It’s hard to believe that 19 years have already gone by since the tragic news that Jeff Buckley, a 30-year-old rising star, drowned in the Mississippi River. It’s been five years since guitarist Gary Lucas organized a tribute show for Buckley in Brooklyn and invited singer Jann Klose to participate.
“I was curating a tribute to my late partner and collaborator at the Knitting Factory, and Anne Leighton, who then was managing Jann, suggested he take part in it, which was a great idea. I was impressed with Jann's voice, talent, and overall vibe, and we afterwards discussed a possible collaboration which snowballed once we got together to write. It felt really good.”
Lucas, who co-wrote songs and played guitar on Grace, Buckley’s only completed studio album, teamed with Klose to release an acoustic album, Stereopticon, earlier this year.
“It was a group collaboration,“ Klose says. “The approach was generally Gary coming in with fully composed and finished instrumentals, and then I added a melody and lyrics. When (executive producer) Dan Beck came in to the project, he would take our two parts and add his lyrics. Gary added lines. I think we were all looking to create a narrative of sorts with every song being a unique vignette of its own.”
Stereopticon is quite tame — yet beautifully executed — for Lucas, an innovative, eccentric guitar wizard who played in the band of avant-garde legend Captain Beefheart before meeting Buckley.
Lucas says the musical and lyrical aims of Stereopticon were “to make a concise album's worth of near-singles-length folk-roots-pop gems that in an ideal top-down, cool radio world would drive folks to want to play our album again and again and again.”
Are there any other colorful descriptions to describe the album to music buyers who are unfamiliar with the music of Lucas and Klose?
Lucas says it’s “bluesy acoustic folk pop that’s hypnotically compelling” with “good singin’ and good playin’.” The album features “a fabulous voice meshed with some very complex acoustic guitar music swimming in hooks, hooks, HOOKS!” he says emphatically.
Klose says “it's the type of record you can sit down and listen to closely and discover something new every time. I do anyway! It's also great to listen to in the background.”
A stereopticon is a slide projector, Klose says, that combines two images to create a three-dimensional effect or makes one image dissolve into another.
“Gary had the idea for the title, and we felt it described what we were going for musically, because the album really is driven solely by guitar and voice.”
Lucas explains in greater detail.
A stereopticon, he says, is a “wooden device from the ’20s that produces a 3D image for the viewer by displaying two similar photos adjacent to each other on a cardboard card. When viewed through the device’s viewfinder, one photo in 3D is rendered. That was the principle behind the old View-Master. Its predecessor was the Stereopticon, and I inherited one from my dad. By merging our two musical points of view, Gary and Jann produced a coherent, unified sound in 3D to the listener.”
I first saw Lucas perform with Beefheart and his Magic Band at New York’s Beacon Theatre in November 1980 — a mesmerizing, wacky performance that proved the Captain forever has his own unique chapter in avant-garde rock and blues history. It was 11 years later in Brooklyn’s St Ann’s church — on April 26, 1991 — when I next saw Lucas perform. It again was one of the most memorable performances I have witnessed.
Lucas was in the house band for Greetings From Tim Buckley, a tribute show to honor the late, great singer. Performers that night included Eric Andersen, Richard Hell, Robert Quine, Syd Straw, and G.E. Smith, but a skinny, unknown kid from California stole the show. It was the first public performance of Jeff Buckley, billed as “Jeff Scott Buckley.” He sang “I Never Asked to Be Your Mountain,” “Phantasmagoria in Two” and “Once I Was” — from Tim Buckley’s 1967 masterpiece, Hello and Goodbye — and “Sefronia: The King’s Chain” from Sefronia. It was chilling hearing Jeff Buckley sing, sounding so much like his father and hitting notes that only his multi-octave dad could reach. It was apparent we were watching a superstar in the making.
Lucas accompanied Buckley on three of the songs, played guitar during other songs that night, and arranged a duo version of Tim Buckley’s “The River,” which was sung by Julia Heyward.
After that show, Buckley joined Lucas’s band Gods and Monsters and played various gigs around the New York area. Buckley released his first commercial recording, a four-song solo EP entitled Live At Sin-é, in 1993 and then a full-length album, Grace, a year later.
Lucas believes Grace is a “staggering album” that will “forever” be on Top 100 album lists.
“It is a towering musical achievement, so rich in feelings, emotion and sheer bravery of expressiveness,” he says. “It details all the joys and agonies of being a sensitive person in love and a driven creative artist. I am honored to have collaborated with Jeff on composing the music for the opening two songs, ‘Mojo Pin’ and ‘Grace,’ which both began as my solo guitar instrumentals. ... I think his other albums have some thrilling performances and ideas, but they don't quite add up to Grace, the musical juggernaut where it all came together for Jeff. I think he would have made more breathtaking music if he hadn't been cut down so tragically early on.”
Klose says Grace was one of his favorite albums when he was a youth.
