Writer, musician, actor and artist John Lurie is at the center of many indelible images from a certain time and place in NYC’s music and film history: fronting his band the Lounge Lizards, Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law, and being one of those people who draw attention just by standing there. On the wings of a successful HBO series, Painting With John, comes The History of Bones: A Memoir (Random House). In all of his creative endeavors, Lurie is a born storyteller. Todd McGovern asked him about some of his tales for PKM.
John Lurie knows how to get a rise out of his audience. Take his 1982 keynote address in Barcelona where he finds himself giving a 45-minute rambling talk about new technology in the theater to a stern-faced, international audience of 700. Unprepared and uneducated in the topic, Lurie’s talk is filled with non-sequiturs about glue, string, pancakes, small barking dogs and singing cowboys. Grumbling from some in the audience eventually leads to three fistfights and a standing ovation.
Another time, while high, Lurie tried to join the Paris chapter of the Hell’s Angels but was rejected. However, as a sign of respect, the Angels showed up to guard his band’s dressing room the next night, keeping French intellectuals from stealing the band’s stinky cheese, provided by jazz club promotors.
These are just two of many tales of John Lurie’s musical and spiritual explorations, triumphs, misadventures, and the search of life’s truths in his new book, The History of Bones: A Memoir.
Over the course of his 68 years, John Lurie has been a musician, composer and band leader, a downtown dilettante, an actor. The it guy, and an outsider looking inward. He’s been a painter. He’s been Marvin Pontiac. He’s been famous and forgotten. The connective, creative thread running through these visages? Lurie is a master storyteller, a raconteur of the first order. His storytelling weaves its way through everything he does – whether it’s his voice over the telephone, a riff or a run on his alto sax, a movie score, a scene-stealing performance, or an explosion of color from his paint brush. Lurie’s stories are filled with pathos – all the earthly beauty and ugliness, the sadness and humor is there. The dreams, reality, and randomness, the crazy happenstance of this life.
Lurie started writing what later became The History of Bones: A Memoir back in 2001, when he got sick with what was eventually diagnosed as Advanced Lyme disease. “Most of my nights, I wrote. I wrote like mad because it seemed like I was not going to be here too much longer. I wrote for hours every night.” As his illness worsened, he experienced brain fog (a symptom found is some Lyme patients), making it difficult to write. “I would get up to write something down and by the time I got the computer, I couldn’t remember what it was,” Lurie said. With time and treatment, some symptoms lessened. Then, three years ago, he was approached by Ben Greenberg, a vice-president and executive editor at Random House, who proposed a book about downtown New York City in the 1980s. “I had a huge part of that already written,” Lurie relates.
The History of Bones is a ticket to a pre-internet, pre-cell phone, pre-social media life in Manhattan’s East Village of the late 1970s and ‘80s, where young painters, writers, musicians, and actors lived and worked in real squalor that “smelled of piss and uncollected garbage, and urine and more uncollected garbage, and more piss.” Lurie lived “in the pit of the avalanche of stink,” East 3rd Street, across from a men’s shelter. He put together a band called “The Lounge Lizards,” became an early mentor to 15-year-old Jean-Michel Basquiat (giving him a place to sleep, draw and paint), and gained notoriety for his acting roles in movies including Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law, and The Last Temptation of Christ. His social circle included New York arts icons Andy Warhol, Debbie Harry, Julian Schnabel, Willem Dafoe, and others.
Painting also became a growing part of Lurie’s life. Tune into an episode of HBO’s 2020 series, Painting With John (renewed for a second season) or open to any page of The History of Bones, and feel how his master storytelling weaves its way through his paintings, his music, and his writing. To get into Lurie’s mind, most of the questions from this interview are tied to quotes from the book or the HBO series.
