John Lurie: The One and Only

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If 2020 has proven anything, it’s that we are all living epic history every day of our natural lives. But to enter into the roaring river of human history by choice is something brave, and to be a part of cultural history is very special indeed.

If anyone belongs to that club it is John Lurie, one of our great national treasures. It’s nothing that you plan — to rub elbows with the greats, like Ornette Coleman, John Lee Hooker, the blues-rock band Canned Heat, Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Abel Ferrara, Asia Argento, Richard Edson, Willem Dafoe, Christopher Walken, Werner Herzog, Martin Scorsese, Wim Wenders, among others — but John Lurie became part of a unique society of artists. A master of creativity and originality in every medium he’s put his hand to, there really is no one quite like him in the arts.

But everything starts out simply.

John Lurie and his brother Evan were both born in Minneapolis in the early 1950’s, but were raised in New Orleans and Worcester, Massachusetts, with their sister Liz. All three are accomplished artists whose parents helped them grow into creators of lush, colorful art that soothes and stimulates.

John Lurie

I read about John before I encountered his work, as back in the 1970’s magazines were one of the main mediums to discover what was going on in the art world. Many readers will recall Lurie from the 1991 IFC presentation Fishing With John, which he created, directed and produced, and in multiple film collaborations with Jim Jarmusch (the premise of Stranger Than Paradise was Lurie’s concept). Many of my generation (Gen-X) first heard of John from the depths of the New York City music scene in the late-1970s and early-1980s — the kind of time that this writer believes will happen again when cultural revolution is in the air, and anything seems possible, which it did back then. Things have a way of coming around full circle. From punk to its collapse into No Wave and a wonderful path forward all his own, John Lurie has made a creative space for himself and others that really has no parallel. It’s very American, but also genuinely original with a universality you find in the best art.

His paintings [CLICK HERE FOR GALLERY] might remind the viewer of any number of things in the natural world and beyond, with their own internal dialog in relation to the work. Yet there is nothing like their beauty, their organically-detailed brushwork, the often humorous titles, the life within, coursing and as real and beloved as a flowering plant or a quiet field of tall grass, each blade touched by a loving, lilting hand that makes it resonate with enigmatic meaning, and power. At least that’s simply how I see his paintings, and like all great works, Lurie’s are kaleidoscopic: everyone sees something different, each time. And this is just one medium.

Ghost on stilts.

In film, Lurie has collaborated with the very best, some already named above, and the list of musicians he’s played alongside and conducted as a bandleader and a composer would fill many pages. He’s an extraordinary saxophonist and writer of music, and his collaborations with his brother Evan, one of the great jazz pianists and still composing for television and film, have no parallel. The Lounge Lizards, founded by John and Evan in 1978, performed and produced music for twenty years.

By the early 2000’s, John grew increasingly ill from what would turn out to be Chronic Lyme Disease. Only recently has he gotten a break from this struggle.

Q: I promise not to ask what kind of a tree you would be, but do you consider yourself a perfectionist with your art?

A: Yes, I am. Though it is important to know how and when to let go and take what you are given. So what might have been on your mind, what you saw or what you heard, you might not get that, but you might get something else that you did not anticipate at all and it will be better.

But with the paintings, I am just so fucking stubborn, I will not allow them to be bad. Even if it would be a thousand times easier to just discard something that has gone bad, I will work on it, sometimes for months until I fix it. But, a perfectionist? Yes, I am afraid so. If I listen to one of my records from 30 years ago, I still can only hear the mistakes.

He was strange. And so was his apartment.

Q: John, you have said that one of the first people you encountered when you arrived in Manhattan was the late, great actor Vincent Schiavelli. Did you ever have one of his legendary meals? I understand he was a very kind man and loved sharing meals with people. Did you meet many friendly artists like him in your life in the city?

A: No, he never was a friend and at the time we were completely unaware of anything about the other. My brother Evan smoked a pipe then and I was outside a tobacco shop in the East Village and Vincent was a pipe smoker. We just started to talk, about, who knows what. Then whenever we saw each other on the street we would stop and talk, like neighbors or something. But that is not at all normal in New York City.

The floating white horse heads in the forest frightened most people, but I wasn’t bothered by them.

Q: Congratulations on the completion of your autobiography, beating cancer, and from what you were saying about the Lyme disease recently, it sounds like you’re doing much better. Do you have any advice for people going through similar health problems?

A: Cancer and the Lyme are so wildly different. And with both the kinds of cancer or the symptoms with Lyme are very different, so handing out some blanket advice would be ridiculous.Though for the Lyme people, I can say that it still affects me but I am miles better than I was and able to do things that I never thought would be possible again. So don’t give up hope.

