"Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form" — Plato
Summer nights in Sydney are warm. Even warmer when you’ve got an overweight dog sharing a single bed. I remember one February night, peeling myself from the sheets slowly as to not disturb the schnauzer who lay belly-down at my feet, and turning on my computer, its dim glow filling the room. I think it was about 2am, and I couldn’t sleep. My eyes scanned the iTunes library and stopped on a glittery jacket. I let Jeff Buckley’s 1994 debut Grace run its course for the first time, and with my head resting cool against the desk, I finally fell asleep. Looking back now, it doesn’t really seem like much of a story, but for all those who found a home in Buckley’s music, that first time is truly like no other.
I guess coming to terms with the finite road of Buckley’s recorded legacy continues to be a heavy load to bare, but somewhere between a drop-d tuned fender and a spectacular falsetto, I had found a hero, a friend and a teacher.
Through Buckley, I had been introduced to a whole other world of sound that I may not have been all that inclined to venture out in on my own, people like Nina Simone and Miles Davis, Bad Brains and Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, Edith Piaf and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the list goes on. I’ve harboured myself many a time in the arms of these people, slowly expanding my musical diet from my youthful (and still very much active) amour for Australian pub rock, using Buckley’s Sin-é tapes as my guide.
As author David Brown said, "Jeff sang each song as if he wasn’t merely doing a remake, but inhabiting the song like a favourite old coat".
Yet among these people, I was also introduced to American guitar virtuoso Gary Lucas, of which the first sounds of the Grace album belong to, and who, in his own right, had introduced me yet again to another realm of sound that I have been so lucky to have lost myself in, all those years ago.
Availability in music is short. I suppose with anything, time is short. But music, well the very ephemeral nature of its existence brings with it a level of reverence in respecting its inevitable coda. Although, it’s the story of sound which stays with us long after it physically ceases to play.
Gary Lucas’ musical story is one ought to be heard.
"I’m going to play my way out of my day job! That’s what I’m going to do!" Working as an ad writer for CBS records kept musical alchemist Gary Lucas relatively under wraps from the performative sphere until his 38th year, with which he reckoned with the very meaning of what a solo guitarist could achieve. With "a virtual history of music at his fingertips", Lucas’ career has spanned over 30 albums, solidifying his place alongside the world’s greatest musicians.
The early 1980s saw Lucas record and tour with Captain Beefheart, and from there, his playing would only continue to rattle a myriad of genres and contexts, from live film scoring to showcasing traditional Jewish music, collaborating on Qawwali compositions to being a key player in avant-garde scenes and beyond.
"The whole trick is to put as much work out as possible and to try and appear in as many territories as possible if you really want to be in the game."
That’s exactly what Gary Lucas has done.
And then came 2020, a year that has been so unkind to all. It has pulled an abrupt stop to the things we hold dear: travel, studies, work, and above all, for nearly half a million people, it has taken away life. Yet, once more, we see some of our musical heroes cut through the grief and dismay of the times, and guide us to places of sonic refuge. I followed along, like many others, both into the embrace of new musical discoveries, as well as finding comfort in older loves.
In a time where traditional live music has been momentarily lost, musicians, innovators of both sound and connection, have taken to online landscapes to share in a kind of global healing. Livestreaming has become a generous gatekeeper for those who desperately miss standing abreast with music-lovers on sticky floors, and whilst it is no match for the real thing, it has defied the geographic constraints which leave some followers unable to participate in the real-time fervour of live shows.
This was the path that led me back to Gary Lucas. Positioned at the forefront of this seemingly new behaviour, Lucas invites worldwide audiences into his living room three times a week for half- hour sets, which span over some 300 works.
The 'never meet your heroes' adage reared its head as I became more and more invested in the routine these shows were beginning to uphold. Translating to three 5am starts, they made damn sure that I was up, and living, among the backdrop of a dull drudgery under lockdown; and they continue to do so. For this, I am so grateful, and I’m sure I’m not alone in saying as such.
So in the spirit of this kind of altered connectivity that a post-covid world has inadvertently and paradoxically created, I reached out to him, with my naturally anxious preconceptions already taking flight. I didn’t know what I was expecting to come of my email, but it certainly wasn’t to have a response that same day, optimistically in favour of my approach. I had landed the most important interview in all my 21 years — this is something that I will take with me wherever I go.
With shaking hands and shallow breaths, I called the number. My god, I’m so glad that I did.
