Photograph of John Lurie by Ray Henders. All paintings by John Lurie.
by Regina Walker
In 1986, I saw the film “Down By Law.” It was, and remains, my favorite film. After that, I found another film starring John Lurie, “Stranger Than Paradise”, and I loved that too.
After seeing the films, I learned that John Lurie was a musician as well (I don’t always figure things out in chronological order!) and saw the Lounge Lizards perform with a college friend at The Bottom Line in 1986.
The sound was amazing. I felt transported as I listened to this group of musicians transcend space and fill the room with this music; jazz, sounds that I had never experienced before. I was in a room created almost entirely of music – an alternate reality/universe.
I slipped the waiter my phone number to give to John but, alas, no phone call came.
Most people know who John Lurie is. For some, the first connection is as a musician (The Lounge Lizards, Marvin Pontiac, or for his Grammy nominated score for the film Get Shorty).
For other, it is Lurie’s films (Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law, Paris, Texas, The Last Temptation of Christ, and others) and TV (Fishing With John).
During the late 90’s, Lurie became severely ill and has since been diagnosed with advanced Lyme Disease. His neurological problems have made playing the saxophone impossible. But Lurie, who has always been a painter and visual artist, has focused almost solely on his painting with amazing results.
Lurie is a prolific and formidable painter. His body of work is incredibly varied, and shows a phenomenally sure grasp of composition, color, and subject matter that might come as an enormous surprise to anyone who knows Lurie primarily as a musician. Over the years, he has put together a body of work of remarkable strength and consistency.
I had the distinct opportunity recently to interview John Lurie. Our conversation was both intriguing and enlightening.
Regina Walker: You have seemingly been and done it all. How did it all start?
John Lurie: I don’t know. I didn’t really set out to do anything. The first thing I did was learn to play the harmonica. Then we started a band in high school called Crud.
I kind of just moved from thing to thing after that.
I think this is a bad thing where kids are forced to decide what they are going to be at such a young age and then are stuck on this path that may have not been their path at all. It would have been terrible, for me, in any case.
RW: What was your life like in NYC in the early days?
JL: I came to New York wanting to be part of the jazz world. I had a tiny apartment on East 14th st. I had a job at the Plaza Hotel as the night housekeeping dispatcher. So if Milton Berle wanted a fluffier pillow, I would call someone that brought it to him.
After 8pm things would slow down and would practice the alto up on the roof.
I soon met a wild, irreverent crowd and things changed abruptly at that point.
RW: What drew you to jazz?
JL: Eric Dolphy’s God Bless the Child. And Les McCann and Eddie Harris at Montreux.
RW: How did the Lounge Lizards come into being?
JL: I was very serious about saxophone. I would practice every day but this new crowd that I met, the idea of discipline was something that was scorned. So I almost hid the fact that I practiced.
I was at the Mudd Club and Jim Fouratt asked me what a good band would be to open for Peter Gordon. I said, “oh! My band!”
But I didn’t have a band, only music I had written. My brother Evan had just moved to NYC , Arto Lindsay and I had been jamming. Steve Piccolo was in our band in high school and Anton Fier came through Arto.
We had two rehearsals and it all magically came together on stage.
RW: When did you begin acting?
JL: I made two Super 8 movies in 1978. I also acted in other people’s very independent movies at around that time.
RW: As a musician, actor and painter – who have been your major influences?
JL: In painting and music those are long lists. But acting not so much.
But you know what I was thinking about the other day – how many really good actors there are now. I can’t say that about music or painting. And I don’t think there are many good movies but there really are a lot of good actors out there now.
RW: I have read that you had to stop playing saxophone due to the symptoms of Lyme Disease. Is that when you started painting in earnest?
JL: I was painting in earnest on and off until the band started to work all the time, then it fell off to the side a bit.
RW: Your paintings have a surreal but also primitive quality to them. And you use color brilliantly. Do you see your paintings as fitting into a particular category?
JL: No, they are paintings. I think that they don’t fit into some category is a good thing, but I suppose for business it is bad.
With the Lounge Lizards, I can’t tell you how many record companies rejected us, saying, “we know you have an enormous fan base but we wouldn’t know where to put your albums in the store because we don’t know what to call your music.”
RW: The New Yorker article cast a long shadow over you. Do you want to talk about that?
JL: I have so much to say about how perverse that article was that I hardly know where to start. The writer knew I had Lyme and knew that the stalker situation was severe. He knew that the combination of these two things had turned my life into a nightmare. Then for some reason, he wrote it like perhaps neither of these things were actually happening and I had lost my mind.
Though he certainly knew this was not true.
I tried very hard to handle an impossible situation with decency and dignity and then to have it reported the way it was, with no decency or dignity at all was bizarre and despicable .
But in the end the responsibility falls on the editor, David Remnick and the magazine itself.
Journalism is something I consider very important. It is almost sacred like music or art, They just cannot do what they did and then never take responsibility for it at any point. The article did a great deal of damage to my life.
RW: How is your health these days?
JL: I can function. Usually. Some days are very good and there are periods where I am thrown back to how it was 10 years ago.
RW: What is life like now?
JL: Is this really a question? I wake up in the morning and put on my special, colorful slippers. Then I listen very carefully.
RW: What’s next?
JL: Next is question 13.
RW: What would you consider to be your greatest achievement?
JL: Still being here.
RW: What would you identify as your deepest regret?
JL: I don’t think like that.
I recommend you visit www.johnlurieart.com to learn more about the artist John Lurie and what is coming next….