into the Magic Band by his own bootstraps: interviewing the band for the station, becoming Van Vliet’s manager, later a guest guitarist, then, after nearly a decade as a Beefheart gofer, a full member of the Magic Band in its Ice Cream for Crow incarnation.

For all his triple-jointed virtuosity and (overlooked) conceptual originality, Lucas suffers in large part from the Ringo Syndrome: everyone wants to know about his time with The Bea…, with Beefheart. The Van Vliet connection, however, is finally only a footnote to Lucas’ work. Owing to Van Vliet’s insistence on his compositions being played exactly as he dictates them, identically every time, Lucas and the other musicians who played this amazing music were not themselves as they played. They were extensions of Van Vliet’s body, his rhythms, his dives into himself; they were cyborg prosthetics which allowed him to overcome the limitations of being one man. Putting aside the finger-busting solo pieces credited to Lucas, it is impossible to listen to a Beefheart album and say, “That guitar line sounds like Gary Lucas.”

Lucas is not ungrateful for the chance of playing with Van Vliet, whose music certainly opens up the imagination of any musician trying to play it, but no Van Vliet hand-me-downs appear on Lucas’ own recordings. He has never recorded a Van Vliet composition on any of his solo albums. “Hard Worken Fucked Over Man” on his first CD alludes to an obscure Van Vliet track, and “I Feel Like Ah Syd” is a sound-alike for the title of one of Van Vliet’s late ’60s composition, but neither share the sound or spirit of Van Vliet’s music, which is as close to 100% body language made audible as Van Vliet could make it. Van Vliet deliberately avoided allowing any intellectual strategies to affect his approach, feeling that intellect should be gracious enough to get out of the way and let the body talk. This is not the case with Lucas, who has always allowed his intellectual side to remain visible in his work, if sometimes masked with the funny faces of irony or self-mockery.

(It should be noted that it was Lucas who engineered the meeting between Van Vliet and Julian Schnabel. This led to Van Vliet’s entry into the legit art world, allowing him to make a comfortable living for the first time in his life. Lucas deserves much credit for being the catalyst for what is surely one of the most significant cultural identity switches in our half of the 20th century.)

The Magic Band connection has been brought up here in order to point out that Lucas does share one thing with Van Vliet, something not narrowly musical. Lucas gives us a revealing nod in its direction by recording the theme to Cool Hand Luke on his CD Evangeline. In the film, Paul Newman’s Luke is a man at the point of a flying wedge of collective wishes. Behind him stand any number of eggers-on, of Cool-Hand-wanna-bes, whose pressure leads Luke to extend his stunts to greater and greater degrees of difficulty. What Luke feels about his stunts remains opaque, even as they wear him down and finally destroy him. What is clear is that he is a vehicle for the needs of the penned- in populace: he manifests all the reckless defying they wish they had in them. (Jack Nicholson’s character does the same in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.) Don Van Vliet did it for all the latent verbal/musical outsiders among us out here, and Gary Lucas has been doing it for all of us guitar-wizards-in-potential whose fingers lag behind our wishes.

Lucas has to this point been known primarily as a small-hall guitar hero. Reviews of his albums and live performances remain obsessed with his technique, his speed, his mastery of effects boxes. It is pointed out over and over how he has reinvented the art of solo guitar playing by finding ways of accompanying himself in (near-) real-time.

All of this is true, but seeing Lucas in this narrow way — from the wrists on down — is a view that now needs to be left behind, because Lucas has things on his mind which extend beyond being the point man for the Outre Guitar Army. Those who work along the front edges of any art or science tend after a time to have interests different from the rest of us, to have different reactions, to have different views before their eyes. Two of the most common ones (think Poe, think Rimbaud, think Dylan) are the macabre and the spiritual. Lucas has shown an open interest in the first (calling it a “lifelong fascination” on his website), and a half-concealed interest in the second. He has recently begun combining the two, and the results (on Busy Being Born) are compelling.

The macabre element has been overt at least since Gods and Monsters, has in fact been so prominent that Lucas himself jokes about it. In his spoken intro to “Judgement at Midnight Suite” on his 1997 CD Evangeline, he tells an audience how he has written music to accompany ABC News documentaries on the Exxon Valdez, handgun deaths, the Oklahoma City bombing, a death row inmate. “Whenever there’s death in the air somebody up there goes, ‘I wonder what Gary’s doing?’ But, I love life!” Lucas says, even while pointing out that his first CD was called Skeleton at the Feast.

