John Lurie sends me a YouTube clip. It’s of his band, the Lounge Lizards, playing on Late Night With Conan O’Brien in 1999. It’s the last time they ever performed live. I watch it a couple times, looking for some clue of what happened to Lurie in the years after. I see him straining; the effort he puts into playing is evident. We e-mail back and forth a bit about the performance.
“I can see that the illness is creeping in—I can see I am in pain,” Lurie writes. “Don’t know if it is clear to others.”
For several years before that Conan appearance, Lurie had been having intermittent but debilitating neurological problems. They’d knock him out for a while, then he’d get back to playing. He’d chalk it up to exhaustion. But as time went on his condition got worse: visual disturbances, dizziness, and stabbing, pulsing pains incapacitated him.
He described the symptoms in a 2011 interview: “The disease is odd. Migrating neurological problems. One day my vision is nuts, migraine aura. There is another one that is really crazy where everything looks like it is made of static electricity. The next day, my left leg won’t work. Music became more like the sound of fingernails on a blackboard. The sound of two plates clinking together would just kill me. Music with a beat, particularly an insistent, irritating beat, would just send my sympathetic nervous system into hell.”
So he stopped playing, went home, and closed the door.
Like most people outside the New York art and music scene, I was first introduced to John Lurie through Jim Jarmusch’s film Stranger Than Paradise. My parents took me to see it at some art house in Boston when I was a teenager. It opened a window into a world that looked nothing like the ugly Reagan 80s—its dry humor and black-and-white palette having little to do with the pastel-colored sweaters and craven money grubbing that were the hallmarks of that era. For a kid who was into art it offered a way out.
In the late 80s, the writer and comedian John Hodgman, a friend since high school, made me a mixtape of songs by the Lounge Lizards, which Lurie (who played the saxophone) formed with his brother, Evan, in 1978. I was immediately hooked. Today Hodgman remembers being “obsessed” with the Luries and their band. “We saw Evan Lurie perform at the Knitting Factory when it was on Houston, and John L was hanging around, drinking in the lobby,” he writes in an e-mail. “Apart from all their intrinsic talents and cool, both Luries represented to me the possibility that a life of artistic idiosyncrasy was sustainable. I wanted nothing more than to mount strange little shows for small rooms and then drink in the lobby, and like the Luries, let the rest fall into place. I still want nothing more.”
There’s a commonly held idea that a saxophone player should just play the saxophone, and that idea has a lot to do with how art is marketed—creative people making money in one medium are rarely encouraged to stray, lest they become too difficult to define. But Lurie was part of a scene in which artists made movies, musicians painted, and writers started bands. Everybody tried a hand at everything. No one was paying much attention and there was little money involved; people made things simply to make them. “I had to hide the fact that I actually played the saxophone and practiced every day,” he says. “The attitude was so against anyone having discipline in an art form.”
Audiences contribute to boxing artists in as well. Once they see them do something they like, they want to see it again and again. For those unfamiliar with his musical work, Lurie was the sullen guy in the Borsalino hat in Jarmusch’s film.
So he got rid of the hat and went where his inner compass told him to go. The Lounge Lizards evolved from noirish bop to a more groove-based sound influenced by music from Africa. Lurie composed scores for movies and television, acted, directed, and continued to draw and paint. If there was any connecting thread, it was an interest in beauty coupled with a sometimes absurdist wit. Most of Lurie’s artistic attempts found an audience; some inspired rabid fandom. But the cultural marketplace rewards predictability and repetition above all, and by following his own impulses Lurie gave up the chance for a more conventional kind of stardom.
In the early 90s Lurie wrote, directed, and costarred in the television series Fishing With John, a brilliant send-up of PBS nature shows in which he took various friends—Jarmusch, Willem Dafoe, Tom Waits—out angling. Each episode was set in a different locale, with footage of Lurie and his partner traveling and fishing, accompanied by a deadpan voice-over that, more often than not, contradicted what was onscreen. Fishing filmed only six episodes, but it was influential, and in the last year or so Lurie has hosted screenings around the country. Matt Clark, of the Chicago musical duo White/Light, says the show “planted the seed for this idea I had for a long time about some sort of weird, mysterious other world, much different from my land-locked suburban background. . . . Living on the water in the sun, and fishing with no real fishing experience, and eating nothing but crackers, and losing boats to hurricanes, and dying on the ice with Willem Dafoe, and coming back to life in Thailand, and on and on and on. Magical adulthood made available. Finally.”
