String Fever

Lyle Lovett's super-cellist John Hagen smashes preconceptions about his instrument

Once upon a time a not-so-sought-after Lyle Lovett went to Nashville's Opryland to hawk his act at a talent-buyers showcase. Not yet the Grammy-getting, style-setting Hollywood property he's become, he hoped to impress the promoter-packed audience. And he did. "Afterwards we heard someone say he felt sorry for that fella with the bongos and viola," recalls cellist John Hagen, who, along with conga player James Gilmer, had accompanied Lovett. "They had sympathy for Lyle, but they didn't know what the hell we were playing. So I felt sorry for him, too."

No one could possibly feel sorry for Lyle Lovett these days, but there still are audiences that don't know what the hell Hagen is playing. A for-instance: the mannerless bunch in Cardiff, Wales, last year who pointed, howled at, and otherwise heckled him as he took the stage with Lovett's fourteen-piece Large Band. "I don't even think they yelled anything about the cello," Hagen says. "I don't think they knew what it was. But they knew it was something that shouldn't have been there."

Fans lately have dubbed him "the psychedelic cellist," but it would be more apt to call him a guerrilla, tearing through the jazz/gospel/country-colored fabric of Lovett's live shows to lob a musical Molotov and then duck back into camouflage: starched and sober stage demeanor, painstaking posture, politely arranged face.

Whatever he's called, Hagen has found himself at the cellistic vanguard, highly visible thanks to his long association with Lovett, and highly notable thanks to his own peculiar sensibilities. "When people come to me and say they have the perfect cello song, usually I'm not interested," he says. "Because it's just going to be a plaintive melody, and cello is capable of so much more."

In the jazz and classical arenas, that's a given. But when pop deigns to give cello some play, he says, it's typically as part of a string section. The options have been limited, the instrument has been pigeonholed as background buzz or schmaltz.

Not so on Lovett's stage. There cello gets to stretch its schizoid self, going variously gritty, flitty, creaking, eerie. One minute it's chickenfried as a cheap steak, rivaling fiddle as the country string of choice. The next it's shrewish enough to shout down a screaming Strat A and every last loudmouth in any audience. "This is not a wimpy instrument at all," Hagen insists. He proves it, too, at every stop of the tour bus, without the aid of complex effects. "I use acoustic equipment," he says. "It's not like I'm using gadgetry or gizmos or changing the sound that much. I think it's more in the ear. I mean, you could play country music on a tuba if you got the right person doing it. Or on a piccolo. Somebody could make it work."

When it comes to cello, that somebody happens to be Hagen.
How he hears is who he is: a product of the West, reared in the reaches of Wyoming, then drug off to Huntsville, Texas, by his conductor father, who had taken a job at Sam Houston State University. "He was going all over trying to recruit strings for his orchestra," Hagen explains, "so he wasn't gonna let me get away." When the bachelor's degree was done, Hagen went to the University of Texas for his master's, managing to drop out three hours shy of finishing. It wasn't necessarily a dumb move, considering the drop zone: Austin, the self-proclaimed "live music capital of the world."

"I used to drag my cello in every chance I could to whatever club and see if I could sit in," Hagen remembers. Most musicians were too curious to do anything but let him. Among them was Nanci Griffith A in 1978 Hagen played on her debut album. Soon after he joined an eccentric (banjo, mandolin, guitar, bass, cello) electric string band with a solid statewide following. By the time Texas A&M student Lovett met him in 1980, Hagen was nothing short of a sonic jigsaw. "Lyle asked me if I would be willing to transcribe his songs, 'cause he didn't read or write music and he knew that I did," Hagen says. "This was, of course, way before any record deal. And we still do some of those songs. The first song I ever heard him play was 'If I Had a Boat' and we still play that."

Some things never change.
And lots of other things do.
"When I started with Lyle back in '81," Hagen says, "we'd play little folk clubs in Houston, Austin, coffee houses, you know, where maybe fifteen or twenty people would show up, there'd be no cover charge." Last year Lovett and his band played 4000-seat theaters (including the Coral Springs City Centre), 10,000-seat amphitheaters, 50,000-seat stadiums. The current tour, which begins this week and runs through mid-August, will put the cellist on more than 50 stages throughout the U.S. and Canada.

At age 42, Hagen considers himself a lucky man, claiming humbly that if it weren't for chance, he'd hardly be making a living as a musician. While that's tough to believe, it is true that if not for chance, he wouldn't have appeared in Bob Roberts, Tim Robbins's 1992 film about a rabidly right-wing, folksinging senate candidate. "That happened because of Lyle's participation [as an actor] in The Player in 1991," Hagen explains. "Robert Altman was giving this Fourth of July party for a lot of the people involved in the film, and he asked Lyle if he'd play out at his house in Malibu. So we went out there just as a duo and set up a little tiny PA system and played a few tunes. And Tim Robbins was there...."

Hagen recalls that it hadn't occurred to Robbins to add a cellist to his film band, not until Altman's party. Which could prove it ain't what you know, it's who...except that wouldn't take into account Hagen's skill, or his long years of study and work, on the road and off. And on again. And again.

