Gary Lucas
"Operators Are Standing By - The Essential Gary Lucas 1988-1996"

Liner Notes by Glenn Kenny

"This machine kills fascists," Woody Guthrie painted on one of his guitars. Whether or not the claim was true is still, alas, open to question. But if Gary Lucas was the kind of guy who painted on his guitars (and I'm not saying he's definitely not, it's just that I haven't personally seen much evidence that he is) he could conceivably emblazon his Fender with the proclamation, "This machine kills boredom," and I don't think anyone could convincingly contradict him. Even if you don't like what he does -- a state of affairs I find difficult to imagine, but anything's possible, and in any case it would be your loss -- when Lucas picks up a guitar, indifference is not an option. He engages. It isn't always subtle, as you'll discover when you pop in this CD and play the first track. Go ahead, I'll wait. There. Kaboom. Yeah, he makes a big rude noise at the opening of "They Can't Believe He's Risen Again," but listen to how effortlessly he reigns his axe in and shape-shifts a sinuous version of the song's martial melody line; dig the skittering, screaming solos during the raveups. The song itself is damn peculiar, like something you'd hear in a Fleischer cartoon if the divine Max had specialized in horror rather than slapstick. I like the tune fine myself, but it's that guitar I would follow anywhere. This collection follows Gary's guitar, and his songwriting, and his singing, though what one could call a particularly fecund period, except Gary doesn't have many periods that aren't fecund. The only reason he would have had for not playing is that he couldn't. There was one rather horrifying period during the timeline chronicled on this disc when Gary was sidelined with a broken arm. A close examination of the facts could prove me wrong, but my recollection tells me that no sooner did his cast come off that Gary was working on Bad Boys of the Arctic, a veritable Big Bang of an album that represented all the pent up energy, as well as all the fears and hopes, that were accumulated and nursed during his downtime. The plaintive, slightly languid, but hardly bland or passive "I Want to Play Your Guitar" is one of that record's tenderest moments; the motormouthed "Poison I.V. League" is one of its most angriest (once you penetrate its deceptive surface). And while these recordings show Gary to be an avid receptor, appreciator, and interpreter of any number of musical genres -- from country blues to psychedelia to folk to contemporary classical and beyond -- I wouldn't think to call this marvelous collection "eclectic." Gary is celebrated for having played beside some musical legends -- and while he's very proud of having done so, I think the number of times he's characterized in the music press as "ex-Captain-Beefheart-guitarist" or "former Jeff Buckley sideman" shows an irritating paucity of imagination (and in any event, he's never been a sideman) -- but this record showcases a distinctly Lucasian vision. Not just amazing technical ability but a genuine sensibility and a ruling passion. Listen to his playing on the unlikeliest (or so it might seem) track on this collection, the theme from the British television series "Eastenders." The melody is sweet cheese, Bach-for-babies basically, but Gary savors it, drawing out long, distortion-dipped notes, bending them into sonic orchid stems that seek out your main pleasure nerve and tease it, and in the tease there's the implication of some kind of permanent bliss. Permanent bliss isn't possible (we all know that), but that's what every one of the tracks here, from the space-out of the definitive re-reading of "Astronomy Domine" to the tossed-off-with-a-big-grin blues workout "The Stumble," is seeking. Seeking goofily, seeking poignantly, seeking vehemently. Hell, just because something isn't possible doesn't mean we can't go on pursuing it.

Glenn Kenny is the film critic for Premiere magazine.