Interview/Review: Gary Lucas @ Ramsgate Music Hall

I met with legendary guitarist Gary Lucas on his recent UK tour to discuss the subject of his show: his mammoth career, from Beefheart to Buckley and beyond…

Who can blame Gary Lucas for looking backwards? This is a man who spent the ‘80s in Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, the ‘90s mentoring and writing with Jeff Buckley, and every other spare minute of his life working with the likes of Nick Cave, Nona Hendryx, and Chris Cornell.

The self-confessed “gypsy soul” tells me “wanderlust” brings him on tour, but it feels as if Lucas is also on a mission: to right some wrongs, to tell some stories which challenge some common perceptions – Beefheart? Maniac! Buckley? Angel! – and he’s also looking out for his own reputation, staking his claim as one of the finest guitar players in the world:

“There are other artists and avant guitarists – I won’t name any names – who are beloved figures by these critics, no matter what they do, and believe me, I’m not impressed by much of what they do. I could play rings around most of these people!”

BEEFHEART

Describing himself as a “true British rock head” in his college years, Lucas admired Peter Green and Syd Barrett, also listening to prog acts such as Traffic and Family. But it was Captain Beefheart’s third album, Trout Mask Replica, which grabbed Lucas in a huge way, providing him with both a focus and a change of direction musically. Describing a 1971 Beefheart concert in New York as “the best show I’d ever seen in my life”, Lucas told friends, “if I ever do anything in music, I wanna play with this guy”. An ambitious plan for an unheard-of guitar player, who at the time was “writing stupid drivel” as a copywriter for Columbia, Epic and CBS Records:

“Well, some of them became famous ad lines, like ’The Clash: The only group that matters’! And I believed it, for a moment… until then I joined Beefheart and I thought, ‘wait a second, we’re the only group!’”

Despite forging a friendship with Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart) after interviewing him later that year, it would be five years before Lucas finally revealed his abilities:

“I didn’t tell him I played [at first], ‘cause at that point I was, like, a Jeff Beck disciple. What they were doing with guitars was so radically different to me; I had to really study it and I didn’t want to approach him until I felt I could master it.”

With Van Vliet in-between bands and supporting Frank Zappa on a 1976 tour, Lucas took his opportunity. Meeting him after a New York show, Beefheart was suitably impressed to invite Lucas to enjoy years in his Magic Band, both performing live and appearing on his final studio albums Doc at the Radar Station and Ice Cream for Crow. Patience, ambition and hard work prevailed for Lucas; though in reality, the hard work was just about beginning…

In the evening’s show, Lucas spoke of Van Vliet’s “impossible demands”, such as translating a 10-finger piano piece on to his 6-string guitar. The Beefheart advice? “Well, you’d better find another four!” I asked Lucas how he coped with making the transition from fan to band member for such an innovative but infamously volatile character:

“I had a fan’s enthusiasm, as did everybody in that era. He got in people who were fans who were enthusiastic and ready to put up with his bullshit. Nobody had to live in a house with him, unlike the Trout Mask band. He could be tyrannical, [but] you could get away to recover and recharge your batteries. So, I put up with a lot of shit. He could be abusive. I was younger, so I allowed myself to put up with stuff, but today I never would. But I don’t want to go in to it, because I loved the guy and I learned a lot. He was so wise and really profoundly funny and zen. … I mean, I never met anybody, anybody like him in brain power and then sheer creative energy. He could be really magical, a wonderful companion and mentor.”

BUCKLEY

“The roles were reversed”, says Lucas, when in the early nineties he became mentor to a young Los Angeles-based musician who would become his most famous collaborator:

“This young whippersnapper comes up to me and he’s vibing, and he’s rolling and popping his eyes. He looked electric, he was about to jump out of his skin. And I said, ‘you must be Jeff Buckley’.”

Buckley was already a fan of Lucas’ work with Captain Beefheart, but the duo would bond over a mutual love of The Smiths, The Doors and Led Zeppelin, having been paired up to perform at a tribute concert for Jeff’s late father, folk-rock troubadour, Tim Buckley. Lucas vividly remembers their first rehearsal: “My jaw literally dropped when I heard this unearthly voice emanate, and he finished, and I said, ‘Jeff, you’re amazing. You’re a fucking star.’”

