John Lurie: Growing Up in Public
October 30, 1984
John Lurie, known to his friends as “a pain in the ass” and “a very sweet person,” arrives at the bar about 15 minutes late. A lanky six-foot-three-inches with his hair brushed up high, he flops down at the table and holds up his wrist. “My manager just bought me a watch,” he declares, as if to account for his delay. “There’s just so much shit goin’ on. I woke up at three o’clock today.” His phone, he says, hasn’t stopped ringing. The William Morris Agency wants the actor/musician for a client and has already arranged an audition for a part on the television show Miami Vice. He’s rehearsing the Lounge Lizards, his quasi-jazz band, for three or four gigs in New York and a European tour next month. Wim Wenders has asked him to play a crook in an upcoming film. There are lots of parties. And, oh yes, he is the subject of a Village Voice profile, which brings its own set of obligations. “I did my homework on you,” he gloats.
Many movie critics caught their first daunting glimpses of John Lurie at this year’s New York Film Festival. For several seconds they saw him looming over Nastassja Kinski as the manager of a classy whorehouse in Wenders’s Paris, Texas. “Vincent Canby made it sound as if I was doing Wenders a favor being in his movie,” Lurie laughs. But the real reason Lurie’s phone keeps ringing is his starring role in the surprise hit of the festival, Stranger than Paradise, the acclaimed “oddball odyssey” about two guys and a Hungarian émigré. Directed by Jim Jarmusch — whom Lurie got to know seven years ago smoking hash on an East Village stoop at four in the morning, talking about director Nicholas Ray — the movie is currently breaking records at the small Cinema Studio.
Lurie, who also composed the Bartok-like score, is no stranger to the New York art, music, and low-low-budget movie scenes; he’s been a “cult figure” since he moved to the Lower East Side in 1977, when his friends remember him as looking like a lunatic and walking into walls. Within two years he’d caught on with the crowd, and was officially dubbed an arbiter of taste, a “hip” guy. “I’ve been declared hip for so long that it makes my skin crawl,” he says. “When somebody says, ‘John Lurie is hip,’ it’s like sticking worms on my back.”
“Hip” is not the first word that comes to mind. Hulking, with long, loose limbs, an almost reptilian face, and dark eyes, “surreal” seems more appropriate. But Lurie has an attractive aura of melancholy; his fastidious gestures and dress make him oddly winning — they say, “Appreciate me.”
“You know those old suits? I used to buy them when they were $7. It now costs $300 to buy an old suit. I know for sure people copied me; I mean, nobody copied the band because they couldn’t.” Lurie’s hipness is half put-on, half serious; sometimes he achieves it by sheer, brooding power, sometimes by suggesting the clumsy, insecure fellow beneath the surface.
He says the hoopla over Strangers has caught him off-guard; at press conferences and interviews, he has sometimes seemed resentful of the attention lavished on his friend Jarmusch. One would think he’d be excited about having a hit movie — even someone else’s. “No. Yeah. I don’t know. I don’t mean to dissociate myself from the movie, I’m just not having that much fun basking in the limelight of it. I wanna be goin’ forward instead of up the stairs down the stairs, everyday. So I’m a movie star now, so big deal.”
“He loves being famous,” says his friend John Ende. “He thrives on publicity, and it also makes him nuts. That’s a nice tension in him, that’s why we can be friends.”
Indeed, Lurie brims with tensions. He is fiercely ambitious but uncompromising — success must be on his terms, and one of them is the right to self-destruct. He is notoriously loose-lipped, but he maintains a guarded, wary air. He boasts of his achievements yet painfully solicits praise. He’s a put-on artist who disarms people by continually switching masks, yet all his roles are fundamentally him. His friends protect his reputation, but they also suggest that he wants his dirty laundry aired. “When he first came to New York, he looked like a psychopath,” says Arto Lindsay, the first guitarist of the Lounge Lizards. “Now he’s more like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a French gangster.” You have to know John Lurie to know that’s meant in tribute.
John Lurie was born in Minneapolis in 1952, his brother Evan (the keyboardist for the Lounge Lizards) two years later. His parents had met during the war. His mother was Welsh and an artist; she’d taught painting at the Liverpool school where John Lennon would be introduced to Paul McCartney. His father was half Jewish, half Sicilian, and had an idea in the early days of television for a show in which an amiable host would sit at a desk and do nothing but chat for an hour with celebrity guests; TV executives, at the time, thought it was the silliest idea they’d ever heard, and he was forced to make a living selling Israeli bonds. His parents’ match, thinks Ende, accounts for John’s combination of moodiness, mysticism, and smarts. The family lived in Minneapolis, then New Orleans, then — because John’s father didn’t want his children educated in the South — Worcester, Massachusetts. Lurie says he’d cross town to hang out with black basketball players; later, he would choose a profession that, as a white person, would also leave him feeling like an outsider.