“Fame sticks to you. You can’t get rid of it. You can’t undo things. It took me forever.” (Painting With John; Season 1, Episode 4 “Fame Is Bad”)
PKM: Coming up, your true love was composing and playing music. Yet you achieved fame via acting, just at the time when The Lounge Lizards were really coming together as a band. How do you now look back on achieving more fame for your acting than from your music? What was it like to revisit the experience of becoming famous?
John Lurie: That isn’t true anymore, is it? Please tell me that is no longer the case. People now seem to know me more for the music and the painting and for Painting with John. I live a pretty isolated life, so fame or no fame is not really a factor. Fame certainly gets people to return your calls faster.
“We were so sure of ourselves, we never doubted anything. We were powerful, smart, energetic, confident, egocentric, and astoundingly naïve. Nothing outside our fourteen-block radius mattered. From Houston to Fourteenth Street, from the Bowery to Avenue A, that was the only universe.”
PKM: What was it about the climate of the East Village of the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s that helped you grow as a musician?
John Lurie: I am not sure that it did. That quote is from the end of the “Men in Orbit” chapter of the book. “Men in Orbit” being a Super 8 film that I made in 1978.
At that time in the East Village, no one was doing what they knew how to do. All the painters had bands and could barely tune their guitars. To practice the saxophone four hours a day, was heavily sneered at. I had to hide the fact that I knew how to play and worked on it.
“My tone on the saxophone somehow is my salvation. When I’m really playing, a prayer is being funneled through me, and in return, at the same time, the horn is my path to God.”
PKM: Throughout the book, it is clear that music is a very precious thing to you. Can you speak to this thought about how the act of creation brings you closer to God or to the Divine?
Lounge Lizards, Live in Berlin:
John Lurie: No, not really. Not being a wise guy here, I just really don’t know how to do that. I guess I was a better saxophone player than a writer. Also, I don’t think it is a good idea to talk about God in interviews.
“Jim [Jarmusch] and I were always creatively close and on the same page. I didn’t realize how lucky I was to be working with him like this. He trusted me completely…. Only once, in all the film scores I did for him, did he ever cut a piece of music out.”
PKM: It’s no secret that you have had some difficult creative relationships in your life. In fact, you devote three pages (“The World’s Longest Footnote”) to issues you’ve had with Jim Jarmusch over the years. This is a two-pronged question: 1) Why did you decide to include this footnote and what reaction have you gotten? 2) You express real moments of grace in some of your reflections. What brought you to these feelings?
John Lurie: That Footnote is really supposed to be exactly that, a footnote. It is not really what I intended the book to be about. But right as I was reworking that chapter, something happened that I just could not let stand because it really felt like they were trying to disappear me.
Two women from the Barbican in London contacted me. They were having an enormous Basquiat exhibit and would like to speak with me for the program.
I almost always say “no” to this stuff. But felt like the Jean-Michel story was really getting out of hand. Walk by the MOMA store and there is underwear with Jean-Michel paintings for sale in the window. And all these people explaining who the young artist was and glomming on to him.
So, I felt like I owed him that much, try to set the record straight a bit about who he was. I watched him from when he was a 15-year-old, energetic, confused force to become a powerful, adult artist. Though the level of bubbling creativity always remained the same.
After giving the Barbican people a few hours of my time, I asked that they please send me whatever quotes they planned on using. I had been through a horrible experience with the New Yorker magazine where quotes appeared in print that were not remotely close to anything I had said and wanted to avoid that happening again.
It got to be around the time of the Basquiat show, and I went to check Google to see if it was happening. It turns out that it is and in conjunction with the Basquiat show, for some reason, is ‘The Music of Jim Jarmusch’. Like somehow this is pertinent. ‘The Music of Jim Jarmusch’ is the music from his films, yet though they use a photo of me from Stranger than Paradise and are playing a lot of my music, my name is mentioned nowhere. Except once by the person performing the music, to basically insult me.
To go into the ridiculousness of this completely would be too much, but what made me go “fuck this shit” and write the Footnote was this: Jean-Michel lived at my place on East 3rd St, for a couple of years, on and off. I fed him and gave him a place to stay. It never once occurred to me to take credit for this.
