Gary Lucas is a guitarist, songwriter, and former copywriter for CBS Records. (He’s responsible for calling The Clash “the only band that matters.”) He has released more than 30 albums, but he is best known for playing with Captain Beefheart in the 1980s, and Jeff Buckley in the 1990s. Check out the clip below of him playing “Mojo Pin,” a song he wrote with Buckley.
In this edition of Music Is My Life, he discusses his most famous collaborations (check out the tags below for a preview) as well as his compliment from Leonard Bernstein.
Gary Lucas:I’m thinking My Fair Lady for the Broadway soundtrack and Doctor Zhivago for film soundtrack, and these things really made an impression on me. I loved listening to music. It warmed my soul, I’d say, to just be bathed in this. I then discovered top 40 radio of my home town of Syracuse New York. And I would spend hours, just out of nursery school, before I went to kindergarten even, listening to whatever they would play in the afternoons in a rocking chair, just rock back and forth and listen to the local DJs. This is late 50s into the early 60s. My father, out of the blue, came to me in 1961, and said, “How would you like to play a musical instrument, and how about the guitar?” Up to that point I’d never even considered such a thing. I was like, “Gee, Dad, yeah, that sounds like a good idea. Why not.” Simultaneously, the band leader in my elementary school band (he also led the band for the junior high and the high school in Syracuse that I was geared up to be going to–these were public schools), he administered a music aptitude test to, I think, my fifth or sixth grade class. I scored 100, or a perfect score. It was to test your musical aptitude and abilities visa vis pitch and rhythm recognition and stuff like that. Based on my high performing score on this test, he assigned me the french horn to begin studies, which if you know your band instruments, it may be the most difficult, certainly the most difficult brass instrument in the arsenal of instruments. Of all instruments, short of the violin, it is certainly the most difficult pitch-wise to achieve a good intonation on that instrument. And actually he didn’t pay much attention to my physical aptitude to realize anything significant on this instrument because, if you look at a picture of me, you’ll see I have a very thin upper lip. I wasn’t really born with a good embouchure, or let’s say the physiognomy to be able to produce a good embouchure on this instrument. Nevertheless, I soldiered on and took simultaneously to my guitar lessons. Within about a week I was studying the french horn as well. I had this parallel track in music going on at nine years old. The band leader threw me out of the band some years later for wearing sandals to the band room.
Yeah. He also … This is a true story. I finally got the heave ho out of the band because he caught me improvising on a march. . . . So, you know, yeah. I thought I was making it better. . . . And I thought I was jazzing it up, as they say. I was inspired to try and, like, improvise a bit, like dixieland. But no, you couldn’t.
Did you find different people to play with after you got booted out of the band?
Well, I think that was the end of my french horn career because at that point I realized I’m never going to have a great embouchure. It’s really hard to produce a beautiful, mellifluous tone. I had some virtuosos. I was like the second chair. I had a girl next to me, Nancy Flynn, who could really play that french horn. I sort of gave it up at that point, although I resurrected the french horn on the first album I ever played on, which was Captain Beefheart Doc at the Radar Station in 1980, when I told him that I played the French horn, he said, “Well, you’ve got to play some of that on this album.” . . . So I have a short excerpt on a song called “Best Batch Yet.”
I want to obviously ask you about Beefheart a little bit, but I want to go first, just go along the progression a little bit of your life. With getting kicked out of the band, did you start playing pick up in any bands, guitar with anybody?
Oh, I right away was in and out and tried to start several bands. At that point we called them the combo. The word band was not in common musical parlance in Syracuse at that point. It was still the era of the combo.. . . We played at some school assemblies in sixth grade. At that point I borrowed from my guitar teacher a very, very basic, primitive electric guitar that he owned, to be able to be amplified. And I used my parents large FM radio to plug into the speaker jack in order to do this. I don’t know if kids know this, but in the old days, in lieu of having a standalone amplifier, you could use a good-sized fm radio to be able to play through.
Yeah. I started that way.
You did? Okay, so you know.
That was probably my first public performance playing guitar to the school assembly. We got cheered. I think the repertoire consisted of A Swinging Safari by Bert Kaempfert, who was a German big band leader who had several top hits. And we did the “Theme from Peter Gunn,” which I always loved, by Henry Mancini. One of my favorite pieces, also Donald Fagan’s apparently. I read a book about his formative influences. You couldn’t miss the like, bluesy-
Learning guitar in the 80s, that was one of the first songs I learned.
The one string and you just climb up.
