Tom Lucas' Journey
Lucas and wife Lisa DeMarco
From Blue Oysters to Red Letters
by Dan Coffey
"Can survivors organize?" Tom Lucas, "Winter's Raft"
Tom Lucas carved out his small, vital, piece of music lore in the 1970's with the album Red Letter Day. Recorded in 1975 and released in a very limited run several years later, the record has become a coveted piece of cult ephemera, selling for an ungodly amount on eBay, and finally being reissued in 2004, without Lucas' knowledge or permission, by Radioactive Records, a company known for its re-releasing of obscure rock albums whose original LP incarnations are often highly sought after by collectors. Radioactive's unauthorized re-release of Red Letter Day might have been nothing more than an injurious insult to Lucas' art and livelihood; instead it has become the catalyst for a revival of Lucas' career as a vital songwriter and musician.
Radioactive's CD release of Red Letter Day was a "needle-drop" production sourced from one of the original copies of the record, of which as few as 500 were made. Although a lyric sheet was included in the original '70's LP release, Radioactive's packaging eschewed such frippery, and even skimped on the cover art by simply reducing the image of the original album cover (front and back) to fit comfortably in a jewel case.
Lucas and some partners have since formed New Fate Productions, a company which has re-released RLD according to his artistic wishes, including a tenth song from the original recording sessions "Stars in the Night" that never made it on to the original version, as well as his later record, Lifeboats, which has made its CD debut in the Fall of 2007.
Through the past few decades, an aura of mystery has swirled around Lucas' persona, intensified by Radioactive's recent commercial infraction. With Lucas and partners taking back control of their own material, the time has come for the scraps of fog to fall away from the man and his music.
No musician's work is created in a vacuum, but in the absence of any information, incorrect assumptions have been made about Lucas. Influenced more by R&B piano than by Neil Young or Lou Reed, Lucas' primary instruments are his voice and the piano. Indeed, although the songs on Red Letter Day and Lifeboats are often guitar-heavy, one doesn't need to listen very closely to realize that it's the piano parts that give them their structure and their uniqueness. As Lucas says, "all the reviewers talk about Neil Young, but they missed the boat totally on that. First of all they missed that Neil Young's a guitar player and I'm a piano player. And there aren't many true rock and roll composers of stature who are true keyboard players. Rock and roll has been primarily driven by the guitar and the rhythm guitar. And that shapes the music the medium is the message the instruments shape it. I came at composition as a keyboard player working with guitarists, so I was always working to integrate the strong guitar players with my piano-composed work."
Red Letter Day contains an amalgam of styles, from the strident and spare sound of the anthemic, lyrically neo-Socialist, title track, to the frenetic rock catharsis of "Self-Made Man," and including along the way a few melancholy tunes "Days Numbered" and "Broken Wheel" among numbers that, on the whole, fuse a R&B piano sensibility with the muscular intelligence of a guitar and rhythm section that knows how to use its strength to the greatest musical advantage. The high (energy) point of the album may be "Stars in the Night," the one track left off the original release, featuring dual call-and-response vocals by Lucas and Laura Kranker, a swampy slide guitar, and lyrics that manage to evoke mysticism and reference mythology a lα Robert Graves, while avoiding the cartoonish qualities of many contemporaries who have attempted similar songwriting feats.
Prior to the recording of RLD, Lucas was in a band called T-Rocket and the Barking Guitars (originally named White Trash, but changed due to the possibility of infringement complications, since Edgar Winter had established a band with the same name). In T-Rocket, Lucas shared songwriting and vocal duties with two others, and clashing egos made relationships in the band somewhat tempestuous. The band "ruled the roost," according to Lucas, in central New York for several years before the members decided to try to garner more widespread acclaim by moving to Los Angeles. Although T-Rocket lasted for a year in L.A., the constant struggle to remain financially solvent, plus further ego-driven infighting, proved to be too much for Lucas, and on the band's 100th night in Los Angeles, he decided to quit the scene and take a bus back to Geneva, New York, to finish his undergraduate degree at Hobart College. Some of the members of T-Rocket followed Lucas back, and he pulled them, along with other friends who were musicians, into a group to rehearse the material that would eventually appear on Red Letter Day.
