Gary Lucas: Ignoring Genre Divisions

Literary Heroes



Gary Lucas
Interview Excerpt #6


FRANK J. OTERI: Now you talked as well about Beefheart being a great poet as well as being a great composer. Now, you also write words for your albums. Who were some of your other literary influences?

GARY LUCAS: I love James Joyce, I love Shakespeare. You know I’m a graduate in English literature, so I have a sort of traditional English Lit background.

FRANK J. OTERI: So not music.

GARY LUCAS: Well, I took some music theory classes, and left them after a couple of sessions at Yale. I didn’t think they’d enable me to do what I wanted to do. I always had a facility to write. I got into Yale probably because I’d won an international award for composition when I was in high school. I’ve attempted to write a novel. I have an art novel somewhere in a drawer that I had abandoned when I made the decision to do music full time. There was a guy named Wyndham Lewis who’s not nearly as well known as Joyce, but to me is right up there as a stylist, as a radical, thinker and writer of the 20th century. He was very naïve politically and got branded as a Nazi sympathizer and a fascist, both of which ideologies he recanted before he died. And he apologized for some statements that he’d made. But he wrote some amazing books such as The Apes of God, and his first novel Tarr is, in the early edition (…it was revised…) it’s just one of the most radical prose styles, and unique prose styles anyone came up with. And there are some affinities in some ways to some of the lyrics Beefheart later did, and I turned Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart) onto Wyndham Lewis, and he became a tremendous fan of the work and used to read the books voraciously, and would have me read them to him when the Magic Band was on tour in the UK in 1980 as we drove from gig to gig in the van. Lewis is a hero of mine. I like Nabokov very much. Actually, my last literary passion in a huge way is Isaac Bashevis Singer. And I’d say he’s actually replaced all of these figures as — if I was stranded on a desert I’d ask for some of Singer’s books to take with me. I love his writing. I find it very evocative. Of my roots, my grandfather and grandmother came from Poland. They were Polish Jews. And my father’s relatives come from Bohemia (which is the Czech Republic), Hungary, and also have a little bit of German Jewish blood. So reading Singer, especially when he deals with the old world, the Jewish community right before it vanished by the onslaught of the Nazis, I find it tremendously moving emotionally.

FRANK J. OTERI: That’s actually an interesting irony about being very into Jewish heritage and at the same time being a huge fan of Wyndham Lewis…

GARY LUCAS: I know, I don’t know what it means – I’m not a self-hating Jew. I’m very proud of my heritage, and right now I’m working on a record for John Zorn‘s Tzadik label. I’ve done one already, part of the Radical Jewish Culture series . So it’s taking up some of my pre-occupations and my roots. To tell you the truth, I think I had a small influence on John.