Q: I was a big fan of Abraham Lincoln as a kid. I noticed he’s a running theme for you sometimes, in occasional comments. Is that because you’re part-Welsh? Some people believe that he very likely was Welsh.

A:  I had no idea he was part Welsh. No, I just love Abraham Lincoln. It must have been impossible for him. First he suffered from depression. And his life was filled with early deaths – his brother, his sister, his fiancé, not one but two of his children. And life with Mary – yikes, I can imagine. 

And with the war, of course the South hated him, but the North was not behind him either. People wanted the war stopped. He was so alone in all that. 

Though he presented himself as a non religious person, his moral compass (depending on what you read) seems to have been absolutely perfect, as though God was speaking directly to him.

If it made any sense to worry about a person from history, I would worry about Abraham Lincoln.

Q: What bands and artists in the No Wave scene really knocked you out?

A: The Contortions at a certain time were absolutely phenomenal. 

Q: When I was first discovering jazz as a kid during the eighties I was also reading a lot of NY magazines, and lo-and-behold, I saw The Lounge Lizards mentioned, and that they were “fake jazz,” and then I heard you guys—this was not “fake jazz,” this felt like the essence of jazz, improvisation, something very pure. What was the musical agenda of the Lounge Lizards?

A: That “fake jazz” moniker came from our first gig. The dressing room filled with people demanding to know what did I call this new music. I threw it out there – “Oh, fake jazz.” Was kind of proud of it at that moment because that was exactly what it was at that moment. But over the years as it evolved and became more elegant, only someone with a deformed ability to hear would call it “Fake Jazz.” Which, of course, means that 4,349,381 lazy music journalists continued to call it that.

Q: Did you ever get to meet Ornette Coleman? What’s your favorite album of his?

A: Yes, I met Ornette several times. He was very kind and supportive. Also, we had a long phone conversation one time about a couple of musicians, who had played with him and now were playing with me, that was immensely helpful. Favorite album – not sure, I don’t really think like that. His early stuff hits me the deepest.

Q: How did you get to know Teo Macero? That 1984 of his compositions for orchestra with The Lounge Lizards on the title composition “Fusion” is jaw-dropping. How’d that all come together? What was it like?

A: Really? I was never so comfortable with that Fusion recording.  Loved Teo though. He had produced our first record. Record company said we had to have a producer and Anton Fier suggested Teo.

Q: You ever get a chance to meet William S. Burroughs? Any thoughts on his work and legacy?

A: I, sort of, met him several times at parties or art openings, but never really met him met him.

Purple Panther with brick head, exploding with speed.

Q: I don’t think you get asked this very often: However, brief your performance in Abel Ferrara’s New Rose Hotel (1998), it is phenomenal, you sell it all the way, I really believed you were an underworld figure with a past. But how did you end up being in it? You recall some good times with Abel? Asia Argento? Of course Willem Dafoe is in that, too. What’s your opinion of Ferrara’s body of work, any favorites?

A: Abel had wanted me to be in King of New York and I said no because band had a tour. And he was sort of pissed at me. Asia tells me that at that time Abel brought her by my house but I have no recollection of this at all. Willem and I were pretty close around that time and Abel was looking for someone, I think for what ended up being Asia’s part. I don’t really remember. I suggested my friend Kyrie. But Abel was so wild around that time, Kyrie was nervous to do it without me being there.

Then Abel said, well if you are going to be there anyway, you might as well be in it. I said ok. He told me to go to a costume fitting at 9pm on a Sunday night, except the address he gave me was a bar. And no one was there.The bartender told me, I think the people you are looking for are across the street. The wardrobe person gave me this awful fitting suit that I was supposed to try on in the men’s room of this bar and the toilet was broken and there was 2 inches of water on the floor. I said I would just wear my own suit. Abel gave me the address where they were shooting and said to come at 9 am. 

I looked at him sideways and said, “You have someone call me when you get there.” No one calls. I call the set and there is no answer. I wait and then I walk over there at noon. Willem and Christopher Walken have been there since 9 and are going a little nuts. I guess this was happening every day.

Finally, Abel shows up at 4 in the afternoon. 

I have this unsayable dialogue. It is all futuristic exposition. I walk through this club, where everyone in the room wants to be in the movie more than I do and I have to weave in and out of people throwing themselves in front of the camera.

I get to Walken who is sitting at a table and deliver my unsayable dialogue. But Walken has been drinking wine in his trailer for hours and just stares at me.

Abel can’t get mad a Walken, so he acts exasperated, we are 7 hours behind now and he makes it like this is somehow my fault. Abel says they have time for one more take. I walk across the room again. Say my unsayable dialogue again and Walken just sits there. I am suppose to sit down after he responds, but he is just gone and doesn’t say anything. So I sit down and say my next line.

