In his second interview with PKM, former Lounge Lizard and cult film star John Lurie talks about his painting, and new music by his alter ego Marvin Pontiac.
It’s 2:00 p.m. on a Friday afternoon in New York City when my phone rings. That can only mean one thing. It’s John Lurie calling. We’d made arrangements to talk, but he’s earlier than expected. I slide off my bar stool and step outside onto Avenue A, squinting in the sunlight at my phone. Sure enough, the all-knowing “Caller ID” reads “Unknown Caller.”
John Lurie disappeared from NYC a decade ago, after a confluence of impossible events. His whereabouts are a mystery and have been in the years we’ve become friendly. I know a few particulars: He lives outside the United States on an island in a tropical climate where he spends much of his time painting. I don’t ask too many questions, knowing I won’t get too many answers. And what’s the point, really? I much prefer not knowing.
In truth, there’s a lot of mystery and rumors surrounding the one-time, ubiquitous downtown figure. Long past are his days as the saxophone-playing front man and founder of the sonic experimenters known as The Lounge Lizards. As for acting, Lurie is fondly remembered for his roles in the Jim Jarmusch films Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law, as well as for the cult television show Fishing With John, but hasn’t appeared in anything since his 2001-2003 role as prison inmate Greg Penders on HBO’s OZ.
Since 2004, he has become a prolific painter, with much of his work inhabiting that space between dreaming and wakefulness. While Lurie has purposefully kept out of the spotlight, he continues to produce some of his best work and has had shows in galleries and museums in New York, Munich, Amsterdam, Montreal, Chicago, Tokyo, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia.
In late November 2017, Lurie quietly released new music under his murky alias, “Marvin Pontiac.” Titled The Asylum Tapes, a twisted collection of songs about livestock, garden gnomes and horses falling down wells. Accompanying himself on guitar and banjo, Marvin’s plaintive voice is otherworldly. It is great and unexpected music.
Pontiac was born in the 1930s and is “the son of an African father from Mali and a white Jewish mother from New Rochelle, New York. The father’s original last name was Toure, but he changed it to Pontiac when the family moved to Detroit, believing it to be a conventional American name,” according to his website. We also learn that Marvin’s music “was the only music that Jackson Pollack would ever listen to while he painted.”
Catching up with John Lurie, I asked him about his painting, his politics and just who the hell this Marvin Pontiac is.
PKM: It’s been 17 years since the world has heard from the mysterious presence behind the hollers, work songs and field recordings that make up “The Asylum Years,” the new album from Marvin Pontiac. This begs the question, just who isMarvin Pontiac?
John Lurie: I know who he is and what he would and wouldn’t do. To say he is me, isn’t really correct. Marvin is a character I created to do this music.
TM: I’m intrigued. What are a few things Marvin Pontiac would and would not do?
John Lurie: I am quite sure he wouldn’t do interviews to promote his records. There was a thing in the original bio that I liked—where he wouldn’t record for a record label unless the label president came to his house and mowed his lawn. Which is actually something I had heard about Timothy Carey and movie producers, but have no idea if it is true.
PKM: What does this particular persona mean to you?
John Lurie: There is a word in Turkish, çılgın. We don’t have such a word in English, but we should. It means crazy, but crazy in a good way.
PKM: On 1999’s Marvin Pontiac: Greatest Hits, you recorded with musicians like Marc Ribot, Evan Lurie, Tony Garnier John Medeski, Tony Scherr and Art Baron. The new work, Marvin Pontiac: The Asylum Tapes, is just you on guitar and banjo. Why did you decide to go it alone this time?
John Lurie: I have been living a fairly solitary existence for a long time. It really wasn’t by choice. I was driven to this. After a year or two of absolute hell, I realized it was the best thing that could have happened for me and have been pretty happy since then.
PKM: Starting with the first track, “Unbelievable,” there is a tremendous hypnotic quality to both the music and the vocals. Where you aware of this when you were writing and playing it?
John Lurie: I was lying in bed, only half awake. You know that thing you get from chanting and it vibrates the whole body. I was doing that mostly just to amuse or comfort myself. Then I went downstairs and recorded it, right away turning the drone chant into words. “Unbelievable. Really unbelievable.”
Then I added the “the beauty and the horror in this life” part. All before coffee. It just came out.
This was supposed to only be the scratch track that I used as a draft. I tried to redo it several times, but it never had the quality of the first one. So I used that.
Unbelievable – by Marvin Pontiac
PKM: I want to stick with this theme of hypnotic repetition, which is a thread that runs through these new songs. You use this technique lyrically in songs like “I Want To Get Out Of Here” and “I Am Not Crazy.” In other songs, like “I Hope She Is OK” and “It’s Always Something. It’s Never Nothing,” you do it musically. Was this something you were aware of?
John Lurie: But that was always there with my stuff—with the Lounge Lizards and in a way with the first Marvin record. But with the band, there would be these hypnotic sections and then it would break out of it into something else. These songs are all short, so it can stay in that pocket.
You know, it is impossible to know how your music actually hits other people. Is it hypnotic to people? I can’t know. I do hope people listen to this from beginning to end rather than just one song here and there.
PKM: So many of the songs are “tall tales” – or a skewed reality. Is that how you tend to see the world?
