September 2009, In Conversation with John Lurie
“Dear God, I asked you a direct question. Just once, I would like a direct answer. Yours truly, Vern”, Medium: Oil on Linen, Date: 2009, Size: 61X46 centimeters
Kofi Forson in Conversation with John Lurie
John Lurie, musician, actor, composer, painter exploded onto the New York music scene with his band The Lounge Lizards. He experienced fame with his portrayal of Willie in the film Stranger Than Paradise, a movie he scored. He has since scored many other films including Down by Law and Get Shorty, which he received a Grammy nomination. His television show Fishing with John was the first of its kind. As a painter his museum and gallery shows include Roebling Hall, PS1 (New York City) Daniel Blau (Munich), Gabriel Rolt (Amsterdam) SHO gallery (Tokyo), Lelong Gallery (Zurich), Musee des Beaux Arts (Montreal) and Mudam Museum in Luxembourg. His upcoming shows include openings at Fredrick Freiser Gallery in New York on the 10th of October and Watari Museum in Tokyo, January 2010.
What follows is an e-mail conversation during the course of a late evening.
Kofi Forson: John I first came across your talent as painter with the cover art for The Lounge Lizard's album No Pain for Cakes...I believe the painting was Uncle Wiggly as the Devil…Can you tell me about this particular painting? Who is Uncle Wiggly and why you chose this painting as an album cover...
John Lurie: Uncle Wiggly was a children's book character, a rabbit… Don't remember much. I guess he went out of fashion. I moved to Brooklyn for a little while in 1983 and for no reason at all I brought this board I had found on the street back into my apartment. It sat leaning against the wall for a while until I painted the Uncle Wiggly painting.
KF: I actually found it to be very charismatic much like the music on the record. What was your painting experience like at this time? Was it more spontaneous?
JL: I gave that painting to someone. I wonder if it fell apart…Yes it was completely spontaneous. I was concentrating more on music. Any discipline I had went to practicing the saxophone. I painted when I felt like it.
KF: Suzie Lawrence. I believe you said you gave the painting to Suzie Lawrence. Was it more fashionable to do a painting and give it away? What were the circumstances surrounding your first show?
JL: Yes it was Suzie Lawrence. How did you know that?
JL: I don’t understand when you say more fashionable…I was going to travel to islands on the east coast of Africa for an undecided amount of time. I wasn't showing my stuff then and Suzie really liked it, so I gave it to her.
Not sure when my first show was. For years and years I would have one little thing in a show somewhere. Then I did this ridiculous thing in Munich. I took part in a show of musicians who painted. But my first real thing was at Anton Kern.
KF: As an established artist, musician, actor, composer, do you approach painting the same as scoring a film?
JL: Obviously with film scoring you have something established to work from. And it is usually a job, so there are many people involved. I love scoring movies but the process now with Hollywood becoming so ugly and making such awful things…It’s something like if the person buying the painting sat there as you were doing it and said… “Can you add some purple? I love purple.”
KF: How would you compare the act of painting with playing before a huge crowd?
JL: There is such a huge difference I don't know how to explain. It’s obvious I think. But writing music the way the brain works is somehow very similar, ‘though with writing music the best parts come first. The initial idea is usually the inspired one. And then you have to fill in the other parts without wrecking it or making it contrived. With painting that comes at a later stage because of how you build it.
“Intrusion Into the Ceremony to Bear Arms”, Medium: Oil on Linen, Date: 2009, Size: 18X24 inches
KF: How do the elements of your music figure traditionally within a painting? Is this the idea behind the strange and beautiful or what Thelonious Monk would call Ugly Beauty?
JL: I presume my paintings reflect the music but not sure really. Can you explain how they do that?
KF: I guess works of art are abstractions of other works of art.
JL: I love what Monk did…So beautiful and nuts…And really stubborn about it.
I am not so good at talking about this stuff really, I try not to question when my intuition tells me to fuck up a painting. You know…you just worked for 8 hours on these flowers in the corner of the painting and then the little voice inside your head says, “Now scribble on them in black.”
In regards to my painting, there was a thing Ornette Coleman said in an interview, must be 30 years ago - something like - I knew I was on to something because I found I could make mistakes.
KF: You erupted onto the New York 80's scene with The Lounge Lizards...What are your fond memories of this time as a visual artist?
JL: I don't know - that period is a little suspect in my mind.
But things like some crazy punk band’s gig poster - that shit could be amazing.
KF: ...And I saw a lot of it growing up in New York at that time. I remember Live Skull posters everywhere.
The Lounge Lizards originally stemmed from that punk explosion. The personnel for the first record, your brother Evan, Arto Lindsay, Anton Fier and Steve Piccolo captured that sound only jazzed up if you will…
Much like a painter who works in different mediums, how did you maintain the spirit of the band with change in personnel and continue to experiment with different sounds?
JL: What I was interested in was jazz, classical music and a lot of – how would you say – ethnic music? Mostly music from Bali, Africa, India…Jazz was completely dead. You could only play while people ate. No one cared ‘bout it and at that point it seemed like no one should have cared. What was being played was either very indulgent or very polite. I started seeing bands like The Contortions and the band Policeband (not "the Police") and I thought – Perfect, I will adopt this attitude into what I am working on. The music got more elegant. But really it’s about the musicians – The sound is really based on who is in the band. And who they are unfolds into it.
“The anchor is stuck. I cannot go anywhere. Time for a sandwich.”, Medium: Oil on Linen, Date: 2009, Size: 46X61 centimeters
KF: New York was going through what was then Neo-Expressionism. Names like Schnabel, Fischl, Basquiat were among the known and popular. You knew Basquiat. Were you affected by him as an artist in any way?