As a favor, I had let Jarmusch store equipment at my place while he was shooting Permanent Vacation. One day when the crew came to change reels, Jean-Michel was sleeping in the middle of the room and completely in their way. Eventually, they picked him up and moved him without him waking up. (Was always jealous of Jean-Michel’s ability to sleep through anything.)
But in interviews for his movie, Permanent Vacation, which was also part of this Basquiat extravaganza, Jarmusch is saying that he let the young artist live on his set. As though he was supporting the poor, young artist.
He also said that while they were filming. They had to shoot around Jean-Michel. Except they didn’t shoot the day Jean-Michel was sleeping there and it wasn’t Jim’s set, it was my apartment. Jim had never met Jean-Michel before that day. I don’t know man. It was just the last straw. He is going to brag about supporting the young artist before he was famous?
I keep getting asked about the Footnote and that was as much a stone thrown at the Barbican as it was at Jarmusch. After having met me some months before, taking up my time, one would think they would use my quotes or inform me that nothing I said was worthy of making the cut in their program. And at the very least, one would think that they would let me know that they were playing my music.
This was before Painting with John was slotted to be on HBO, so it really did feel like they were going to successfully disappear me, and I wasn’t going to stand for that.
“[Jean-Michel Basquiat] was so tough and so sensitive at the same time.… He would be competitive past the brink of cruelty when he was ahead and then show enormous warmth and vulnerability a day later.”
Lounge Lizards “No Pain For Cakes”:
PKM: You write in detail about your complicated relationship with Jean-Michel Basquiat, expressing your very human, very raw and very loving feelings for him. You were very competitive with each other and at times jealous of each other. How hard is it for you to get past the legend, the myth and the commercialization of Jean-Michel, the person and the artist? What impact does he still have on you?
John Lurie: I don’t know, he was someone that I loved who is no longer here. Is the same in a way as Renee French or Boris Policeband or Chickie Lucas or others. Someone who touched me deeply who has passed.
“If you have never ridden a bike naked, it’s fantastic.”
PKM: Which do you enjoy more, riding a bike naked or taking outdoor showers?
John Lurie: I think at present, shower would probably be safer.
“People always talk about talent. Really, but of this I am quite certain: There is no such thing as talent, there is only cleaning the mirror.”
PKM: What do you mean by this?
John Lurie: You figure it out.
“This is very rare in life, when people are genuinely happy for you when something good finally happens.”
PKM: Having just published your memoir and wrapping up a second season of Painting with John for HBO, are you feeling people’s happiness for you?
John Lurie: Most of the horrible things that happened to me are a result of jealousy. And I was worried that some ugly stuff would come at my head, with the book being so honest and having a successful TV show on HBO, but so far, it hasn’t been so bad.
Should I be prepared to duck, do you think?
PKM: What are the similarities between assembling a good jazz band and putting together a good basketball team?
John Lurie: I like that analogy, they are such a similar, beautiful thing. It is a bunch of people moving in time together. Nothing is really set and knowing each other, and each other’s abilities is key in making the thing work. In setting each other up. And egos have a lot to do with it — are you playing for the team or your own stats, are you playing for the overall sound or to be noticed?
PKM: How is the process of scoring films different from composing for The Lounge Lizards?
John Lurie: They are completely different parts of the brain. Like the difference between doing a crossword puzzle or writing a poem.
PKM: How do you see yourself now? An Artist? A Bohemian Spirit? A Lunatic? A Writer?
John Lurie: E. None of the above, and I suppose, all of the above. More than anything, I see myself as a soul moving through time on Earth.
Lounge Lizards “Big Heart”:
PKM : Why did you decide to end the memoir when you did, in the late 1980s?
PKM: Might there be a Volume Two?
John Lurie: Perhaps. I have a title and hope I get to write it: “There Has to be a God or It Couldn’t Get This Weird.”