That initial work with Buckley was the first of many times that Lucas would mentor young musicians. Today, he gives talks and masterclasses to music students all over the world: “I always say, ‘go for it, if this is what’s in your heart, hit it as hard as you can and do it while you’re young.’” But Lucas didn’t always practice what he preaches today:

“That was in my heart, but I was scared, you know, until I turned about 38. For me to even attempt to write a song… I just was so self-deprecating. Anybody could write a song better than me!”

When Lucas did begin to write songs, he secured a deal with a vocalist for what was planned to be a “big project” at Columbia. In the meantime, they allowed him to release his debut album, a solo guitar collection titled Skeleton at The Feast, with an indie label. Yet, despite receiving positive reviews for his solo effort, when A&R staff changed, Columbia decided to drop the whole project:

“I was like, ‘What?! How can you do that? We have a signed contract!’ and he said, and I never will forget this: ‘You can’t afford to sue us’. Hard knocks in the music business. I was upset but then I called Jeff and he was in LA living with his Mum and he said, ‘I’ll be your singer’. So then I had to get busy and write some music.”

After mailing Buckley a cassette – which included tracks titled ‘Rise Up To Be’ and ‘And You Will’ – Lucas told the Ramsgate crowd, “he called me and said, ‘They’re beautiful, I’m coming to New York.’”

Renamed ‘Grace’ and ‘Mojo Pin’ by Buckley, Lucas’ compositions would later open Buckley’s only studio album, Grace. Released, ironically, by Columbia, the album has gone on to sell over two million copies and is now widely considered one of the greatest debut albums of all time. Despite the long-lasting success of their shared work, Lucas holds feelings of resentment and injustice surrounding both relationship and reputation:

TS: “With ‘Mojo Pin’ and ‘Grace’ opening the album, obviously Buckley and Columbia saw them as lynchpin songs…”

GL: “Somebody did. I mean, listen, I’m honoured. Somebody knew. I think when they signed him they just signed him because he was overwhelming on stage and he had this big fanbase coming to see him in that little club [Sin-é in Manhattan’s East Village]. All these A&R guys and record company presidents, Clive Davis, driving up in limos to check him out. But then when they signed him they looked at it really closely and said, ‘he’s doing all covers’! ‘Well didn’t he write those songs with Gary Lucas?’, that I paid for the demos. ‘Well, they’re pretty good.’ ‘OK, let’s get Gary in.’ So he called after a hiatus of a year where he had fucked me off.”

TS: “Really?”

GL: “Oh, yeah. I wasn’t gonna chase after him… I don’t wanna trash Jeff either, it’s just, like, we had a moment of a year that was really close and writing together and I thought we were on the same page and then secretly I found out he was planning his own solo deal which is what he wanted all along. Fair enough, but … we’d demoed up ‘Grace’ and ‘Mojo Pin’ which I’d finished writing after I got a commitment from him, and it was great. At the session for the demos I said, ‘this music is gonna shake the world, it’s really fucking profoundly great’. I felt like I had the atom bomb in my pocket, to leave that session with the DAT… the rough mixes.”

TS: “Is it ever difficult to let go of songs? To put it out under his name…”

GL: “Well, if you look at the writing credits, the publishing… But, you’re right, it irks me that there are many fans of Jeff Buckley who have no idea who I am. They didn’t play it up, my participation, they kind of buried it. Whether that was Jeff, or the label, or both of them, I don’t know, but I found it a bit hurtful. But still, you know, monetarily I did fine. I mean, as fine as you can with the ways things are in the music biz these days. These royalty streams don’t amount to a hill of beans.”

TS: “Did those songs feel significant at the time?”

GL: “To me? I knew how good they were! Jeff did too, but Jeff didn’t wanna act enthusiastic, because… he was very cagey, I mean, you know, to act really enthusiastic would acknowledge my value and the relationship, and he had got a lawyer manager who was actively courting and being by courted by Columbia, the same label that kicked me to the kerb. … Yeah it was bitter, when that blew up, the circumstances were atrocious.”

Despite those circumstances, Lucas still describes Buckley as “probably the best I’ve ever collaborated with”. Witnessing Lucas perform their collaborations live is the closest experience you’ll get to hearing Jeff Buckley live ever again. Verses of phenomenal finger-picking, incredible dynamic control, blistering and frenzied strumming sequences… it’s no wonder that, despite their period of estrangement, Buckley even enlisted Lucas to play guitar on Grace; it’s liner notes crediting him with ‘Magical Guitarness’. When Lucas plays the main riff from ‘Grace’, he plays with a passion that still exudes that magic.

BEYOND

Outside of the two main themes of the night, which also sees an unbelievable rendition of his solo Beefheart great, ‘Evening Bell’, there’s a whole lotta ‘beyond’… Having released over thirty albums in his own name, a packed Ramsgate Music Hall is treated to solo renditions of his work with Gods and Monsters and with Peter Hammill. Plus, despite that huge discography, Lucas shows that he is overarchingly a music lover by including a range of covers, including Duke Ellington’s ‘Fleurette Africaine’ and the theme song from the 1962 film ‘Walk On The Wild Side’.

“I like to try and astonish people with the guitar and take them on trips”, says Lucas. Using his loop pedal to produce a raucous yet rhythmic cacophony of sound, he often achieves this. Switching between his classic electric 1966 Fender Stratocaster and his 1942 Gibson J-45 acoustic, Lucas creates frenzied soundscapes which whirl around your head as quick as his fingers on the fretboard.

At other times, he takes a more understated approach, using just vocals and solo acoustic guitar to lull in his audience. One fairly unique feature of Lucas’ guitar playing actually comes from his right hand, telling me he “worked really hard as a finger-picking guitarist to be able to achieve orchestral effect” whilst at college. This is typical of a man who has always taken his craft incredibly seriously:

“I’ve never missed a show, I’ve always shown up on time, you know… I’m proud of my track record, man. No-one’s ever came and said, ‘you suck, I want my money back’ ever, so I give a lot, I give more than a hundred percent every time I play.”

Although Lucas describes his “An Evening With…” show as “a good way to encapsulate a lot of information about my career”, he certainly isn’t done yet… As well as working on “a record of Mandarin versions of ‘Grace’, Dylan and other Western pop song classics” with vocalist Feifei Yang, he has also been collaborating with Mexican art-rockers Rojo Marfil. “Nobody has an exclusive on my services, they couldn’t pay me enough!”, says Lucas. “People should get it while they can while I’m still here. I think I’ve got a lot to offer. I’m approachable, it’s not like I’ve gone in to self-imposed obscurity, I think that’s all bullshit.”

It’s little surprise to find Lucas, who also identifies Joanna Newsom and electronic dance group Brazilian Girls as modern artists he respects, collaborating with such diverse musicians. He judges that rock music “was played out a long a time ago”, and his professional status also seems to have led Lucas to seek new paths to musical escape:

“I hate to say it, but this is what I’ve found… When I was an amateur musician, I could consume tons of music, I was a voracious consumer. Once I had to do this for a living, suddenly, the whole anxiety kicked up. Like, I’d go and see some music and I’d be like ‘what does this have to do with what I do?’ … I’d fidget, I’d be a little restless, unless it was something so great it just knocked me out, but that hasn’t happened in a long time. … I need silence a lot.”

Despite working with a huge range of musicians, Lucas wrote in his 2013 book, Touched by Grace; “I fear that my tombstone might well end up reading: RIP Gary Lucas–ex-Captain Beefheart and Jeff Buckley guitarist”. Working with two such iconic frontmen has undoubtedly provided a basis for a rich career, but it has also proved a shadow. Lucas has amassed enough experience as a working guitarist to both appreciate and contextualize all of the positives and pitfalls of operating at the highest level, and he is clearly still enjoying every minute:

“I’m just gonna keep making records and tour as much as possible till the ripe old age where I can’t do it anymore. But I hope it’s a long way off because I like doing it, believe me, in my advanced stage. It’s fun still for me, and it really turns me on to play to people and get a good vibe back.”

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Author: tomstephensblog

Freelance writer and postgraduate student at Goldsmiths, University of London. I’m also a musician.

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