This first CD is all instrumental, and it spawned the Gary the Guitar God following. The album is brilliant, at times even astounding, filled with unique strategies for multi-layered solo playing. It was all recorded live. “Strong Seed,” starts off the CD simply, with only some unremarkable echo delays to alter the sound. This is only a modest overture to what Lucas will do here. “Guerrillas in the Midst” is a much more complex piece. The guitar fades in and out, doubles itself, plays against itself, sets up ox-bows and maelstroms of notes to sail through, with the whole thing seemingly mounted on huge metal bedsprings which bend and pop back up with huge sproings. In the spirit of the punning title, Lucas quotes Zappa’s “King Kong” here. Zappa’s jazz waltz becomes a shimmering electric fugue in Lucas’ hands. “Robert’s Johnson” is a tribute to the legendary 1920s blues singer. Lucas’ National steel faithfully recreates the sound of a blues 78 — played at 156. “Hard Werken Fucked Over Man/The Reckoning” is the first truly astounding, insistently original track. Lucas sets
up a repeating two-chord pattern that sounds as if it is being played on an electric anvil, and against this he sets sounds as unworldly as those Hendrix might be playing in his afterlife, blues licks as wire-thin as Earl Hooker’s on “Two Bugs and a Roach,” and faux reverse effects that spin the music like a runaway ratchet. The guitar becomes almost pure sound, a monstrous creature heard through the echo chamber of a missile silo as it climbs toward us.

“Hitchcocked” is a medley of themes from Fat Alfred’s movies, including Vertigo and Psycho. His shimmering, echo-heavy renditions make good use of a volume pedal to layer on the drama. The “squareness” of the melodies, however, undermines his efforts, and might make us wonder why he chose them. In view of the music Lucas has made over the years, it now seems that these seemingly slick commodity compositions are actually a first hint of Lucas’ developing world view. Two other tracks here are so far removed from guitar as we know it that they become musique concrete in part. One of these includes “Aguirre,” which may be from the Werner Herzog film — a film of delirium in a world haunted by animism and mystery, with little hope of redemption — though the credits make no mention of the film. There are a couple of folkish tunes here, showpieces for Lucas’ fingers — so they don’t become jealous of all the attention given to the effects boxes. But they suffer a bit by comparison to the more complex tracks.

His “Christmas in Space Medley,” alone, could have created for Lucas a cult as huge as that for Bobby “Boris” Pickett. Lucas combines “[Ring Christmas] Bells,” “Little Drummer Boy” and Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?” into a brilliant package. The first is played as a deliberately wobbling round, with distinct lines against a bass ground. The insistent 3/4 of “Bells” gives way (a bit too abruptly) to Lucas drumming on dampened strings; this is electronically set aside, and Lucas proceeds to play a banjo-sounding version of the “Drummer Boy” melody against it, then hop up into an almost purely electronic-sounding statement of the same. The strum/drum sound then slows and becomes recognizable as the background chuffing of the Hendrix song.

The CD concludes with more than a half hour of music written by Lucas and keyboard player Walter Horn for the silent film The Golem. The Golem is a mythical man created from the earth by a rabbi — a “Jewish Frankenstein” as the CD notes have it. The music is appropriately spooky and deliberately gauzy, as if a scrim had been erected between the recording and the listener — the grain of an old-time movie screen. This is music in black and white, with the misty keyboards evoking the mysterious streets of German Expressionist cinema. The “M” in the music here is “M” as pronounced by Peter Lorre. Whether or not Lucas believes in the possibility of a Golem, his music makes us believe that we live in a world where it is certainly a possiblity. With titles like “Skin the Rabbit,” “Poison Tree,” and “The Brain from Planet Eros,” Lucas’ interest in the macabre is stamped all over his first band album, Gods and Monsters, from 1992. The first track, “Glo-Worm,” begins with a sound like a thermin clearing its throat. This gives way to a guitar played as high and fast as the Methedrine Donovan Leitch warned against way back in 1967. When the rest of the band comes in the groove is infectious, but the mix is so insistently treble that it can make you squint. “Skin the Rabbit” has a structure that alternates between guitar and bass, drum and handclap sections, with grungier chorus music. If there wasn’t a dance mix of this, there should have been. Kit Smart said that when black blooms it is purple, and this certainly applies to the lyrics here; they are the macabre in full blossom. “Kiss the fur and feel the light / Dark hare of the night / Join the feast . . . feed the beast / the blood is calling,” the vocalist sings. (His name is Rolo McGinty, not Ozzy.) This track features some of Lucas’ most agile harmonics work. “Poison Tree” is sung by Mary Margaret O’Hara, my favorite of the vocalists I have heard join in with Lucas. O’Hara is also the vocalist and co-writer of a track Lucas contributed to the Darn It! tribute to Paul Haines album. There O’Hara stutters and squawks as Lucas chases her through the melody, his dobro sounding like a brass coal shovel close at her heels. (These notes will not otherwise concern themselves with recordings Lucas has made as a sideman on other people’s albums, his productions or songwriting for other performers. Also, this is a sub-arctic Gary Lucas review: Bad Boys of the Arctic isn’t included here.) O’Hara sings the attractive melody so happily we have to back away from her voice a step or two to credit the words: “Tree of life bears bitter fruit / Harvest yields the iron boot / . . . Snake awakes and glides to the side / Allowing God to run and hide / But Eve and Adam won’t let him be / Curled fast around the poison tree.” But believe me, they sound believable.

