Gary Lucas, Part I: The Czech connection

Gary Lucas, photo: Ian Willoughby

Much travelled musician Gary Lucas was in Prague last week to provide live accompaniment to a screening of the cult 1930s horror movie known as Spanish Dracula. Described by Rolling Stone as “one of the best and most original guitarists in America”, Lucas also did a show reviving The Ghosts of Prague, an LP he recorded here in 1996 with local band Urfaust. The musician, perhaps best known for his work with Captain Beefheart and Jeff Buckley, has a long association with the city, and with Czech music. What’s more, Lucas has roots in this part of the world.

Gary Lucas, photo: Ian Willoughby
“My grandfather on my father’s side was from Bohemia. I love to come to the Czech Republic to play. Really it’s like coming home for me. I’ve been coming here since ’93, when I played at the Reduta jazz club.

“That was with another film. I was playing with the German silent film The Golem. Since then I remember I came back and did three nights at the Roxy with The Golem in the summer of ’94.

“Then I made a record here called The Ghosts of Prague and did a very extensive tour in places like Litoměřice, Hradec Králové. You name it. Brno.”

That’s got to be unusual – for a touring, visiting artist to play in these small towns. How was that?

“Oh, I loved it. I’m not a snob. In fact, one of the best gigs in my life was in the town of Kolín. Which also had a very mystical outcome.

“It’s very eerie. I get a vibe in the Czech Republic that I don’t get in any other country that I perform in. And I’ve played in over 40 countries around the world, not just in Europe but also in China and Japan, India, Australia.”

What is the Czech vibe?

“It’s a supernatural vibe. There’s a mystical quality, particularly around Prague and the immediate vicinity. I just love the atmosphere and can really feel ghosts in the air. I’m very sensitive to this.”

If we could rewind slightly to your grandfather, do you know where exactly in Bohemia he was from?

“No, this is still a mystery…I hope it was some place near Prague. But the fact is he abandoned my father and my grandmother, his mother, when my dad was four years old.

“So they tried to wipe his memory out of the family record, really. He never spoke to him after this.”

Captain Beefheart in 1974, photo: Jean-Luc, CC BY-SA 2.0
But Lucas wasn’t the family name originally?

“The family name was Lichtenstein. I understand that’s a Czech name. And they even have a Lichtenstein Palace, I’m told.

“I did a morning [TV] show called Breakfast with Nova back in the ‘90s and they asked me about this. They said, you must be a blue blood? I guess it was an aristocratic name.

“But I’ve made no pretensions to that. When I cut myself shaving, it’s red blood, I can tell you.”

In this country people, especially musicians and alternative musicians, love Captain Beefheart. I was wondering if that opened doors for you, or if people really welcomed you here, because of the Beefheart connection?

“Well, I think it probably helped. I can’t deny that I played with him. I got some criticism in the UK because the first album that was released under my name in ’90 was called Skeleton at the Feast and it came out on a small label.

“They put a sticker on it, ex-Captain Beefheart. So [the critics] said, oh, you’re trading on the Beefheart name. Well, first of all, it wasn’t my idea.

“Second of all, I’m not ashamed of having played with him, because as far as I’m concerned, anyone who came through the ranks of Beefheart was marked as an exceptional musician.”

Why do you think he’s so popular here, relative to other countries?

“I’d say first of all that the Zappa connection cemented it. You know, Frank is a big hero here and was actually an unofficial trade minister before he died, and friends with Havel.

“I think that people in the Czech underground who also became Charter 77 supporters listened a lot in the ‘60s to Beefheart and Zappa. If you talk to bands like the Plastic People, they would acknowledge this influence…

Frank Zappa, photo: Mark Estabrook
“Now I don’t know if there’s Eastern European roots with Frank… I don’t think so – I think he was Sicilian and Lebanese.

“As for Don [Van Vliet, Beefheart’s real name], he claimed to be descended from some very historic people, including Wallace Simpson Warfield, the bisexual who married the duke of Windsor.

“He also claimed to be related to Sir Richard Burton, the explorer. I was going to say James Burton, but that’s Elvis Presley’s drummer.”

You’re known over your career for playing with many different people and collaborating on many different projects with other people. Who are the Czech artists you’ve worked with? You’ve mentioned the Plastic People.

“Yeah, I love them. I’ve also worked with the circle around Richard Mader, who led this great group, Urfaust. And we’re sort of recollecting Urfaust on Saturday at Jazz Dock, because we’re relaunching the record that I did with Richard and his friends in ’96 called The Ghosts of Prague.

“This includes very fine people like Pavel Ryba, who’s great, Jan Čambal – I don’t know how well known they are to you, but to me they’re exceptional. Also people like Jana Kupková and Mirka Křivánková, one of the finest of avant-garde vocalists.”

Also you toured the country with Pavel Zajíček.

“Yeah, how could I forget Pavel… DG307: fantastic band. One of the best. And also has great members shared with the Plastic People, like Eva Turnová.”

I was reading also that you played at some event at the Czech Embassy in Washington, in the 2000s, was it?

“Yes. It was through the auspices of Martin Palouš, the Czech ambassador to the UN at the time, who was my friend and still is my friend.

“He invited me to DC to do my solo guitar arrangements of Czech classical music. An album of this has come out on Faust records, only in the Czech Republic so far. It’s versions of Dvořák, Smetana, Janáček and also the Plastic People – I rate them as among the Czech classics.”

Plastic People of the Universe, photo: archive of Radio Prague
What is it about those Czech composers that appeals to you?

“There’s a humanity and a melodicism. I just get shivers when I hear this music that I’ve arranged. I love it.

“They took, especially Dvořák, some elements of American spirituals and folk music and blues and blended it with a Middle European, Czech sensibility.”

You mentioned the Golem film that you also did music for. What is the appeal of that Prague myth for you?

“Well, I am Jewish on both sides of the family. I was raised not really very religiously I can tell you, but as a Reform Jew, which is the most liberal of the sect of Judaism.

“I was always very interested in the mythology of Jewish folklore. And the Golem, as you know, is a significant figure in the cabbala.

“The idea of the actual historical rabbi Jehuda Loew making a man of out clay in the 15th century in Prague to protect the Jewish community against annihilation pushed some buttons within me.

“It pushed my Jewish heritage buttons. And it pushed my love of mystical folklore, science fiction, horror films. This is my roots.

“I started with mythology: Greek, Roman, Norse mythology. Then I discovered at a tender age a magazine called Famous Monsters of Film Land and they had a picture from the film The Golem in there. And I said, how cool is that? A Jewish Frankenstein monster.”

Say when you’ve travelled around the country, or even here in Prague, do you check out Jewish sites or Jewish historical monuments or anything like that?

“I have, yes. I’ve certainly paid a lot of attention to Josefov, the old Jewish quarter. I’ve toured it several times, with my family the first time I came over here.

“And I’ve laid homage messages to Rabbi Loew. I’ve left him little paper messages. I like to visit his grave.”

Old New Synagogue in Prague, photo: archive of Radio Prague
What do you say in the messages?

“Oh, may the Golem rise again! Some people say he’s sleeping in the attic of the Alteneue Synagogue. But I’m told that some arcana magazine from the UK actually did send a reporter with some sort of metal detector – he didn’t find any traces of him, unfortunately.

“My brother, who was studying to be a rabbi in Israel, believes that when the Nazis were occupying Prague and entered the Old New Synagogue they were later discovered torn limb from limb by some demon of supernatural strength.

“And everyone assumes it must be the Golem. Let’s hope so. We don’t like Nazis.”