"Listen, don’t be nervous, I’m just sitting here in my lounge room in New York". That was pretty much all I needed to plunge into an almost hour-long conversation about music, livestreaming and Buckley.
"It’s pretty basic. I just put my iPhone on in a corner against a windowsill, propped up against a brick wall, and I hit play". The overt simplicity of these broadcasts are totally juxtaposed by the quality of playing. Partnered with either a 1926 National steel, 1946 Gibson J-45, or a 1966 Fender Stratocaster, Lucas’ skill is second to none, and these livestreams are an absolute masterclass for any aspiring guitarist — if not for his style of playing, but the breadth of pieces both born of and interpreted by his hands.
Abundant with alternate tunings and intricate voicings, these half-hour sets really are a gift to all those who find joy within 6 strings; with pieces ranging from Chinese art pop of the 1930s to 21st century avant-garde music and everything in between. There’s a massive musical diet on display here, all of which are either accompanied by backstories or meshed together with something ostensibly unrelated, creating a sonic palette too good to miss out on.
Yes, as a young musician I am both bewildered and mentored by those who have come before me, I guess this true of anyone who won’t bare to live in silence, yet I am also surrounded with fantastic present composers, who walk amongst the corporate fiction created for both young audiences and young media alike. However it is this focus on a new media world that has altered the accessibility of music so drastically; in a way, it’s a fantastic tool as anyone can press a button and be online.
Level the Playing Field, both an album of Lucas’, as well as a theory underpinning the digitisation of the music industry, accurately displays the double-edged sword that is technology whereby "suddenly you’re coequal with superstars... but of course it doesn’t work that way. People’s attention has pretty much gone to artists who have serious financial resources to promote their work in various ways... It’s a wilderness in a way, out there".
This is very much true. It also gives weight to the musical discoveries we find outside of the mainstream, outside of what has been created for 'us'. Whilst the validity of aesthetic taste is one not necessarily heightened by a pretentious, high-brow outlook, it often leaves those more difficult to categorise, in the dark — and what a disservice that can be.
"The Voice of God Speaks Through a Bent Note" What pours forth from my speakers each Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday morning, is music laden with memory, love and truly mystifying brilliance. The musical dexterity displayed is one unparalleled with any other artist I have come across. Yet these performances are just as inviting to the ears, as they are challenging to them.
Hungrily devoured by hundreds, if not thousands of people per sitting, there is this creeping underlay of melancholia that often buries itself into a vast array of sound. Whether that be the recurring realisation of being confined to the house, being confronted with the grief for musicians lost, or the pure thought of how many blisters were endured to be able to play with such incredible ardour and proud intention, this melancholy remains. It’s not a bad thing, in fact it’s quite the opposite. The lack of produced tone and frivolity of commercialised pop, renders a soundscape I think, more accessible than one based on lavish lifestyles, attainable only by the elite. Perhaps that’s just my generalised disdain for teen pop that’s showing.
There is a certain soul to Lucas’ playing that drips with remnants of the blues, whether it be through open tunings that espouse modal explorations of scales unbeknownst to me, or the overt appreciation for blues practitioners by name; Charles Mingus, Sun Ra, Skip James, and Miles Davis, to name a few.
"You know, I think the blues ties together everything I do, musically".
Coming from a place of suffering, there is an automatic connection with ecstasy; it’s this bittersweet understanding of life which becomes clearer as we all grow up. There is an intimacy between happiness and despair which is difficult to articulate in words, yet is so abundant in sound, especially that emanating from Lucas’ living room.
The following tracks are examples of performances which depict a musician who is so at ease across a massive tapestry of sound, wonderful pieces that would get anyone well-aquatinted with this American prodigy.
"I mean for me as an artist it keeps me sharp. I’ve had to really revisit a lot of my older repertoire, you know. And a lot of the music, it’s not the kind of music I could just dash off to play from memory, I have to really practice some of the pieces."
Gershwin’s 'Our Love is Here to Stay' The closing piece of Lucas’ tribute to friend and collaborator, Hal Willner, who sadly passed away at the hands of coronavirus earlier this year, was George Gershwin’s 'Our Love is Here to Stay'.
The well-known jazz standard was re-contextualised and arranged by Lucas, for acoustic guitar — what a sound.
Alongside the remainder of Lucas’ repertoire, if you closed your eyes, you’d hear more than just one guitar, that’s for sure.