I didn’t venture forth into writing until much later. That would be about 1988. Really. I had some great professional gigs, like I played with the Yale Symphony Orchestra lead guitar, Leonard Bernstein’s Mass. That was in ’73. I was already a junior at Yale. In my junior year I did this. That was a big thrill. That was my first performance in Europe. Lenny himself gave me a huge compliment. My hero. If you had to say who was my big hero in music, at that point I would have said Leonard Bernstein, because I grew up on his Young People’s Concerts on CBS, and learned a hell of a lot about music from shows about Mahler. He introduced the world really to Mahler on Mass, and Charles Ives, The Unanswered Question. He was great. He was the single most influential and engaging personality to turn many, many people on to music as a pursuit and a love. And his books were great, The Joy of Music for instance.
How did you get that gig?
How I got that gig was I was just walking on the regular campus of Yale and I saw a sign that said, “Singers, dancers, players, electric guitarists wanted to audition for European premier of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass with the Yale Symphony Orchestra. Please contact John Mauceri,” who was the conductor of the Yale Symphony at that point. So I saw that and I said, “Ah, electric guitar, I want to do that. Let me go out for that.” I contacted him and he gave me some music. Actually, the first note that is audible on this piece is a shimmering electric guitar chord arpeggiated, a beautiful major key suspended chord, which I probably will someday recall how to play. It opened the piece. It was in the clear. I don’t know, it’s not on the tips of my fingers. I did that, and I was like, “I can figure this out.” I can still sight read. I’m not a great sight reader but because of my days in the school band with the french horn in the orchestras, I was able to study up on that score to be able to play it and sight read it. That’s how I got to Europe with them. And it was televised. They filmed it for PBS. It was shown in America, it was shown in Europe. I found a copy in the archives of the Austrian National TV, ORF, and recuperated it, as they say, and have some copies I gave to my friend. I was just writing a woman who was my friend, who was one of the singers and dancers in the production. She’s now the head of Undergraduate Film Studies at Columbia, Annette Insdorf, Dr. Annette Insdorf. But she was hoofing it up and singing in this production. It was a great experience, and it’s a great piece. For whatever reason, I don’t know exactly why, there’s been a check that’s inhibited a release of proper release of a DVD of that show.
Yeah. I don’t know whose copyright’s being infringed, or maybe it’s the wishes of the estate. I don’t know. . . . But it’s never come out, and everything else Lenny was involved in pretty much came out on DVD.
Right. You said he paid you a great compliment, but I don’t think you mentioned what it was.
Yeah, well this is what he said. The US Ambassador had a party for the participants and Lenny, who came to supervise the production, or he came to make some comments to Mauceri in the rehearsals, and, you know, put his input on the show. He received us in the garden of the ambassador from the United States. I introduced myself to him. He looked me over. I was, in those days, in full glam rock regalia, with crushed velvet pants and platform shoes, and my hair was like Mark Bowen’s. He looked me up and down, and went “Oh, the David Bowie look.” That was the first remark. I said, “Yeah, I like him.” He said, “What did you do?” I said, “I was playing lead guitar, and I really like this piece where you let me improvise, or the score calls for wild blues improvisation.” He went, “Man, I heard that. You were really wailing.” Now that remark made my year. Made a large chunk of my life. I thought, man, to get a compliment from Lenny on my playing. First of all, it’s unusual because most of the musicians he might compliment, they’re not allowed to improvise. I was lucky enough to get a passage I could soar over, and do my blues-rock thing. That’s how I met him. Then how that led to Beefheart, it didn’t directly, but it gave me a taste, gave me a taste of performing and being on a stage, on a big stage. And I liked it, even though I was in this, it wasn’t a pit orchestra, I was off in the wings. They had a lot of the orchestra on stage. The main action was the center of the stage with the stage with these singers and dancers, little tableau being acted out. It’s a great piece. It’s a theater piece. I just remember being inspired and wanting to do it more. So I got an Epiphone Coronet before I left for Yale. This became my workhorse guitar. It was a sort of a mini stratocaster with one pickup like a P90 type little pickup. This was sufficient. I went as a freshman down to downtown New Haven and bought a real cheap ass guitar amplifier for about 40 bucks. A little two vamp, tiny … But I could get a great distorted sound out of this thing. So there I’d sit in my dorm room wailing along with records with this great distorted guitar sound. Just continued to progress. Didn’t do that much playing out, but with seeing a lot of concerts, loving … Seeing things like John McLaughlin, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Miles Davis come up to Yale and played. Then I went down and saw Beefheart’s first show. That was what really changed my life. I was a fan. I read about him in Rolling Stone. He’d been on the cover. I was like, “God, this is great.” I discovered the music. I bought Trout Mask in high school, because it said “Produced by Frank Zappa” on the back. I’d seen The Mothers, I was a big fan. Then I really, after seeing him live, I said, “If I ever do anything in music, I’m going to play with this guy.” I told my friends. I went down there with two friends, and it’s ironic because these same friends, Steve Hendel and Bob Rubin are involved in the release of the record I do with Nona Hendryx, The World of Captain Beefheart.