But he was always that, a bit. When his father died in 1969, John had several “weird mystical experiences” and spent five years trying to recapture them. “I thought, this is a very transient thing, this life on earth, and it didn’t make sense to try and have a career. I wanted to be in the world but not of it.” For a year he lived in Boston, where people thought him insane; moved briefly to New York; and then went off to the middle of nowhere, North Wales, where he starved himself and played his saxophone for as long as 12 hours a day. Then he lived in London with a girlfriend (there has usually been a girlfriend) and returned to the Lower East Side in 1977, still a walking billboard for Bellevue. Friends would see him playing his sax for hours in the subway station at 14th Street and First Avenue.
For the first time, however, he met people as nutty as he was, and he began to nurture theatrical ambitions. “I knew people who lived on Second Avenue right over a smoke shop. I wanted to do this performance thing there, so I spent a summer knocking down all the walls. They all moved out — I didn’t drive them out — and I had this gigantic place to myself. I finally put a crack through the whole building; I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing.” He pauses. “It’s very illegal, I guess, to be changing the structure of a building. I finally gave up on this.”
His next project was a one-shot, and people still talk about it. “I did this solo performance thing called Leukemia at Squat Theater in 1978, which is probably the best thing I ever did. It started out with me playing a soprano saxophone solo and then went into an homage to Jimmy Piersall. He was the baseball player who went crazy — ya know the movie Fear Strikes Out? I just swing this bat back and forth to a tape I made out of static. It swings faster and faster and faster and the audience doesn’t know whether they’re gonna get hit with a bat or not, basically. Then I shaved my head completely. I had smashed these giant sheets of glass and recorded it, and for the last section I played the saxophone with that, with bright lights flashing back and forth between me and the audience. I worked on it for six months to make the timing, like, impeccable. People just bugged out; the whole audience was screaming at the end of this thing. It was pretty good. It was like they were trapped in the theater.”
The image of a self-destructing Piersall spooked the jittery 25-year-old, but in Leukemia he was working out something even more important. “John’s father died of leukemia,” says Ende, “and the show was about that. It was the best thing he’s ever done. It made something extraordinarily beautiful out of painful and jagged things.” It also marked a big step in his career: John Lurie had decided to make a frontal assault on the art world.
In the late ’70s, the Lower East Side offered its own brand of new wave: the No Wave, in which the predominant impulse — that anyone can paint, anyone can form a rock band, anyone can make a movie — came from punk. One’s craft was learned in public, or at least before a large crowd of heckling friends. “The end result,” says Lurie, “is to have something that isn’t polished, that cuts through the polish, that finds the bumps on the surface. Those bumps are what it’s all about.” In places like the Mudd Club, Tier 3, and the Squat Theater, noise bands predominated and hanging out was elevated to an art. Musicians took up movie cameras, movie directors and painters took up guitars; the Super-8 film scene boasted such personalities as James Chance, Eric Mitchell, Beth and Scott B, James Nares, and Vivienne Dick. The movies were shown, for the most part, at the New Cinema on Saint Marks Place (now the site of a health food store), where sync-sound Super-8 was transferred to videotape and projected onto a four-by-five-foot screen.
In these rough-hewn films, wrote J. Hoberman in 1979, the filmmakers could “enact libidinal fantasies, parody mass cultural forms, glorify a marginal lifestyle, and exhibit varying degrees of social content.” John acted in such classics as Red Italy by Eric Mitchell and Sleepless Nights by Becky Johnson; to prove to his upstairs neighbor, Mitchell, that anyone can do it, Lurie made Hell Is You in 1977 in which he played Tom Snyder to James Chance’s Patti Smith.
