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GARY LUCAS: GUITAR GOD & MONSTER

from YOUR FLESH #26 summer 1992 usa
by andrew bennett
is (mainly) summer 1991 interview GARY LUCAS

note: outtake

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until recently, few people outside of new york city have been aware of gary lucas' talents as a musician. as a featured guitar player in captain beefheart's magic band, lucas demonstrated tremendous ability and a voracious appetite for instrumental pieces the complexity of which make the guitar offerings of famed berkeley school of school alumni look like the bland, self-indulgent crap they really are. the 57 seconds of 'flavor bud living' (from 'doc at the radar station') are, to my ears, far more imaginative and skilled playing than the sum total of pat metheny's work (yawn), while the 120 seconds of 'evening bell' (from 'ice cream for crow') easily surpass the heinous shit that joe satriani and yngwie malmsteen pass off on unwitting fools as interesting music.

in fact, if all of three of these hacks' fans dropped their lighters from the air in salutation of the mundane long enough to give a careful listen to either of the beefheart records that lucas played on, or lucas' enemy records releases, this world would be a better place with less misanthropical types like myself, and berkeley would just be a hair farmer infested city in california, instead of a boston school for metal-loving purveyors of technically oriented cheese-whiz.

lucas' 1991 release 'skeleton at the feast' displays his strong instrumental writing, highlighted by the live recording of lucas' collaboration with keyboardist walter horn on the soundtrack for the 1921 silent expressionist film 'the golem'. at press time, lucas' current release 'gods and monsters' [the group he plays in - t.t.] is just hitting the shelves of cd stores around the nation, accompanied by glowing reviews from widely divergent sources.

i have been fortunate enough to see lucas play both with beefheart and in a performance of 'the golem' soundtrack, and i look forward to seeing him play on an upcoming tour in support of the 'gods and monsters' ceedee. what follows is an interview conducted far too early in the morning after a performance of 'the golem' soundtrack at the walker arts center in minneapolis in the summer of 1991 and several phone interviews over the course of the following year.

how did you get involved with don van vliet?

i was a fan originally. i knew his records up to 'trout mask replica' and i admired him a lot. when i was a freshman at yale university, in [january - t.t.] 1971, i saw that he was making an appearance in new york - his first on the east coast - so some friends and i drove down to see him play in a little mafia club called ziggalano's.

we went into the club and they were playing 'flying' by the faces over the p.a. i'll never forget: don came out before the show and said: 'will you please take off that music? how dare you think that people want to hear this music. i mean, really, let's have some concern for the audience here'. i liked his spirit because he was bucking up against the corporate rock thing - this was warner brothers' attempt to push another of their artists at the show.

don was on a bill with ry cooder, who was okay. i like him a lot better on record; his live shows didn't knock me out. for him to be on the bill was ironic, because cooder was in the magic band on 'safe as milk'. don said that the reason he was unable to play the june 1967 monterey pop festival was because cooder quit two weeks before they were supposed to play, and he would never work with ry cooder again, but there he was (laughs) playing on the same bill as him. anyway, they came out and demolished the house and my head, i remember thinking: 'god, if i ever do anything professionally, i would like to play with thís guy'. it just seemed to kind of go with musical achievements; he was just killing everybody.

a year later i was music director at yale's radio station, wybc, and i had the opportunity to interview him over the phone and met him when he came to yale to play woolsley hall to promote the 'the spotlight kid' album. the show was, at first, a bit of a disappointment to me because i had raved to everyone about the complexity of his music, and he had seemed to pare it down to a real minimal kind of blues/rock 'n' roll approach. it was good because he had put in winged eel fingerling, elliot ingber, on lead guitar as a nod to the lead guitar that was popular in america. they came out and played the show, but it was sabotaged by the sound which was really bad because they hadn't had a sound-check and the acoustics were sloppy, you couldn't hear anything.

a lot of people left disappointed; they would come up to me and say: 'what were you talking about?!'. they didn't get it, but nevertheless i was still a believer. at the time i met him, i was convinced that he was the ultimate genius of american music: i was a fan. on subsequent meetings i loosened up and became more of a friend than a fan that was approaching someone admired. it wasn't until several years later that i approached don with the idea of playing guitar, or even told him that i played.