Isn’t that kind of how you ended up playing with Beefheart, that you just went up and introduced yourself or something, right?
Yeah, basically that was it. It was a little bit more circuitous. What happened was, that concert blew my mind to the degree I was telling my friends, “I’m going to play with this guy.” I sort of made a vow, and I’m a very strong-willed person often when I get obsessed by stuff. I went back up to Yale, where I was also the music director at WYBC, Yale’s radio station. I said, “This is the greatest concert I’ve ever seen in my life, and this band is it.” I was known up there as his biggest fan, and proselytizer. Six months later he came back up to the east coast on a tour that Warner Brothers Records put him on. They contacted WYBC, and said, “He’s actually going to play up here at Woolsey Hall in New Haven. Do you have someone who can interview him?” So I got the gig, just by default, because I was the Beefheart go-to guy in Yale at that point. I have a tape in my collection, somewhere in the basement of me on the receiving end of a phone call from him. He was based in Boston. He was really nice, but I was a little scared. You can hear it in my voice, I’m trembling a little bit, like “Oh my God, my idol is on the phone.” I was still a fan boy a little bit. He was supposed to have ESP and magical powers. He did evince a little bit of this over the years to me too, also. Which is another story, but yeah. I wouldn’t say magical and supernatural, but he had a gift at intuitive and let’s say he was certainly in sync in a synchronistic way, with a lot of things other people missed going on. I just think all of the things that people say are extra-, paranormal, I’m sure there are scientific explanations for them, but some people are more sensitive than others, and pick up stuff.
Give me an example of something you witnessed that was . . .
Alright. The night John Lennon was shot, he was doing an interview in my apartment. During this interview there was some kind of disturbance psychically. Did I hear anything? I might have heard a car backfire. Did I hear a gun going off up at The Dakota? I’m not sure. But he stopped the interview, and said, “Listen, man. Something really heavy just went down, and you’re going to read about it on the front page of the paper tomorrow morning.” You skeptics out there could say, “Well, that’s just coincidence.” But what are the odds, right? It seemed fairly certain and portentous, and then in lieu of what happened later, it seemed like he was tuned into something, probably that event. What happened is we just sort of ignored it, and then, okay, go back to the interview. Then the second interviewer came, the first guy left. An hour or so later, the first guy called up and said, “Gary, man, did you hear John Lennon was just shot,” and I’m playing the tape back of Don. Then, I asked him about it and he just looked and said, “Didn’t I tell you?”
He was not fazed by it.
Yeah. Anyway, I saw some instances of this where he’d recall people’s names out of 20 years ago. A guy with a phenomenal pattern recognition for certain events. And sometimes, you know, the phone’s going to ring, and then the phone rings. Maybe there’s little vibrations that occur a few milliseconds before a phone actually rings he picked up on, I don’t know. He did it a few times enough, and then with people who were around him a lot collaborating some of this to me, I just would say he had a certain gift that not everybody were tuned into now.
It seems like you enjoyed your time with him, based on the anecdotes I’ve heard already, and just talking to you. I feel like not everybody has the same recollection.
No. Yes, look. It’s well documented that Don could be, shall we say, a bit authoritarian if not heavy-handed, as far as being a band leader, and made sometimes situations very uncomfortable for band members who were trying to just do the job the best they could. It’s pretty well documented. I’m not going to nay say it. I do want to say this, that even though I sometimes was on the brunt of this, as were other band members in the band I was in with him, which was the last version of the Magic Band, I think he’d mellowed a bit at that point. I put up with it, as did the other guys, because we knew, A, it was historically very significant. It was world historical ensemble. We were lucky and thrilled to be part of it, honored that he tapped us to be on it. You know, you can hear tapes of Buddy Rich going off on this band he picked up in Australia.
This kind of egregious, tyrannical outbursts, it’s part of the territory, folks, in music and in showbiz and in business, and in human relationships. I don’t excuse it. I’m at an age now, I could never put up with it from anybody in my life. I wouldn’t put myself in such a situation.
