Reviewed by Cintra Wilson
It was 1989 when I saw John Lurie on TV in a late-night advertisement for the new Lounge Lizards album, Voice of Chunk, which was “not available in stores” and selling exclusively through an 800 number. Operators were standing by. It was a charming, homemade ad, shot on grainy video, full of beautiful women dressed in international garb like they were animatronic dolls in Disneyland’s It’s a Small World ride.
Lurie, the band’s saxophonist and front man, was already fairly well known as the breakout star in Jim Jarmusch’s breakout independent movie Stranger Than Paradise (1984), and the follow-up, Down by Law (1986). He epitomized a flavor that everybody wanted around the mid-1980s: a real artist with outstanding personal style, an offbeat sense of humor, and a rebellious streak, making his mark on the world through unconventional channels. I was so impressed with how outside the box this promotional stunt was. This is the way, I thought. He’s figured out how to own the means of production, without involving the music industry. It looked as radically avant-garde and hip as Devo did the first time I saw them, and Lurie immediately became dear to my heart as an animal more substantial and interesting than his prevailing East Village It Boy image suggested.
His image was an indelible one in the 1980s. When it came to arousing blizzards of strange, forbidden female desire, he was on par with swaggering former SNL star Pete Davidson today—a charmed, confectionary Marilyn Monroe for the female of the species to have impure feelings about; a respected artist; a kind of emotional porn star. Lurie had the Jean-Paul Belmondo baggy suits, the lanky, concave frame, the saxophone, the bent nose, the street and Hollywood credibility—everything you needed to be a French New Wave star in the 1980s, including the black-and-white art films. “From 1984 to 1989, everyone in downtown New York wanted to be John Lurie. Or sleep with him. Or punch him in the face,” wrote Tad Friend in The New Yorker in 2010. (It is an article that Lurie openly reviles, and not for nothing: Friend devoted it primarily to legitimizing the career of Lurie’s stalker, and painted Lurie as sick, paranoid, and bedeviled; it ultimately suggested that Friend was delivering his long-awaited punch to Lurie’s face.)
Lurie’s new memoir, The History of Bones, is a sprawling confessional of a book in which Lurie intends, I believe, to bare his soul to the best of his soul-baring abilities, and mostly succeeds. It’s a tell-all that settles old accounts and names names, a cantankerous lament over Lurie’s many existential and terrestrial irritations. It is by turns bitter and euphoric, funny and dismaying—equal parts the rambling, hilarious misanthropy of Céline and the insider gossip and braggadocio of Robert Evans. It inspires a visceral, almost sexual level of nostalgia for the late Seventies/Eighties in New York—the scene around the Mudd Club, CBGB, and Max’s Kansas City back when they really mattered and a relevant subcultural demimonde still existed in Manhattan.
Lurie, who was born in Minneapolis in 1952, begins the book in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he grew up: “A horrible place. Worcester has a dome over it so that God is not allowed in.” His father, David, whom he loved, became sick and died while John was in high school. Lurie was a teen prone to pranks, like stealing the nineteen-foot-long flag that hung downtown and riding a bicycle naked onto the main street at 4:00 AM. He took psychedelics, worried about the draft, and played the harmonica in a blues band; he hitchhiked and took a Greyhound bus to the West Coast. On another bicycle ride back in Worcester, he had a mystical experience:
Just like that, life was everywhere…. This was not God saying hello. I had been invited. I was inside God’s brain…. I spent the next few years trying to recapture whatever had unveiled itself and passed over me during that experience.
He became a soul-searcher: at eighteen, while still in high school, he moved into an ashram and did a lot of kundalini yoga, left after a couple of months, and “became a monk of my own order,” fasting and taking ten-day vows of silence during mostly unhappy stints in Boston, Wales (his mother was Welsh), New York, Boston again, and London. He eventually settled in New York and sated his hunger for spiritual enlightenment when he shot heroin for the first time—there, he sort of found nirvana, for quite a while. “At this exact moment my spiritual quest was gone,” he observes. Nonetheless, certain Eastern spiritual concepts seem to have burrowed their way into his consciousness. “There is no such thing as talent,” Lurie declares. “There is only cleaning the mirror.”
As a young artist in the East Village circa 1977, he lived off Supplemental Security Income (SSI) after faking a schizophrenia diagnosis (which he felt a little bit guilty about, though he says he did sometimes hear voices). SSI was how a lot of artists got by in those days, although Lurie still had to augment it with “a lot of petty crime, dealing pot, traveler’s check scams…. I got the idea to steal my own horns and collect the insurance.” He lived in a government-run railroad apartment on East 3rd Street for fifty-five dollars a month and did wacky performance art pieces with titles like Leukemia. He made avant-garde movies on Super 8 with a group of like-minded bohemians, dropped acid, and hung around the Mudd Club on a nightly basis. He used to practice the sax late at night in the subway station on 14th Street and First Avenue.