When Lucas got back from the West Coast, he found himself in an apartment whose previous tenants had left behind an old, damaged Stella guitar with only four strings attached. Lucas and his longtime musical partner Geoff Davis like to tell the story of how Lucas, whose forte is piano, not guitar, nevertheless picked up the Stella and used it to write the title track to Red Letter Day in a matter of hours. The tuning was bizarre, and Davis had to tune his slide guitar in an equally bizarre fashion in order to complement Lucas' playing. This event marked a true break from the T-Rocket period and the beginning of the making of RLD. As Lucas recalls, "I woke up in the morning, looked in the mirror and had this complete impulse from the unconscious that it was time to make an album." It is a testament to his charisma as well as to the strength of his material that he was able to keep a band together for an entire year, playing the songs in clubs and practicing regularly in private, and take the lead in honing the group's skills as a unit so that when the time came to record, the band would be a well-oiled machine.
Lucas had a sure plan of attack for recording Red Letter Day: he bought ten hours of time at a top of the line recording studio in New York City that would give the musicians the ability to create the best sound possible, as well as provide engineers to aid in streamlining the recording process. When the band arrived at the appointed time to begin their work, a disbelieving studio owner met them at the door to announce that there was no way they would be able to make a record in a mere ten hours. Lucas convinced him that the booking would not turn into a fiasco, that there would be no bad blood if the output was not stellar, and that, after all the studio was still getting paid.
Of course, the whole thing worked, and soon Lucas was on his way with a stunning demo tape. In the previous years, Lucas and his fellow musicians had crossed paths with members and various associates of the band Blue Oyster Cult (who also attended Hobart). Lucas capitalized on this connection and sent a copy of his tape to Sandy Pearlman, musical impresario and BOC manager. According to Lucas, Pearlman was quite taken with the demo and invited Lucas' group to use BOC's loft practice space for two weeks to rehearse for an audition before Pearlman and Columbia Records producer, Murray Krugman (both of whom are responsible for the BOC's '70's output, as well as a Mahavishnu Orchestra album and the Dictators' first LP).
At the end of the two-week stint, Pearlman and Krugman took in the musicians' performance, but had their own ideas about what to do with what they heard. According to Lucas, "they took me by the arm and walked me right out of the loft, away from the band, out of the building, across the street, sat me down on a park bench, Krugman on one side and Pearlman on the other, and started haranguing and badgering me, saying, Do you have any idea what the expenses would be to get a band like that off the ground and to make money? We went into debt for years for the BOC before they made money. We'll never do that for anyone again.'" Their pitch to Lucas was to have him stay in New York City, ditch his band, have studio musicians found for him, and submit to being shaped into a marketable pop singer. Lucas thanked Pearlman and Krugman for the audition, and told his band that the gig was over. "Six months later," laments Lucas, "I was the only one left in Geneva. The band was gone."
In the meantime, Lucas was writing new songs, many of which would end up on Lifeboats, and also looking for a way to release Red Letter Day. He finally pulled together enough generous financial backers to be able to press 500 copies, and in 1979, several years after it was recorded, the album was released under Lucas' own imprint, New Fate Records.
The whole of an artist's life experience informs each true work of art, and the making of Red Letter Day is no different. While the situational aspects of the making of the album in Lucas' post T-Rocket period certainly have a causal relationship with the album as artistic product, one must delve further back into Lucas' personal history in order to understand how the songs on RLD came to be.
Lucas was born in Central New York, not far from the city of Geneva. His father was a freelance writer who saw hundreds of his articles published, many in National Geographic. Sadly, he was hit by a car when Lucas was a young boy, and subsequently suffered mental difficulties severe enough to require admittance to a mental institution. A fundamentally different man when he was released, he no longer wrote, but in a strange twist of fate became a professional golfer, and held court at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, NY for many years. Meanwhile, Lucas' mother, a nurse, was in charge of Tom and his brother and sister. They moved in with Lucas' maternal grandmother, who was a piano teacher. From an early age, Lucas messed around with the piano. He was given sporadic lessons by his grandmother, but mainly preferred to find his own way around the keys, picking up melodies from Ray Charles albums. His musical sensibility was almost entirely formed from the R&B sound, rather than rock & roll.