Right. It’s kind of like my brother, there’s nine years between he and I. He always says, “You know a different version of Dad than I do.” During his time, they were struggling, trying to get this business off the ground and it was just more intense, and he mellowed within the nine years, and I’m guessing Don did the same.
Yeah. I was lucky to see a more mellow Van Vliet than a lot of the original Magic Band members, and a lot of them are still angry about the treatment. They felt abused at his hands. I don’t want to go there because I’d rather celebrate the positive stuff, and there was so much positive energy. My memories, of one-on-one’s anyway with Don, are really magical. I never met anybody like him. He could be supremely entertaining as a companion and conversationalist, and a delight to be able to follow his associative leaps and bounds. He was big on word play in a Joycean sense, in his conversation, and also in his lyrics. He’s not really given the credit he should get as being an incredibly great lyricist. It’s frustrating to me, because I saw and I transcribed for him, many great images and poems, poem fragments. He has notebooks, or he had notebooks filled with these great observations and also drawings. Great visual artist. Great all around, completely sweet, generous to me artist. Really standing alone as this kind of visionary in the canon of American arts and letters, and in the world in general. There was nobody really like Beefheart ever, Don Van Vliet. It’s unfortunate, due to the nature of the business, and also the fact that a lot of it was operating at such a high frequency, only dogs could hear it. Only people who were so inclined, or maybe were bored with the status quo. Like I’m pretty bored with most music and art, contemporary music and art that I perceive. It was really for a cognoscenti who got it. People who got it, really got it, mostly they’d stick with it and they’d become rabid fans. For the most people, they didn’t get it, or they were puzzled by it.
You don’t hear many people saying, “Yeah, Captain Beefheart, he’s okay, with his Magic Band.”
No. No. The only one I ever heard, Philip Glass once, in bringing up Beefheart to Phil Glass, he said, “I can stand him.” I said, “So what do you think of Beefheart’s stuff?” That was funny, but I think he was offended, because Don sometimes would say and do stuff in his interviews that could be very dismissive of contemporary artists and musicians. Yeah. I think he was reacting to some interview. I’m not even sure Don had ever even heard his stuff. It was Don’s, one of his faux pas.
Do you credit Don, or your time with Leonard Bernstein . . . at what point did you decide to branch out in your own playing? When did you change there?
The thing is, I was inspired working with Leonard Bernstein and then with Don, and I really wanted to do music full time as a living, and write it and play it. I was inhibited to attempt this for a few years, or inhibited myself, just out of a sense of shyness. Really, if you can believe it. I do have a very shy side, although I’ve tried to overcome it and other people don’t see this at all, and think I’m much too brash and outspoken. I was then, and that was one factor and the other factor was probably because I was working within the biggest record company in the world for 13 years as a copywriter. This is at CBS records. That was my day job. I was writing ads for Michael Jackson, The Clash, REO Speedwagon. Anything they handed me, I could produce some copy. It was . . .
You weren’t the one who called The Clash “the only band that matters,” were you?!
Yes, I was. Yes, I was!
Yeah? You came up with that?
I sure did. And I’ll tell you something else. At the point that I came up with that line, I actually believed it was true. I was a huge-
Yeah, I always believe it.
I believed it. I loved that band, thought they were really saying something profound and revolutionary. Then I only got second thoughts about it once I joined Don and the Magic Band. I thought, “Well, if there’s only one band that matters, it looked to be our band.” I became a monomaniac about Beefheart, at that point.
That’s funny. . . . Tell me about turning in that copy. Were the people at CBS, like “Yup, that’s great, that works.”
What happened was, again, they knew I was a big fan. Because of my enthusiasm for various musics, I used to generate a kind of interest. “Let’s get this guy to work on it, because he’s a big fan.” I got ahold of the first Clash album. The top execs at CBS in ’77 went to London for the annual CBS Records convention. There two punk bands were announced to be signed. One was The Clash and the other was The Vibrators. Somebody flipped a coin and The Clash wound up on Epic, whereas in the UK they were on Columbia and then the Vibrators who were on Epic in the UK became a Columbia band. They didn’t last very long, The Vibrators, but The Clash did. I got ahold of that first Clash album and I played it to death, summer of ’77. “This is great.” Songs like “Janie Jones,” and man, it was killing me. Plus I had seen the Ramones. I was in on the early punk scene in a big way, as something fresh. I also heard how a lot of it was influenced by Beefheart, in a way. Certainly all the avatars of the first wave of punk, this is Charlie Rodd and Joe Strummer, David Byrne, Devo, all of them sited Beefheart as a seminal influence. I didn’t think he was getting his due, honestly. Anyway, I worked in that corporation. Then when I got busy with Don’s stuff, and a chance to get in the band, I kept the day job because I saw how other artists got chewed up and spit out of the corporate mouth. Welcome to the machine. I was, like, “This music biz, really sucks,” you know, as far as that goes. How creative artists get treated, I saw it up close. I was like, “I’m not going to dip my toe into that. I don’t want to leave, unless I do it as a hobby,” which is what I did. They would give me leaves of absence to record with Beefheart, which I took.