Around 1978 Lurie discovered he could buy baggy 1940s suits in thrift stores for three dollars, slick his hair back, and look suave. With him thus armored in vintage savoir faire, a larger vision of the downtown Manhattan scene seemed to come into focus for him:
We were so sure of ourselves, we never doubted anything. We were powerful, smart, energetic, confident, egocentric, and astoundingly naïve. Nothing outside of our fourteen block radius mattered. From Houston to Fourteenth Street, from the Bowery to Avenue A, that was the only universe.
Lurie had been performing music live on and off since moving to New York, including a gig with several friends on TV Party, Glenn O’Brien’s hip, marvelous public access show and send-up of/love letter to New York social life.
After their runaway success on TVParty (“We only knew the one song, so when it was done and the girls kept screaming, we played it again”), Lurie and one of his bandmates, Arto Lindsay, got together with Lurie’s brother, Evan, and two others to form the Lounge Lizards. They first played at a club called Hurrah on 62nd Street on June 4, 1979, all dressed up, pale and emaciated in their thrift-store suits. The name was a toss-up—it could just as easily have been the Rotating Power Tools or the Sequined Eels.
After that first gig—a smashing success that Lurie partially credits to “the reckless force of communal cocaine”—somebody asked him what he called their kind of music. “Fake jazz,” he replied on the fly—and this is what journalists called the Lounge Lizards’ sound for decades. “That stupid tag of fake jazz stuck like some horrible gum in my hair,” he laments. (Martin Scorsese later described their sound as “music for alienated people.”)
Quite suddenly, Lounge Lizard fever was upon New York City. “Lines would go around the block with people scrambling to get tickets,” Lurie recalls. “Andy Warhol would be in the front row. It is amazing how fast one becomes arrogant.” That arrogance, essential to Lurie’s image, didn’t always advance his career. When record company executives came by the dressing room to express interest, the entire band would scream at them to get the fuck out. “I wish we had never stopped telling them that,” he writes.
A recurring theme in The History of Bones is a quixotic rant against the forces of commerce that seek to compromise and monetize art. This is when Lurie’s voice is the most comfortable, when he is denouncing maggots: “Of course, the art world will not get too close to an actual artist until they are dead and safely not moving…. It is all part of the Conspiracy to Maintain Mediocrity.”
A band member talked Lurie into making a record, but despite their local and international success, the Lounge Lizards encountered a lot of trouble getting a deal with a domestic label—in addition to their puckish abrasiveness, they were an art band, neither fish nor fowl. A crashing, polyrhythmic brawl of jazz, funk, fusion, rock, experimental John Cage–style stuff, and the kitchen sink, they were very exciting to see live but never produced the kind of gentle bourgeois dinner music that really sold jazz albums. They finally signed with a British label, E.G. Records, who were as uncooperative as everyone else:
It was the first time I’d seen things like this, which I later encountered in grand abundance in Hollywood. These guys were saying no to everything we did only because they could. For no other reason than it gave them a sense of power.
In Lurie’s account, they turned down proposed cover artwork that his brother Evan had designed only to use it for a popular band, and told him his album sales were less than a twentieth of what they actually were.
The Lounge Lizards also had internal problems—heroin abuse being one of the most outstanding. The History of Bones can resemble VH1’s Behind the Music in some chapters—especially when one of Lurie’s bandmates, Steve Piccolo, shot up with airplane sink water and his arm swelled up to four times its normal size, or when Piccolo was so high he nodded out onstage while playing.
Lurie is candid about his own relationship with heroin: “Heroin is a predator. A barracuda. Heroin goes out of its way to find you.” Throughout much of his career, he was always using and kicking and using and kicking again. He would get clean to go on tour, only to get hideously dope sick when his plane landed back at JFK, in some kind of infernal Pavlovian response to the New York environment: “Dope sickness is amazing because you can’t even really just lie there. The parts of your body that are touching the bed hurt from the contact. Your hair hurts.” He doesn’t have any strong pity for himself in this regard. He doesn’t romanticize heroin use, and he owns up to regrets about his behavior: “If you can’t make it to Thelonious Monk’s funeral because of your heroin problem, you are a pathetic loser.”
The curmudgeonly Lurie, never a font of bonhomie, takes exception to various people throughout. “If you want to be my friend,…use your fingers to make air quotes around interesting words in your sentence,” he sneers. “That will go a long way toward making me warm to you.” He has a special kind of loathing for poseurs and amateurs, even when they are fans:
I have been in this situation many times in my life: Some young “artist” approaches me about doing something where they have nothing—zero—to offer into the mix. The rationale is, I am an artistic person like yourself. I have never actually done anything but I have artistic feelings, so I would like to use you.