Following this, Lucas plays “Jack Johnson” (from one of Miles Davis’ least loved albums) as a raw-wa workout; the bass and drums here are at their best. “Whip Named Lash” is well-played, rhythmic filler, and “Fool’s Cap” is Kottke-ish — the guitar’s tone is exactly that of Kottke’s “Bean Time” on Greenhouse. On “Astronomy Domine” the band imitates some kind of industrial stamping machine; the singer allows one or two notes to escape to create the melody. Lucas’ guitar has the only free sound in town. “The Brain From Planet Eros” is a wonderful B-Movie of a song. If I had been the A&R man I would have run into the streets yelling “Single! Single!” A touch of porno-sounding dialogue in (possibly) an Asian language starts off the track. Lucas then proceeds to out Fripp-and-Eno every electronics nerd you’ve ever heard. The percussion must have been sampled from those pots and pans the Saturn Man landed among in “Haunted House.” Funny, frantic and played as if every cell in his body had been pumped full of Viagra. “Dream of a Russian Princess,” which follows, is a pretty trifle. “The Crazy Ray” is a mock dance craze declaration, with punk funk music and a wonderful serious/silly vocal.

Head-bangers get the last nod here. The final track, “King Strong,” is at once spacey and heavy, the drums almost deep-throating the wriggling vibrato of the guitar. This is what metal should be and almost never is — open as the sky and majestic as a granite cathedral, the guitar bouncing freely around the periodic table of elements. Bye, Vai; vamoose, Van Halen.

Evangeline (1997) opens with “The Animal Flesh Comes Creeping Back,” a title which marks Lucas as the Poe of acoustic guitar. (John Fahey is its Melville.) But this is a much lighter CD, in all ways, than the two abov:, Lucas’ version of a “folkie” album. “Animal Flesh” sounds like “Cripple Creek,” but with quirky corners not present in the clapboard predictability of that standard. The chord vamp of “Evangeline” is a descendent of “8 Miles High,” but with something ominous in how it crawls up and down the scale. The lyrics are unabashedly romantic, slightly mysterious, and lovely.

In his notes to “Wedding March,” Lucas reminds us that this was written by Richard Wagner for his opera Lohengrin. Lucas arranges the march New Orleans funeral style — a somber first half, but a whirling, syncopated dance tune in the second half. Lucas also plays the Overture to Tannhauser. This is Wagner as One-String-Sam, the melody moving in slow steps in the middle strings, against a rubbing of chords. “Apismatisin'” is a folkish
number which evaporates quickly after each hearing. This pokes fun at religion, as does “Sail Up.” “Sail Up” is much the better tune, however: as symmetrical as an Oscar Wilde quip, the guitar imitating a happy banjo.

“The Wall,” and “The Songstress on the Edge of Heaven,” are both from Chinese movie soundtracks. Lucas plays these in open A tuning (open G tuned up a full step). These are wonderful pieces, with the guitar evoking a pipa, then a koto. All in all, the sound of silk coaxed from nickel and brass. “Ah Feel Lik Ah Syd” is a return to the style of Skeleton at the Feast, with toad-squashing slide sounds run through effects boxes; vari-speed effects rule over floating heads and wave-as-he-flashes-by dexterity. “A Wandering Minstrel Eye” is a modal instrumental, bright as any happy wanderer.

“Police Dog Blues” is the same arrangement we all learned from Baxter’s Guide to Blues and Ragtime, but Lucas is more at home with its speedy pull-offs and slick rhythms than are most of us. Lucas’ nod to the blues originals continues with his “Judgement at Midnight Suite.” This could have been transcribed from some lost recordings of Blind Willie Johnson. Lucas’ playing is just as spiritual and just as spooky as was Johnson’s. Lucas then switches not just decades, but planets — going from earth to Saturn for a Sun Ra tribute, the best I know of since the MC5’s first album. When Ra sang “We’re opening up the doors of the outer space employment agency,” Lucas must have given the best interview.