JL: Haha - he was a kid who used to follow me around and sleep on my floor. He would constantly ask me how he could make a living so he could keep his girlfriend.
KF: I'm not sure about the circumstances surrounding your friendship with Jarmusch...but he knew Basquiat as well. Was there a link between the three of you?
JL: I don’t remember Jim knowing Jean-Michel, actually. So to answer your question, “No…” But I do remember that Jim was storing the movie equipment at my house when he was making Permanent Vacation. And Jean had been awake for days and was now sleeping on my floor in the front room where the equipment was. He had slept for nearly 12 hours and Jim and the crew were coming in and out to get equipment. At first, they tried to get around Jean but then eventually they found it easier to pick him up and move him. He never woke up, which I found very impressive. Jim certainly did not know him then. What year is that? 1980 maybe…
KF: I’m still trying to get the image of Jean-Michel being lifted off the floor out of my mind...Haha - How often would he sleep on your floor?
JL: He wasn’t there all the time - about a third of the time.
KF: On a somber note, Jean-Michel's funeral...You played for him.
JL: That was an odd day, was the same day my Uncle Jerry died. The funeral was weird. His father did this thing where only rich, famous painters were invited. And I and many others weren't supposed to be allowed in. But I said fuck that and crashed it. Crashing a funeral, how strange that is.
I left early and on the way out, they were bringing out the casket out of a side door as I went by.
I walked over to Roosevelt Hospital where my uncle was getting chemo. There were people he knew outside crying. And I realized what was going on.
I don't know what happened next, I found myself on the corner of 42nd Street with no jacket and no tie. I just lost it, I guess.
That thing I played at the memorial Glenn O'Brien put it together. It was about a month or so later.
KF: Was it Albert Eyler who played at Coltrane's funeral...
JL: Did he? I didn't know that. Images of Coltrane's funeral have floated in my head from time to time. My sister Liz said everyone had black balloons but I think that came from a dream. Teo Macero invited me to Monk's funeral, but I was dope sick and didn't go. I am quite ashamed of that.
Let that be a warning to you kids.
“The skeleton in my closet has moved back out to the garden.” Medium: Oil on Linen, Date: 2009, Size: 61X46 centimeters
KF: I think about you and Jim and I honestly say had you not met on earth you would have met somewhere else... Tell me about your early stages working with him as an actor and scoring his films...
JL: We aren't close any more. But yes I did feel like we were fellow travelers somehow.
KF: What is strange and beautiful...Did you coin the term or is it something more general than that...
JL: No - when I started the label I had 4 people working for me then. And they didn't like any of the names that I came up with for the label. I was getting fed up with them quite frankly… They just kept turning their noses up at my names.
JL: So I almost named the record company - I'm Naked. So when they answered the phones they would have to say - I'm naked! Can I help you?
JL: But then I went to see the movie Titanic and I was on line with all these people and I thought - ok these are the people who have to buy your CDs for it to work. And I thought - these people will find your music strange. Yes, they will never buy it. But they may also find it beautiful.
KF: The witticism of John Lurie...You know you haven't been accredited as poet not that I know about. I go back as far as the names of your compositions for Stranger Than Paradise. They are brilliant John. The titles alone… I got an even greater kick out of some of the titles in the Down By Law soundtrack.
The French philosopher Roland Barthes wrote in his book Image/Music/Text about the interpreting of the image, music and text. You've completed a full circle John. Did you ever find it difficult...or because you weren't afraid to fail it seemed effortless.
JL: Thanks. Sometimes the titles are too funny and I have to change them because people won’t notice the paintings.
KF: Do you have some sort of set standard you work from? Meaning is there some sort of work ethic that encourages what you do as a painter?
JL: I used to be disciplined. But now I only do it when I am driven to do it. Which is pretty often…I have Advanced Lyme Disease and I am okay working but when I stop it usually makes the symptoms go nuts. So I keep working to put it off.
I am tenacious though… really stubborn. If a painting is bad, I won't let it go. I fight with it…forever. And I don't really have a clue what I am doing. So I have to invent it as I go along. I am thinking of teaching a course in Inorganic Painting.
KF: (Yeah)…Your paintings seem to invent themselves. It seems to me they flow from your spirit kinda like playing at a party as opposed to notating what it is you want to say, putting together sketch after sketch before arriving at an idea for the painting. Do you portray a mood within the moment and make way for the next series of moods…
JL: Yes basically but I usually have several going at once. And some days I can’t do detail stuff - so they stay against the wall for a bit.
"Egyptian on a train. He doesn't have a bomb. Sorry", Medium: Oil on Linen, Date: 2009, Size: 84X64 centimeters
KF: Your paintings continuously take me back to Africa. But then again they are German Expressionistic. How does this figure into your upbringing as musician, artist and world traveler?
JL: I am self taught at everything. So I don’t have rules about what I cannot do. I take stuff from all over the place. Not consciously somehow - it just ends up in a little cupboard in my brain and then pops out if I am in the right place to receive it.
KF: Thanks for the time John...
I have fond memories of you and the band dancing on the hills of Morocco...I believe it was Morocco. Much of that spontaneity has not left you. They have found a new place on your canvases. Any plans for future exhibitions?
JL: You are welcome - That was fun. Those hills were in Sardinia.
I have a show in New York on Oct 10th at Fredrick Freiser Gallery and a show at Watari Museum in Tokyo next January.
KF: All the best John.