Soprano Saxophonist Steve Lacy Recalls the “Multifarious” Brion Gysin

An Interview by John Kruth


Brion Gysin was a Renaissance man in a century with a 15-second attention span. In a world where people are known for “doing one thing well,” Brion mastered a variety of disciplines which he employed to express himself at any given moment. Gysin was a painter, author, editor, musical anthropologist, inventor, philosopher, mystic and restaurateur. And to add insult to injury, he wore each of those hats with ease and remarkable panache. Surrealist ringleader André Breton, Beat novelist William S. Burroughs and Rolling Stone Brian Jones all recognized his brilliance, yet Brion’s work for some reason went virtually unnoticed by the public.

As an artist, Gysin painted otherworldly figures that danced around the canvas like cryptic Arabic and Japanese calligraphy. He was embraced and then quickly expelled (for vague reasons) by the Surrealists. In truth, Brion simply wasn’t the type to espouse the party platform, no matter how bizarre the doctrine. (Although he’s been associated with the Beats through his connection to Burroughs, Gysin would never claim to be one of that clubby bunch either.)

Most folks find it difficult to comprehend how one person could create such a tremendously diverse body of work. That troublesome cliché – a jack of all trades and master of none – simply doesn’t fit in Brion’s case. There was nothing half-assed about Gysin’s multi-disciplinary approach to art. For those that didn’t get it, or couldn’t accept one man producing novels (The ProcessThe Last Museum) paintings, recordings and a device which induced a trance-like state called The Dream Machine, he let his pal William Burroughs do the talking. “Brion was incapable of fakery!” the infamous junkie novelist snarled.

Steve Lacy is the soft-spoken master of the soprano saxophone. He first came to prominence accompanying Thelonious Monk. An expatriate, living in Paris, Steve has been frightfully prolific, releasing dozens of  albums.  Lacy has had many fruitful collaborations – most notably with pianist Mal Waldron and his wife for over thirty years, vocalist/violinist Irene Aebi. (“And it just keeps getting better,” Lacy said, regarding Irene.)

Like Brian Jones, Ornette Coleman and the rest of the world, Steve Lacy was originally introduced to the passionate swirling trance music of  The Master Musicians of Jajouka through Brion Gysin.

John Kruth: When and where did you first meet Brion Gysin?

Steve Lacy: I don’t know when I didn’t know Brion. We got together in ’72 but our paths had been coming together for a while before that. We were working on similar things in different areas. I met him in Paris at Victor Herbert’s house where Irene and I were living as caretakers. Brion came to a party one time and we met and started talking. I hadn’t realized that I had heard him years before on an English record of electronic poetry. I think it was his pistol poem and some of his other manipulations and permutations like “I Am That I Am.”

JK: How did your collaboration begin?

SL: I knew he was the inventor of the Dream Machine and I had a song called “Dreams” and was unhappy with the lyrics, so I gave the melody to Brion to write some new lyrics. It was astonishing, absolutely like a dream. It worked beautifully and we recorded it in ’75 with Irene singing in two voices in major seconds with a sextet. It’s been re-released on a triple CD in Paris from Sarava. It includes a couple things we did with Brion along with “Somebody Special.”

JK: What was your writing process like?

SL: It was a wonderful, very unusual collaboration. Sometimes we’d do a performance where he would read and I would play melodies, or I’d set his lyrics to music and Irene would sing them. It was a lot of fun to just wing it. We were between words and music really.

JK: So his words were the spark for the music.

SL: Every time he read, it was different. I listened to his voice a lot and talked with him and set his lyrics to music. The melodies were taken from the sound of his voice, the way he read. Brion was a great reader and a great performer. He really knew what to do with a microphone. He had a great voice and could improvise like a jazz musician.

JK: Were there any particular performances or pieces that still stand out in your mind?

SL: Through the years we worked together a lot and produced nineteen songs, stage works and performed together in Amsterdam, Paris and Italy, at poetry festivals and museums. We did a version of Naked Lunch based on Brion’s cut-ups as a dance/theater piece. It was performed in Italy and France but we never took it anywhere else. There were two dancers in black leather, the sextet, two singers and décor by Brion. Brion’s slides were projected. It was wild! The show was called “Brackets” that was in 1982, in Milan. It was a really far-out show. We did a lot of theatrical things although we never could bring them to America.