So I sort of had the best of both worlds for a while. Up until the point … They just were proud of me. If I didn’t do a good job there, they would never have allowed it. But because I was their star copywriter in this division called Creative Services, they were actually proud of it. Like, “We’ve got this guy, not only is he writing these great ads for us, but he’s off with this avant garde rock act, Captain Beefheart.” It was something they thought was cool, to have a guy within the corporation. I was in the corporation as a freelancer. Then became a staff writer, they normalized the situation, and hung onto that gig for 13 years. Probably far past my sell-by date, but like I said, I was afraid to go out and to see if I could do music full time, because I saw what was going on there. It was, like, most of these bands don’t have much of a shelf life. All this, like, CBGB stuff, how much of it is really going to stick? Some of it really stuck, like David Byrne and Talking Heads, but mainly, most of it was fairly ephemeral. And I had a wife to support. I thought I’d better keep this job. Then I began this communication with Beefheart, and that was an extension of when I met him at Yale. We kept it up. I was told, “I want to play with you, I want to play with you.” I’d already auditioned for him up in Boston. I went up there … Actually, that’s another good story. When I was about to leave for Taiwan after graduation, I had a “lost year.” My parents said you’ve got to go over … We recommend you work for your dad in Asia. I don’t really want to go into the details right now, but when it came to …
A “lost year” is a sufficient way to explain it.
That’s about it.
That perfectly fine.
There was … it will be in my next book. The fact is, I saw in the newspaper in Syracuse, “Frank Zappa’s appearing with special guest Beefheart.” I’m like, “What? I’ve got to see this.” Don was ragging on Frank in a big way before this, when I knew him first. “Now they’re friends again. This is strange.” I met him after the show in Syracuse, hung out with him, took him for barbecued spare ribs at midnight. Then I told him, “You know if you ever need a guitarist, you put the band back together,” because he had no band then. “I’d like to audition.” He was, like, “You play the guitar, man? Why didn’t you tell me?” I said, “Well I didn’t think I was good enough, and I was a little scared, but I’m ready to try now.” He said, “Well bring your guitar up to Boston at the end of the week. I’m up there.” I brought it up there, played for him after the show, Frank’s show. I went back to his hotel, and he said, “Yeah, great. We’re going to do it.” He was vague. I said, “When?” If he had made a firm offer, but there was nothing to offer at this point. But I had a ticket to go to Taiwan. When I got back two years later, I called him up and we resumed and then I moved to New York, got this job. That’s where we are at this point. I start calling him up, “Okay, what about playing with you, I want to do it.” “Well, I already put this band together, but come and see me where I’m going to be in New York.” He came twice, played The Bottom Line. I hung out with him both times after the show. Eventually, in ’80, he said, “I’m ready to now use you, I’m going to send you a piece. We’re in this.” That’s how I got in there. First it was a piece … That’s in ’80 on an album called Doc at the Radar Station on Virgin.
That’s the one with that really nice instrumental. What is it, “A Carrot . . . “?
Oh yeah, “A Carrot is the Closest a Rabbit Gets to a Diamond.” That’s a keyboard instrumental, with the band.
It’s keyboards, a bass, and guitar.
I always thought that was guitar.
No, it’s a keyboard-based … Maybe there is some guitar. I think it’s a duet of guitar and keyboard, maybe bass. I’ll have to check it. I have the instrumental on the B side, or side two. Now it’s all on CD so there is no sides. This one is called Flavor Bud Living. It took me a hell of a long time to learn on the guitar. I learned it off a tape of John French playing it on guitar, who had learned it for an album that had been quashed, called Bat Chain Puller. This album never came out officially until many years later. It was caught up in a lawsuit Frank had going against his first manager Herbie Cohen. I learned that, then Don said, “No, you’ve got to use my exploding note theory, man. French played it all wrong.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “You’ve got to play it like bombs bursting in air. (Singing) Play each note like it had no relation to the previous note or subsequent note.” Okay. I went out to the desert to where he lived in Lancaster with my first wife Ling, a Chinese woman I’d married. I got instruction right from the master, as to how to play it. Then I went and recorded it a couple of months later, on the first of second take in LA, and then toured with the guy all through Europe in November of that year, and came back and did some dates in the US with him through January ’81. That was his last tour, as it turns out. He didn’t want to get back on the road. That turned me on so much to wanting to be a touring musician. That’s what really convinced me. Then I’m frustrated, because he only wants to do painting, okay.
