Guitars on Mars

Gary Lucas has performed with Captain Beefheart, Jeff Buckley, John Zorn and Allen Ginsberg. Now he's visiting St. Louis to perform alongside the silent film The Golem.

Dive in headfirst. What follows is a resume of guitarist Gary Lucas.

He's played with Leonard Bernstein, Lou Reed, Nick Cave, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, John Zorn, Future Sound of London, Matthew Sweet, Sophie B. Hawkins, Graham Parker, Dr. John, Adrian Sherwood, Mary Margaret O'Hara, the Woodentops, the Mekons, Peter Stampfel, Richard Barone, Jim Carroll, Bob Neuwirth, Kevin Coyne, Allen Ginsberg, the Plastic People of the Universe, and Damo Suzuki and Michael Karoli of Can; compiled collections of ska and reggae for CBS Records (The Real Jamaican Ska and the three-volume series Rhythm Come Forward); covered songs on one guitar originally composed for both synthesizers and symphonies -- they'll tear the skin off your back; released a handful of solo records (one of which is a children's record for Zorn's stellar Tzadik Records imprint -- his is part of the label's Radical Jewish Culture series), including his recent Paradiso (Oxygen Music) and a few with his band, Gods And Monsters. Most important for our city this week, Lucas composed a score for the groundbreaking silent horror film The Golem that he will be performing live as the film plays during this week's Jewish Film Festival at the Jewish Community Center.

Or perhaps you know Gary Lucas through his compositions for ABC News, specificially his music bed for their report a few years ago called "The Unabomber." Remember the piece? No? Well, that was him. Then you may remember his "The Exxon Valdez"? No?

Maybe you know him from his work with Captain Beefheart's Magic Band -- he was the guitar player on Beefheart's last two recordings, Doc at the Radar Station and Ice Cream For Crow, the guy whose delicate fingers graced the exquisite instrumentals "Flavor Bud Living," "Evening Bell" and "Semi-Multicolored Caucasian."

Or from his work with Jeff Buckley on Buckley's Grace album. The song "Mojo Pin" contains a labyrinthine melody that Lucas created. Or from his work with Joan Osborne on her song "Spider Web." That's his haunting melody, one that garnered a Grammy nomination a few years back. Or his visionary melding of Miles Davis' "Jack Johnson" with Suicide's "Ghost Rider."

It's all a bit stupefying, taken as a whole.
In simple terms, though, it comes downt to this: If you don't know Gary Lucas and are interested in hearing the electric guitar and the National Steel guitar stretched to their limits, mangled and manipulated, harnessed and pushed through reverbed conduits, sampled and scraped, damaged one moment and caressed the next, you must hear him play the guitar.

He's the only guitarist around with the guts to perform a solo interpretation of Kraftwerk's "Autobahn" and the ability to retain the piece's sense of combustible momentum. The only guitarist to wrestle with Albert Ayler's free-jazz classic "Ghosts," turning it into a rolling rollick of structured National Steel pandemonium. Most likely he's the only guitarist who, queried about songs he's attempted to cover but eventually abandoned, would respond: "I wanted to do more Hitchcock, and one of the pieces that interested me was Bernard Herrmann's music for North by Northwest, but it was a little bit too chromatic to be able to do it in my style and make it sound good." He did pull off a searing amalgam of music from Psycho and Vertigo, however, on his debut CD, Skeletons at the Feast (Enemy), but North by Northwest proved elusive.

"There were just too many changes," Lucas laments. "Often when I do these covers I like to use open tunings, and if there are too many key changes it can sound clunky to try and do it on a guitar. It inhibits the flow of the music. And I want to stay more or less true, to a certain degree, to the piece. I could have done a fantasia on it, had I chosen, but the original was so great, with the melody. Another one was (from the Wagner opera) Tristan and Isolde. And again, it was really because there are many modulations leading up to the main classic love-death sequence of chords in there, and it was just too busy-sounding on the guitar, whereas something like 'Tannhauser' (also by Wagner, which Lucas recorded for his album Evangeline) really flows and just fit my style so well. So that's a factor in what I do. It has to really work, and I have to feel comfortable with it to be playing it. It has to be fun to play, or it just becomes kind of academic."

Anyone who tosses off references to Albert Ayler, Kraftwerk, Wagner and Bernard Herrmann shouldn't be blamed for worrying about sounding academic. Lucas, though -- who studied English literature at Yale -- entered music not to become a lofty guitar theoretician but in the same way any two-bit musician does: He heard some music, was floored by it and decided to pursue the artist in hopes of performing with him. In Lucas' case, though, that musician happened to be one of the most influential musical minds of the century, Don Van Vliet, a.k.a. Captain Beefheart.