JK: Wow, what a shame! Brion was involved in so many things. It’s odd how he was ignored.

SL: Brion had many, many lives, in different parts of the world with all kinds of different professions, from heavy labor to Broadway productions. He had connections to so many different circles of people. Lots of important people in my life I met through Brion. Many other people also had the same experience. He was a catalyst! Brion had certain powers. He was a uniquely charged, charmed person. I mean, to me, he was a genius. He was a multi-faceted genius. People couldn’t believe he could do all those things. In the mid-seventies he did a photomontage. He took a camera, a Leica, which he focused on the Pompidou Museum, which was being built at that time. He took an apartment right across the street from it and took a series of still photographs, creating permutations of the view. They were some of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life. Brion had a show at a little obscure gallery in Paris, Gallerie Raph, I think it was. When you walked in and saw all these crazy colors, in a series like that, it just hit you right in the eye. The show was a knockout and not one piece was sold! The gallery was completely empty. His work was ignored.

JK: Well, at least your music was better appreciated in Paris!

SL: Most of what I’ve done in Paris goes right by people, then twenty years later it comes back, re-issued. They’re a little bit slow there for certain things. But you could get wasted anywhere. You could starve to death in Paris and hit the skids here [in NYC]!

JK: Did Brion ever take you to Jajouka, to play with the Master Musicians?

SL: I didn’t know him when he lived in Morocco. I knew him from Paris, in ’72 until he died.

We jammed with Bachir’s father. There’s a cassette of that floating around somewhere. Brion had a vision and arranged it and sure enough it worked out great. I met them (The Master Musicians) at somebody’s house outside of Paris and we played (later on) in Casablanca.

JK: There’s a story that some nuns at a Catholic school brainwashed Brion into believing he had a tin ear and absolutely no musical aptitude.

SL: He was extremely musical. I thought Brion was a musical genius! I gave him back music in a way but he already had it from Morocco. That kind of music he could deal with. He had been very frustrated. When I first met him, Brion had been carrying around the lyrics to “Nowhere Street” since 1949. They were the lyrics for an un-produced Broadway show based on the life of Uncle Tom. The idea was to make a musical based on the book [And To Master, A Long Goodnight] he had written. He had talked with composers and producers but nothing came of it. Brion showed me the lyrics and I flipped. That was the beginning of our collaboration. I set “Nowhere Street” to music in ’79.

JK: Yeah, that’s on Songs, the album you made together. That album is absolutely brilliant! It’s one of the hippest records I’ve heard in my life! Years ago I had a radio show on a college station in Milwaukee and played the living hell out of it. A couple of cuts were “not suitable for airplay,” particularly “Luvzya,” his rap poem. People were absolutely shocked, calling the station saying, “What the hell is this?”

SL: I’m afraid that album’s out of print now. He put so much love and work in that. Brion was there in the studio, listening to us in ecstasy while we performed his songs… The thing that impressed me most about Brion was his taste and discretion and his humor and of course his erudition. This cat had educated himself – he knew literature, painting and music and theater and dance. His taste in music was pretty good. Brion appreciated (and worked with) Don Cherry. At the same time he also had a cheap, trashy side where he liked low-class junk music. He was really, as he would say “multi-farious.” He had a trashy side but he had a golden side too.

JK: How did Brion manage to completely slip through the cracks?  Do you think he purposely dodged fame?

SL: No, Brion craved attention and he deserved attention but he took it from unlikely sources. I don’t know what happened with the surrealist show. There is so much jealousy, deception, intrigue and shenanigans going on in Paris, and that surrealist group was full of those things. That was a trauma that really hurt Brion terribly. He was pretty young at the time because it was back around 1936. He had an astonishing life if you add up all the things he’s done. I have a couple of his drawings from Morocco that are just beautiful. The same guy that made those also wrote [the novel] The Process, made photomontages, created performance pieces and wrote song lyrics. Burroughs said Brion was the only man he respected and trusted. Burroughs really loved Brion and vice versa. We were very tight. We were dear, dear friends. I loved the guy.  Frankly, I have the feeling that it’s still early to talk about Brion. He’s like an unknown quantity.

Published in Signal To Noise, 2002.