John Lurie: The new record, like many of the paintings, is kind of fairy tales for adults. I want to create a world for people to step into for a bit. A colorful world. A pleasant place to visit.
PKM: Your world of art seems solitary now – from painting to creating an album by yourself. How does this solo world impact you?
John Lurie: I find myself so irritated by the phoniness that seems to have overtaken the worlds of music and art that it is quite wonderful to do it from a far away place. Of course, how I am doing things has not helped my bankbook in any way, but has done wonders for the soul of the work.
PKM: What’s the relationship between your painting and the other forms of artistic expression?
John Lurie: I think the essence of the music and the painting are almost exactly the same thing.
PKM: You’re very active on social media Facebook and mainly Twitter. How do you use it – and what kind of outlet does it provide you?
John Lurie: I read something, post some enraged nonsense and then usually delete it in a few minutes. I delete a lot of posts. I find it shocking how people tend to misread what I have posted.
I have an annihilating sense of humor, so I will torch someone and then delete that shortly also. I actually try to be kind to people on Twitter, but then just can’t fucking stop myself.
I post the paintings on there a lot. Sometimes I see it as a gift that I am giving out to the world. But then sometimes, when I am not feeling so confident and because the art world seems to be going out of its way to ignore my paintings, it feels pathetic.
PKM: How do you use social media to interact with the larger world?
John Lurie: If I get 39 million more followers, I can be president. After all, I did once have a reality TV show.
PKM: What’s your feeling about how Donald Trump’s presidency is affecting people on both a “macro” and “micro” scale?
John Lurie: That would require too lengthy an answer. Anyone who doesn’t see the horror of what is happening is an idiot. I send what I can afford to the ACLU. So should everyone else, I think.
PKM: After Trump was elected, I read an article by Nicholas Dawidoff who wrote about the existence of “a long-standing American artistic tradition of making crisis and hardship into something beautiful.” What do you think of the notion that bad times produce great art?
John Lurie: I don’t know. I don’t like to think like that though 2017 seems to have been my best year for both music and painting. But then you think, man it is so horrible. People are suffering so much, especially in other parts of the world. What fucking good does this stupid painting do, no matter how beautiful? And the crises are certainly not just Trump. It is a little too convenient to point at Trump as the entire problem. The bullshit is coming from everywhere. And this certainly doesn’t exclude the worlds of movies, music and art. There seems to almost be what I have begun to call “a conspiracy to maintain mediocrity” in those worlds.
PKM: I think about a recent painting of yours titled, “America Has Lost Its Damn Mind.” How does the political climate of the day influence your work?
John Lurie: I try not to let it. I go into a different kind of state to paint.
PKM: You’ve had a tumultuous relationship with The New Yorker. The magazine recently printed a positive review of the new Marvin Pontiac album. What are your thoughts on this? And how are you still affected by the hit job they did on you in the article from 2010?
John Lurie: I just have to hear the name New Yorker or see the magazine and I am hit with this horrific feeling of revulsion. So I only scanned the article, quite quickly. That TheNew Yorker gave the music a positive review is of zero consequence to me. What is of consequence is that in the middle of that article, they went out of their way to confirm their article from 2010, which they have to know at this point is top to bottom bullshit.
The article from 2010 did far more damage to my life than a “hit job” as you rightly call it. It had a tremendous and horrible impact on an extremely difficult and dangerous situation that I was in and made it totally impossible for me to ever remedy that situation.
In a life brimming with wonderful and horrible things, that article was the worst thing that ever happened to me. I am not exaggerating here, but it would be rather lengthy to explain in a way that people are able to grasp that.
On top of that, TheNew Yorker does whatever big corporations do to increase their ranking on Google. So, every day, for the last 7 years, that article shows in the top 5 things if you look up my name.
No matter what I actually do say, like in our first Please Kill Me interview, it is superseded by things I absolutely did not say in TheNew Yorker. It is like they are disappearing my voice.
Most of the misquotes in that article, through their fact-checking department, they knew they were things that I had not said, before they published. It didn’t matter. For 7 years I have had to live with that article because they are more concerned about their reputations than actually getting something right, as one would presume an actual journalist would want to do.
To me that article sullies the reputations of everyone who writes there. If you are going to write journalism, write journalism. You can’t from time to time dip into publishing articles of disparaging, inaccurate gossip.
At this point in my life, I am honestly only interested in making beautiful things and putting them out into the world. But every time I do, this trash gets poured on top of me again like some kind of slime. People review the new album and then link to that article.
I am not going to sue them. I do not want a retraction or an apology. I just want them to take that article offline. It is like living with bed bugs that you can never get rid of. I fear the fucking thing will be printed on my tombstone. On a personal level, I would like them to understand how much damage they did to someone’s life, how much pain they needlessly caused another human.
PKM: When we last spoke, you were working on a memoir. What’s the status of it?
John Lurie: I have a deal with Random House. I really like the guy I am working with there. I am halfway through. It is kicking my ass.
From my experience on social media, I fear people will misread passages and mail the book back to me with moronic comments in the margins.
Marvin Pontiac’s first album, “The Legendary Marvin Pontiac – Greatest Hits” will be released on vinyl (for the first time ever) by Northern Spy Records for Record Store Day, Saturday, April 21, 2018.