When pondering which author to interview next for this series, I realized that the perfect candidate was someone very close to home: the founding editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books who teaches one U.C. campus over from me in Riverside. What makes Tom Lutz, who has written books on laziness, visiting different parts of the world, and America in the year 1903 ideal? Well, his oeuvre also includes an article titled “Curing the Blues: W.E.B. Du Bois, Fashionable Diseases, and Degraded Music,” which appeared in Black Music Research Journal, and came with an author identification at the bottom of its first page that began in this surprising fashion: “Tom Lutz is a blues pianist of no repute. His day job is in the University of Iowa English Department.” Without further ado, here are some questions I put to him — including an extended lightning round of either/or ones designed to cover as much of the musical waterfront as possible — and his answers.
JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: Ever thought about quitting your day job and seeing if Tom Lutz and Blue Tuna (sample songs available via iTunes), or some other band you were in, had a future as more than a side gig?
TOM LUTZ: No, not for a moment. I was always happy to be a sideman with a side gig, and knew I didn’t have the talent or originality to do anything people would notice. I think my singing is more like Paul Rudd doing karaoke than like a real vocalist. If I could write great lyrics, I could have been in the Dylan/Tom Waits club of growling at the mic … My greatest pleasures have been playing behind much better singers and soloists than me, and helping to juice the music to make the most of what they are doing. There were moments when I was playing for Dr. Loco in the Bay Area and Smokey Wilson in Los Angeles that I thought, sure, I’d go on the road for a couple years with these guys if I could swing it money-wise.
At my busiest as a musician, though, I was I was doing about 100 gigs a year, and at that rate, I never found myself thinking, gee, I wish I had some more gigs, never thought I’d like to do it every night. Now that I don’t play nearly enough, though, I yearn for it, and I would take any opportunity: I’d jam with your grandmother or your grandchild any day of the week.
You are holding a dinner party, which three musicians do you invite?
Well, thinking forward to the jam after dinner, as a piano player I’d want a bass player and a drummer, and probably, since blues is my thing, a guitar player. I’d take the guitarist I heard with a trio in Santiago, Chile in 2014, the bass player and drummer from the quartet I saw in Paraty, Brazil last month. But since I think you are actually asking about the dinner conversation: Stevie Wonder, Beyoncé, and Bob Dylan.
You travel a lot — to say the least! — so can you think of an experience to share here that relates to music, happened on the road, and sticks out in your mind as particularly surprising in a happy or amusing way?
(1) Walking into a pizza joint in Italy when I was 18 and having the kid behind the counter mistake me for Jimmy Page. I don’t think I look that much like Page, but our hair was the same length back then. At first I thought he was just saying he liked and so I said yes, yes, absolutely. Then he ran and got his Led Zeppelin album and asked me to sign it for him. I did, with an oversized J and P — don’t know why I guessed that was the way the real Page would do it. I like to think of him still telling the story of the day Jimmy Page came in for pizza. (2) Jamming with some Bedouin kids and a motley group of travelers 50 miles from the nearest road in a little village on the Algerian border in southern Morocco, each song falling apart when the rhythmically challenged Frenchman (think Steve Martin in The Jerk) got too excited. (3) I was talking to a guy in a funky back-room music store in Tajikistan, and we played some things for each other. I learned the beauty of the flatted second, and he got excited, asked me to join his band for two gigs — that night and the next — called the rest of the band, who seemed to have been right round the corner, and we had an instant rehearsal, after which the gigs were never mentioned again. I guess I am the rhythmically challenged Frenchman in this story.
Same question, but in a sad or disturbing way?
I played piano in a classic big band in Denmark for a few months, and they all made fun of me because they knew American jazz a lot better than I did. That’s not very sad or very disturbing, but really my musical experiences overseas have all been on a scale from interesting to exhilarating. I did have a few weird moments in my gigging life in the US, but they were sad and disturbing the way any racist and sociopathic incidents are sad and disturbing, and not really about the music.
Is there a genre of music you know you should like, but you just don’t?
Is there a song that you used to consider pure junk — and maybe still do consider pretty worthless at some level — but when you hear it now, you can’t help but smile? (I know I have at least two songs by Abba that I’d put in this category.)
I thought of Elvis as the epitome of shlock back in the day, and the Fat Elvis stuff the worst, but after I heard Dwight Yoakam do a cover of Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds,” I started to sit down at my piano and belt it out with incredible glee once a week or so. I assume the neighbors are sick of it.
Can you name an instrument you wish was used more often in recordings these days — and an instrument you wish was used less?
I can never get enough Hammond B-3. I can’t imagine disliking an instrument.
Okay, on to the lightning round … Morrison: Van or Jim?
Van, of course, although he never put together as original and masterful a pop composition as “Light My Fire” — it’s a completely goofy song, but what a perfect arrangement!
“Purple Rain” or “Purple Haze”?
I would hate to have to actually choose. Both.
Brothers: Doobie or Righteous?
I never quite got why we were supposed to like the Doobie; the Righteous, I get it.
Sisters: McGarrigle or Andrews?
I do have a soft spot for the midcentury female harmony singers, and not one for the McGarrigles…
Billy: Preston or Joel?
Preston — unbelievable inventiveness without ever coloring outside the lines. Joel always struck me as a bit of a dick.
Goodbye: Earl or Yellow Brick Road?
Love the Dixie Chicks.
Doc Watson or Dr. John?
Dr. John by many miles. I appreciate Watson’s historical importance, but he ain’t exactly funky.
Duke Ellington or Count Basie?
My bandleader in Denmark said, “I believe there is jazz and there is Duke Ellington,” and I’m not far behind him — certainly no other big band composer/performer ever came close. Basie, though, the epitome of less is more, is a great teacher for any musician.
London: Calling or Werewolves of?
They both have a novelty song feel, but Werewolves.
California: Hotel or Dreamin’ (on Such a Winter’s Day)?
Hotel California is such a cliché now (and became one so fast) that it is hard to listen to it with fresh ears, but it is one of the top ten best-arranged pop hits of my lifetime.
Jones: Nora or George?
Too easy: Nora.
Joan: Baez or Armatrading?
Armatrading by many miles.
Paul: Simon or McCartney?
Tough. Simon never came close to having a decade of achievement like Lennon & McCartney’s, but maybe the Simon tortoise beats the McCartney hare?
Keith or Mick?
Neither if you can’t have both.