No one epitomized the melding of music and art that took place in downtown Manhattan of the 1970s and early 1980s more than John Lurie.
We got off on the wrong foot, John Lurie and I. One Sunday afternoon in the early 2000s, we found ourselves sitting next to each other, sharing free tickets for expensive seats at Madison Square Garden, close to the “action” (if you could call it that) at a New York Knicks game. After my wife spilled beer on his dark overcoat, Lurie and I argued for four quarters about the merit of one of my favorite players at the time, Jalen Rose. Lurie was at turns funny and charming, then cutting and dyspeptic. None of it changed my opinion of the man. I’d seen him in “Stranger Than Paradise” and “Down By Law” more times than I’d care to admit and was a proud owner of the Lounge Lizards record, “Voice of Chunk.” To my mind, John Lurie could do no wrong.
Fast forward a decade – I was (and currently am) working as a freelance producer on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show. John was the guest on one of my segments, booked to discuss a showing of his mid-1990s cult classic TV program, “Fishing With John,” as well as his renewed interest in painting, which came partly as a result of the advanced Lyme Disease Lurie had contracted, which robbed him of the energy needed to act and play music. Time and illness had tempered his bravado, which while still existent, mixed well with a certain vulnerability. I liked him even more.
No one epitomized the melding of music and art that took place in downtown Manhattan of the 1970s and early 1980s more than John Lurie. He didn’t so much burst onto the scene as help create the scene itself. To this day, John Lurie escapes categorization – Lurie is a self-taught musician, painter, actor, director and storyteller. Friend and mentor to a young Jean-Michel Basquiat, saxophonist and bandleader of The Lounge Lizards, (a group that – over the years – included Arto Lindsay, Marc Ribot, Anton Fier and others), Lurie also starred in the early Jim Jarmusch movies mentioned above, while acting in such movies as Wim Wenders’ “Paris, Texas,” Marin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” and David Lynch’s “Wild At Heart.” His paintings (seen here at www.johnlurieart.com) have shown at galleries in Munich, Zurich, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Montreal and New York.
John took a break from preparing for a September show of new work at Cavin-Morris Gallery in NYC to answer some questions over the course of a few days in June 2014
Hi John – How’ve you been?
John Lurie – I have always found that a suspicious question. The expected answer is “fine.” Yet, people are rarely fine. So it is a question that forces people to lie and say “fine,” when everyone knows you aren’t fine at all.
I understand what you’re saying. It’s how I feel when someone says to me, “It’s all good!” I always want to say, “Hey, pal – take a look around you? Things are definitely NOT all good! If fact, things are pretty bad!” I recently saw a photo that Andy Warhol took of you and Jean-Michel Basquiat. You were good friends with Basquiat…Where did you meet him?
JL: I met him at the Mudd Club. He loved to dance but was a horrible dancer. His face looked so delighted by his own dancing. And it reminded me of something my father had told me about seeing Willie Mays play baseball. Mays was 19 at the time and coming up to the majors through the minor league, and my father said he’d play with this absolute delight on his face. So I started calling Jean-Michel, Willie Mays.
“I was maybe 17 and someone played me Coltrane, Live at Birdland…It was like someone was speaking to me in Chinese. I thought, `What? There is music I can’t understand?’ And I started listening all the time.”
John Lurie on his interest in jazz
You were more established as an artist and musician at the time – did he look to you for advice?
JL: Man, all the time. There are even recordings of it somewhere.
Was it a surprise to you – that he died of an overdose?
JL: Is that for sure how he died?
No, he had been to Hawaii and had been straight for a bit. I lost a lot of friends like that – they would be straight for a while and when they got high again, they did the same amount they used to and it was too much for the body. I certainly was shocked that he died.
When – and why – did you move to NYC?
JL: I first moved to NYC in 1976. At the time, it didn’t seem to make sense to go anywhere else.
Where did you live during those years – the mid-Seventies to the mid-Eighties?
JL: My first place was on 14th and 1st Ave. I got broken into a couple of times. But I had this belief that life would never allow my horn to be stolen. I suppose reading this, people will find it naïve, but I firmly believed it and I wish I still had that kind of faith in a way. Like, “okay they stole my flute, they stole my radio, I don’t need those things, but not my alto, that is an extension of my being.”
I used to go and practice in the subway station at 14th and 1st. There was a line to Canarsie that no one used and was always empty – so I would go there every night and practice at like two in the morning.
I can’t even think about how insanely dangerous that was, but at the time it never even occurred to me. Well, it occurred to me but I was sure nothing would happen to me and nothing did.
I was working at the Plaza Hotel and saving up enough money to just work on music. And then my horn got stolen. I couldn’t believe it. I walked down 2nd Avenue weeping. So I had to buy a new horn with the money I had saved and couldn’t afford my apartment and left town for a while.