I am half way through when Walken grabs the back of my head and pulls me toward him. He says, “You are an excellent actor!” I just cracked up. 

So I am sitting there laughing and Abel yells, “Ok cut! Moving on. Can’t waste any more time on this.” But how can you not be for Abel? He is amazing. 

They were weird but they saw something even weirder.

Q: As a viewer, what are some of your favorite movies? Who is a favorite actor? 

A: There are so many really good actors these days and so few things for them to be in that do their talents justice. Kind of an awful thing really, how badly movies suck these days. Kind of have gone the way of politics. Is all about greed and power and not about making something compelling or important.

First movie that came to mind was No Country For Old Men. 

Xavier Bardin is great in that. I will go to see a movie if Michael Shannon is in it. Philip Seymour Hoffman has hit me pretty hard. Meryl Streep is too good, she can be so good, you end up just seeing that and it takes you out of the experience of watching the movie.

Q: Your paintings are so beautiful—words truly cannot do them any justice, so I won’t attempt to—but would you say that they’re deeply personal?

A: Well somebody has to say it because the art world is on the verge of a seizure in its attempt to ignore them. Deeply personal? I have no idea. I don’t think so really.

Q: Any embarrassing things you like?

A: There is this thing on Netflix  — The Messiah. And there is much that I don’t like about it, some of the acting, the art of it. But something about it struck me.

And I thought, “I am not going to tell anyone about this.”

I was talking to Flea on the phone and Melody was right there with him and they were both saying that I had to watch The Messiah on Netflix.

So I admitted to him that I had seen it and it had moved me, but I had not told anyone, even my brother Evan, because I was embarrassed. And he laughed and laughed. Then he posted on Twitter – Ask John Lurie what TV show he is embarrassed to tell you he liked. Because, you know, what are friends for?

Q: You know, I don’t need to know any graphic details, names, but I got the impression over the years that you were quite the ladies’ man and still are. Any interesting anecdotes or conclusions about relationships?

A: What kind of a question is that? [M.J.- A stupid one.]

Q: With cinema in a kind of a transition with streaming services such as Netflix, a Disney one coming that’s going to far bigger and deeper in catalog, what are your feelings about the state of the movie business as it stands right now?

A. I don’t know man, you finally have some time and you want a distraction and look for something to watch and there is nothing. Absolutely nothing to watch. So you pick something that looks like it won’t be too awful and then it is worse than you thought it was going to be. And if it is supposed to be a comedy, it is geared to, man, not even going to say it. Makes me angry. All this money goes to making what?

It seems like in the art world, the movie world and in politics the creepy people have won and have taken over. I wonder if this is what Darwin had in mind. I just finished shooting Painting with John. We have to edit it, do some looping and fix some stuff but I can tell now it is going to be something very special. It will cheer people up a bit. The thing is – how do I get it out into the world without having to deal with any of the unpleasant gatekeepers?

Q: It’s well known that you and Flea from RHCPs have been longtime friends. I recall first noticing him in Penelope Spheeris’s Suburbia during the eighties, which seems like some golden age of independent cinema nowadays. How did you two first meet?

A: I was doing a film score in L.A. in 1982. If I scored in New York, I would know all the musicians and know who to hire, but on this movie they were hiring everybody. And I didn’t really like how it was going.

I had a few things that I wanted people who could play really funky. So I called Matt Dyke and asked him. Matt said – “You have to get The Flea! The Flea! He is your man!” So I called this kid The Flea and there were a couple of things that the musicians who played the funky stuff should also play on this thing in 5/4 and another thing in an odd time signature. So I had The Flea, which is what I thought his name was then – come by where I was working to see if he could play in odd time signatures. And he nailed it. 

It was a futuristic motorcycle movie and there were costumes all around in the office where I was writing the music. There was a leather jacket with metal cups nailed to the shoulders.

Flea asked, “Can I have this?”

I shrugged and said “Sure.” 

He put it on and walked out onto Sunset Blvd. wearing it. Kind of impressed me. So I fought to have him and Hillel and Cliff Martinez play on this thing. They were all really really good. It was all set up and then they showed up 2 hours late, with their shoulders slumping in embarrassment. Jim Price, who had been hired to pull the project together, they didn’t really trust me, was furious and they were not allowed to play. 

Two Goat Gulch.

Q: What was the weirdest thing or experience you can talk about that happened to you in Manhattan?

A: Has all been fairly sedate and normal so far. 

Q: Any special memories of Rockets Redglare?

A: The night of the Fire Escape Monster. [M.J. – A long tale covered in detail in previous interviews about a lost night of hallucinated adventure.]

Q: Finally: you ever get back to seeing your old home town of Worcester?

A: Not in quite a while. I hear it has made a bit of a come back. Was really grim for years.

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