John Lurie: A Lounge Lizard weighs in

John Lurie is the quintessential renaissance artist. Over the past 30+ years he has been the leader of the seminal and influential Lounge Lizards, without whom there might not have been acid jazz. The Lounge Lizards wove beautiful, funky, delicate, urban songs dripping with the things of midnight and dark rain, as well as Tin Pan Alley quirkiness and just raw soul. Bob the Bob will never cease to move me, and I consider Voice of Chunk one of the greatest albums ever made.

Lurie the actor starred in  Jim Jarmusch’ best two films, Down by Law, with Tom Waits, and Stanger Than Paradise. He was also in The Last Temptation of Christ, a recurring character in OZ,  and had roles in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, Desperately Seeking Susan,  Abel Ferrara’s New Rose Hotel, and Paris Texas. His current incarnation is as an artist, and he has been successfully showing his warm, painterly yet primativist art at various galleries around the globe.

In my opinion Lurie’s best work on screen was his weird early 90’s fishing show called Fishing with John, in which he and celebrity guests including Willem Dafoe, Matt Dillon and Dennis Hopper would…go fishing, amidst much obtuse banter that ran from the poignant to the ridiculous. John Lurie is a singular and influential artist, and I was pleased to talk with him about his work over the past three decades.

PH I’ve read that you  have referred to  the Lounge Lizards as “fake Jazz”, and that always amazed me, as by any musical standard I can source, the “jazz” you guys played was a as real as anything out there. Unless of course one subscribes to some Wynton M. like culturally myopic musical fascism. What is your take on this, if you indeed really have described the Lounge Lizards music this way?

 JL The first time the band played, after the show the dressing room door flew open and people came rushing in, asking what did we call this music. And I said off the top of my head – it’s Fake Jazz. Which I suppose it was at the moment, but later became something else. I was embarrassed later, when lazy journalists used this phrase to explain the band. I agree with your assessment of Wynton Marsalis. 

 PH You have had an astoundingly varied career, from your Jarmusch collaborations, to the Lounge Lizards, to Fishing with John, leading to your current incarnation as a painter. Can you tell me a little bit about the journey to this point?

 JL Um, this would seem to require a very long answer. Don’t you think?

 PH Would you consider any more film work in the future? There really seems to be nobody that has been able to capture the aura of raggedy-cool that you so strongly project on screen. What is, and has been your emotional connection with acting?

 JL I don’t really know what I am doing as far as acting is concerned. Sometimes I am very good at it, but things have to be right. There has to be a realness to the situation, to the project before I can commit myself.. That realness seems to be less and less the case in movies being made. I don’t have the technique to keep it together if the project isn’t together. It becomes uncomfortable.

 PH How did your relationship with Jim Jarmusch begin? You seem to have an aesthetic kinship with him that has created a kind of instant synch-up of the two of you in the minds of people that are drawn to your work together as well as separately.

 JL I haven’t worked with Jim in over 20 years. I haven’t spoken to him in 7. So I don’t know.

 PH A follow up to the “long answer” question. What have you been focusing on artistically the past 3 years?

 JL For the last year and a half, most of my energies have been spent avoiding a friend who went insane and wants to kill me.I have learned how to paint in oils, which is going well. But I am considering writing a book about my recent experience entitled – There has to be a God or it wouldn’t be this weird.

 PH Wow…20 years since you have worked with Jarmusch. Maybe it’s just my own connection I make between the two of you. You spoke of feeling at the top of your game acting when the character resonates for you. How does this apply to the Greg Penders character you played on OZ?

 JL  Um – not at all. Oz was one of those projects where Tom Fontana – the creator, seemed to have moved on by the time I was on the show. I actually never had a conversation with anyone about who the character was. I would just show up and read the lines.  It was really rewarding.

 PH   Who do you count as filmmakers that are making important films of depth and character that tell us something significant about our human experience?

 JL Like who are living? And able to make movies today? The Coen brothers seem to really hit it – every other movie.

 PH How about filmmakers who are not living? I agree about the Coens by the way.

 JL But who do I like or who tells us something significant about life? Jacque Cousteau. Cassavetes. 

 PH What was the experience of working on The Last Temptation of Christ like for you? I feel like Scorsese did an almost reverent justice to Kazantzakis’ book with his film.

 JL   Really? That book was so real to me. Had so much blood in it. I felt like the movie was nowhere near it. I thought it might be better if we were all wearing leisure suits. I don’t think Marty should be allowed to make a movie without tenement buildings in it

 PH   The Marvin Pontiac project…what was the impetus for this? I had a roommate from Slidell, LA. in college by the way….

 JL The initial thing of that project was having a lot of snippets of music that weren’t quite right for the Lounge Lizards or for film scores. And kind of like how I kept threatening that one day I would make my own fishing show, I would threaten that one day I would make a vocal album. And then one day I just decided to do it. 

 PH For some reason it surprises me that you never did any musical collaboration with Bill Laswell….something pretty funky and compelling could come of that…what do you think? 

 JL I am not much of a collaborator. In 1979, we were putting up posters for a Lounge Lizards show with Elmer’s glue. The next day, I saw that they had all been covered by posters for Laswell’s band – what was it called? Material? After that I didn’t have much to do with Bill. Though I saw him play bass once and was astounded.

 PH What is your definition of an “artist”? How do you define the distinction between performer and artist?

 JL I don’t know. I think an artist has something welling up inside them and is compelled to get it out. I don’t understand performers or why they do it.

 PH What is your view of the phenomenon of instant pop culture creations like Lady GaGa and Michael Buble?

 JL  I know the name Lady GaGa and that she has a popular video that has a lot of sex in it, but have not seen it. The other I never heard of. Are these things worth checking out?

 PH What work in film are you most proud of?

 JL Has to be a score but can’t think of one off hand. I am way prouder of Fishing With John that most of the film work.

 PH You have had the talent and opportunity to be a musician, painter, actor and writer….of all of these aesthetic pursuits, which one is the most gratifying to your soul?

JL  Oh music for certain. Though recently the paintings have been getting close. Which surprises me a bit.


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