After that, I got a $55 a month apartment on East 3rd St across from the Men’s Shelter, which was nuts as nuts gets.
You had a cameo appearance in the film “Downtown 81,” a film that featured Basquiat, Debbie Harry and other downtown figures such as Arto Lindsay and his band DNA, James White and the Blacks and graffiti artists Lee Quinones and Fab Five Freddy. Ironically, due to financial issues, the film didn’t see the light of day until 2000. Did you ever actually see it?
JL: No, I didn’t see it and I am not in it, that I am aware of. I was supposed to be and then wasn’t. When I heard that they lost the sound, and it wasn’t Jean Michel’s voice, it made me feel kind of odd about seeing it. Plus, seeing your dead friend in a movie, who wants to do that?
My favorite thing that I heard about that movie? Someone saw Arto after the screening and said “Arto, DNA was great!” To which Arto said, “Forget about that, did you see me run for that cab?”
The late 1970s – early 1980s was such a fertile time for music and art – there didn’t seem to be a lot of self-imposed boundaries between various forms of artistic expression. Did it actually feel like a freer time in terms of living a creative life?
JL: It was certainly freer. It was a wild time and things were changing rapidly. But in the end the output is disappointing, I think. People were constantly doing things like falling out of windows. So there was an incredible amount of promise and something heavily in the air, but something that, in a lot of ways, fell short of what you could feel was supposed to happen.
How big a role did drugs play among the musicians, actors and artists at that time?
Can you think of an instance when drugs enhanced someone’s work or creative output?
JL: Yes, of course. I made tremendous breakthroughs on drugs. The problem with drugs is that the arc where they lead to insight and something good usually – and very quickly – turns to something awful.
Who were some of the first musicians and artists you met in NYC?
JL: Man, that question comes to my mind and a hundred different answers pop up. There were so many different scenes of people that I knew that didn’t overlap at all. The very first person I met was Vincent Schiavelli.
[Editor’s note: Vincent Schiavelli was a well known character actor who appeared in many in Miloš Forman films including “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “The People Versus Larry Flynt,” and the Andy Kaufman biopic, “Man on the Moon.”] This really has nothing to do with anything. He was outside a tobacco store smoking a pipe and he had this interesting face and we just started talking. I ran into him several times around then.
That is one thing that I miss. At that time, almost everyone had an interesting face. You needed a certain amount of toughness and character to get through back then. And it showed on people’s faces.
“I think Wikipedia is better than it used to be. About eight years ago, I wrote in my profile that my head was made out of ancient cheese and it stayed there for months. But now I think they are pretty good about making things accurate.”
John Lurie on keeping things factual
Your band, The Lounge Lizards, was associated with the No-Wave Movement (along with James Chance and the Contortions, Arto Lindsay, Elliott Sharp and others) that developed on a parallel track as punk. What did you make of the Ramones, Television, The Heartbreakers, Patti Smith, etc? Were you close with any of them?
JL: I knew all those people a little but not well. You know, I was coming to music from jazz and classical, so I wasn’t really so interested in what was happening in rock.
James Chance showed me how to do something with the Contortions – where they were playing James Brown rhythm section stuff with mayhem over the top of it. And I should point out that Donnie Christensen and George Scott and Jody Harris could all really play, so they would lay down these grooves that had this infectious thing almost like James Brown. Then Adele Bertai and Pat Place doing their thing on top of that with James Chance doing his autistic version of James Brown. It was compelling as hell. So I took that formula, in a way, when we started.
What kind of music did you listen to as a kid growing up in Worcester, MA?
JL: My sister Liz bought my brother Evan a harmonica. We started listening to, devouring really, blues albums. But who hit me the most was Little Walter.
I just listened to him the other day, the song is really pedestrian and his singing isn’t anything special, but then he starts playing the harmonica and it just throws me across the room.
This was – what – the mid 1960s? You didn’t listen to rock-and-roll?
JL: We listened to Hendrix and the Beatles. But we were very suspicious of anything that didn’t seem to be bringing it in a real way.
Obviously you can’t always trust what you read – but your Wikipedia entry states that you played harmonica in high school, jamming with Mississippi Fred McDowell and Canned Heat in 1968. Is that true? If so, what were the circumstances of those gigs?
JL: Yes, that is true. I think Wikipedia is better than it used to be. About eight years ago, I wrote in my profile that my head was made out of ancient cheese and it stayed there for months. But now I think they are pretty good about making things accurate.
I saw Mississippi Fred McDowell playing in a small club and everyone was egging me on to take my harmonica out. So I did between songs and he invited me up.
Canned Heat? We hitchhiked from Worchester to New York to see them play Carnegie Hall. After the show, we were hanging out on the corner with nowhere to go, and they came walking out. I said, “I play the harmonica and will hitchhike to wherever you are playing next to show you I am serious.” I was 16 I think.
