NEW YORK — “Oh, wow, The Times of Israel, my mother’s gonna be so proud,” composer, guitarist and creator of cinematic soundscapes Gary Lucas beams as we settle in for a light repast at the Metrograph Commissary.
The Metrograph is a very trendy arthouse cinema and restaurant nestled in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where, 99 years ago, tenement houses and pushcarts represented the hard knock life of so many Jewish immigrants. But it recently played host to a special screening of the 99 year-old film, “Der Golem.”
This masterpiece of German Expressionism from the UFA studio was a major hit both in Europe and the United States, something of a rarity in that it was based on Jewish lore with sympathetic Jewish characters. There have been other film adaptations of the legend that likely inspired Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” including by Israeli directors Yoav and Doron Paz who “updated” the tale to 17th century Lithuania just last year.
But there’s nothing quite like the original.
For the past 30 years, Lucas, a foundational member of the downtown rock/jazz/avant-garde music scene (and widely celebrated for collaborating with and mentoring the late Jeff Buckley), has played his original guitar/loops/drone/magic/chaos score alongside projections of this supernatural story of Bohemian behemoths.
The full title of Paul Wegener’s silent “The Golem” includes the subtitle “How He Came Into the World.” How Lucas’s “Golem” came into the world is almost as strange.
“I loved monster movies,” Lucas tells me. He grew up in Syracuse, New York, in a mystical time before VHS tapes, so if a movie didn’t play locally or on television, it could only live in his mind. Seeing an image of the Golem (“a Jewish Frankenstein?!”) in the pages of the beloved Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine stuck in Lucas’s head for decades.
In 1989, after Lucas’s successful tenure as a guitarist in the final iteration of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, the Brooklyn Academy of Music was putting together a festival that mixed different disciplines. Still without having seen the movie, he knew he wanted to create a score for “The Golem.”
Lucas and Rabbi Judah Loew, the 16th century Maharal of Prague, have been joined at the hip ever since.
The tale of the Golem dates back to Talmudic times and has many origins. The most famous (and the one in Wegener’s film) shows Rabbi Judah Loew creating the creature out of clay in the attic of the Old-New Synagogue to help protect the Jews of the Prague ghetto. The legend has it that one of God’s names is written on paper and inserted into the creature’s mouth or in a gash in its forehead. (If one wants to read this as a metaphor for those who leave written messages in the cracks of the Wailing Wall, go right ahead.) In the highly stylized film version, the name is inserted in the massive Golem’s chest in a hollow Star of David amulet.
Usually the Golem tale is read as a warning about hubris, as the defensive artificial life ultimately backfires against the community. It’s certainly bleak, considering how a little over a decade later, much the Jewish people would need an extraordinary defense in Germany, where this movie was made.
“I’ve been to the Old-New Synagogue,” Lucas, who considers himself a Reform Jew but has others in his family that are more religious, tells me. “I’ve looked at Rabbi Loew’s grave, the stones like broken teeth of a goblin’s mouth.”
Prague audiences “ate it up,” Lucas said of his moody, evocative, partially-improvised “Golem” score. Though one audience member felt it may have been too eerie. “’I am a child of [Holocaust] survivors!’ he shouted. ‘We don’t need that kind out sound, we’ve had enough violence!’”
It’s just one of a spectrum of responses. Once an audience member asked how he could possibly align himself with a movie that is anti-Semitic. (While everyone is open to their own interpretation, I think it is fair to say that, for its time, “The Golem,” which celebrated Jewish cinematographer Karl Freund shot, is hardly “Jude Süss.”)
At the Venice Biennale in 2003, a viewer confronted Lucas, saying “The Golem” was Israeli propaganda — which is preposterous on the face of it considering when the movie was made. However, those with sharp ears will notice a few familiar melodic lines swirling in the echoey, ethereal score.
A phrase from Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikvah,” also appeared at two points during the performance at The Metrograph, both during moments of optimism. At a darker moment (when the Emperor issues a decree declaring Jews must leave their enclave) there’s a refrain from noted anti-Semite Richard Wagner.
Lucas seems impressed when I list these two, but jokingly tsk-tsks me for missing the third one. “I threw in a ‘Deutschland Über Alles,’ too.” On some nights, when we first see Rabbi Loew creating the Golem, Lucas adds a “Dreidel, I made you out of clay” tease but “eh, I wasn’t feeling it tonight. Every performance is different.”
Riffing on known, pre-existing songs actually has a rich history with silent film scores, Lucas tells me. “It was a way to reel audiences back in, or cue them how to feel.”
The success of “The Golem” over the past three decades has led to an entire branch of Lucas’s career and he’s created additional original scores for silent movies. (Performing the Spanish version of “Dracula” in the backdrop of a castle at the Transylvania Film Festival was, understandably, a highlight.) A recent score for the 1934 Chinese silent “The Goddess” dovetails with a new project he’s working on, performing hits by Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Jefferson Airplane and John Denver in Mandarin.
Lucas lived in Taipei as a young man, and says, in the most humble way possible, that he’s probably one of the few white guys who has mastered a certain kind of Chinese playing. In 2001 he recorded “The Edge of Heaven,” a collection of Chinese pop songs. “Shanghai in the 1930s, this is what I’m all about next.” Lucas’s new project, with vocalist Feifei Yang, is a return to that material.
He’s also prepping an album called “The Complete Jeff Buckley and Gary Lucas Songbook,” which collects the material the two worked on in Lucas’s rock ensemble Gods and Monsters as well as on Buckley’s once-in-a-generation masterpiece album from 1994, “Grace.” Lucas will be alongside an Italian singer named “The Niro,” which, he tells me, has nothing to do with Nero the Emperor or Robert De Niro, “it’s just what he calls himself; he’s great.”
Completists take note: the collection, out this fall, will include five tracks that have never been recorded before. In 2013, Lucas released “Touched By Grace: My Time With Jeff Buckley,” a book about working with (some might say discovering) the singer-songwriter who died tragically in an accident in 1997 at the age of 30.
Our conversation rambles late into the evening, and I pepper him for stories about people he’s performed with such as Lou Reed, Allen Ginsburg, John Zorn and Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead. (“Hey, man!” he says, with a groovy bob of the head, when I bring up the name of the legendary hippie.)
“I’m not really a gear-head, I don’t use pro-tools, I guess I don’t quite fit in with an easily defined sound,” he says, almost apologetic for not being quite the household name of some of his peers. “I want to make music that astonishes people. I loved monster movies. I studied magic. I guess I always considered myself something of a magician.”
With a 99-year old film from the mists of the Prague ghetto unspooling behind him, it’s a description that absolutely fits.