The town where he grew up contained a mental institution; in fact, it was a major source of local employment, and, reciprocally, the more able inmates were hired as housekeeping help by the wealthier local residents. Lucas points out that he spent many days walking around the fenced area, and sometimes on the institution's grounds. The pronounced presence of a home for the mentally ill in Lucas' childhood demesne, and the way the lines that divided the sane from the mentally unstable shifted and blurred had a deep impact on his consciousness, and left him with a lifelong interest in the workings of the subconscious. This interest shows up in his music both as source material (the lyrics of RLD's "Babylon Rising" or "Stars in the Night") and subject matter ("Robot and the Man" and "Tattered Rags" from Lifeboats).
Another crucial event in the shaping of Lucas' psyche and artistic vision was the early death of his older sister. A very energetic and athletic girl, she nevertheless succumbed quickly to a bout with leukemia, and, as Tom's guiding light and the person who kept him from going too far into the darker areas of teenage rebellion, her sudden absence left him feeling profoundly alone in the world. It was music the piano that was the primary salve for his wound, and in fact the song "Days Numbered" on RLD was one of the first songs Lucas ever wrote, on the occasion of his sister's passing.
While his predilection for the examination of the inner life has its roots in the peculiar surroundings of his upbringing and the tragic loss of his sister, another very important facet of Lucas' art the socio-political themes was forged later. Drafted into Viet Nam, Lucas was one of many young men whose political outlook was forever changed. Upon returning from active duty, Lucas' disillusionment with corporate attempts to quash fledgling unions led him to become involved in union organization, and he actually ended up working with legendary union organizer Cesar Chavez, living for a time with Chavez's brother.
These experiences inform the lyrics to many of the songs on both Red Letter Day and Lifeboats. If Lifeboats has a slightly more literary feel to its lyrics, it has everything to do with Lucas' concentration on writing after the release of RLD. He spent the late '70's and much of the '80's working on a Master's and then a PhD in literature at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and teaching at the Community College of the Finger Lakes, as well as writing two novels, which, to date, remain unpublished. The first, War Dreams, was an impressionistic look at life during wartime in Viet Nam. The second book, Detour, is a short, surreal, "road novel."
During this time, he befriended and was tutored by the poets John Logan and Anselm Hollo. Logan, in fact, was fundamental in the realization of Lifeboats; out of the blue one evening, he asked Lucas point-blank how much money was needed to take Lifeboats from the master-tape stage to the production of the album, and then came through with what was needed. Likewise, the studio time for Lifeboats was paid for by a friend who wanted Lucas to use it to record his entire body of work to date. Lucas took the gift but balked at the intended outcome, using it instead to record the songs that would become Lifeboats.
Lifeboats, then, was completed in this fashion, but according to Lucas, was spiritually comatose, missing some crucial piece. His musical companion, bassist David Norod, took the masters, listened, added and tweaked what Lucas had come up with, and made it into an entirely different animal a profound revelation to Lucas' ears and sensibility -- and renewed Lucas' belief in the work. It also cemented the artistic bond between Lucas and Norod, who, along with Geoff Davis, form the hub of the musical entity that currently exists to realize Lucas' songwriting vision.
Lifeboats is a quantum leap of a second album. More secure in his own skin this time around, Lucas paradoxically makes the listener more unsettled, at least initially. Sporting a different running order than the original LP release, the album opens with "History Makes It," which itself opens with two piano notes, a long silence, and then it's out of the gate and rounding the first curve of the track before the listener realizes that Lucas is singing about "Ninth Avenue sheiks" and "divorcees handing out leaflets." It's a wild ride, and altogether more musically intricate than RLD. If it loses a little bombast, it makes up for it in the tension that builds exquisitely through the high-energy songs and that releases via the stellar playing of Lucas and his bandmates, in a rare instance where using the word "telepathic" to describe their musical communication wouldn't be a lazy clichι. Even the melancholy songs (two, again) on this album explore emotions that aren't necessarily deeper than those on RLD, but certainly more complex. The ambiguity of "Do It Now" ("I need more / life support / Do it Now"), with a few heart-stoppingly well-placed bass notes, and "Lake Effect," nicely counterbalance the punch of songs like "Sing For Food Stamps," and the epic, even stately, vibe of "The Robot and the Man."