He is no fonder of the rich and well established, who have often invited him to dinner in their lavish homes:
These were people who buy their culture for the season and go to every event because that is their social life. They don’t understand a thing, they don’t care to, but their clothes are very expensive. So we laughed at them and pointed. Perhaps I have not managed my career so well.
Throughout the book, Lurie recognizes that his sneering disdain for other human beings has, at times, hobbled his success, but he maintains that this attitude is always in service of the purity of the art: “I protect Evan and music with the ferocity of a mother bear.” He often gives props to “true artists” who inspired him, who almost by definition are obscure, such as the visual artist Richard Morrison: “He was an artist with so much integrity that, of course, no one has ever heard of him.”
An exception to this rule is Jean-Michel Basquiat, the 1980s art world’s most beloved enfant terrible, who exerts a powerful gravitational pull in the book. Lurie met Basquiat at the Mudd Club when the artist was around seventeen years old, and he slept on Lurie’s floor for stretches of time—an arrangement Lurie called “The John Lurie School of Bohemian Living.” Together they would smoke weed and draw all night. By Lurie’s account, there was a kind of brotherly rivalry between them in these early days—a lot of love, some ugly fights, and a combination of pride and jealousy in each other’s accomplishments. While Lurie unreservedly believed in Basquiat’s genius, it caused him more than a little spleen to watch his friend get sucked into the glitzy money frenzy of the era and become suddenly wealthy, while he was still struggling:
Faster than my star was plummeting, Jean-Michel’s was rising. He skyrocketed past me in a second and sailed by….
And I was poor. Really poor. And now to be a poor artist was not cool. Just like that, money was the thing, and Jean-Michel had tons of it.
Lurie reserves one of the lowest rings of hell for people who claimed to know Basquiat or tried to cash in on his legend after he died, even as he takes pains to preserve his own legacy as part of Basquiat’s story:
Okay, even though Jean-Michel used to follow me around like he was my kid brother, and I certainly had a great deal to do with who he became, I don’t want to glom onto him like so many people are doing.
Lurie even claims to have had the original idea for the piece that Basquiat eventually created with Andy Warhol, the “card” for the boxing match where they are both wearing Everlast shorts: “I still have one thing that we painted on a card together, but I took it to a gallery one day to see what it was worth. They took it to some expert who then declared it was not by Basquiat. Who are these experts?”
For Lurie, one of the most egregious Basquiat hangers-on is his erstwhile director Jim Jarmusch. He bashes Jarmusch throughout the book and dedicates a three-page, David Foster Wallace–esque footnote (titled “The World’s Longest Footnote”) to declaring that Jarmusch was never a friend of Basquiat’s; also that he was a fraud and a coward. While Lurie vaguely acknowledges that Jarmusch put him on-screen and arguably made him famous for personifying that particular aesthetic of New York cool, he openly trounces Jarmusch for being a profligate idea stealer.
Lurie claims both to have invented the entire plot of Stranger Than Paradise during a conversation with an indecisive and uninspired Jarmusch—who never really gave him credit for it—and to have written the original treatment on which Jarmusch’s 1995 film Dead Man was based. “I feel like I have to hurry up and get this book published before Jim Jarmusch gets hold of it and puts it out as his own memoir,” he scoffs.
Acting was always a part of Lurie’s repertoire as a performer, but Stranger Than Paradise was his first major film. He is quick to emphasize that it wasn’t terribly important to him: “We finished it and again, I forgot all about Stranger Than Paradise. It was just two weeks working on a project.” At the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, it won the Caméra d’Or; Paris, Texas, another movie Lurie appeared in, won the Palme d’Or. His music was in three other films in the festival: “I have five movies at Cannes and I cannot afford to buy the plane ticket. I can barely afford to do my laundry.” After Cannes, Jarmusch was hailed as a genius (much to Lurie’s consternation), and Lurie was vaulted into independent film stardom, which he felt distracted from his musical career. “Look, motherfucker,” Lurie shouts at an interviewer after a Lounge Lizards concert when asked repeatedly about Jarmusch. “Jim Jarmusch had one good idea and it was mine. Now get the fuck out.”
At this point, Lurie was lavished with attention from women, directors, the press, and other stars in the downtown scene. Basquiat threw him a memorable dinner at Mr. Chow’s with Wim Wenders, Jarmusch, Francesco and Alba Clemente, Steve Rubell, Bianca Jagger, Warhol, Tom Waits, and others—Warhol wrote in his diaries that it was the best party he’d been to in ten years.
“This should have been a great time for me,” Lurie admits.
But somehow it wasn’t. To be thrown into that kind of fame is very unbalancing. It is worse for your chemistry than drugs, in a way. You want the attention and the adoration, it gives you a buoyancy, but it rarely leads to anything real.