They said they were in Philadelphia at the Spectrum the next night. So we hitchhiked there and snuck into the Spectrum in the afternoon and waited for them. They came walking in, John Lee Hooker was with them and oddly, they all seemed incredibly happy to see me. Bob Hite asked me to play something on the harmonica. saying, “Ok, first two songs are in E.” So I got up and played with them in front of 20,000 people.
When did you first become interested in jazz?
JL: I was in Worcester and playing the harmonica but all of the musicians I knew were older and living in Boston. The ones I respected the most were into jazz. So I would ask them what to listen to.
What was it that struck you about the music?
JL: I was maybe 17 and someone played me Coltrane, “Live at Birdland.” And I couldn’t understand it at all. It was like someone was speaking to me in Chinese. I thought, “What? There is music I can’t understand?” And I started listening all the time.
Over the years with the Lounge Lizards, your music become more complex, more layered. Did you study composition formally or was your learning more organic?
JL: No, not formally. I just learned as I went. Nah, it is pretty much just about concentration and figuring out how to do what you want to do. It is funny though, I will have just finished a good painting and say to myself – “Well I am really a good painter now.”
And I will start a new one and paint a chair. But I will just dash it off because now I think I am a master painter and then I will look at it and go – “That doesn’t look like a chair, you fucking idiot.”
Of all the great saxophone players – Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley – was one more of an influence on your playing than another?
JL: Coltrane, Dolphy, Ornette, Sidney Bechet.
Earlier this year, Pitchfork published a very positive review of “The Invention of Animals,” a collection of live recordings and studio tracks by your band The John Lurie National Orchestra. The reviewer refers to you as “a consummate collaborator… who has mostly preferred collectivism.” Is that collaborative creative process something you miss, now that you’re focusing exclusively on painting?
JL: He was talking specifically about the trio – a great format for me. It’s just drums and percussion and me on saxophone. There was hardly anything written. We had these outlines for the music and then would play. So it was completely collaborative.
Man, I bet people read that and think – “Oh God, I know that kind of stuff, I don’t want to hear that.” But it wasn’t that at all. Because we really listened. Deeply. And it made it something really special.
Hear, listen to this –
That’s a lovely piece. So, most of the music made by The John Lurie National Orchestra was improvised?
JL: Yes, like 94%
Do you have other recordings in the can from National Orchestra or the Lounge Lizards that you’re looking to release?
JL: There are tons of tapes in storage. I don’t know
The subject matter of your paintings suggest a very rich, full inner life – many of them seem to have an intense dream-like quality. What do you draw upon for inspiration when you begin a painting?
JL: I never understand that question. Stuff just comes floating in. Of course, I look at stuff all the time – in life, in paintings, in photographs. But I just kind of take mental notes – “…oh the way the light hits that branch is actually these 4 different colors…” – kind of thing.
The names of your paintings are often humorous and many of the paintings themselves are quite whimsical, like “King Pig Turned Flowers Into Language,” and “The Last Thoughts of What’s His Name.” Are they deliberately so?
JL: Well, there might be ones that weren’t intended to be funny that people found funny. I can’t really know.
But, yes, in general they are supposed to be funny, but not always.
The titles come late in the process and I feel are not so important. I am trying to make things that are so beautiful that I get lost in them. That hypnotize me. Hopefully it affects others the same. I like doing the titles but they seem to be a little bit of too much importance to some people.
You know, how people’s brains work is all different. Some people get nothing at all from looking at a painting. But “Oh! It has an amusing title!”
Did you study painting or rather just start on your own and continue working at it until you refined your technique?
JL: I didn’t study in a university if that is what you mean. I am studying painting all the time. My mother taught art in a university and she clearly passed things on to me.
Do you have any mentors – or even specific artists you look to – as reflective of your own work?
JL: I take a little bit from everywhere I suppose but don’t have mentors. I look at one of my works and it might owe something to Bruegel and Jackson Pollack in the same piece.
You’ve been painting for some time, but is it something you really began in earnest after contracting Lyme Disease?
JL: Yes, there were periods early on, late 70s where I was painting as much as playing music, but then it fell off in the 90s. And when I got sick, I was stuck in my apartment and started to paint again.
Do you find you are more creative at certain times of the day – or is there some activity you do that brings out your creative muse?
JL – First thing in the morning, you see stuff in what you were working on the night before, that you hadn’t seen.
But because of the Lyme, I am pretty unsteady in the morning. But you want to get stuff down when you see it, so I struggle through that usually. But no, I don’t have some magic potion that makes creativity start to happen.
How many paintings do you work on at any one time?
JL: Sometimes a lot, like 10. But that creates a visual mayhem where I am working. Usually at least 3.
