Guitar great will perform at Cornell University March 4
In a long, eclectic career that has seen him play with everyone from Jeff Buckley and Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band to his own band Gods and Monsters, guitarist Gary Lucas has shown an affinity for pushing musical boundaries. His mix of blues, psychedelic, folk, Asian, jazz, classical and other influences has enabled him to create a unique voice that he has showcased in a variety of musical settings.
On March 4, Lucas will bring one of his most acclaimed projects to Ithaca, performing his live score to a newly restored version of the 1920 silent-film classic “The Golem” at Cornell University's Willard Straight Theatre. Here’s a synopsis of the film, from the Museum of Modern Art:
- "The legend of the Golem, a creature made from clay by Rabbi Loew in 16th century Prague to defend the Jews in the ghetto against pograms, was filmed several times. Paul Wegener codirected and acted in a 1914 version as well as another in 1917. This is his most ambitious version, made with the vast resources of the UFA Studios in Germany. The 'monster without a soul' terrifies the multitudes, rebels against his creator, falls in love with the Rabbi's daughter, and is destroyed when a child removes the Star of David from his chest. The enormous looming sets by Hans Poelzig were inspired by the medieval architecture of Prague. Special lighting and the composition of crowd scenes contribute to the haunting atmosphere of this fantasy. The hulking figure of the Golem, played by Wegener, influenced the portrayal of the monster in Frankenstein."
In recent phone interview from his home in New York City, Lucas, who was born and raised in Syracuse, N.Y., discussed creating his score to “The Golem” in 1989, his formative musical influences, and his myriad other musical projects.
Q: The character of the Golem has often appeared in popular culture – comic books, novels, movies – over the past century.
GL: I subscribe to the notion that we’ve had a revival of interest. I can think of many examples in pop culture where the Golem appears as the character in a book. In “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” by Michael Chabon, the Golem is mentioned as a prototype for the Superman comic. And I think “The X-Files” had a Golem as well. So I’m all for “Golemania” – I’m trying to revive it.
Q: How did you first encounter “The Golem” film?
GL: I saw photos in Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, which was kind of the bible in the early 1960s to find out about horror films. And it was a very comprehensive magazine as far as covering the whole history of the genre going back to the silent era. So it was there I first saw photos of this Jewish Frankenstein monster, and I was like “Wow, how cool is that?!? I’m Jewish, so I’ve gotta see that – it’s intriguing.” But they never seemed to bring it anywhere near Syracuse, so it went unseen by me.
After that, I would hear about it from time to time and I would see stills from the film, but it was before the advent of the Internet and video stores. So in 1989, I got a commission to come up with music for another art form in collaboration through New Music America, which was an outfit that was hooked up with the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival. BAM had had this arts festival in New York City for years, so they had some grant money and I got tapped along with some other artists to do something like a ballet score. So I said, “How about doing a silent movie with a live score?” And I would say that I’m really a pioneer of that; I don’t know of many other examples until I did it. And they liked it, so I thought, “Okay, I’ve gotta find this ‘Golem’ film.” Somehow it was calling out to me.
Finally, someone told me the Museum of Modern Art had a print and you could arrange for a private screening in a booth there. So I did that and came out thinking, "This is the perfect film for me. I love it." Then I thought to bring in my friend, Walter Horn, another Syracusan, who played keyboards. He and I had a history of doing spooky experimental music, particularly on Halloween. He also loved it, so we got a VHS print and split up the structure of the film and decided who would tackle which scenes for what character. We debuted it in 1989 and it was a big hit.
Q: And here we are, more than 30 years later.
GL: Walter Horn eventually dropped out – he had a day job – so I had to figure out a way to play it solo, which I did. But every time I do it, I do it differently, because if it was fixed, it would be very boring to me. So it’s 50-50 (between) improvised and composed, and every time I try to add little new things, because I’m constantly seeing new things in it. It’s a very rich tapestry of images, beautiful mise-en-scène, and the direction is superb.
I’m playing to a newly restored version courtesy of Kino Lorber Company, and their version comes from the Royal Belgium Archive of Film. They discovered a negative from a slightly different camera angle a couple of years ago, just sitting in a film storage facility. So when they made a positive of it, they noticed there were a few extra scenes, and the image quality was so much superior than the one that had been circulating for many years. So it got the full treatment for restoration, with color and fleshtones, and tinted sequences according to how they had been treating in the 1920s; in those days if there was a very lurid sequence, like a fire, they would tint that section of the film red. So they went to this film lab in Italy (the Cineteca del Comune di Bologna at the laboratories of L'Immagine Ritovata) to do that, and, it’s so clear you'd think it was made yesterday.
Q: What were some of the biggest challenges in scoring “The Golem”?
GL: It was trying to come up with interesting themes to flesh out the characterizations of some of the characters, and (figuring) how to keep it real and fresh every time I played it. I didn’t want to repeat myself and I knew I was in it for the long haul.
So the framework I decided on was perfect because it allows me to stretch out and play, depending on a variety of factors: how the audience reacts, how I’m feeling that day, etc. I’m just an instrument that is very sensitive—from my nervous system to what’s in the atmosphere to what’s on the screen.
Q: What sort of gear do you use for these ‘Golem’ shows?
GL: I use two guitars – an electric and an acoustic – and some secret effects pedals. A magician is not supposed to reveal his secrets. But they enable me to create soundscapes so it sounds very orchestral in spots. I used to go out there with more gear, but it just got too cumbersome so I decided to strip it down. But I can still go to town with it.
There are no prerecorded tracks – everything I do is in real time. It moves from very stark solo playing to full-on psychedelia that sounds like a full orchestra. I’m trying to reanimate the dead souls you see on the screen, and make them intriguing as characters.
Q: Who were some of your original guitar influences?
GL: I was open to everything, and I gravitated early on to guitar. I liked everybody, but I focused on the psychedelic era, especially the British guitarists. All the Yardbirds – Beck, Page, and Clapton – and Peter Green, who’s a great Jewish guitar player. I then went back to Syd Barrett, who was kind of outrageous, slightly dissonant and electronic. But at the same time I loved John Fahey and those country blues guys. So all of that went into the mix.
But I don’t really listen to anybody anymore. I don’t want to be influenced. I’m not a good consumer – I’m just focused on my own music. There are a lot of great guitarists out there – I just haven’t heard any recently that really struck me as fresh or original. The last ones I was excited about were Johnny Marr of the Smiths and Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead.
So, I am eclectic, but I have my own style and stamp as a guitarist and a songwriter – I’m sure of it. The thread that unites everything is a blues spirit.
Q: What was it like to play with Captain Beefheart for five years?
GL: He was a great guy, a fantastic artist—to me he should’ve been in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame years ago. He was so influential and so creative. I never met anybody remotely like him who could hold a candle to him.
Q: What else do you have coming up musically?
GL: I have a “best of” retrospective coming out on Knitting Factory Records April 15 titled “The Essential Gary Lucas” It’s a double CD covering 40 years of music from Beefheart to Buckley and beyond. And it spans the 30 releases I’ve put out, so there’s something for everybody.
I’ve got another one, an EP with this French Moroccan kid, in the works, and a new project with this Dutch kid, a jazz singer who plays acoustic upright bass. He’s amazing. We’re recording in May or June.
We're also marking 30th anniversary of Gods and Monsters, so we’ve got some shows coming up in New York City. I just keep on keeping on.
If You Go
Who: Gary Lucas
What: Performing his live score to "The Golem"
When: 7:15 p.m. Wednesday, March 4
Where: Willard Straight Theatre, Cornell University
Cost: $14 general, $11 students ($3 off for Cornell Cinema passholders)