Gary Lucas: Ignoring Genre Divisions

Leonard Bernstein



Gary Lucas
Interview Excerpt #3


FRANK J. OTERI: Now, in the early ’70s, you somehow got connected to Leonard Bernstein.

GARY LUCAS: Yeah, that occurred when I was in my junior year of college. So I had been playing guitar for a while. And I saw that the Yale Symphony Orchestra was auditioning to be players of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, which was a theater piece that was premiered at the Kennedy Center I think in ’72 or ’73. And they were preparing the European premiere in Vienna so I went to the powers that be at Yale, that was John Mauceri who was the conductor of the Yale Symphony then, and volunteered my services as an electric guitarist because there was a part calling for this, and I got the gig. And this enabled me to make my first to Europe. We went to Vienna for two weeks to work on this and it debuted in the summer of 1973. And I remember I think 800 Catholic bishops in Austria protested this work as blasphemous, a slur on the Catholic Mass

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s quite a wild piece…

GARY LUCAS: It is a wild piece, but it definitely comes on the side of peace and religion. It’s you know, not disrespectful, per se.

FRANK J. OTERI: Did you get to work with Bernstein?

GARY LUCAS: A bit because he came to supervise the production right before the opening night, and he gave me specific tips on how he thought the part should be played, because I’d asked him one of the parts that I was required to do was to do a wild, psychedelic blues, rocked out, guitar solo, and it occurred in the moment that was supposed to signify the most decadent, orgiastic scene in the piece, this was to represent the decay of western civilization at this point which you know religion was there to help prop up and preserve. So I said, well, gee, whenever you use electric guitar in this piece it’s always the most decadent and blasphemous part of the production… He counseled me to just sink my teeth into it and rock out. I loved Leonard Bernstein.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well he’s someone who’s coming from an interesting place. I don’t think we’ve had anyone like that since. He was entrenched in the classical music establishment as a conductor. But as a composer, he was also on Broadway, he advocated Jazz on television in the ’50s, he was advocating the Beatles… He was all over the place at time when people were really divided into camps.

GARY LUCAS: There was a great show that was on CBS in ’67 called The Age of Rock. (I have a bootleg copy of it.) He hosted it and talked about how much he loved the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles, Tim Buckley… They played Tim Buckley’s music…

FRANK J. OTERI: Wow!

GARY LUCAS: Brian Wilson had just composed the song “Surf’s Up” and there was a vignette with that, and Frank Zappa, and I think he was cool. He was a big inspiration to me growing up. I used to really soak up the Young People’s Concerts. That’s how I learned a lot about Stravinsky, and Mahler, and it was just great.

FRANK J. OTERI: I think Mahler is a major world figure today because of Bernstein’s advocacy. Before that no one was regularly conducting his symphonies. They’re standard repertoire now.

GARY LUCAS: Yup. Right. God bless Lenny, I think he was a saint in music, and we really need someone of his stature today, I think, to help educate young people coming up.