You’re not just out of college there, either.
No. I’m now 30. . . . Then, I finally got my dream. We did one more record called Ice Cream for Crow. He didn’t want to tour. I said, “Well, we’ve got to do a video.” He said, “What’s that?” I said, “Oh, MTV.” “Oh yeah, all right, that stuff.” We did a beautiful video, MTV refused to play it, but I got it in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection, and I got the last deal happening with Virgin Epic. I did a lot for this guy. I hooked him up for his painting career with Julian Schnabel, who was the number one young abstract expressionist painter based in New York with deep connections. Then I resigned. Basically, after five years I felt like I’d taken it as far as I could go. He wasn’t happy I was leaving, but I said, “Look, I’ve set you up with the biggest art gallery in New York. If you want to make another album, I’m there to play. I got involved for playing, not to be your art pimp. And good luck with it.” He wasn’t happy I was leaving, but I had to really make a break. I felt I’d be effaced. He didn’t like it when I was talking about my own music or doing something. But I was dreaming of it at that point. Then I had a couple of years … I stayed at CBS. I wasn’t talking to Don. He went off and had some shows. I was watching it from afar. What happened was I got invited to do some sessions for a few artists I liked, a guy named Arthur Russell, my protégé. You know all about Arthur. At the point I hooked up with Arthur, I met him co-producing Peter Gordon’s Innocent album. I brought in a few artists for CBS. One for CBS Masterworks, that was Peter, and with Peter came Arthur, who I thought was the most creative that I’d met since Beefheart. I hooked Arthur up with Rough Trade Records and Blanco Y Negro, was a huge supporter. That’s another story. Then I played with a few other people: Adrian Sherwood. I did a session for Adrian. Adrian was great. I did something for Matthew Sweet. All this led me to believe I should be doing my own music at this point. It’s insane. I got a little encouragement from a few people whose word counted. Then somebody dared me to do my own show. What happened is a club opened in New York called The Knitting Factory. I met Michael Dorf who was the major-domo of The Knitting Factory. He came up to my office at CBS. He said “I’m a punk. I should have my own label.” I’m like, “Yeah, I’m a punk too, working here in this stupid corporation, when I was a rebel.” He said “Listen, if you want to do a show, we’d give you a show. Beefheart’s guitarist? No problem. That could be cool.” Finally, I got up my gumption and I put some music together. I worked really hard for some months to assemble a solo show. In June 1988, June of ’88, I did the show on a Tuesday night, I think it was June 11th. Everything that could go wrong more or less did in the run-up to the show. They left my name out of the ad in the Village Voice.
I persevered. I put up some fliers. I wasn’t going to be defeated. Low and behold, they had a line snaking out the door around the block for my very first solo show. I got several encores. I felt like I was in a trance. They handed me 600 bucks out the door. That was good news. I came back and I said to my lovely wife who was sitting next to me, “I’m going to hit music as hard as I can now. I just proved to myself I was an idiot. I can really move a crowd just solo guitar. Then I’m going to really try to make up for lost time. I’m going to play my way out of my day job.” And I did. That’s how it got going. In the next year I put Gods and Monsters mark one together. It was jazz, rock with two bassists, all instrumental. I did my first film score for The Golem, with my childhood composer friend Walter Horn. I had a history of improvising music with Walter. He’s a great player and composer. Started making demos and recording stuff. Put my first album out in ’90. I did as much as I could, and I continue to do as much as I could. Now I have 30 plus albums out and 12 live film scores and played on about 60, 70 of other people’s albums, written about 350 registered compositions, some of which are very well-known songs, like “Grace” and “Mojo Pin” for Jeff Buckley that I had some success with.
I know a little bit about that collaboration, how that came about with the Tim Buckley tribute. How did it come to pass that you guys composed those few numbers together, but then, was it just kind of a music industry thing, where they were like, “No, no. He’s a solo artist”?
