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The Test of Great Music Is to Make the Spine Tingle

Jacob Perl
February 27, 2018


Interview by Jacob L. Perl

I do not know if everybody gets it. A lot of people don’t, because they do not listen deeply into music. They just treat it as a background or adjunct to other activities, like eating or talking. Or they use it to mask sounds from the neighboring apartment. Whatever. They would not really see these connections or hear them. But I do. I feel them. So I just keep working on projects where I feel connected, and hope that people will pick up on what I’m doing, because I put a vast and diverse amount of different music out there. I’ve put out thirty-some odd albums to date, and I’ve been on another 60 or 70. So if they hear it in my playing maybe they will feel the connection.” Gary Lucas

GARY LUCAS often lends his formidable sonic skills to projects most people have never heard of. He played with rock stars like Jeff Buckley and Captain Beefheart, but he also champions 1930s Chinese pop, Yiddishkeit, Hungarian folk music, and the cartoon music of Betty Boop. He scores old horror movies and performs his scores live the music he composed for The Golem is eerie and uncomfortable. He has a unique musical style, and is also a sharp conversationalist. While a student at Yale in 1973, he played the first notes of the European premiere of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass on electric guitar, and last year he played at the UN. He wants people to see the connection in the roots of music, and doesn’t think people do. You get the sense his heart is broken over it.

Jewish Currents spoke with Lucas via phone in January.

Lucas’s latest album, The World of Captain Beefheart, revisits the music of Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet), the eccentric, rough-voiced American musician often mentioned in the same breath as Frank Zappa, with whom Beefheart collaborated and was friends. Lucas played with Beefheart for five years and acted as his manager. Though Beefheart died in 2010 and stopped playing well before that, Lucas never left the music. “I was recently cited as probably the most proactive former member to keep his music alive,” Lucas said.

The new album is a collaboration with Nona Hendryx, of the ‘70s soul group LaBelle (as in Patti LaBelle), who performs the vocals. Some of the songs are tough to digest and disorienting; others are understated, accessible pop jewels. Lucas explained:

We designed it as a kind of…[intro] track to entice people into investigating further this artist’s work, that they might otherwise overlook because of its fearsome reputation. In fact, [Beefheart’s work is] loaded with a lot of humor, and wit, and playfulness.”

One of the more accessible tracks on the album is “My Head is My Only House Unless it Rains.” It features heartfelt backup vocals and a clean and repeated guitar lick, for those of us who need to hear something more than once to feel it. “My arms are just two things in the way until I wrap them around you,” Hendryx sings beautifully on this song of longing.

Lucas spoke lovingly of Captain Beefheart:

It turned out he was, actually, he was proud that he had two Jewish guitar players, which he did on the last album. Me and a guy named Morris Tepper. He said, ‘a lot of people think it is hip to have black people in their band, but I have Jews, man, because they understand suffering.’ That is a direct quote. I would say he was quite a philosemite.

“And I really loved the man. I never met anyone like him. So I am out here still trying to remind people of him, of his greatness, and his genius while I can. I feel I’m on a mission. But it is uphill. The way things are going in music over the last couple of decades, a guy like Beefheart would never get a record deal today, or at least not with Warner Brothers records. He was on some major labels during his career. That’s gone.”

Lucas is a champion of Jewish music, too. He has released albums as part of John Zorn’s Radical Jewish Culture series, and toured with Jewish Knitting Factory artists. In 2016, he headed a collaboration called Fleischerei, with video and music from Betty Boop and Popeye those jazzy toons from Fleischer studios.

(A few years back, our own Lawrence Bush wrote, “The Fleischer studios versus Disney was a matter of jazz versus Musak. It was Jewish sexuality set loose — without fear for the first time in history. Jews and Jewesses had long been assaulted with anti-Semitic images of being oversexed and corrupting. With jazz and jazzy cartoons, the Jews were saying, And how! C’mere, baby…”)

And yet, when asked which current musicians the Jewish community ought to notice today, Lucas struggled for an answer:

I am not sure there is a specific sound or sensibility. I just don’t know if there is a monolithic Jewish sensibility out there. My instinct is that our people are a very cantankerous and individualistic bunch. So I’m not so sure there is some particular artist that I would endorse or foist on anybody that would ring any bells in Jews as a people.”