His next film, the 30-minute Men in Orbit, was inspired by the crude, blurry TV footage of Apollo astronauts “hanging out” in their space capsules. Hey, Lurie thought, I can make a movie that looks like that. It was originally meant to star Lurie and painter and musician Steve Kramer, but Kramer had an accident before the shooting: “He used to have a party trick of walking on the ledges of roofs when he was drunk, and he fell off.” (Kramer now lives in Minneapolis, his face reconstructed.) Eric Mitchell substituted. The movie features found footage of a rocket taking off, interstellar blips and whines, and slightly slurred speeds; it turns an East Side dive into a fairly convincing space capsule — albeit one where the astronauts chew gum, play guitar, eat McDonald’s hamburgers, and laugh a lot. They giggle helplessly when they lather up and shave; Lurie’s still giggling when blood splashes lavishly over his hand; and Mitchell laughs uproariously when Lurie says, “I don’t think it’s funny. I really sliced my nose.” There is then a rather obvious piece of editing. “I just walked off the set after that,” explains Lurie, today. “I’d done a lot of acid, and I didn’t feel I could trust anyone. I stayed away for three hours while everyone waited for me to come back. They had to give me a handful of Valiums to complete the picture.”
Lurie was finally launched into social orbit, too, “I dunno why, maybe because I had beautiful girlfriends. I had this girlfriend, Lisa Stroud, who I stole away from David Byrne and Brian Eno, and she was the one who took me all around. Sort of like Anita Pallenberg.” He started to take himself more seriously, say his friends, and to think about forming a band. With Arto Lindsay and Danny Rosen (who plays Eszter Balint’s Cleveland boyfriend in Stranger than Paradise), among others, Lurie concocted a “a jazz band with a guitar sound.” They called it “fake jazz.”
“A raging cacophony,” says Lindsay. “Fractured be-bop, and very witty,” says sometime-critic Roger Trilling. “It was about attitude and style,” says club-booker Jim Fouratt, who gave them their first gig when they wanted to call themselves Rotating Power Tools, “done with reverence rather than disdain.” (The name Lounge Lizards was suggested by John Ende, “because they were green and had forked tongues.”) They were a playful jazz band with one punk touch: Lindsay, who slashed away at their straight time with his discordant chords. “We did one gig and the next week we were in six newspapers,” says Lurie. “People lined up around the block — you couldn’t get in to see us. Everyone thought I was gonna be rich and famous.”
But the Lounge Lizards didn’t have staying power. “Calling it fake jazz was maybe a mistake. It just meant we weren’t playing like Charlie Parker. I was serious about jazz, but there was a time when it sort of fell apart, and it just didn’t seem like a viable thing anymore; it seemed like a dinosaur. I said jazz was dead and I alienated myself from the jazz world right away. The people who were seriously interested in the development of jazz assumed we were hype and never came to see us.”
The first album, made in 1980, was a disappointment that made Lurie no money and left him mad as hell. He lost interest in the old Lounge Lizards and struggled to find a new sound. “He really wanted it to be John Lurie and the Lounge Lizards,” says Arto. “He wanted more serious jazz and that kind of recognition. On the album I felt that I was undermixed, and we were doing too many of his own songs. He was not a good tunesmith back then — I’ve heard he’s gotten better as a player and composer. What we had was special — a new type of jazz-rock fusion. But we were naive. We didn’t know how to take it to the next level.”
When Arto left, so did the American critics (the Lounge Lizards have remained popular in Europe). The band was “straighter” now, and these guys weren’t good enough to play it straight — gone was the danger, the irony, the reason for being. “That line drove me crazy,” says Lurie. “Here I was in the process of making the music better and here were these people saying if was worse.” Even he admits, however, that “we were really sounding like a bad avant-garde jazz band for a while.”
By this time, the whole Lower East Side scene was breaking up. “It was sad for a while — everybody was trying to make it, and make it bigger than the next person. The scene imploded and then it exploded and all the particles went off in different directions.” Lurie had his share of physical as well as emotional ailments. Caught in the Mudd Club ladies room with two girls (it’s a long story) by five bouncers, all “five-foot-10, 210-pound guys with brown hair and mustaches,” Lurie made the mistake of laughing and remarking to the girls that “they all look alike.” It was six months, and seven different false front teeth, before he could play the saxophone again. A lawsuit is pending.
He also contracted hepatitis. The guy who used to boast he’d never live beyond 30 found that drugs didn’t kill him, they just made him ill, ate up his money, and magnified his boredom. “For a year and a half I was just depressed and sick,” he says. “It was such a vulgar point.” He survived because his rent was low, because his friends helped him out, and because he resolved never to sell his saxophone. When he finally stopped, he found he “felt incredible without them and I didn’t lose any of the magic.”