Yeah. That’s sort of what happened, although I think Jeff had a little complicity in the rending of the relationship after about a year for those reasons. Anyway, what happened was, Hal Willner, my friend who did these multi artist tributes put together a tribute to Tim Buckley. I was asked to participate. He said, “Well Jeff Buckley has come forward.” I said, “I didn’t know he had a son named Jeff.” “Well, neither did I, or anybody, but he has,” and “I think he’d be a good person for him to work with.” Jeff, I think, might have asked to work for me, really, if he saw the roster, because he was a big Beefheart fan. Jeff and I had a great year. We knew we could write together from the first day we started making music together. Basically what happened was when I left CBS I had a deal with Columbia Records with a female vocalist who was in Gods and Monsters, and I won’t mention her here. It wasn’t going very well after a couple of years under contract. I’d left my day job. I was kind of way out on a limb. I had a lot of faith that it would work. What happened was the guy who signed us, me and this female vocalist, left the company to go to Polydorf, or Polygram at that point. I was throw to the wolves. It coincided with my first solo album Skeleton at the Feast on Enemy Records to come out. That was getting four and five star reviews in places like Q Magazine. Pretty much anything I put out, I always would get stellar reviews, but there seems to not be a correlation between that and sales with it.
There never is, really, is there?
Probably not. It kept me going. It kept me running. At that point though, when I came back from the tour and tell them this and was all gung-ho, they said, “We’ve dropped your project.” They put the junior A&R guy on the phone to inform me that there was no deal. I was like, “How can you do that? We have a contract.” This guy said to me one of the coldest expressions I ever heard in the music biz, “You can’t afford to sue us.” I always tell that to classes, as some cautionary, just watch out folks. It’s not all a Garden of Eden.
How do you respond to something like that?
I don’t know what to say. Then the guy said very quickly, “Maybe we can have lunch, I’ve got to go.” My response to it was to try and allay my wife’s gasps of terror. “We don’t have health insurance. What are we going to do? You left your day job.” I said, “I’m going to keep going in music because I know I’m good, and I have Jeff Buckley waiting in the wings, and he’s expressed an interest in working with me. I rang him up shortly thereafter. He said, “I’ll be your singer.” That was a comforting thought. I went to bed feeling a little bit of security, like I’m going to refashion Gods and Monsters, that was the name of my band. We go to 1989 with Jeff as the lead singer, because he’s one of the best musicians I’d ever met. Then I had to get busy. Now I have to write some music for us. The very next day, I just sat with my guitar, and over a few days emerged the music that became “Grace” and “Mojo Pin,” which later became the first two songs on Jeff’s two million-selling Grace album. They were guitar instrumentals. One of them that I’d already begun, and then the other one just sort of occurred to me. You know how I compose. I just turn my mind off, pass my fingers over the strings of my guitar, which happened to be in a drop D tuning, because of the last thing I played in Europe before I’d come back to America on a tour. When I got this bad news, was actually folks, Evening Bell, which is a Beefheart tour de force solo piece on Ice Cream for Crow, which took me six weeks to learn. That’s in drop D. I had that tuning already up on the guitar, so that’s ironic that three of my best known pieces are in this drop D.
Wow. That is weird.
Maybe it’s nice, too. Maybe it’s the synchronistic thing. I definitely always love writing in that key. That’s how I would work. I would write, finish the instrumentals with all the motifs and riffs and harmonic structure, send them to Jeff on cassette, he’d come back with perfect melodies and lyrics to fit them like a glove. He rarely modified anything beyond, “Please double this section, I have some more words here.” I’d fill a verse. That was his fantastic gift. Working with him was a gift. He was the best collaborator I’ve ever had. I miss him dearly. He was a fantastic guy also, for the most part. We did have our ego issues, and eventually a rupture with the relationship, but he resumed it when he realized, “Yeah, those were good songs.” He wasn’t very prolific at that point, and the label was saying, “Well, what have you got besides covers? We signed a guy doing wall-to-wall covers pretty much at Sin-E,” where he was playing. Then I got a call from him a couple of years later. “Hey, remember those great songs? I’d like to record them on this record I’m going to record for Sony.” I was like, “Sure. Great.”
That’s great. It was kind of like a creative relationship, then a falling out, and then you resumed it. That’s great.
Yeah. And when he died, he had asked me for more music for a follow-up album, which he was having difficulty writing, and the label seemed to be rejecting everything he turned out. So I was really sad and really overwhelmed to hear of his tragic passing. Not just because I’d lost a great friend and wonderful person, but as a collaborator. I just thought, “Think of all those great songs we could have written together still.”
Yeah. But then you kept going, and here we are.
