John Lurie, There is a Caveman in My Apartment
Interview with John Lurie
John Lurie, musician, actor, painter and composer, was the founder of the avant garde, downtown New York City group The Lounge Lizards in the early 1980’s. If there’s such a thing as the John Lurie myth it can be best captured in an elegant masculine male with extraordinary charm, a wicked sense of humor, a sophisticated twist on the standardized art form of jazz and a face and talent that has graced films by such legendary filmmakers as Wim Wenders, Martin Scorcese and David Lynch. He did for Jim Jarmusch what Jean Paul Belmondo did for Jean Luc Godard.
Kofi Forson: John in our last interview you were preparing for a show in Chelsea, New York. I am happy to say I was one of many at the opening. Great to see familiar faces those who have supported and honored your career over the years. Do you feel your career has been well served? You did your thing on your own terms. People know you as John Lurie. Do you have any regrets?
John Lurie: It’s hard for me to see the John Lurie thing from here. I kind of work on a project or a painting or a CD and try to make it whole and beautiful. How it is perceived is beyond me and how it is perceived because someone has some inkling of another facet of me, I don’t know what to make of that. My situation right now is horrifying. So I regret what ever it was that got me here. Though I honestly can’t figure out what got me here.
Forson: I know of your brother Evan Lurie. Is your family larger than that? Who are your parents? Where were you born? Where did you grow up? When did you move to New York?
Lurie: There is nothing larger than my brother Evan. I have a sister Liz in Boston. Who are my parents? Isn't that a Shaggs song? I was born in Minneapolis Minn. I grew up there until 6. Then New Orleans. Then Worcester Mass. I moved to New York - fuck - 1974? Then I left when my saxophone got stolen.
Forson: Is it true that your first instrument was the harmonica?
Lurie: Yes - why would I lie about that? My sister bought one for Evan and I absconded with it.
John Lurie, My Horse Must Think it's Queer.
Forson: On the album No Pain for Cakes there's a composition which in a way is a rap song you know what I mean. You were talking over a groove a musical groove. I've always loved listening to you talk in interviews for example. The composition was called “Where Were You?” In it you tell this tale about the band members not coming to practice. Did Marvin Pontiac as an alter ego give you more of a chance to be free to experiment to do just that? What is the origin of Marvin Pontiac?
Lurie: That Where Were You? thing happened in the studio. EJ Rodriguez was late for the recording and we wrote it on the spot. I made up the story and pop it was done. Those were great musicians. It came out with ease. Marvin Pontiac evolved slowly. It started with bits and pieces of stuff that was not quite right for the Lounge Lizards or a film score or was just a little bubble in the back of my mind.
Forson: You’re a self taught musician and artist. When do you let go of raw talent and have to do your home work on theory and composition?
Lurie: Oh only when you specifically have an idea that you have to have some technique or other for. I am really very disciplined and experiment a lot. But the experiments are sort of notated in my brain and I work off of them.
Forson: But that's quite extreme John. Most people work from outside sources. But I remember Lou Reed comparing his brain to a radio. Quite amazing John. You scored Betty Gordon’s film Variety. What was that experience like? I remember this recording to be smoky and hot. What was your intention going in? How were you able to capture that sound?
Lurie: Well with painting I will come onto something. It could take months and go - oh shit! That is how you do that! Probably if I had studied it would have been in lesson one. Betty was someone I liked. And there was no money, which has a lot to do with how and what you write for a movie. So a lot of these were kind of film noir vamps and blues that were kind of open ended so she could slide them in where she needed. A lot of it is the musicians, who you have there. It was Tony Garnier on bass, Dougie Bowne on drums, and two of the horn guys were these really great players I had heard on the street. The sound was not so unique I don’t think. But the feel was good. The session was open and relaxed and people just got to play.
Forson: It’s quite important to note the brilliance of your first successes at scoring film before you got nominated for Get Shorty at The Grammy Awards. With Variety the sound was full more rounded and compact. With Stranger than Paradise and Down by Law it seemed as if you were more concerned with tone. Music for Variety was living and breathing. With the other two they were like musical ghosts passing through the film adding mood but they were somewhat clever and subtle. Would you say this was in part due to the minimalist nature of Jim Jarmusch’s films?
Lurie: I’m not quite getting what the question is but scoring Hollywood films is kind of part of a corporate production line. And the timing and frames are so much more important. You play everything with a click track - which to a certain extent takes the feel out. But really is like selling your soul to the devil, you have to know they will ruin the music and the trick is to not mind because they swarm you in money. I couldn’t get there. With Stranger Than Paradise because we were supposed to be Hungarian and because Eszter Balint (musician and actress) and I were doing these sort of weekly classes following Bartok string quartets scores while listening, we decided on string quartet. Jarmusch was pretty great about being hands off with all of the scores I did for him. Which really leads to a better outcome. But I had never written for string quartet and it was terrifying before they started to see if it worked or was horrible. But it worked and the players were great. So they helped me make it a bit more musical. They didn’t turn up their nose and say - well what do you want me to play? They helped me out.
John Lurie, Cleopatra
Forson: Besides Jarmusch’s films you also acted in Paris, Texas directed by Wim Wenders, Last Temptation of Christ by Martin Scorcese and you made an appearance in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart. Does the confidence as an actor come from being on stage as a musician or is it courage?