With the exception of John and his brother, the Lounge Lizards have turned over completely in the last two years, and Lurie thinks he’s on the verge of the sound he’s always wanted. “I wanted facility from the players and to still have that ferocity in the sound.” At 8 BC in early October, they are certainly ferocious. The crowd is large and attentive, and the music is pitched very high, each player emoting like crazy. During the peaks, Lurie seems to rear back and inject himself into his horn; his solos are nervy, gurgling, introspective. “John’s not a versatile sax player,” says the band’s drummer, Doug Bowne, “but he has a classic tone and a great vibrato. Conceptually, he’s very aware of what he wants to put forth — he’s using his sax as an art project instead of, ‘Here I am, I’m a great sax player.’ ”
At the Bottom Line several days later, the crowd is sparser and more staid (although it includes Wim Wenders and Tom Waits). “Live music doesn’t make sense anymore,” says Lurie. “I can’t play at any club in New York where the sound’s good and it’s fun to be at. There’s a lotta great musicians in this town, but there’s no scene for them anymore.” The band performs several Lurie compositions from his soundtracks; one seductive melody, from Bette Gordon’s Variety, he’d planned to call “The Blow Job.” “It’s supposed to be a sentimental title but girls seem to hate it, so I might change it to, ‘It Could Be Very, Very Beautiful.’ ” Two Lounge Lizard records are currently in production; one untitled, one called Mutiny on the Bowery. Just released is Fusion, by veteran jazz producer Teo Macero, with the London Philharmonic.
Lurie loves to banter at the mike and play the suave master of ceremonies. One reason he’s worried about Stranger than Paradise is that the character he plays doesn’t have the right attitude. “If you saw Miles Davis or John Coltrane in a movie and you saw them playing a dopey guy, you might tend to lose respect. Music is one of those nebulous things where it’s coming from the heart of the person who makes it and it’s important where that person’s heart is at. And I was a bit afraid of being associated with that character personally: ‘Oh, he’s not really an actor, he’s just playing himself.’ But the guy isn’t me. One of my friends said, ‘It’s kinda like you but you cut yourself off at the knees.’ ”
Which is still plenty tall, and a lot of the real John bleeds through. Some friends say it’s “John being John.” Some say he looks the way he did when he first arrived in New York. They say the character’s like John when he razzes a bum on the street — the same John who, when they go to restaurants with him, usually amuses the company by complaining about the food and sending it back. It’s also the John who, as in the movie, smashes things when he’s upset, stalks out, and then returns, moments later, sheepish and full of apologies. “I’m actually not so low key as in the movie,” says Lurie. “I’m much more hyper.”
Folks on the Stranger set agree. Lurie had been cast as Saint James in the aborted Martin Scorsese project The Last Temptation of Christ, and Harvey Keitel, who would have played Judas, advised him to grow his own beard for the role. With the starting date for the Scorsese film approaching, Jarmusch had to fight with Lurie to get him to shave. He moped about his career, about his health, and — apparently with good cause — the wretched accommodations and lack of privacy. He thought Stranger would be too boring. He had problems with the ending. Jarmusch says the process was healthy; so does Lurie, who thinks Jarmusch made a lot of the right decisions. “But I was given so much free rein that to be told no about something kinda pissed me off. Because he was using all my ideas, and then I feel like I got a good idea and he doesn’t wanna use it. I was kinda pissed off about the movie for a while.”
Not surprisingly, the acclaim for both his performance and his score has softened his criticism. During a panel discussion at the Telluride Film Festival in Los Angeles, the director Werner Herzog stood up in the audience and said, “I think John Lurie should win an Academy Award for Stranger than Paradise.” “My mother’s favorite movie was Kaspar Hauser,” says Lurie. “I wanted to call her up and tell her that. It would be great, but, ya know… oh well.” She died earlier this year.
Like the lapsed Hungarian émigré he plays in Stranger than Paradise, Lurie also tried to get as far away from his roots as possible. “When my mother died this year I realized how much a member of my family I really am. She wasn’t some silly old woman, she was kinda brilliant in her way. She just drank herself to death from total unhappiness, back in North Wales, taking care of her mother. They say it’s genetic: my grandfather was a morphine addict, my mother was an alcoholic.” And his role models? “I guess my role models ate themselves up, too; at one point it was Rimbaud, Charlie Parker, Lenny Bruce, Jimi Hendrix, Billie Holiday. They all died pretty quick. I like a lotta people still alive, too. And I have some kinda ridiculous drive that keeps me from fucking up entirely.”
“It used to be that going above 14th Street was tough, because they’d see that you didn’t belong there because you looked too dirty or something.” These days John Lurie heads uptown to audition for Miami Vice. “I had to get up at 10 o’clock in the morning or something. There were all these actors in the office waiting, reciting lines — there’s nothing worse than being in a room full of actors who want work. They gave me this thing, it must have been the wrong side. It was for this musclebound Havana pimp with gold chains. I read the dialogue, I said, ‘I can’t,’ and I left. Fuck that shit. I don’t wanna deal with that. I know who I am.” Would he ever do television? “Three’s Company,” he says. “I could blow that show away.”