In 1999 Lurie released his last recording, The Legendary Marvin Pontiac: Greatest Hits, for which he invented a blues musician who went insane and died young. As a ruse it reminds me a bit of John Fahey’s Blind Joe Death; as in that case, Lurie says, there were music critics who claimed to have known about Pontiac for years. But the music was no put-on. George Goehl, a Chicago filmmaker, musician, and labor activist, told me he thought of the album as “one of the most perfect and gorgeous records that (almost) no one has ever heard of.”
After he stopped playing music, Lurie turned to specialists in order to figure out his condition. After many false diagnoses he learned he had advanced Lyme disease.
In the early 2000s, when his condition was at its worst, most of Lurie’s friends faded from his life. Visual art had always been part of his repertoire, but the isolation and his physical inability to play music brought it to the fore. He found that painting relieved some of his symptoms, at least temporarily.
He hadn’t studied art formally, though his mother taught it. “I never took lessons,” he wrote to me. “I was able to hold on to that thing that makes children’s paintings so wonderful and I was able to do it with confidence.”
Despite being severely sick, Lurie began exhibiting his work in galleries and museums in the mid-2000s. His art found an enthusiastic audience; New York Times critic Roberta Smith suggested that “music’s loss may turn out to be art’s gain.”
All artists want their work to be judged on its own merits rather than on their past accomplishments or their reputation. “In the art world, my stuff has actually gone further with people who had no idea who I was before,” Lurie said in a 2009 interview with Artnet.com. He says it’s taken a while, but that now painting feels the same way music felt when it was good. It makes time disappear.
After reading about what seemed to be Lurie’s fall from grace, I started following him on Twitter, and I realized he hadn’t fallen at all. Twitter’s 140 characters are a great venue for his wit—between posts of his paintings are jokes, non sequiturs, and the odd profundity. Lurie’s also benefited from being on Facebook, which allows him to sell his work directly to collectors rather than through middlemen. We started communicating on Twitter and, eventually, over e-mail.
Lurie has said that sometimes his music was taken less seriously when it was funny, and that his early artwork was more funny than good. But the wit has always been inseparable from the beauty, whatever the medium. You laugh at a painting called “The Skeleton in My Closet Has Moved Back out to the Garden“—but then that skeleton follows you around the rest of the day. It’s the opposite of a one-liner.
Because he didn’t go to art school, Lurie has a lot less to unlearn. It’s a common hope of many artists to tap into the wide-open creative flow of childhood, and Lurie’s claimed there’s a “direct line” in his work to his two-year-old self. There’s an innocence in the way that he renders people and animals, though there’s nothing clumsy about his compositions. He says he works on several paintings simultaneously, sometimes leaving a piece sitting for months until he senses what it needs to be complete. Lurie often starts by filling his canvas with pulsing or undulating colors. Whatever environment these create suggests how it might be populated.
The jazzman’s wordplay of Lurie’s titles often finds its way into the pictures themselves. Often words on a painting will dictate the way we see it. In Lurie’s pieces they act as a counterpoint, playing off each other and forcing the viewer to consider and reconsider what’s happening.
“There is no idea or impulse or intuitive association that he doesn’t entertain,” the artist LJ Douglas told me. Improvisation and experimentation are Lurie’s tools just as watercolors and oils are. “Let’s just say it is you getting dressed,” Lurie writes when I ask about how he chooses what to paint. “You decide to wear your striped pants. Then if you decide you want to wear your plaid shirt today, you shouldn’t have to look in the mirror to know this is a mistake. Unless of course you are a Hipster.”
Like many artists, Lurie is reticent about his influences. “No one really comes to mind,” he says. “I see stuff all the time that I notice but no one who hits me solidly on the head. I go online and look at stuff by the Pwerle sisters”—Aboriginal painters who worked with colorful, obsessive patterns. And he mentions Jackson Pollock: “After you haven’t seen his stuff for a while you think about the concept of how he made the work and not much else. But he was just a great painter. You look at it and go—of course that pink speck had to be there.” Asked about what people see in his paintings, he answers, “I don’t know, people see stuff differently, some people look at their wife and see a hat. Who knows what people see. I try to make them beautiful.” And that’s it: Art, when it works, doesn’t need to be explained. It demands only to be looked at.
“I wish I was working on oils right now but I cannot. But always in this life, I try to take what I am given and make the best of it. I am working on watercolors now and I am finding it rewarding. I have a million ideas for oil paintings, books, TV shows, radio shows, music, but right now I am working in watercolor.”