frankly, i never thought i was good enough at this point. i was into jeff beck and all this english rock and roll. beefheart's music seemed unbelievably complex with the contrapuntal fingerpicking style. so, i just woodsheded until i found that i was good enough, that my technique was cognizant enough. when that came about it was [spring] 1975. i had lost touch with him; he had done these sell out records for mercury; there were a lot of good things on 'unconditionally guaranteed', but i never could get into 'bluejeans and moonbeams'. these albums had the unfortunate effect of alienating the people who liked him and they failed to create any new fans for him, which was a disastrous thing....

in any case, i was in syracuse and i noticed that captain beefheart was playing with frank zappa. i thought this was incredible because it was my understanding that they were bitter enemies. i went to the show and afterwards i saw don and had a nice reunion. then i went and saw them play in boston and brought my guitar up there and, after the show, played for him and we talked about forming a new band, but it was pretty vague at this point; i didn't know exactly when this would be. it seemed at this point in his career he didn't have a band and frank was helping him out. apparently there was a bench warrant out for his arrest in california for running out on his managers, the de martino brothers, who were involved in the production of the mercury albums. so with that in mind, i took it with a grain of salt.

i had the opportunity to go to taiwan and work in the family business, which was probably an attempt to get me out of the country as i was having a live-in affair with and older woman in new york city. she was 56 and i was 22; it was pretty incredible. my parents didn't like that at all, so they kind of lured me into this gig in taiwan where i was nominally looking over my father's trade business, and spending all my time in bands with chinese kids and other foreigners.

i was living it up, things were nice, then one day i was playing a club called 'the scarecrow', where my girl-friend, ling ling, instigated a horrible fight. there were some people very seriously injured in the melee that broke out after we were finished playing, so i was told to take the first plane out of taiwan; the police wanted me to testify and this made it dangerous for me there. my girlfriend and i returned to the u.s., got married at san francisco city hall, and before returning to new york for lack of work in san francisco, i called don up and asked about the band. he kind of had a deal going, so it was like: 'stay in touch...'.

so, i got a job writing in the ad department for cbs records. i would call don from work and have intense two-hour conversations every day for years -thank you, cbs. he had an album that we had signed him to do, 'shiny beast/bat chain puller', coming out on warner bros. when he came to new york he told me that he wanted my wife and i to manage him and for me to play guitar for the magic band. i couldn't really be a full-time manager because of the day job, and, as the band wasn't really working that much. i stayed in new york and learned pieces by mail.

captain beefheart - former magic band member gary lucas 1990 - summer 1992 your flesh - picture by carla gahr
picture by carla gahr

at first he sent me an instrumental piece to learn for 'doc at the radar station' called 'flavor bud living', which i recorded with him in los angeles. it was fun recording with him and he invited me to go on tour with the band. i would come out during the set and do 'flavor bud living' solo while don and the band left the stage. it was nerve-rackingly fun. i was sitting in with them on 'her eyes are a blue million miles', played bass on 'making love to a vampire with a monkey on my knee', and read some of his poetry. this was about one fourth of the show. it was fun to tour, a lot of fun. i played europe and the east and west coast dates.

i saw the beacon theatre show in new york in 1977 when i was about eleven. i had heard a lot of his stuff already, as my older brothers were followers of his work. nevertheless, i was amazed at the show. it was my first time seeing a live band and it seemed incredible to me how an audience could respond to performers; they seemed as much a part of the experience as the musicians. the whole event was pretty inspirational. i went home to washington and started learning electric guitar by listening to my older brother's link wray records and breaking the strings on his telecaster. watching james blood ulmer open for beefheart and fry one or two twin reverbs was pretty amusing: it seemed like don wouldn't let him use one of the magic band's twins, so the beefheart set was much longer....

(laughs) you were at that show? it was great: ulmer fried our amps, don wouldn't let him near anymore, so we came out and played; it was a lot of fun.... i heard that the minneapolis gig was plagued by equipment problems.

i am told that don hated minneapolis. supposedly he played a short set to an unreceptive crowd and told them that he would never return, 'because this town sucks'. he may be right, i am still trying to figure it out.

don was pretty frazzled by touring: he hated it - but wé loved it. he has a big problem negotiating his way through the world outside of isolated areas where he chooses to live. i remember it taking him about half an hour to walk from 57th street to 52nd on 5th avenue, but that is don: he chooses to live that way.

he probably saw a lot of things on those five blocks that no one else ever sees.

you got it - that's right. he would be like: 'man, did you sée that?' - kind of like a baby. i split up with my wife after that record and, being single, i had the time to go full time with the band. don would send me music for the upcoming record 'ice cream for crow'. he started by sending me the 'evening bell' piano piece, which was a monumental task to learn. i remember sitting with a cassette of him playing it on the piano; all of his music was kind of 'through composed': he would play it once, but if you asked him again, i'm sure he wouldn't be able to play it. he wasn't really a technical musician that way: he played completely instinctively.

i would sit with it and struggle in an attempt to transcribe what he had done on piano to guitar. it has a peculiar flavor because the low e was tuned to d as the piece was more or less centered in d. to play piano music on the guitar creates a contention in the listener because the piece is not idiomatic for guitar. it was great, but a lot of work. i remember telling don that it was almost impossible to play, because you've only got nine fingers on guitar and ten on piano. he told me that i needed to grow another finger.

we recorded a lot of the older pieces for the record at a session in los angeles. a lot of the other pieces were composed - i think he was working on them. he would scat sing the parts to us at the rehearsals and we would memorize them; he would whistle parts while we followed him around with a tape recorder and we would take it back to the hotel to figure the stuff out.

it was really interesting. one day he took an ashtray, hurled it against the wall and recorded the sound it made as it spun around on the floor, sort of a wobbling sound, and said to robert williams, the drummer: 'learn it - that's the drum solo'. a lot of the pieces have found sounds out of nature. that's how a lot of rhythms were inspired. 'bat chain puller', for example, is apparently the sound he heard his windshield wipers making as they squeaked on the windshield of his car.

interesting approach. how did 'flavor bud living' arise?

it was originally recorded before. after the mercury albums, don did an album for frank that was going to come out on zappa's label. it was called 'bat chain puller' and produced by frank, but it never came out because of a lawsuit between frank and his manager, herbie cohen; it tied up the tapes for years. on this record, he had john french playing the piece on guitar - but much slower than the way i finally played it on record. don said that he hated the way that french played it, that it was 'too religious, and it put the whole thing in heavy syrup'. i learned it from the bootlegged version originally and went out to the desert and played it for him.

he critiqued by saying that it was all wrong! i told him: 'that's how french played it', and don said: 'well, obviously, he must have done it all wrong. i want you to play it using my exploding note theory'. 'what is that?', i asked. 'you play every note as if it has only a tangential relationship to the preceding note and the note that follows'. in other words: a very staccato and disconnected phraseology. so i rehearsed this and had him mold it as we started to play it. we did it in the first or second take.

why did don retire?

a substantial lack of remuneration for his recorded efforts.

safe to assume that this is a permanent retirement?

yes. the reason don doesn't make music anymore is because he doesn't want to create panic in art dealers or the people who buy his paintings.

for some time after beefheart's retirement, you didn't play professionally....

yeah, people told me to join a band and 'capitalize on this thing' but it was sort of a comedown to consider playing with any other people after playing with the magic band. i stopped playing guitar for a while as i had a lot of painful memories from the time he stopped working; it was a little strained for a year or so. just the thought of playing would cause my hands to ache. to remember the shit he put musicians through made me not want to continue on that course for a while.

what got you to start playing out again?

well, i met and befriended rollo of the woodentops and after hearing me play at home, he invited me to play on the woodentops' next record. i flew to england and i worked on their album 'wooden foot cops on the highway'. that really gave me the bug to start playing again. i was 35 and i decided that if i didn't start playing again, i would lose the opportunity for good.

i fashioned a solo guitar show (which included a beefheart medley - t.t.) and convinced the knitting factory to stage it. it was plagued by disaster from the beginning but in the end it worked out fine. the knitting factory neglected to advertise in the paper: they thought no one would show up. i just put some flyers around, and on the day of the show it was absolutely packed. it was very well received, so i played again at the new music seminar. the new york times gave me a great write-up, and things began to work....

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