“I loved everything about it: the writing, the singing, the playing and the storytellin'” Klose says. “I didn't really get into Tim as much until I was cast as the singing voice of Tim in the movie Greetings From Tim Buckley. I recorded an a cappella version of Tim’s ‘Song to the Siren’ on my last album, Mosaic. I think these two artists were the real deal. Everything was about the music and creativity and experimentation. Very unique and original styles.”
Very unique and original styles — filled with creativity and experimentation — were the hallmarks of several musical geniuses Lucas has performed with. He says they include Don Van Vliet (better known as Captain Beefheart), Arthur Russell, Kevin Coyne, Lou Reed, John Cale, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Peter Hammill (of Van der Graaf Generator), and Najma Akhtar.
“They all had their quirky, individual, stubborn way of doing things that totally went against the normal grain of making music,” Lucas explains.
From 1980 to 1984, Lucas played with the oddball genius Captain Beefheart and was the guitar soloist on the critically acclaimed albums Doc at the Radar Station and Ice Cream for Crow. They were Beefheart’s final two albums before the Captain moved to California’s Mojave Desert and concentrated on painting.
“The two guitar solo pieces I performed on those albums, ‘Flavor Bud Living’ on Doc at the Radar Station and ‘Evening Bell’ on Ice Cream for Crow, put me on the musical map as a guitarist,” says Lucas, who lived in New York (and still does) while Beefheart was based in Southern California. “They were fiendishly difficult to learn and execute, both written by Van Vliet on piano and transcribed by me for electric guitar.
“One memory is Don handing me a note on Western Exterminating Company stationary. It showed a cartoonish exterminator about to bring a mallet down on the head of a cartoon mouse. Don had created a big splotch of fake blood over the mouse's head via red magic marker with an inscription in red magic marker, ‘Play Like You Dyed,’ next to it. He handed this to me right before I went into the studio to cut the track after I had driven in a cab from LAX (Los Angles International Airport) to make the session that morning.
“Another night he jumped with me into this old clunker I had leased from a budget car rental company called Rent -A-Wreck to have a set of wheels to haul myself around L.A. and environs for a month of rehearsing and recording with Don and the band. Don took one sniff of the car interior and pronounced: ‘Someone died in this car, man!’ I asked him how he knew, and he just retorted, ‘I can smell it.’ He then proceeded to produce some unearthly moans with his incredible voice, as if channeling the ghost of the former deceased occupant of the car. We then drove merrily up and down the canyons ringing Hollywood all night with Don producing more weird vocalese on cue. It still cracks me up to this day.”
Besides the music of Beefheart, whose guttural, blues-based music was sometimes described as Dada-esque rock, Lucas has dabbled in numerous other genres. Two of his proudest musical accomplishments are “releasing 30-plus albums that have received superb reviews from the critics” and touring in more than 40 countries, including Cuba, India, China, South Korea, Morocco, Colombia, and Australia — places most U.S.-based musicians never get to. His other proudest moments are co-writing and recording “Grace" and "Mojo Pin" with Buckley and performing Beefheart’s music “under Don’s tutelage live and in the studio.”
So where does Gary Lucas stand in the pantheon of rock/pop guitarists?
“Well, I guess, if I have to, I will modestly accept,” he responds. "One of the best and most original guitarists in … a modern guitar miracle, which is what David Fricke wrote once in Rolling Stone. Just kidding. How about one of the 100 greatest living guitarists? That was in Classic Rock Magazine. Hmmm. I take these things with a grain of salt. It's nice to get recognition. I think it's important, and I'm all for it, but I really never dwell on such things, really. I’m just a small-town boy trying to play his guitar.”
Lucas, who was born in Syracuse, N.Y., and graduated from Yale University with an English degree, says he’s “pretty much stopped listening to new guitarists” and names the older ones he respects most.
“Sorry, no disrespect intended,” he says. “I keep going back to folks like Skip James, Bert Jansch, Hubert Sumlin, John Fahey, Jeff Beck, Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix — the old-school classics. I know there are tons of awesome players out there currently — Johnny Greenwood and Mike Keneally come to mind — but I just keep on keeping on, trying to develop my thing and trying not to pay too much attention to stuff like who is in and out of the guitar pantheon this week. It'll drive you crazy doing that.”
Lucas says the best concert he attended as a spectator was Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band at Ungano's in New York in February 1971.
“It changed my life,” he says. “I vowed to myself that night: ‘If I ever do anything in music, I want to play with this guy!’”
Klose says the best concerts he attended were Paul McCartney at New York’s Madison Square Garden and David Bowie at Cleveland’s Gund Arena (now Quicken Loans Arena) about 12 years ago.
Those two shows and a Prince show in Hamburg, Germany, in the mid-1990s most influenced Klose as a musician. The Prince show “was amazing,” he says. “I'm so glad I saw him live several times. A truly great entertainer.”
For Lucas, it’s back to Beefheart and his Magic Band, of course, when talking about the most influential show he has seen. “The way those guys played was so fierce, so disciplined, and yet so free,” he says. “I was utterly blown away and inspired by the experience.”