Bob Dylan described some of his songs as “almost magically written… and it’s not Siegfried and Roy kind of magic. It’s a different kind of a penetrating magic.” Others artists have described themselves as “channels” for creativity. Have you ever had the experience of creating something – a painting or a song – where you look back at it and have no real recollection of how you created it or where that specific energy came from?
JL: All the best stuff, whether music or paintings, came through me. I just had to be clean enough for that to happen. This answer seems to anger some people but it just is the absolute truth of the matter. Some spark of a thing comes through you and you have to kind of build a house around it that doesn’t wreck it.
There seem to be some reoccurring themes in your paintings: Skeletons, birds, animals run amuck. What’s going on here?
JL: I have no idea. But yes.
How much of your focus is now on painting versus music or film?
JL: Because of the illness I can’t play music or act, so my focus is on painting – at least creatively. There is always a lot of business with all of this stuff, chasing people for money who are using your music for whatever – TV commercials or selling it on iTunes, but I presume you are speaking of a higher sense of focus and that would be the paintings.
Let me pivot – as it were – to another topic of interest – basketball. You played ball as a kid, and in pick up games on city playgrounds as a young and not-so-young man. Do you pay much attention to basketball these days?
JL: I’m paying attention to it right now. The Spurs are up 3 to 1 as I answer this. The last two games were shocking and I think people have to recognize that Greg Popovich is one of the true giants in basketball history. [ED: The Spurs went on to beat the defending champions, Miami Heat in 5 games.]
Is there a current team you like?
JL: I root for whoever is behind. But there are some teams or players I dislike.
The Knicks brought in Phil Jackson as General Manager and Derek Fisher as Head Coach. I predict they’ll re-sign Carmello Anthony.
How far away are the Knicks from being a serious contender?
JL: That team is a mess and a long way from being fixed. I’m happy about Derek Fisher being named head coach, though.
“Outrageousness didn’t follow Rockets, it emanated from him. I would hang out with Rockets for one night and it would take days to recover.”
John Lurie on Rockets Redglare
What have you seen in the last few years that moved you?
JL: I noticed this woman in a maze of people moving in this odd way. She was on the other side of a parked car and so I could only see her from the shoulders up. The way she was moving was almost like she was gliding, so it made me notice her. When she got past the car, I could see she was on crutches and only had one leg. But she was moving so gracefully, so nonchalantly, you would never imagine she had something wrong and that was because she didn’t. She stopped amidst the crowd to read a menu outside a restaurant and yawned to herself in a purely casual and quite elegant way.
You worked a bit with Rockets Redglare (roles in “Stranger Than Paradise,” “Down By Law,” “Oz”), a longtime downtown fixture who passed away in 2001. Outrageousness tended to follow Rockets like a large shadow. Do you have a favorite Rockets Redglare story?
JL: Man, I used to hang out with Rockets all the time. Rockets was incredibly smart and we were close. Except he was exhausting because you couldn’t ever trust him. He had a big heart and absolutely no morals. Outrageousness didn’t follow Rockets, it emanated from him. I would hang out with Rockets for one night and it would take days to recover. One night we got so fucked up that we were convinced that there was such a thing as the Fire Escape Monster and that we were in a great deal of danger.
It’s been almost four years since The New Yorker ran its infamous profile of you, that’s been widely thought of as a slanderous, hack-job. How do you deal with the damage that that article and follow up articles like the one in Juxtapoz must have done to your life?
JL: Unless one knew the true story, they wouldn’t have any idea how perverse and dangerous what The New Yorker did was or how much damage it did to my life.
I don’t know what one is supposed to do about something like that. It’s like these people stumble in and shit all over your life and move on to their next issue. And why? The actual facts in this case were so much more sensational than this concocted story they printed. They absolutely knew that the quotes they were going to print were not things that I said. But I am glad you see it like that and hope others do as well.
Expecting either of these magazines to be accountable or even to respond has been a lost cause.
The majority of the people interviewed by The New Yorker for the piece wrote them a letter that the magazine never responded to. I wrote to the writer and he didn’t respond.
In the case of Juxtapoz, the anonymous writer took misquote after hideous misquote from The New Yorker and strung them all together. I wrote a long letter in response to the Juxtapoz piece and posted it under the article but they keep removing it. John_Lurie_response_to_Juxtapoz_article
I try to just continue making beautiful things. In a way, it gave me a drive to invalidate them.
More than anything I wish The New Yorker and Juxtapoz would just take this trash off the Internet.
You’ve been battling Lyme disease for over a decade — How is your health?
JL: It comes and goes. I’m better than I was, though I still experience hideous periods that last hours or days or weeks. But it isn’t a huge concern now. I try not to think about it or identify myself as a sick person. It’s just something I have to deal with when it comes.
What’s the prognosis?
JL: Who knows the answer to that? A doctor? I would rather ask a cab driver at this point.
Todd McGovern is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY.