Musician Gary Lucas Talks Rolling The Dice With Jeff Buckley [Exclusive]

Throughout decades of hailed rock Gods and their musical counterparts, arguably the most powerful collaborative relationship bloomed in the spring of ’91 between Captain Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas and a floppy haired unknown Jeff Buckley. The two met in rehearsals for a tribute concert for Buckley’s late father Tim, which took place in St. Ann’s Trinity on April 26th in 1991. After it was suggested by concert producer Hal Willner, Lucas accompanied Jeff on “Sefronia: The King’s Chain.”

The two parted ways but improvised fate brought them together later in 1991 after both men experienced failed music projects. A wide-eyed and slightly unaware Buckley joined Lucas’ band Gods and Monsters as lead singer and later on as a rhythm guitarist. Following his year run with the band, Buckley embarked on a solo career. What would undoubtedly shape the center of Lucas’ career and Buckley’s posthumous musical heritage was the experimental sound the two created. Of the dozens of songs the two collaborated on, the two tracks that made Buckley’s widely celebrated album “Grace” featured Lucas’ sprawling guitar on the opening track “Mojo Pin” and “Grace” for which the album was named after.

Since then Lucas has captured his own musical locomotive. After Buckley’s death Lucas released over twenty albums as a guitarist and composer via small labels. Throughout his career Lucas has accompanied many vocalists, among them rocker Chris Cornell and Jazz musician Bryan Ferry. Although most would remember the golden year of Gods and Monsters with Buckley, the band continues on as a super group with Billy Ficca from Television. In addition to creating his own work he has kept his collaborations with Buckley alive for the fans. He is currently embarking on a European solo tour with select dates in Paris, Slovenia, Venice, and Vienna.

While many authors have released books on Jeff Buckley’s legacy, Gary Lucas penned his own book titled Touched By Grace, set to release in the fall of 2013. Lucas spoke with The Inquisitr’sNiki Cruz about his collaborative experience with Jeff Buckley, Greetings From Tim Buckley and his early impressions of a would-be rock legend.

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THE INQUISITR: Everyone has this very different romantic narrative of Jeff Buckley. When Greetings From Tim Buckley came out it seemed like it wanted to set out to dispel all of those narratives. Why do you think people have those romantic notions about Jeff?

GARY LUCAS: I think a lot of it is because there’s such purity about his voice, and his persona. He was a beautiful boy, and then to die tragically at a young age like that makes for a very romantic story. It framed his career in a sad, but very noble way. It positioned him in people’s minds as a bit of an icon. Had he continued and put 20 records out it may not have been the same. I’m sure he would have been widely hailed and recognized but just by the fact of dying so early on and in such a tragic manner, it sealed the legend about him.

THE INQUISITR: Steve Berkowitz from Sony said his label was preparing him to be the next Bruce Springsteen.

LUCAS: Right. At that point I was out of the picture as far as actively working with him. We had this intense year of doing shows and writing songs. The world at large knows “Grace” and “Mojo Pin” because the “Grace” album was named after one of the songs, and “Mojo Pin” opens the record. In fact, it’s my guitar in the clear that you can hear in “Mojo Pin”. Jeff’s potential was undeniable to these executives. The comparisons are sometimes a drag because it tends to raise expectations, and in no way did he live up to their commercial expectations, but that isn’t to say that he wouldn’t have.

THE INQUISITR: There’s so many impressions of Jeff as a musician. I spoke with Penn [Badgley] and he looked at him as an interpreter. What was your first impression?

LUCAS: I went down to St. Ann’s church in the rehearsal period a couple of days before the show, to rehearse with the singer I was then signed with to Columbia Records. We did our songs in a run through and then I was packing up my gear and this kid comes up to me. Right away I said, “This must be Jeff Buckley” because he was the spitting image of his dad. He was shooting off sparks of electricity. My impression is that he was a very entranced young man. He was very single-minded and he knew what he wanted.

THE INQUISITR: So what happened next?

LUCAS: The producer of that concert Hal Willner, very well portrayed by Norbert Leo Butz said, “Well why don’t you do Sefronia from The King’s Chain?” That was one of the last Tim Buckley records. I handed him the mic to begin singing and my jaw dropped when I heard this unearthly pure voice wailing. I said, “Oh my God, man you’re f–king amazing! You’re a star!” He seemed insecure then and lacked a lot of self-confidence. We had lunch at The White Horse Tavern in the Village. At lunch we agreed we adored The Smiths, Led Zeppelin and The Doors. So I said, “I have this group called Gods and Monsters and I’m making this record, maybe I can get you on it.” I could tell he was a rocker. We started writing and we loved playing together.

THE INQUISITR: Did any of the other guys have reservations about Jeff coming into Gods and Monsters?

LUCAS: At that point the band was basically me and the female singer and we weren’t really actively gigging. I went to Europe right after I met Jeff on a very lengthy solo tour that The Knitting Factory set up. When I came back I had found that Columbia had dropped the whole Gods and Monsters deal. Jeff had moved back to LA. Things weren’t going so well for him and he was trying to get a deal. He had this tape called the “Babylon Dungeon Sessions.” On there was an early version of “Last Goodbye,” but no labels wanted it. I called him up and said, “My deal is over with Columbia Records, they kicked me to the curb.” He said, “I’ll be your lead singer.” He was my savior at that point. With that energy I finished writing a guitar instrumental called “Rise Up To Be,” and Jeff loved it and came back to New York that summer and said, “This song is now called Grace.”

THE INQUISITR: With such an interesting dynamic, do you think his music influenced you or your music influenced his?

LUCAS: I would say in all modesty that I did have an influence on him, certainly in his guitar playing. He was a gifted guitarist already, so this is not to take away from it. But on guitar I don’t think he showed me anything I didn’t already know. I think as far as what he influenced me directly, he reinforced the notion that collaboration could be greater than the sum of equal parts. He influenced me in his general sensitivity. It was very rare to find such a person attuned to so many nuances about music. We definitely influenced each other. When we ran together the first year, we were unbeatable.

THE INQUISITR: So Gods and Monsters with Jeff Buckley only lasted for that year.

LUCAS: Yes. We got this development deal with Imago records through the BMG label. Let’s just say it didn’t work out ultimately. He had a burning ambition underneath whatever pledge he made to me, to go solo. I’ve got to say I have tapes of our Imago public showcase, and we got a standing ovation for three or four minutes after we finished this two and a half hour marathon concert. I was listening to the playback of the tape with my wife the next day, jumping up and down saying, “Oh man, Jeff sang his ass off!” And then he called me up to tell me that he was quitting.

THE INQUISITR: How were you approached for the film?

LUCAS: This is interesting. My wife is a casting director. She worked on a lot of films. I came back from a tour and she said, “Listen, I just got a hold of a couple of scripts about Jeff, and you’re not going to like some of this.” [She then said,] “But listen I just got sent another script, and there’s another film. It looks like that film is really going to get made.” So I read it and I thought it was a very good portrayal. I reached out to them and told them that I was really excited. They called me in and asked if I could help. I basically became a consultant on the film. If you look closely in a couple of shots near the end in the church, there’s a group of musicians standing around Jeff doing “Phantasmagoria in Two” as we were playing there live– that is me standing back there but I was keeping my head down.

THE INQUISITR: Do you think Penn captures Jeff’s essence?

LUCAS: I think Penn was the ideal choice to play Jeff Buckley. He was born for this role. He reminded me so much of Jeff, I got chills. He got the nuances, he got the brooding, and he scared me a couple of times. He wouldn’t go out of character, and we would break and I tried to talk with him and he would give me these looks like Jeff. He was exactly the same age as Jeff was when I worked with Jeff, who was 24, and he’s a Scorpio like Jeff. He has real vocal ability and guitar skills.

THE INQUISITR: Some people compared Jeff to a young Jim Carrey. Did you get to see that massive goofball energy that Jeff had? In some of those early live performances he seemed withdrawn.

LUCAS: He could be really extroverted, and funny, and manic, and just a bit goofy. I saw it. He certainly had a lot of sides to him. I thought the scene in the record store with Penn was great. Jeff was certainly capable of doing stuff like that. Penn nailed it.

THE INQUISITR: I’ve always wondered where his music was going to go next. Although it wasn’t entirely completed, you could hear on “Sketches For My Sweeheart The Drunk” that he was going in a completely opposite direction from “Grace”. Do you think there would have been room for his music in the industry?

LUCAS: It’s hard to say. There were some songs on “Sketches” I liked a lot. I did find the demos that they put on the second album to be extremely painful and hard to listen to. I can tell you that Jeff asked me for music in the last year of his life. I got a phone call from him and he said, “Remember those great songs we did? Do you have any more like that?” I said, “Yeah I got some music I just wrote in Puerto Rico.” So I sent him an instrumental and he said, “It’s beautiful–do you have any more?” Then he never got back to me. I did play with him a month or two before he died at The Knitting Factory. He was their special guest on their private 10th anniversary party, and it was packed.

THE INQUISITR: I have The Knitting Factory bootleg!

LUCAS: Yeah! So in it he asks, “If Gary Lucas isn’t still mad at me would he like to play a song?” So I go up and ask, “Well, what are we going to do?” And he hands me his Telecaster and says, “Grace, of course.” I thought to myself, “Man, I still really love this guy.” I was not to know that that would in fact be closure– as that was the last time I ever saw him.

THE INQUISITR: It’s fascinating just how relevant “Grace” is today. “Last Goodbye” was just played on the show Smash. Why do you think it’s timeless?

LUCAS: Jeff wasn’t following any fashion. It’s the same with my music. I just made the music that satisfied me first and foremost and Jeff had the same approach. I always have sort of made my own personal aesthetic my creed as a composer. I want to write music that I think is memorable. That is how “Grace” and “Mojo Pin” got created. Just roll the dice.

THE INQUISITR: In many ways the songs on “Grace” changed the way I looked at music.

LUCAS: That’s great. This is one thing I still get a kick out of. People coming forward to say: “Man, I heard your song with Jeff and it just changed my whole attitude around.” I’ve had people come up with all sorts of great feedback, and that’s why I’ve hung in there doing this all these years. It’s about being able to light a fire in somebody. I’m proud of that music.

THE INQUISITR: As a musician, where do you see your own path going?

LUCAS: I’m going to continue to do as much as I can. I only do projects where I’m really excited about the music, and I have a lot of music in me still. I just want to continue on the path that I’m on. Gods And Monsters put out an album two years ago called “The Ordeal of Civility” that did pretty well in the critical sense. I hope to do more with them.

To check out Gary Lucas playing “Mojo Pin” click below:

[Image credit: Solo Jeff Buckley – all rights reserved to Merri Cyr.]