Lurie: Oh I actually only felt confident in the Jarmusch movies. I never felt comfortable doing the others because of the parts. With a small part you never find the essence of the character. I have no idea what I am doing with acting. I just rely on being the guy and proceed as follows. So sometimes I was comfortable and sometimes not. If I can find the essence of the character and proceed from there, I am fine. But if it is a small part and I cannot find the rhythm of it - I am pretty lost. I was in this movie that Flea made me do. I don't even know the name of it, but the camera would come around the room shooting different people in this diner. When it would get to me, I considered ducking. Don't point that thing at me. Geez.
Forson: Your television work includes Fishing with John. What man in history if you had the chance would you want to bring on a fishing trip? Were you ever on Miami Vice?
Lurie: Tad Friend. No - they kept asking me to be on Miami Vice but every time Don Johnson beat me up at the end. So I said no.
Forson: The Lounge Lizards were able to do something I personally think nobody was able to do and that was take jazz and bring it to the element of fine art. Do you think by losing premier players in the band who went on to define themselves for themselves be it Anton Fier, Marc Ribot or Arto Lindsey you were able to gain a fuller understanding of what you wanted to accomplish with The Lounge Lizards? Comparing the first studio album to Queen of All Ears one would say you grew and matured musically.
Lurie: Oh Oh - many people took it to fine art. All the big voices took it there. I hate jazz for jazz sake but the big voices. That is fine art. Evan and I listened to that first album a couple of years ago - we laughed and laughed.
Forson: Fine art yes. But you guys were part of an art explosion. You yourself are a painter. At some point that has to come out the other end. To be among the future Mondrians and Bertoluccis certainly making music would mean something more than following in the footsteps. To me The Lounge Lizards defined a period in time outside of that historic realm of jazz composers. It was a time. A time we'll never see again.
Lurie: That time - the early Lounge Lizards, I dont know it was mayhem. There was so much wild irreverent talent but then in the end the work out of that period falls short and its a shame. People were having too much fun. And falling out windows. And there was more narcissism than work. Narcissism really is not an art form.
John Lurie, The Judge Was Hypnotized by Alcohol
Forson: How is the painting coming along? The Chelsea crowd was quite responsive to you. Any plans for upcoming shows? Have you been able to sit and concentrate on painting? Haven't seen any John Lurie drawings. But somehow I imagine them to be spectacular. Do you make drawings outside of the paintings?
Lurie: Yeah I make lots of drawings - They are all over the living room. I think you know about this stalker problem which makes everything quite quite difficult and painting is on hold for a while now.
Forson: New York magazine has since done an in depth article about this stalker. In the article they paint a portrait of you as being totally insane. That there is no stalker and you made this up. They went as far as to make a case against you. What about your honest impressions of the article?
Lurie: New Yorker. My thoughts - I think there is not room for that here. I was baffled by what they did.
Forson: Circumstances surrounding the stalker. You know him. He's a former friend. When did this become a problem? Is it a point now where you are running for your life?
Lurie: Running for my life - not exactly but every time I go home - it starts again. So I have to leave. So I am sort of stranded and by the New Yorker approaching it in such a snickering manner … You know, here is just one tiny, tiny example of what the writer for the New Yorker did and they did it many many times. There is a quote where I say to Matt Dillon – “god made you look dumb.” This was given to the writer by someone who was not even there to hear it. Matt Dillon told the New Yorker that this did not happen. It was something I was told I said after the argument between Matt and I. Lord knows it does sound like something I might say, but I was not sure. And I asked repeatedly that they please not to use this quote because it was pointless and mean and I wasn’t even sure I had said it. To put it in the article is not journalism. It is gossip. And really what it shows is this gleeful attempt to be mean without taking responsibility for being mean. And that is what they did to me throughout the article. Is like slander by stalker. “Ha ha ha. Isn’t that funny!”
Forson: In a sense you are trapped. There is something as the self-riddle. But what happens when your life becomes a riddle? Is there a way out John? And if so how?
Lurie: I dont see it. There must be. There are a lot of smart people who cannot figure out what to do. But I am sure I will get out of this.
Forson: Morrison said no one here gets out alive. The quagmire here is not the life-here-after. The here is now. What matters is time. Does it feel like the clock is always ticking? How do you maintain?
Lurie: That is the most horrible thing. I am 58. I dont know how this will end but I am not able to work now in this situation and that just seems a shame. And the other thing is after being so sick for so long, I started to get better. And then I have to deal with this?
Forson: We find ourselves in the world wide web. How has that changed your perception of the word "fan" now that you share a social site with many of your life long fans. How does it feel to receive adoration and in some circumstances share dialogue with your fans?
Lurie: Well that part is kind of cool but when that New Yorker article came out - whew! Some mean spirited people out there, typing away.
Forson: It’s a fickle world John. But isn't that where we are now with narcissism. Where is talent today? Narcissism. Isn't that all that society is made up of these days. The iconoclast wore make up back then but he had talent. Where is talent today John?
Lurie: I am quite sure talent is out there…
Forson: Well those who lived the point and time early in your career remember it well. We all remember the John Lurie sightings. I want to thank you John. You made this life possible for me.
Lurie: What a fucking nice thing to say.
Forson: You da man bro. Keep the faith.
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Kofi Forson is a writer, photographer and director living in NYC.
His current blog is BLACK COCTEAU, a mixture of philosophy and art on modern culture.