Lucas almost certainly has already gone home when it came time for the last tune, “Cool Hand Luke,” to be recorded. Surely this is the sound of a guitar playing itself: light as air, certain, paced at a graceful canter. It was gracious of him to give his instrument the last word.

Fans barely had Evangeline unwrapped when Lucas’ most recent CD, Busy Being Born, appeared. It has none of the caterwaul-of-sound effects of Skeleton, none of the rock punkiness of Gods and Monsters. In its acoustic simplicity, it is seemingly of a piece with the beautiful Evangeline. This is certainly one way of looking at it. If there are no romantic ballads here, there are Jewish melodies, and Broadway songs to stir the sentimental slob in us all. There are smoking-thumbpick instrumental takes on themes from 1940s cartoons and a Marx Brother movie, a parody of an early-60s pop song, a pseudo-oriental movie theme to compare with the Chinese songs of Evangeline. All the right things can be said about Lucas’ technique on the new CD, all the usual superlative suspects rounded up.

But we might ask ourselves the question Lucas seems to have asked himself: once technique is no longer a hinderance, once a guitarist (or any other artist) has practically no limitations on what he can do, what is he to do? Coast? Make the same album over and over again under another name? Or make himself busy being born as something more? I believe that, for Lucas, the second answer was the only right one. Because there is another way of looking at this new collection, and I believe Lucas means us to find this other way, means us to be stirred and disturbed.

Submitted for your approval: Busy Being Born is an album of eschatological doubt, of gnostic leanings; that is, of doubts that God exists, or if he/she does it is in the form the Gnostics knew: an alien, unreachable God, one occupied with battling a hostile universe — as are we. The title is taken from Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Right Man (I’m Only Bleeding).” Lucas quotes the line on the back: “He not busy being born is busy dying.” This stray line is much more meaningful once it is put into context by the music Lucas records here, and by the every-clue-deepens-the-mystery notes he wrote to accompany them.

The liner note to Lucas’ arrangement of the haunting faux-Asian theme to the film The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao, for instance, reproduces a bit of dialogue, words which also describe one of the faces of the album:

“The whole world is a circus, if you look at it in the right way. Every time you pick up a handful of dust and see not the dust, but a mystery, a marvel there in your hand . . . every time you stop and think, ‘I’m alive. And being alive is fantastic…’ Every time such a thing happens, you’re part of the circus of Dr. Lao.” Maintain that childlike sense of wonder [Lucas writes] and you’re busy being born.

But, as the CD as a whole points out, this wonder has to be maintained in the face of a number of obstacles, amidst fears and shivers. Because being childlike with wonder isn’t enough to let us be busy being born: we have to struggle to understand our world, struggle to grow a little each day. As Dylan’s line points out, there is no standing still: either we gain ground or we lose it. I believe this is in large part what Lucas means to point out on this CD: that unless we are striving, unless we are working to recreate our life again and again, to move ourselves up the ladder we wish to climb — that of potential, of happiness, whatever floats our boats — then we will slowly wither, slip back into darkness. We are in this alone, he wants us to understand, and we darn well better act accordingly.

Am I broadcasting the news that “Paul is dead?” Am I reading into the album what isn’t really there? What’s the tale of the tracks?

First up here is an instrumental version of “Adon Olom.” In his liner notes, Lucas calls this “the Jewish fight song.” The title means “Master of the Universe.” There are three versions of this here, each different. This first version might be called a “free jazz” arrangement, with scrubbed guitar and atonal saxophone by John Zorn. This Master of the Universe rules over a primordial chaos. This is followed by a very straight rendition, with first-position sounding guitar chords, Hebrew lyrics and wedding reception style sax baas. There is a call-and-response chorus more “Yellow Submarine” than Amen Corner. And there is something darker here, too. Beneath the out-chorus of voices someone twice pleads, “Hide me . . . Hide me!” And after the song concludes Lucas asks in a near-whisper, “Where are you? Are you here?” There is, of course, no answer. Instead, there is the acoustic instrumental “Shekhinah.” This word has many interpretations, and is used differently in the Torah and in Kaballah. Lucas provides one of these: “Sparks of the divine, in Kaballah the female spiritual energy of the universe, the Queen of God’s King.” Lucas’ melody moves up and down the middle strings of his guitar, with clusters of notes from the high strings sounding very much like sparks. Shekhinah, as Lucas points out, is the female side, and for Kaballists this meant the passive, accepting side; also the side which is hidden from our view. Again, the suggestion of (reasonable) doubt.

