Who is Gary Lucas?
Uh, what day is it?
Even the scope of his best known associations - member of the cherished early-‘80s version of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, musical partner with/mentor to the late Jeff Buckley, various Jewish-music-and-beyond projects for jazz/avant-garde doyen John Zorn’s Tzadik label - barely touch on the New York guitarist’s ambitious reach and remarkable range.
In recent years alone he’s made albums of gospel (2010‘s Chase the Devil teaming with singer Dean Bowman), mid-20th century Chinese pop (2001‘s The Edge of Heaven) and an arresting Indian-blues hybrid (2009’s Rishte collaboration with Anglo-Indian singer Najma Akhtar) and a bracing album with his band Gods & Monsters, the continuation of the “psychedelic art-rock” group he and Buckley developed in the ‘80s.
All the while he’s been touring the globe performing blues, film music, giving seminars on Beefheart and, of late, teaming with London-based Colleen Murphy (a.k.a. DJ Cosmo) for what they’ve described as an “astonishing mix of electronica, dub and country” under the name Wild Rumpus.
And we can take the “what day is it?” question literally regarding his visit to Los Angeles this coming week. On Monday (June 16) he’ll be at the Echoplex in Echo Park, billed as Gary Lucas and Friends, joined by several guests for highlights from the Chinese collection, Rishte and various other projects, including some songs that originated with his work with Buckley. Los Angeles-based Persian groundbreaker Sussan Deyhim will be featured on some of the vocals, including a transporting arrangement of the Edith Piaf classic “Hymne a L’amour,” which grew out of his Buckley partnership.
Then on Tuesday he will set up at the Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax to perform live his solo score for the 1920 German Expressionist silent film The Golem, from the tale of a medieval rabbi and his pre-Frankenstein monster, at a screening presented by the Cinefamily organization.
It’s hard enough for us to keep up with all this. How does he manage?
“For me, it’s all one,” he says, speaking of music, not metaphysics. Though maybe some of that too.
“The thing that blurs my identity with many people is the same thing that’s enabled me to keep working full-time as a musician, which was my goal from the get-go.”
And that is…?
“I think the link is a blues sensibility,” he says. “Also a desire to astonish and kind-of give people a sense of wonder again. That was always my goal. The blues links it together, and then the otherworldly qualities in my playing.”
Ah, the metaphysical.
“I kind of go for, in a word, the numinous. Or immanent. I said once to Musician magazine, ‘The voice of God speaks through a bent note.’ The microtonal slurs you get in blues or gospel are also there in Celtic and Indian music. The holiest sound, going back to my earliest listening as a boy. Would listen to Top 40 and the music I loved the most was R&B. My ears would perk up for anything with soul or the blues sensibility.”
He got to offer a taste of it in a recent CNBC appearance:
The Tuesday event will be his L.A. debut of The Golem program, which was initially developed in 1989 as a commission for the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival.
“I knew about the film,” he says. “I grew up reading Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. That was kind of the Bible for us kids in the ‘60s, to give us a very thorough education in all things horrible. I had a real penchant for universal classic movie monsters -- [TV horror host] Zacherly, the Hammer Horror films. I was an avid consumer of this.
“One of the films that caught my attention was The Golem. I’m Jewish and interested in my roots and Jewish mysticism. How cool is that? A Jewish Frankenstein! But I’d never seen it. I tracked down a print at the Museum of Modern Art, arranged a screening and thought, ‘This is for me!’”
The original live score performance was done with keyboard player Walter Horn, a childhood friend, and was a hit, leading to booking through the years around the globe, including a memorable performance in Prague, the home of the golem himself.
“It’s a great film,” he says. “Once you see it, you’ll go, ‘How come this is not more known?’ Lively, entertaining, beautiful.”
(See video at end of story for an excert of the film and Lucas' score.)
And, he notes, the project brings him back full circle to the noted mad scientist in his resumé.
“Beefheart was a Golem fan,” he says. “Don’t think he ever saw the film, but he used to say, ‘Don’t you wish you had a Golem?’”
Lucas might indeed wish he had such an assistant as he pushes on with a career that seems, if anything, to be getting more busy. After he leaves L.A. he’ll resume work on Gary Lucas’ Cinefantastique, an album of solo guitar arrangements of classic film music by composers Bernard Hermann, Nina Rota, Henry Mancini and Lucas himself. And he’s also planning a Wild Rumpus album, plus a new collaboration “that I don’t want to talk about as of yet.”
It’s a journey, for him and anyone who wants to come along.
“I want to take people out of the ordinary existence, the day to day, in music,” he says. “That has always been my goal: to take people on journeys.”