Lifeboats, released in 1982, seemed to confound most of the small group of people who had listened to, and "got," Red Letter Day. Lucas says that, among his core audience, the album was met with consternation due to the more complicated, less straight-ahead, music, and the more allusively literary nature of the lyrics. Lucas plugged on, with his studies and teaching, getting his Master's in English at Hobart College and then pursuing a PhD in English at the State University of New York at Buffalo while teaching American Literature at Finger Lakes Community College. It was during this time that he did a lot of his non-musical writing: two novels, a book-length collection of poems, and a one-act play, all written with the guidance of SUNY Buffalo-connected literati like the poets Anselm Hollo and John Logan, and the avant-garde novelist Raymond Federman. He kept on making music as well, with Davis and other local cohorts in the Geneva area, as well as his son Jeremy, a guitar player. Lucas continued to write songs and they would be performed by bands with rotating line-ups and names like Circus Maximus or Shunyata. Many of the songs written during this time will surface on the upcoming City of Art album.
In the early '90's, Lucas left Central New York behind, and enrolled at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, to study psychology and world religions. Tragically, in 1998, Lucas' son, Jeremy, a sensitive musician and brilliant guitarist in his own right, was killed in Austin, Texas. At the close of the century, Lucas and his wife Lisa moved back to the Finger Lakes area of New York and ushered in the new millennium with the birth of a son. Lucas kept busy professionally as a counselor and artistically, as a songwriter (still working with Geoff Davis) and actively participating as a vocalist in a church choir.
In 2006, another tragedy almost transpired, but luck was with Lucas. Behind the wheel of his car at an intersection, Lucas was broadsided by an eighteen-wheeler. He suffered massive injuries to his spine and neck, as well as some slight neurological damage. Spending over a year recuperating, and still recovering as of this writing, he was made aware of Radioactive Records' unauthorized release of Red Letter Day by hearing from a friend whose son had heard a track from the album on a college radio station in Boston. This infringement catalyzed Lucas, Davis and David Norod to take action and regain control of the record by forming New Fate, releasing the aforementioned two albums.
Far from an exercise in nostalgia, this call-to-arms is geared toward the eventual (sometime in late 2008) release of Lucas' third album, City of Art, which will contain songs ranging in date from the early '80's to the past couple of years. Lucas sees City of Art as the third part of a trilogy, and an album that is as stylistically different from Lifeboats as Lifeboats was from Red Letter Day, each album marking the spiritual state of the artist at the time of creation. Seizing on the opportunity afforded by the buzz of the unauthorized re-release of RLD (it had a positive review in SPIN Magazine), New Fate plans to also venture into the literary arena, publishing the novels, poetry and one-act play written by Lucas in the 80s.
As Lucas, Norod, and Davis prepare for the eventual recording of City of Art, the buzz around the re-release of Lifeboats and Red Letter Day continues to grow: some non-mainstream radio stations are playing tracks from the albums that have appeared on DJ-targeted sampler CD's, and sales of the albums via CDBaby and Amazon continue to climb. Lucas is happy with these triumphs, but he's gearing up for the ultimate test, which will be the new album. "The fact is," Lucas muses, "this pirate (Radioactive Records head James Plummer) introduced us to thousands of people all over the world, but now the big question is going to be, Are these guys alive as artists now, do they have anything left? Are they viable?'" Lucas and company will be answering that question definitively later this year, but in the meantime, these are Red Letter Days for Lucas as well as fans and discoverers of his music.
recent photo of Lucas and son Blake at home, taken by Lisa DeMarco Lucas
Also see Tom Lucas' website
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