Whilst staying true to the original melody, there was residue of a walking bass on the bottom strings, paired with a fullness and warmth that was conjured by the rolling of phrases. There is something so incredibly honest about this style of playing, that for a moment you’re taken away from the, at times, incapacitating awe of Lucas’ virtuosity, and toward a place of beautiful solace.
Those lovers of both Tim and Jeff Buckley will be familiar with the contributions Willner had made in the celebration of one career, and the creation of another. The music industry in its entirety lost a treasured visionary and key player in the game.
'Mojo Pin' I had tried so hard to not bring up Jeff Buckley on the phone, as to not let my selfish interest wander over toward self-deemed unsolicited waters.
Perhaps that was what compounded my anxiety over the whole situation, not only was I being given the time from somebody I have utmost respect for, but also in a way, it articulated a moment where I was as close to Buckley as I will ever really be. Like all younger followers of Buckley’s music, whom time has been an unfair gatekeeper of experience, there is kind of void of yearning that can never really be rectified. So we will continue to soothe this strange nostalgia by listening to 'Grace', 'Songs to No One' and 'Live at Sin-é' among others.
To hear the story of the relationship between Buckley and Lucas from the man himself, will be a moment inexplicable of its weight and affect for a long time to come.
"Sometimes things just strike me. If I just disengage my mind, and just pass my fingers over the strings, without any intellect, I hear magic sounds. That’s how 'Grace' and 'Mojo Pin' got written... it just sort of came out of nowhere. I wasn’t trying to force it out. It’s a zen thing for me. It just sort of takes over."
Initially entitled 'And You Will', what would later evolve into 'Mojo Pin', opens with haunting harmonics embellished with vibrato through the ’66 Fender Strat tremolo arm, before transitioning to a call and response section, whereby plucked diminished chords are answered with minor voicings.
There is a certain dissonance played with in its instrumental form, toying with delicate melodies and crunchy rock bridges; it’s as gritty as it is beautiful.
Bob Dylan’s 'Tangled Up in Blue' Standing proudly alongside other instrumental arrangements of folk classics, is Dylan’s 'Tangled Up In Blue'. Etched yet again in an open tuning, Lucas creates this really wide texture of warm sound that flows from the Gibson.
Using more so the pads of fingers rather than nails or picks, the attack of each note is softened slightly, but allowed to resonate just that little bit longer. This trademark style of playing is what enables the intricacies of single line melodies to exist overtop of full-sounding polyphonic accompaniments. Each guitar is treated as a symphonic entity, capable of realising multiple musical roles all at the same time; no longer are melodies held hostage to the highest strings.
Gary Lucas has the tendency to gather up as much sound and expose each harmony to the nth degree, releasing sonic relationships not necessarily showcased all that often, which in turn creates something profoundly unique — even in contexts as familiar as Dylan.
'Dream of Wild Horses' "I’m going to leave you with one of the songs that I wrote for Jeff, the last year he was alive, before I heard of his tragic disappearance 23 years ago tomorrow. That was a Friday afternoon I’ll never forget. I sent him this thing and it was called 'Dream of the Wild Horses'." Lining a musical firmament with what could have been, this instrumental gem was new to my ears upon hearing it close the first of the Jeff Buckley tribute trilogy livestreams, performed at the end of May.
The piece is hopeful and optimistic in its harmonic contours, with added colours of unresolved and augmented phrases, but ultimately is reminiscent of a similar feeling which 'And You Will' and 'Rise Up To Be' first instigated. It’s playful yet complex, and an absolute joy to hear.
Other pieces to note are Dvorak’s String Quartet No. 12 'The American', Gods and Monsters' 'Spider Web' and Alberto Iglesias' theme from the 2001 Spanish film, Sex and Lucia, all of which show Lucas' varied music.
"I don’t even know how to categorise what I do, except that I’m playing the hell out of my guitar - that’s what I’m trying to do anyway."
I think one of the greatest attributes of what constitutes good art, comes not only from solo achievement, of which Gary Lucas isn’t short of, but also from the ability to surround themselves with other artists. This isn’t just in a physical collaboration either, rather the ability to learn from preceding influencers and musical colleagues, absorbing as much as you can from the world and expressing it from a unique perspective. If you are new to Gary Lucas and his livestream shows, tune in prepared with a pen and paper to capture all the names credited outside of Gods and Monsters, Captain Beefheart, and Jeff Buckley.