Fact is, he's rode pretty hard. His longest break this year has been eight weeks. But he says he likes the touring, that he'd much rather be in front of an audience than in a studio A a good thing considering he's called not just for Large Band gigs and the odd command performance (one inaugural ball included) but also for Lovett's duo, trio, and quartet bookings. He's crisscrossed the country too many times to count, played Europe ten times, and appeared on the Tonight Show "six or seven, maybe eight" times. Letterman had him on twice. And Hagen still suffers a bit of stage fright.

Fight-or-flight floods of adrenaline. Some things don't change.
Large Band shows give Hagen substantial down time, wait-in-the-wings time, time to pump anticipatory angst. He plays on about half the numbers, taking the stage only as needed. The horn section kids him, calls him "cello furniture."

Once last summer, at a live radio broadcast from a New York City bar, he was forced to spend his wait face-to-face with the past-capacity crowd that had crammed itself in front of the tiny stage. It would be dangerous for him to materialize on cue as usual, he'd been advised. Impossible to navigate such a treacherously tight space. "Cellos are very expensive pieces of equipment," Hagen notes, "and fragile. If you fall with one, you're in trouble. So I found myself just sitting, waiting on stage."

To be stuck there doing nothing but eyeballing an audience for fifteen or twenty minutes could rattle some performers, even those not jitter-prone. But Hagen appeared absolutely placid. "I was probably thinking about where the next Laundromat was," he says. "I could sure use some clean underwear."

It's a joke. And it's not.
When the challenge of the road isn't scoring something with a spin cycle, it is, Hagen says, "not to lose too much skill."

Vacation A time at home in Austin, time not spent performing A means working three to five hours per day on the instrument: scales, arpeggios, etudes, strengthening exercises, classical pieces, knuckle-crunching stuff. "It's a great time for me to remember that I do play cello," he says deadpan. "Or to remind me that I don't...and that I need to."

That punch line is trademark. Hagen's way tougher on himself than his audiences typically are. His solo on Lovett's "You Can't Resist It" so regularly draws ovations that the kudos should be cracking him in the head. "People aren't really familiar with what a cello can do," he says, "so it's surprising. It becomes suspenseful because they really don't know what to expect."

True enough. Most audiences wouldn't expect a cello A in this case a delicate, 93-year-old Thomas Earle Hesketh A to break through a fat, horn-backed rock-and-roll song and grab 'em by the scruff. Which is more or less what Hagen's several-minutes-long, semi-improvised solo does.

That audiences go unmitigatedly nuts for it no longer surprises him. Why they go so nuts does, however, puzzle him. "It's not that unusual," he insists, insisting in the context of "early twentieth-century composers who were writing amazing cello works." When the context is the sleepy body of pop cello, he concedes the solo is "unconventional" A still a tame description for an abstract soundscape that opens with what Hagen himself calls "screaming" harmonics. Then it plows a few waving walls of sounds, reverts to a brooding blues, climbs ear-clawing pitches, and even dumps the audience into stone-dead calm. "That's an interesting moment," Hagen allows. It's a challenge, he explains, "not to fill up all the spaces," to make silences as purposeful as the music.

And what about the whole of the soundscape? Its function? Its significance in the pop scheme of things? Hagen ponders these questions. Shrugs his shoulders. "Basically," he finally says, "it's having fun with noises."

"I don't feel revolutionary at all," Hagen says of his work. "It's hard to, after so many years of doing this, it's hard to view myself as doing something unusual any more. I used to go out on stage apprehensive about how people were going to react to the cello. I mean, I was doing it and I thought it was unusual. It always felt like I was on uncharted waters."

Nowadays, Hagen believes the cello is "on the verge of making a big breakthrough. It's really an amazing instrument, it'll do so many things. You can play bass lines on it, you can do bass solos and then pluck up a little higher than a bass, you can bow the blues or jazz on it, you can cover the midrange, you can cover the upper stuff.... I wouldn't be surprised to see somebody come up who really can blow jazz on a cello, like a Coltrane or somebody. I mean, why not? Certainly you can get around on a cello like that, classical players do it. It's just a matter of someone really coming along and just work, work, work, until they work their fingers to the bone."

Could he be that someone?
"Ah...it's too late for me."
He laughs and it's hard telling whether the statement's just another self-effacing sneeze, a sideman's automatic reaction. "I can accept the spotlight for short periods of time," he says. "But I don't know that I'd want to be the focus."

The current focus, Lyle Lovett, has become a close friend as well as a steady employer. And his shows give Hagen a rare, delicious chance to tweak the public ear, coming as he does "from the underdog position of being a cellist" on a pop stage. Unexpected. Underrated. And entirely, boneheadedly, underestimated.

Lyle Lovett and His Large Band perform at 8:00 p.m. Saturday at Sunrise Musical Theatre, 5555 95th Ave, 741-7300. Tickets cost $22.75 and $25.75.

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