After pausing to think for a moment, Lucas settled on a song by Lhasa de Sela, the late, eclectic Mexican-American musician who made a home in Canada. Years ago, Lucas had heard one of her albums bring played in a restaurant in Italy:

I will tell you somebody that I think the Jewish community should hear. I think they would get it. Her name was Lhasa de Sela. I heard her in a restaurant years ago in Italy. I was getting a Lifetime Achievement Award. They took us to dinner, and I heard this music; it was just unearthly. I said I’ve got to find out more about this artist. There is something in the grain of her voice. Her singing and the music came together. . .

“There is one song [she did] called “Anywhere on This Road, which seems to be about displaced people. I think Jews could relate to this from the thematic standpoint of the diaspora. It may well be about Arabs displaced by Jews. I’m not sure, but there is a guy who plays a trumpet part, I think Ibrahim Maalouf is his name, who is an Arab trumpet player who plays in that scale. The song is a universal cry from the heart against oppression, and how one has to keep going on, and there’s nowhere to rest on this road. It is one of the most haunting songs ever.”

LUCAS HAS a particular interest in the blues as a “root element” shared by many musics. He gave a TEDx Talk about it. We asked Lucas about the tension between different roles that music can play: It is used to define a group Identity or build a community, but also to reach out to strangers and to those who are different from us. Since Lucas has done work in both areas, we posed the question: “How do these two things square?”

In his response, Lucas brought up the blues:

To me it is all one. Music, to me, is the great leveler of communication. I choose the blues as the paradigmatic mode, that is most universally shared by music of all sorts of cultures. I hear the blues in Chinese music. . . I hear it in Celtic music, or in Indian music, I’ve worked with Indian artists, and in Arab music, and in Jewish music.

“I think it really comes down to that bending and sliding pitch, that bending of notes. And the sliding pitch could be vocal, a kind of glissando effect. Wherever a musician gets a tone that is in between the black keys and the white keys of the piano, that is where the blues lurk. In those quarter-tone pitches, those little slides and slurs. It is those modes that resonate the deepest in my soul and I think a lot of people’s souls. And I think it is something that is a common root-element that is universally shared… It’s mimicking a human voice, either wailing in ecstasy or suffering, some sort of ecstatic or miserable wailing that everybody feels.”

Although Lucas’s musical taste is broad, he doesn’t have time for most music on the radio today:

To me popular music is played out, is boring in every way. The construction of it, the sonics of it, and the trite formulas that are still used to evoke a simulacrum of feelings. . . [P]eople just keep hitting that same old money-making button.

“Once the let’s say in R&B the drum machine loop and repetitive rhythms came in, and also the auto-tune effect, it is like a de rigueur element you need in popular music these days. It’s like, why bother? It doesn’t send me. It doesn’t move me. . . I’m not saying that I have any superior moral authority. I’m just telling you in my own universe I do not have time to listen if I hear you kind of closing down something. . .

“It is like what Vladimir Nabokov said about great literature. You know you are in the presence of it when your spine tingles when you read a passage. That was the test. Similarly with music.”

That same sensation explained Lucas’s choice of pieces when he performed at the UN:

I played at the United Nations for Holocaust Remembrance Day last January 27th. And I chose to play a solo acoustic arrangement of Leoš Janáček’s, On An Overgrown Path, number 15, from a piano suite of music he composed. It was something that, when I heard it played on a recording, my spine tingled in one section. I thought, this is the most beautiful harmonic motion that I have encountered in a long time. God, that would sound great on guitar.

“And in the midst of a long Christmas a couple years ago, I sat there and arranged it in my own style, through close listening. I never use sheet music. I do it by ear. Then I practiced it and started to play it in my shows. And when this opportunity came up to play at the UN, I thought it would be good, even though the composer, Leoš Janáček, was not Jewish. But it is expressing something unique about the human condition. It is so poignant. It plays on my heart string.

“I like music from the heart. I don’t really get this from most artists. There’s some sort of nod and a wink. There’s a gloss around a lot of it. Maybe it’s the production, or the  formulaic construction of these pieces. It is like, my God! It is so lackluster.”

As for Lucas’s own relationship to the mainstream, he is optimistic:

I am still trying to intersect with an audience. That it will be a mass audience, I don’t have illusions about that. On the other hand, I never gave up. Whenever I compose new music, somehow some part of me still gets excited. I think, God I think people would love this. Once that goes out... [trails off] But I still can get excited.”

Lucas said that friends have recommended he change his music to get a bigger audience, but he is not interested:

I cannot really do too much tinkering of DNA to rearrange it, to conform to somebody else’s paradigm. Would that I could. I am probably too dumb. I’m either too smart or too dumb.”

Jacob L. Perl, a member of our editorial board, is a writer living in Madison, Wisconsin, and working in the medical field.