After all this doubt comes Lucas’ “anti-lullaby,” “The Sandman.” As is the case for much of the music here, the guitar is secondary to the singing. The lyrics are far,far from “Rock a’bye”: strutting and fretting his hour on the stage the sandman creeps closer and now turns the page with fingers all frozen and ice in his eyes the sandman now beckons the ghosts start to rise We are surrounded by darkness, the song reminds us. Childish fears have it exactly right. To sleep is to give in to darkness, to sleep is to invite the abyss: this tracks features the return of Zorn’s atonal screams.

“Cosmic relief,” Lucas calls “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler On the Roof. This is played beautifully, lushly. But, it should be recalled that this Broadway show means to evoke a sometime and somewhere very far away — the Jewish villages of pre-Holocaust Europe. If there is “relief” here, it is of a dark character, the same kind expressed in an old New Yorker cartoon: “I heard some good news today, dear,” a man tells his wife. “We shall pass this way but once.” The second Fiddler tune here is “Tradition.” There is nothing traditional about the way Lucas plays this song. The melody is fragmented, reglued, turned inside out, played every way imaginable, except traditionally. The point is clear enough: the old passes away; tradition has to be reinvented if it is to survive and thrive.

“The Mensch In the Moon” is one of the songs here, all clustered in the middle of the album, which resist being enlisted into any litany of doubts. But then, every choice here is a personal one, and these songs certainly have meanings for him we cannot even guess. The music to “Mensch” was originally part of Lucas’ Golem soundtrack, but here has nonsensical words. This may be simply a silly song after a dark chorus — or (and each listener will haveto make the call, decide if the stretch is too painful) it may be saying that Jews have no home on this entire planet.

“Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” the old Groucho Marx number, is almost unrecognizable in Lucas’s arrangement. Whether this seems silly or serious will again depend on how you view the rest of the album. If it is a children’s album, this is just speedy fun; if you feel the doubting, then whispers of Kafka’s penal machine, or even The Camps will come to mind. “Crawlspace,” which follows “Lydia,” again suggests there is nothing whimsical about Lucas’ intentions here. The lyrics tell of a place where the singer and his friends can hide from adults pressures: “the big old world we’ll soon replace / now we’re in our crawl space.” The world is something to escape from, to hide from.

“Dayenu/Dredidel,” is an instrumental medley of two Jewish holiday songs. “Fleischerei” is a medley of songs from such cartoons as Popeye and Betty Boop, songs which were created by Jews living in Queens. “A Hundred Pounds of Clay” substitutes new words for those Gene McDaniels sang nearly 30 years ago. God makes a dreidel, a golem, and a bagel, but no people.

“Dr Lao” is followed by “Abie the Fishman,” a tune inspired by a Chico Marx routine from Animal Crackers. But there’s no burlesque here, rather something grotesque. In the film, Chico exposes a fake aristocrat as someone he knew long ago in his old neighborhood, catches him trying to deny and erase his Jewish past, his Jewish identity. “Abie the Fishman,” avoice chants over a repetitive guitar part. Then an arrhythmic, Cecil Taylorish piano suddenly enters and smashes the childlike chant; the voice is screaming the words before the track is over. This is the sound of the hypocrisy of “passing,” the terrible effects it can produce.

Lucas follows this closely with a lovely, harmonics-sparkled solo version of “Hinay Ma Tov,” a hymn reminding all “How Good it is for Brethren to dwell together in unity.” Lucas’ note adds an “Amen.” Lucas’ childhood fave “Theme from Exodus” follows. The original is triumphant, almost martial, but the arrangement here is wistful, nostalgic. “We once were delivered,” the music seems to say. “And now. . . ?”

By this time the CD is nearly done. Anyone following my argument here is free to pause and decide for themselves whether Lucas has given us a (perhaps slightly eccentric, but true) “children’s album,” or something more ambitious, something to help us all remember we have to keep growing.

The album completes a circle by ending with “Adon Olom” yet again. This is the vocal version [track 2] with the instrumental backing removed. Once again there is the sound of someone pleading, “Hide me! . . . Hide me,” once again there is the final question, “Where are you? Are you here?” a cappella, this time.

A cappella, of course, means unaccompanied.

originally published in 1999

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Recordings reviewed:
Skeleton at the Feast (1991) Enemy Records EMY 126-2
Gods and Monsters (1992) Enemy Records EMY 133-2
Evangeline (1997) Paradigm Records PME 0012-2
Busy Being Born (1998) Tzadik Records TZ-7121

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