His relationship with a woman he genuinely loved fell apart and he started sleeping around (even more) to stanch his loneliness: “A lot of them were beautiful, classy women, but just as many were women I would scarf up at a bar at three forty-five AM before it closed.” Having moved to an ungentrified Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where there were few restaurants, he drove his golden Cadillac into Manhattan for every meal, and soon ran through his earnings. He fell out of favor with the downtown scene after another dinner party—with many of the same guests as at Mr. Chow’s—where he attacked the artists at the table for cashing in on their own art-world hype: “My poverty was making me bitter, so I got drunk and went sour on the lot of them. What on earth made every napkin they drooled on valuable?”
Lurie contracted hepatitis and later, Lyme disease; both had long and ravaging effects on his health; these were only exacerbated by his ongoing career issues. He often lost tremendous amounts of money on tour with the band because of bad promoter deals. He scored a number of films but got tied up in terrible contracts with crooked producers; one even leveled a mafia-style threat at him, growling, “Listen, I am from Philadelphia, if you know what that means.” As Lurie puts it:
I had a series of devastating problems, one after the other. In order to try to get my work back or to protect it, I had to go to war with forces far more powerful than myself. It completely disrupted, and almost destroyed, my path as an artist. It almost destroyed my desire to continue living on this planet.
And somewhere in the midst of all this chaos, the zeitgeist changed again. Basquiat died. The 1980s became the 1990s, and the mystical East Village over which Lurie ruled gentrified and moved on to serve newer, more bourgeois libidos. Health issues forced Lurie to put down the saxophone (but he quietly picked up a paintbrush).
Lurie does not, for some reason, possess the capacity for…gratitude, maybe. He lacks some kind of zen, or possibly serotonin, so he tends to be ornery and prickly. Much of this might be attributable to drug abuse:
I remember being home, dope sick or hungover, and watching my little black and white TV from my mattress on the floor, getting up only to use the bathroom…. I’d look out the window at people on the street and think: How do these people have the energy to walk down the street? When do they have the strength to buy clothes?
What never wavers in Lurie, however, is his devotion to art. Several times in The History of Bones he describes how playing the saxophone was essentially a form of prayer for him. While shooting a small role in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), he was introduced to several Gnawa musicians, members of a nomadic North African tribe, and they made a profound impression on him. Later in the book, essentially out of nowhere, he writes, “I wanted what the Gnawa musicians had: A tribe that traveled from town to town and played music. Music that worshipped and exclaimed the beautiful weirdness that is this life.” What he is talking about is love—he always wanted to hear love in the music.
It’s not a perfect book. Much of it feels like going to the world’s longest band practice, with bandmates who are underslept and undercivilized, who might covertly vomit into your suitcase. There are a few long chapters, quite a few inconsistent chronologies, needless sourpuss rants and redundancies a more attentive editor would have discouraged or straightened out. But for anyone who wants to know the enigmatic John Lurie: here he is, folks, crystallized into book form. The man, the myth, the Cadillac, the ladies, the legend. It’s always hazardous to meet your heroes, and he is a caution. “I have been cheerfully irritating people for a long time,” he observes, in that dry, funny, hostile way he has.
One gets the feeling that there are more Lurie memoirs to look forward to: this book’s scope ends somewhere around the early 1990s, just as his old star faded and his painting career began. If so, it will be interesting to see what he has to say about the next phases of his life—heightened obscurity, alleged reclusiveness, his impressive output of wonderfully fey paintings, and his recent HBO series Painting with John—none of which is discussed in this book. (Lurie does mention shooting the show Fishing with John in 1991–1992, the conceit of which was that Lurie, who knew nothing about fishing, would go fishing with various celebrities and everything would intentionally go wrong. This seems to have been a fairly enjoyable experience.) He is, like it or not, a voice of his generation—a man, with or without a saxophone, who was king in the days before New York was taken over by people without joy in their hearts, who own no old accordions and never dance in their living rooms. He is a social divider. A man of protean chemistries, great ego, and multiple talents.
It was sad for me to discover that the promotional gambit that made me love Lurie in the first place—the TV ad for Voice of Chunk—was more or less a completely demoralizing financial disaster for him. But you cannot really buy for love or money the image it gave me of him, or the respect. This motherfucker, I thought then, and I still do. This motherfucker is for real.
One can only hope that he is learning to enjoy the beautiful weirdness of his life a bit more these days. He deserves it. All this time, he certainly has been fun to watch.
. . .
Featured Image: Photograph of John Lurie by John van Hasselt / Sygma via Getty
Cintra Wilson is a former New York Times fashion critic and the author of Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling American Style, among other books. Her newsletter, Cintra Wilson Feels Your Pain, is available at cintra.substack.com. (August 2022)