Live From the House of Smiles NYC; The Livestream Tour These livestreams are free, and although there is a Paypal handle readily available to those who wish to show further support, these shows are not aggressive advertisements, rather a new media affordance which is supporting an equally beneficial relationship between musician and fan.
"That’s the reason I’m doing it so often; I love to play... I wouldn’t be doing it if I wasn’t giving something unique in the quality of playing and approach, that wouldn’t be appreciated by people, especially in these harder times."
My all-time favourite quote about music was spoken by Nina Simone, who said that "an artist’s duty is to reflect the times... at this crucial time in our lives, when everything is so desperate, when every day is a matter of survival, I don’t think you can help but be involved. That to me is the definition of an artist”.
These are words that could not be any truer now, then when they left her mouth almost 50 years ago.
This is exactly what Lucas is doing; not so much in a literal sense, but he is offering a safe place in both music and connection, at a time where we need it the most.
"It’s a challenged and daunting time... but I refuse to dwell on it because I want to hope that better days are just around the corner. The main thing is to try and stay positive. That’s one reason I love music, and when I decided to throw down and devote myself to it, I felt that I was doing something positive. It can heal other people; it is the best. It’s got a real power to kind of keep people going. It’s very strong in that department".
It is these livestreams that bring us out of the mundane day to day, and toward something a little bit brighter, a little bit different, and a little bit better.
The exciting thing is, this doesn’t stop at the performance. Alongside serial gig-goers, it’s safe to say that sticking around after a show under the premise of getting a ridiculously overpriced t-shirt signed, is one of the most exciting few seconds where you have the chance to make an absolute fool out of yourself. But let’s be honest here, we walk home with that t-shirt held tight to our chests, sporting an aching grin the entire way.
This can’t really happen at the moment.
What we get instead from Lucas right now, might be even better.
What we find in these sets brimful of confounding talent, is a sense of pride without ego. Whilst I’m sure this virtue isn’t a new development for Lucas, it is certainly highlighted in the interactive substitutes being created online at the moment. From the detailed anecdotes which intercept his playing, to the personalised greetings and responses to comments, individual Skype lessons and entertaining the bold academic requests from university students; these half-hour sets are more than a half-hour of music.
Like with any livestream, you feel as if you’re in the front row. Albeit the space created by Lucas and fans in tandem, more so depicts a singular conversation with a dear friend.
That’s pretty cool.
Thank God! They’re Just People Too We all have heroes. From faces framed on bedroom walls, to thoughts borrowed in attuning our own worldly outlooks, we all have heroes.
Like many others, my heroes arise with furious passion, with written words that echo within us, and with melodies which ignite glorious release. Like many others, my heroes are those who capture what it means to be human in a celebration of sound, reconciling a haunting silence with a sonic bolide. My heroes are musicians.
Music, at least to me, is something that I have grown up with, and in it I have found a friend for the ages. It’s something that has taken me all across the world without me ever stepping foot out my front door, and it has welcomed me home on many occasion. It’s introduced me to fledgling visionaries of my own time, and to those whose last breath was taken well before my first. It has seen me through the best moments in my life, and has lit the candle when the world became all too dark. And although it can be incredibly painful to endure the times which certain voices awaken, stuck between a lament of an era beyond us, or nostalgic for a time yet to come, how lucky are we to have memory and life embedded in tunings and timbres?
Music is meant to be heard, and its capacity to provoke us and conjure something within us, is extremely powerful.
Yet along with the hero title, we hold an innate delicacy in how we treat these people; especially for those wired to dive as deep as they can amidst the depths of research, those who yearn for some kind of semblance of rationale or trigger for artistic brilliance, for even minor subversions of their character can alter our own lived experiences.
So I guess I understand the caution surrounding a circumstance where meeting these people is a possibility. There’s the idea that upon coming face to face with your hero will render their flaws and frailties all too visible, and that our perception of them and all they have affected in our life will come crashing down in a white flash of fleeting judgment. I’d be naive and downright lying if I were to say that this circumstance doesn’t faze me, I think there will always be fear associated with what we perceive as truly altering.
But we see that they are people too. It’s humbling and grounding, to have the nerves jitter away and leave you to recognise that underneath it all, we are connected to our heroes by the fact that both our hearts continue to beat.
They say never meet your heroes; but truisms are seldom true.
Gary Lucas is a case in point.
Links: Gary Lucas on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/gary.lucas.5836 Livestream Archive: http://garylucas.com/www/streams/streams.shtml Paypal: https://www.paypal.me/garylucas720