I kept going, man. Here I am. I just keep putting one foot in front of the other, and marching along to wherever. I have some more albums, for sure, in me. Many. I love making music. It’s my life. I tour as much as possible. I’ve played in 40 countries. I just came back from Paris. I sold out the French Cinematheque Francaise with a live film score for a Lon Chaney film The Unholy Three, and sold out at the Sunset Jazz Club with a solo concert I played in Amsterdam, a tribute to Jeff with a great Dutch vocalist Jolene Grunberg I’d met a few years ago on a tribute to Jeff. I do as much as I can, as frequently as possible, everywhere. It’s my life, it’s my living. It’s harder than ever though, I’ll tell you. Not the playing of it or the composing of the music, but the whole landscape of the music business changed, especially with recording and getting paid on your copyrights. Also, everybody wants to play live. There are not so many situations, even in Europe anymore where it used to be easier for non-mainstream musicians, particularly jazz musicians to find employment. A lot of those gigs were government-sponsored gigs. A lot of the right-wing governments that have come into power in Europe, one of the first things that they slash in their budget is subsidies to the arts, particularly subsidizing bringing in foreign musicians. It’s always, “Let’s build up the local music scene.” I’m not complaining. I’m doing all right, I’m doing better than most people who attempt to do this for a living. I’ve managed by hook or by crook to sustain myself since 1990 when I left my day job doing this. I’m 28 years out doing this full time. My only regret is I hadn’t really applied myself earlier. Like I said, I had a lot of fear about that and anxiety. It was only when I hit a certain age and somebody said, “Oh, there’s this club. You could play a show here,” did I get ambitious to take that step into doing my own thing in music. Before that-
It’s an interesting thing: “Heeding the call.” It’s probably the trickiest industry to heed the call in.
Great talent could be washed away and overlooked, given the wrong place and the wrong time.
This is true. A lot of it just depends on the hands that are dealt you. Situations often are out of one’s control. Sometimes, paradoxically, the more you push to try and get gigs, the further they seem to recede off in the distance. Then there’s all sorts of advice. “Oh, well, you don’t have a manager. The manager should be …” You try and find a competent manager in the music biz who actually has connections to do anything, and you’ll find a guy who wants to make sure he’s going to make “X” amount of money every year from the amount of time invested, or he might invest, or one of his associates might invest in your career, is not easy.
You have done this all without a manager?
I’ve had managers come in there on and off. Pretty much yes. The answer is yes. I’ve had to be on the front line of my career. Because nobody else would know it as well as I … What needed to be done, number one, and what it consisted of. Part of the reason I’ve had longevity in my career is because I’m very diversified in the projects that I do. Maybe to the point I’ve confused a lot of people now. Most people who sort of have a big name in music do one thing specifically, and various iterations of that thing over the years. Once they make that thing pay, they specialize and they don’t confuse. I like a lot of different musics. I don’t know if you give this any credence, but I am a double gemini, as far as my astrological sign, meaning, there’s a lot of different voices and personalities within me, as a person and as an artist. To me it was natural to play ’30’s Chinese pop, and segue from that into Wagner, or whatever else I was going to do next, write original songs, put together a tribute to Beefheart, whatever. Because I was so diversified, it may have enabled me to work more, because if one thing was going to slow down, then I’d sort of segue to the other thing, or the next thing, but it may have confused the general public. It blurred my identity. “What kind of artist is this? What are we dealing with here. We heard he was avant garde.” Yeah, I’ll accept that coming out of the downtown music scene, whatever they called it here, and yet I’m probably the only downtown alumni who wrote hit songs for Jeff Buckley, or some big artists. I liked pop music. I got a foot in pop music. I’m not going to deny it. That was my roots growing up.
When you’re thinking about the overview of your career, what do you think is the song that will be your legacy?
I’d say “Grace.” I used to make a joke in a mordant kind of way in the old days. They stickered my first album, Enemy Records did, “Ex-Captain Beefheart,” the very first album, Skeleton at the Feast, which was all instrumental and live, and has really some fierce devotees. I think it’s one of my best records, mainly recorded in Holland on my early solo tour. They stickered it, it said “Ex-Captain Beefheart.” I was taken to task by somebody in The Wire magazine, like “He’s using Beefheart’s name.” It was like, “Really. That’s absurd. I’m not to tell people that I played with this guy? It wasn’t my idea, but I’ll just say, if that’s a way to get people to pay attention to this record who, they may not know me, why would that be a bad thing, and how is that using Beefheart?” Because it’s true. Yeah. I’m an ex-Captain Beefheart alumni. Then the joke became, all right, when I die, my tombstone will say “Ex-Captain Beefheart.” Then a few years later I’d say, “and maybe it’ll say also, and Jeff Buckley.”