Even among the heroes of the Punk heyday—the last authentic group convulsion in our culture along with its art world equivalent, the East Village art phenomenon of the early 80s—John Lurie cut a distinctive figure. He burst into view as front man for the Lounge Lizards, the jazz-channeling Punk group he put together with his brother Evan in 1978, and which included such pillars of New York indie rock as Anton Fier and Arto Lindsay. Lurie also made a career as an actor, appearing in 19 movies, including the lead in two by Jim Jarmusch, Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law, and parts in Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas, directed and Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. A classy resume, in short, to which he can add his umpteen scores for movies, including Get Shorty, for which he was nominated for a Grammy in 1995.
There was also the 1999 album, The Legendary Marvin Pontiac. This was released by Lurie’s record label, Strange & Beautiful, and was supposedly the work of a mentally disturbed African-American Jew, who had been hit by a bus and killed in 1972. It was actually by Lurie, who sang on it, as he never did with the Lounge Lizards. The album was praised by David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Iggy Pop, and Beck and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, all of who were in on the creative mystery-mongering. Lurie was eventually unmasked by his nervous publicist. He observes that some people got “pretty angry…All these journalists who pretended that they knew Marvin Pontiac way back in the 50s.”
All the while, Lurie was diligently, but privately making paintings.
In the mid-90s, John Lurie contracted Lyme disease. This infection got both recognition and its name from an outbreak in Old Lyme, Connecticut, in 1975, and Lurie’s was an early case, undiagnosed until way too late. In 2000 he retired from music, unable to play, and returned to making art.
Now, John Lurie is back, and his music and art are both just where they should be: in our face.
Earlier this month, Luri’s music was performed—Lurie himself not actually playing, of course— during three gigs at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City. It was a good venue for Lurie’s return. Le Poisson Rouge was opened six and a half years ago by David Handler and Justin Kantor, two classical musicians who met at the Manhattan School of Music. Their program is simply to provide good music that erases boundaries. John Lurie’s three gigs were each called Strange & Beautiful, and they are being followed by a massive event of the same name at The Town Hall in New York City on Saturday night.
“We’ve got three different bands basically,” says Evan Lurie. “One is a recreation of different forms of the Lounge Lizards. Anton Fier is playing drums for some of it. There is a set by John Zorn. Then we go back to the large group again. We’re adding Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers for some of it, etc. So there’s an awful lot of musicians going to be there. We are playing stuff that goes back to the Lounge Lizards first concert. And then all the way to the last things that John recorded before he was forced to stop playing.”
“There are so many people! It’s a kind of Who’s Who of the New York Downtown jazz scene,” he continues. “So many people of them came though the band. We were just rehearsing and Steve Bernstein, the trumpet player, said it’s funny playing this music as an adult. We were rehearsing this song, which the Lizards played on their first gig in, I guess, 1979. We’re doing stuff that the Lounge Lizards used to do 40 years ago! And you know what? It sounds really good!”
Yep. Miss this and you’ll be giving yourself a good post-Punk kicking.
In mid September, John Lurie was also at the Cavin-Morris gallery, watching as his art was hung for an upcoming show. There’s quite a history of rockers making art, a history of hubris and embarrassments for the most part, but the late Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, made powerful work, as have a few others, like Richard Butler of Psychedelic Furs. John Lurie belongs in this small, distinguished company.
As Lurie describes it, his entry into the art world was a private one. Jean-Michel Basquiat, an art legend and a presence in the music world with his band, Gray, was very much part of it. “He was this kid who used to sleep on my floor,” Lurie says. “And we would paint together. We would just paint tons. I was pretty serious about it, but way more serious about music. And it was also everybody was having shows in the art world, it had taken off and everybody was making a fortune and I felt like, well, that would just seem too… garish. I couldn’t show them!”
But then came Lyme and Lurie became apartment-bound.
“I started doing them for myself. And they weren’t that good. And I would fix them all with funny titles that I would write right on them. But I didn’t want to have a show. I don’t want to deal with the art world and duhuhduh!”
But Lurie did then have a show. It was with Anton Kern, and it got attention. The pieces were off-beat and amusing, a rarity in today’s art world. But that was a decade ago, and Lurie has moved into less jokey terrain.
“I got more and more serious about it,” he says. “At a certain point, around 2005, 2006, it was like this was what I was doing. It became what music had been. And I had never thought that would happen. I was only doing it for myself. Or because I had run out of Law and Orders to watch. But then it got serious and I started doing it for ten hours a day.”
The oils and watercolors Lurie has up at Cavin-Morris are vividly colored, and feature areas in which pure patterning is somehow endowed with a quirky presence. They are also enlivened by occasional human presences, and those of non-humans but not-quite-animals, and lines of meticulously lettered text that detonate in the head like Lewis Carroll/Edward Lear meeting the Cabaret Voltaire.
And then there are the titles. Here are just a few: Still Life with Disappearing Snake; Reckon—Some Birds Have No Soul; and I Need To Know If There Is Life After Death. And I Need To Know Kind of Soon (one of his older works).
I asked Lurie about one of the pieces in the most recent show. On his website it was identified as: Are You Liking The Purple? Too Flashy?
“The title of that has changed three times. It now is: We Want the Funk. And Some Other Stuff. Just Normal Stuff,” Lurie says. “The title of that painting for a while was If All The Passengers Jump In The Air While A Plane Is Flying Does The Plane Weigh Any Less? That was the title for a while!”
“I wanted to do a series of paintings about how you have the right to bear arms. With a bunch of people with the arms of a bear. But they didn’t come out that good. One came out good. Maybe two. It lost that thing, that kind of childlike thing. You put the paint on there. And watercolor and oil is very different. When you put the paint on there, you see what you’ve got. And what you’ve been given. You’ve got to be given something. And usually the materials do give you something. And then you go from there.”
You and Damien Hirst are both great title people, I observed. Where do the titles come from?
“Well, I don’t know,” Lurie said. “Often if I come up with the title first the painting comes out really contrived. It’s got to start from this other place where I have this combination of colors in mind. And I kind of put them down and I see what I’ve got. And I add something. And I see what I’ve got. Oh, it’s this! I know the paintings are funny and the titles, but they are really abstract paintings, with a little something that sort of turns it into a story or turns it into a fairytale for adults. But they mostly start out as abstract paintings.”
The return of John Lurie is significant on several levels, quite apart from the specific strengths of his music and his art. It has been said that the Internet allows us—impels us?—to live in an eternal present. There’s a good deal of truth to this, but it’s also true that the recent past has never been as instantly accessible to all. The effects of this on the culture can be seen all around us. Reputations are constantly being disinterred, re-examined, re-purposed for use in the troublesome present. And with a multi-facetted oddball like John Lurie, most deservedly so.
Strange & Beautiful: A Celebration of the Music of John Lurie, the Lounge Lizards, and Marvin Pontiac is a concert at The Town Hall in New York City on Saturday, September 27. Buy tickets here; John Lurie: Thee are Things You Don’t Know About is open at Cavin-Morris Gallery in New York City through October 25.