Gary Lucas: Ignoring Genre Divisions
Establishing a Solo Career
Interview Excerpt #7
GARY LUCAS: In 1988 I began my solo career under my name, seriously, at the Knitting Factory on a dare. A friend of my dared me to put a concert together. I knew Michael Dorf; he’d been up in my office at CBS Records where I labored for about 11 years as a copywriter. And I’d been to the club. I’d seen Tim Berne, the alto saxophonist/composer, perform there, and Zorn. So it seemed an attractive space for new music. And anyway, I was given this challenge to do this solo show, and I had the bug to be playing again after some years in limbo. Beefheart split up the band in ’84 to do the painting full time. And I had a few years where I wasn’t sure what my next move would be musically. I continued to play the guitar for my pleasure, but I wasn’t taking up offers to do anything — I had some offers to join bands, and what not. And I thought after playing with the number one avant-garde band, what was I to do? I had to really think about it. Then I got side tracked in producing some records for CBS Records, now Sony Music. I did a Tim Berne record first for Columbia, and a Peter Gordon record for Masterworks.
FRANK J. OTERI: Innocent…
GARY LUCAS: Yeah. Then I met a band called Wooden Tops, an English band that I liked, and they invited me to play on their record. And I flew to London, and in these sessions, this was about 1988, I reconnected with my love of playing. And I thought, “I should really be doing more of this.” So I started to do more session work for people like Matthew Sweet and Adrian Sherwood. And it started to make sense again. Anyway, then I put the show together in the June of ’88, my solo debut at the Knitting Factory in New York. And despite them leaving me out of the ad for the week, it happened. I had absolutely a sold-out house. They turned people away. And I got wild ovations from the crowd and I felt really a sense of empowerment that night. A friend of mine said it was like a seeing a little sea monster, a Loch Ness Monster, raise its head above water and look around. I just thought, this is what I should be doing. It became obvious, you know, because I was pretty miserable as a copywriter. I could do it but it was just rotting my brain.
FRANK J. OTERI: It’s interesting to think about that in classical music, a composer usually studies music composition, and develops some sort of relationship with the composer he or she is studying with, and then does his or her own thing. But in the jazz world and the rock world, you’re a sideman with someone and that’s sort of the equivalent of going through that process. At what point did you decide, “Well, I’m a composer in my own right, I’m a leader in my own right”?
GARY LUCAS: Around this time. Because it seemed I had psyched myself out of attempting to write songs and to compose music, out of fear, basically, that it wouldn’t measure up and it wouldn’t be any good. It was just kind of insecurities, you know, everybody goes through them. Then I got to a certain age when I thought, I don’t care. What do I care If people didn’t like them it’s their problem. But I’m going to do this now. It’s now or never, really. Time to get really busy, or it’ll be too late. Here I have a window of opportunity.
FRANK J. OTERI: How did your involvement with the whole Radical Jewish Culture thing begin?
GARY LUCAS: Well, in November of ’88, I was invited to play my European solo debut at the Berlin Jazz Fest. It coincided with the 50th anniversary of Krystallnacht, which was the night in 1938 where Jewish shops throughout Germany were trashed. It was sort of the beginning of open season on Jews, right before the beginning of World War II. So when I got over there I saw in the newspaper that it was an anniversary, it just got me inspired. I was thinking, ok, I’m going to do a piece about my feelings concerning Krystal Nacht. And I did in the evening performance at the end called Verklärte Krystallnacht, a play on Schoenberg‘s Verklärte Nacht, one of my favorite pieces, Transfigured Night. So I came up with Transfigured Krystallnacht. And it actually drew on some of the music that later I channeled with The Golem.
FRANK J. OTERI: Which is wonderful by the way.
GARY LUCAS: Thank you. Anyway, I played it, and the audience was stunned. I said, “That was Verklärte Krystallnacht” and then there was this “ach”, but then I got an ovation. Then the next day the paper said, “Est ist Lucas”, “It is Lucas” with a picture of me. I don’t know if this piece was the one that particularly sparked this off, but they were in love with what I did.
FRANK J. OTERI: Now when you say “piece,” was this an extended composition?
GARY LUCAS: Yeah, but it was sort of an improv. A lot of my compositions have themes, but there’s plenty of space to improvise around them. The next day too, I saw Zorn who was over there with Naked City, and I had known him since the days I used to go into the Soho Music Gallery where he was a clerk before he got really famous. I used to go in there to get him to put up pictures of Captain Beefheart and the Band, we talked a bit, so we knew each other, and I like John. So I said, “John, John, I got to tell you I did this piece last night called Verklärte Krystallnacht, it’s the 50th anniversary of Crystal Night,” and his eyes got really big. I saw that this tumbling around in his head. It made an impression on him so much so that a few years later he came out with a piece called Krystallnacht, and he debuted it as his First Congress of Radical Jewish Culture. He had a festival in Munich in ’92, and invited me to do The Golem. So that, and plus, then I came back to New York and then started immediately to work on the soundtrack on the The Golem film. It’s a classic 1920 German Expressionist film which is more or less a Jewish Frankenstein story. He was aware of that; he heard about that. So I think this and the fact that Don Byron had done music by Mickey Katz, we were sort of like the early people coming out of this Downtown scene doing Jewish themed music. And it finally registered with John, and he got busy a few years later and started to devote his writing to Jewish-preoccupied themes. He came out with Krystallnacht, and he started Masada, and he started the label. And you know more power to him. He did quite a mitzvah in his life for lots of people, and it’s good for society, in general, to get this work out.