Lurie says he might work on Jarmusch’s next project, although the director is so punch-drunk from interviews that, when asked what it will be, he mumbles something about more oddballs on another oddball odyssey. Lurie might feel more generous towards Jarmusch in the next year: the actor has three percentage points of Stranger and he owns the publishing rights on the music. “Everybody assumes I’m rich now. But I haven’t had any hot water in weeks. I have to shower in other people’s places. My refrigerator doesn’t work.”
Lurie’s apartment, in the East Village across from a men’s shelter, is a mess. There is an ancient projector, an old piano, some weights, a basketball. In a corner are a few of his paintings, vaguely Cubist — although he says he wouldn’t know one school from another. He wants to direct movies once he finishes the latest stretch with the Lounge Lizards — movies, he says, give directors more control than live music. He reminds me to mention that he once played solo at Carnegie Hall.
He passes a scrapbook that shows, among other things, John and his father on a beach, John bald for Leukemia, John with various girlfriends, including his current one, Liz Ganz, who’s an actress and a dancer. He leans out the window and calls up to another apartment and in a minute his last girlfriend, Rebecca Wright, joins us. John says she’ll be a big star; he’s feeling generous. The two girlfriends are going to dance to one of his Variety tunes, “The Million Dollar Walk,” at a solo gig next week at Folk City. “There’s gonna be a lot of people there,” he says.
There is almost no one at the second Folk City show; the earlier one, Lurie says, did marginally better. The “warmup” act is a bald guy on a horn and a pudgy guy who half-sings along; their best number is about buying Kennedy’s brain in a jar for $3.98. Lurie comes up from the dressing room, goes to the bathroom, then makes the rounds shaking hands. He’s distressed over the turnout, and over that glitter that stuck to his face from too much contact with Liz’s makeup. “I washed it twice!” he moans. “We’ll get some sandpaper,” says his manager, Frank Breuer. Lurie doesn’t play his sax tonight so much as haunt it. He hits some startlingly pure notes. He squawks, bleats, suggests an air-raid siren, a moose call, the Bomb. He bangs his instrument against the microphone; he screams. But he’s distracted. “You know those horrible people who give performances in their living rooms?” he says. “I didn’t mean to be one of those people but.…” He starts “The Million Dollar Walk,” with drummer Doug Bowne on snare; Rebecca sashays out, wound in a red scarf. that leaves one breast bare; Liz emerges in red panties and a sheer red undershirt, which she periodically lifts. The two undulate determinedly. The set lasts 15 minutes, and Lurie beats a hasty exit.
He emerges from the cellar 10 minutes later, pained. “Don’t mention this in your article,” he says.
I tell him it’s an interesting scene.
“I was very honest with you, at our last interview,” he says. “I like you, I hope that counts for something. I gave you good stuff, right?”
I tell him not to worry, but he does. “I’m being too honest with you,” he says, brooding. “I’m basically paranoid about people knowing what’s what. You become a public personality and your character can become a piece of plastic. You see it happen to people. They crack up. I always feel bad every time I read an interview I’ve done.”
He reminds me that once after several beers, I’d asked if Eszter Balint had a boyfriend. “See, you said things, too, and they won’t be public.” His point is well taken. The interviewer — an active goad and participant — will usually slice himself out of a piece, leaving behind a string of one-sided confessions. But John Lurie isn’t a victim of his tongue; it’s part of what makes him what he is — flamboyantly intimate. He acts out the things that tear him up; his personality, in a sense, is his performance art. In an age ruled by mass media and buzzing with celebrity interviews, talk shows, films about “hanging out,” John Lurie really is a star for the ’80s: his self-preoccupation involves you.
“People like John no matter how he fucks up,” says Jim Fouratt. “He has the potential for greatness, no matter what that means — even if it’s just his image.” Says John Ende: “He’s not afraid.”
How will he handle his first film success? “My band was the hottest thing in New York, everybody knew who I was. But paranoia set in: I mean, they were sayin’ I was a heroin addict way before I ever did heroin. This time I’m prepared for it. I’m kinda worried about Eszter in a way, she’s only 19.” He pauses, and thinks about what Eszter might be going through. “It’s weird to have a hit movie,” he says. “I can’t really figure out why, but yesterday I was really depressed.” ■