"I first heard his music and was astonished," says Lucas, with the delivery of someone who's told the story hundreds of times. "Then I saw him play when I was in college, in New York at his debut, and I thought, 'If I ever do anything in music, it's to play with him. I made a vow. So it was like running away to join the circus, and I got my wish. (At first) I didn't think I was good enough. I was coming out of the British Invasion school of guitar, and I was very good at the Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page style, but his music was completely derived out of other sources such as country-blues and free jazz." It took a few years before the two would collaborate -- Lucas worked in the Far East, played with some musicians there, learned the Magic Band's skewed style. But when he returned, they rekindled their friendship, which evolved into a musical collaboration.

When Van Vliet decided to abandon music and pursue visual art full time (it was Lucas who introduced him to artist Julian Schnabel, who then helped arrange Van Vliet's first New York show), Lucas started working as a copywriter for CBS Records and eventually began gigging at the recently opened Knitting Factory club in New York (which is where his first solo recording, said version of Ayler's "Ghosts," was performed, on Live at the Knitting Factory, Vol. 2), where he began to develop his visionary approach to solo guitar. That one song on one compilation propelled Lucas' solo-guitar career to a new level.

"'Ghosts' came out; suddenly I started to work in Europe. I put the first solo show together in '88, and I got this big write-up in the (New York) Times -- 'Guitarist of 1,000 Ideas.' Four months later I found myself at the Berlin Jazz Fest, and they were also going nuts. And I thought, 'Man, this is a way to get out of (CBS)' -- because I felt, really, I was on a treadmill to oblivion there."

His singular style, which will be on display during his Golem performance, relies both on galloping, dextrous fingers and the use of an array of effects pedals -- reverbs, delays and samplers -- which he simultaneously plays with his feet. The results are solo-guitar creations that occasionally sound like symphonies. Lucas plays a melodic line that gets crammed through a digital-delay box, which then recycles and repeats over and over again while he plays on top of it. At times these effects provide a live backing track -- on his version of "Autobahn," Kraftwerk's machinelike synthetic rhythm is replicated by Lucas with this effect. It's confusing to absorb, and you'd swear he's using some sort of studio trickery to pull it all off. Because of this sneaking suspicion, Lucas often includes in his liner notes the confirmation "absolutely no overdubs." "I like people to know that I can do the stuff live and get these orchestral effects live," he says. "Also, I always tell people in the question-and-answer session that nothing I play is on tape or sequenced. There's no prerecorded, sequenced parts. Everything is played in real time at that moment, into these delays. Occasionally they're sampled and held and manipulated, but if I break a string, or play it poorly, you're going to hear it over and over and over again, so I have to be alert to those possibilities."

At the Jewish Film Festival, Lucas will perform while the silent film The Golem is shown, a project that he dreamed up a decade ago in New York City.

"The story goes," he says of the film's plot, "that in the 16th century Rabbi Loew created a man out of clay. He brought this creature to life using cabalistic magic after sculpting him. This giant man was empowered to become a servant for the Jewish community and to protect them against pogroms. So it's kind of a Jewish Frankenstein myth, and in fact Mary Shelley apparently was influenced by these tales.

"The film is the most famous version," he continues. "There have been operas, ballets -- there's a comic book called The Golem that Marvel put out -- but this film was the one that intrigued me. When I was a boy there was a magazine called Famous Monsters of Filmland, and I loved it. It was my bible when I was growing up, and I saw still photos from the film first of all in this magazine and I thought, 'Whoa, how cool -- a Jewish Frankenstein.' And I have continued, in my own twisted way in my music -- I'm preoccupied with supernatural themes" (hence the name of his band, Gods and Monsters, which in 1999 features former Modern Lover Ernie Brooks and former Swan Jonathan Kane).

Lucas was given a grant by the Brooklyn Academy of Music to develop the project; he composed, with friend Walter Hood, new musical accompaniment for the film. "I've worked with it hundreds of times, but I never get bored with it because it's about 50-50 improv over themes, sort of in the style of an old-time silent-movie accompanist. So I never play it the same way twice.

"I'm set up on the side of the stage," says Lucas of his method of performing alongside The Golem, "with three guitars behind me, all the effects in front of me -- I use a lot of effects -- and I just go to town. And it's a trip, it really is. It's a cathartic experience every time I do it. There's plenty of room to really sink my teeth into it and wail on the guitar, which I do. In fact, I've been known to drive older people out of the room. What can I tell you? It's not for the alter cockers (a Yiddish term for "old people"). Once I did it in the Toronto Jewish Film Festival and a woman came up to me during the performance and said, 'I am an audiologist, and this is what I call noise pollution. Will you turn it down?' And I had all these fans sitting near me in the front, and they were going, 'Shhh, let him play. It's his music.'"

Gary Lucas accompanies The Golem at the Jewish Community Center at 8 p.m. Thursday, June 17.