John Lurie has one of those careers that makes a quick and easy summation difficult. It’s possible you know him from his work as a film actor, most notably in The Last Temptation of Christ (Scorsese), Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders), Down By Law and Stranger Than Paradise (Jim Jarmusch).
Or you may recognize him as “Greg Penders” on the HBO prison drama Oz. Or from his avant-garde fishing show Fishing With John, where he would go fishing in various, and sometimes exotic, locales around the world, with friends like Tom Waits, Willem Dafoe, and Dennis Hopper.
As a saxophonist and songwriter, Lurie headed up the experimental and acclaimed jazz group The Lounge Lizards. The released several studio albums, as well as a handful of live recordings, not to mention providing the music for Fishing With John.
In 1999, he released an album of blues songs called The Legendary Marvin Pontiac: Greatest Hits. The liner notes explained that Pontiac was an obscure musician, born to an African father and a Jewish mother, who was institutionalized and then later hit by a bus and killed. Really, Pontiac was Lurie, and the persona was simply a vehicle for him to finally try his hand at making a vocal record as he’d been wanting to do for years. He plays guitar and harmonica on the album as well.
Lurie has been suffering from a severe case of Lyme disease for several years now, making both acting and music difficult, and at times impossible. He has been focusing mostly on painting in recent years. Lurie began painting as a boy and never stopped. His works have been exhibited internationally.
John Lurie Interview Q&A
Quotes Yes: You’ve said that you don’t know why you started painting, or why you continue to do so, but that you feel compelled to do it. You have also said that painting makes you feel cleaner. Does this more or less mirror the way you feel about music and acting, or is it somehow markedly different?
John Lurie: I have Advanced Lyme so I can’t make music or act any longer. I certainly felt compelled to play music but not in the same way as the painting.
My life is much different now, so how my day unfolds is different. But I can be sitting on the couch watching TV and something then demands that I add this color to a corner of a painting.
I was never compelled to act. What is the opposite of compelled? That is how I felt about acting.
QY: It sounds like music and painting fall into the passion category and acting was just a vocation. Your first role was in Rome ’78 (1978, directed by James Nares). How did you get that part, and were you at all hesitant to accept it, considering acting wasn’t a passion and you had no prior experience in that field?
Lurie: No, acting wasn’t a vocation. It was something I could do and would do from time to time. But the culture has become so sick about movies and actors and celebrity that it is all anyone seems to want to talk about.
My first roles were in two super 8 movies that I made, Men in Orbit and Hell is You. They were both done in that East Village time. Rome ‘78 was shortly after that. James had done such a wonderful job shooting Men in Orbit I couldn’t not be in his movie. But we were all working on each other’s projects, so I would have been as happy holding the boom as acting in it.
QY: Do you miss the collaboration aspect of making music and movies, or do you enjoy the full control you have working in the solo field of painting?
Lurie: I don’t know what you know about my situation but I miss people in general.
QY: I understand, from reading The New Yorker piece, that you had a falling out with a friend that took a series of nasty turns, finally leading you to fear for your safety and relocate several times. Not to mention straining other relationships along the way. When I asked how you’d like to go about this interview, you stated that you only do interviews live or via email since The New Yorker piece, though, so I wasn’t sure if I should assume it to be, at least in part, inaccurate. I take it your situation is still hairy?
Lurie: I can’t address the stalker situation or The New Yorker in a couple of sentences in the middle of an interview. But I will say that what The New Yorker did was unconscionable and yes, you can consider it wildly inaccurate.
QY: How productive are you able to be these days? Do you paint every day?
Lurie: I paint almost every day. Sometimes for hours. But there are days that I don’t.
QY: Who are some of your favorite painters?
But that isn’t really right.
QY: What’s your list for saxophone?
QY: Your painting “Bear Surprise” has become a huge Internet meme in Russia (known as “preved”), which has spread into the mainstream media, including on a poster for the Russian edition of Newsweek. What do you know about how that started? How did you find out about it, and what was your reaction?
Lurie: My reaction was – What the fuck??? You know it was more enormous than you can imagine. When Putin decided to allow the people to email him, the overwhelming number one thing was, What did he think of Preved?
And it is such a bad painting. Some of the paintings, the silly ones, are bad on purpose. Like “Bear Surprise” and “Skinny the Horse.” So that that was suddenly everywhere in Russia was kind of weird.
Then there were 100 T-shirt companies and 10 condom companies using my bear as their logo. An ATM machine had my bear run across the screen.
So then my reaction was – What? There are no copyright laws in Russia?
QY: Did you look into the copyright issue at all, or did you assume that the cat was already too far out of the bag by that point?
Lurie: I looked into it. But you know it happened when the Lyme was at its worst. I was barely able to function. So I did look into it, but I didn’t look very hard.
And I would love to have shows of the paintings in Russia – but didn’t follow up on that either.
QY: Do you get the sense that you are known there, or would most people know the painting but not the artist behind it?
Lurie: They know me for sure for the music. A little for the Jarmusch movies.
I don’t think they realize I am a painter.
QY: Fishing with John was a brilliant show. Why did it only last one season?
Lurie: The Japanese company who funded it went bankrupt in the middle. It led to giant legal fiascos – because I had a lawyer and assistant doing really illegal things behind my back. Selling it to people before it was done and there was no money to finish it.
Then, of course, all these deals were blamed on me – though I had no idea that they had even happened, but because my representatives had done the deals I was suddenly being sued by everyone.
But you know my main thing was music. It was really what mattered to me; to finally get in a situation where the band could afford to be in the studio for more than a day and a half.
To tour and have the equipment be working. To have the hotels not under construction.
Just to get to a level where it could work so we could make the music we were capable of making.
QY: I read that because of your Lyme disease, not only are you unable to play, but you are unable to listen to music as well. I also read that your condition has improved in recent years, however.
Are you still unable to listen to music? If so, how difficult has that been, and can you at least hear music in your head?
Lurie: The loss of music is so painful to me, it is not something I want to think about. I get musical ideas in my head and kind of block them out.
The thing where music bothered me neurologically is not as bad as it used to be. I will listen from time to time – go and find something by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, or Fela, or Ellington, or whoever – that I already know about and I know is good. But it is really too much for me emotionally.
QY: You said that you can play guitar and harmonica again, now that your health has improved (although sax still seems out of the question), so that a Marvin Pontiac record would be possible. What are the odds of that happening?
Lurie: It is possible. But not likely any time soon because of my situation.
QY: You’ve led such an interesting life. Can you imagine ever writing a memoir?
Lurie: I have one: What Do You Know About Music You Are Not a Lawyer. It’s 420 pages and goes from high school to around 1992. It is about 90% finished.
I would need a home for it before I put the final effort into finishing it.
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