John Lurie is a steam engine with a nuclear reactor in his firebox — always has been. The downtown icon filled our ears with “fake jazz” that was better than the real thing; he didn’t care much about acting and it showed, in the best way; and he taught us how to fish, rewiring a centuries-old proverb to his own specs: one part brilliance, two parts endless cool, tons of cosmic goof. But it’s been a while since we’ve heard from the lead Lounge Lizard, and, tragically, there are only six episodes of Fishing With John to keep us sated. In 1994, Lurie was diagnosed with advanced Lyme disease, the neurological effects of which make playing music and acting impossible. Still, though time has modified its casing, that internal engine is well intact.
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Self-Portrait with Lump (2005)
Lurie has just released a collection of paintings, A Fine Example of Art, and it’s full of the same humor, facility and cracked spirituality that runs through his oeuvre. In one painting, in which the word “fun” is scrawled all over the walls, a cat-beast with a pink boner dances on a woman’s dresser. In I Am a Bear. You Are an Asshole. God Is God, a warm watercolor blot of an ursine face dumbly gazes out at the viewer, as if to suggest some crude refiguring of the food chain. Horse With A Mullet is a wistful 2-D rendering of a steed on the prairie, sporting a normal mane — which, if you think about it, really is a mullet. Lurie’s work has been shown around the world, and he recently stopped in L.A. for a signing at Book Soup. As he sits down to talk, it’s clear that not much has changed: John Lurie is still, inimitably, John Lurie.
L.A. WEEKLY: So, what’s a day in the life of John Lurie?
JOHN LURIE: I go to bed around 7 in the morning, and get up around 1 in the afternoon. Three days a week I do ozone therapy, and the others I usually have studio visits. I play a lot of online poker and try to figure out where to put all the paintings. I work in my apartment, in my laundry room and at the breakfast table, so it’s like I’m living in a storage facility — there are boxes everywhere.
How often do you paint?
It comes in weird jags of compulsion — I’m hurled into doing it. There are some months where I’ve done 15 pieces; some months, I’ve done none. I’ve usually got four or five lying around, but when my symptoms are bad and I can’t see so well, or I can’t hold my hand straight, then I can’t do it — or I have to start a new one.
Is there a difference in the paintings’ style that comes with you being symptomatic?
The color sense is really better. I come up with very unusual combinations — four or five colors — before I even start, and I’ll jump up and just paint.
How much time do you typically spend on a piece?
It varies. Some of the better ones in the book took moments, like Davy Crockett Has Lost His Fucking Mind. But the cover painting ... that background took days to do, and then I plopped those bunnies and the girl down in minutes — and it kinda looks like that. I don’t know how other people interpret it, but some of them are bad on purpose. And some of them are bad on accident.
So far, the critical consensus seems to be that they’re actually good.
As far as the legit critics, it’s all been pretty great. I mean, [New York Times critic] Roberta Smith gave me a good review, and you kinda can’t do better than that. But I’ll discover these blogs where they really hate me. You know, “I wouldn’t put this on my refrigerator if my kid brought it home.” They don’t even debate me, they just all discuss how much I suck.
You don’t sound too dismayed ...
I think it’s funny. But I once read a blog attacking my sax playing, and that hurt. They kept talking about this Tom Waits record I had played on [Rain Dogs], where I’d popped into the studio and done this thing that came out awful. It wasn’t my fault — the way my part was recorded, it just sounded like a piece of string. I played the sax for 30 years and practiced for five hours a day. I had a beautiful tone — I had my own tone. It kinda hurt my feelings, because I can’t play anymore.
You can’t show up on the blogger’s doorstep and solo him to silence.
No, but I could show up on his doorstep with a stun gun.
Has painting played a profound role in your life, post–Lyme disease?
For a little while, I thought I was dying. I was extremely ill, I couldn’t function, and I was stuck in my apartment. And I don’t know if it’s New York City or human nature, but everybody runs from you. So every night I’d be home alone, and I’d just started painting. It was like making windows for myself. It saved me.
Your paintings seem to project a dry humor onto life’s more mundane, and sometimes dark, facets. Even so, optimism prevails.
I feel optimistic about life in general, and I’m hopelessly naive. I always expect that humanity will do better than it does. People see me as cynical and dark, but I’m not at all.
There’s a puerile element, too, in the animals and bright colors, and an almost childlike vision of sexuality. Where does this odd innocence come from?
I just think that I have an odd innocence. I actually thought everybody was going to be freaked out about the cover painting, First You Blow Us, Then We’ll Let You Go, but everyone who sees it laughs. It’s basically a rape painting, and it’s really not acceptable, but because this woman is surrounded by bunnies, people think it’s great.
There’s a natural inclination to compare your painting to your music. Do you see a similarity?
The painting has a kind of childlike brokenness and a sophistication at the same time. There’s a certain amount of technique that’s then destroyed by a naive quality, and it was the same in the band — we played our instruments like we’d just found them on the street.
Now, you painted in those days too. I read that you had an influence on Basquiat?
When he was 18, Basquiat used to sleep on my floor — I was 26. We used to paint together all the time, and I was already doing this thing with all these words in it. Some people refer to my work as being influenced by him — and I think anybody who says our stuff looks alike is somewhat moronic — but I was already John Lurie of the Lounge Lizards, and he was this kid who followed me everywhere. You figure out who influenced who. That said, Basquiat was really a force, and he didn’t steal.
Why didn’t you pursue painting more, then?
Those were completely wild days: You’d hang out, come home, practice music for an hour, paint for a little bit, go out and party, sleep off the hangover, hang out ... it was a freeform existence. Then the band started to make it, and I’m still painting, but the [Jim] Jarmusch movies come out, and now I’m known for acting. Meanwhile, all these painters I’d known when they were poor — Richard Prince, Julian Schnabel, Francesco Colmente, Basquiat, Chris Wool — they’re making millions of dollars. For me to come out and say, “Oh, I’m a painter too!” just seemed really garish. I kept it to myself and figured if I ever sold my work, it’d be worth a fortune. Of course, I forgot about how the art world works. If it didn’t sell for $10,000 in 1984, it’s now not worth a million — it’s only worth $10,000. I should have been garish.
Did the energy of the time fuel you, personally, to do so much, or would you have been just as busy without it?
I probably would have been busier. There was so much fun to have. It was the ’80s, and I was labeled the coolest guy in New York. I took a lot of drugs and had sex with a lot of people. I saw something horrifying recently in New York magazine. They ran an article about the East Village in the ’80s, and everybody but me and two other people were dead. I was like, “Whoa. I’ll never complain about being sick again.”
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You got off easy, I suppose?
Well, I don’t know which is easier. I haven’t tried the other way yet.
But you’re feeling better these days?
I am. I’ve done a ton of different things — endless antibiotics, Chinese herbs, homeopathic stuff — but ozone seems to be working. And I also know what the symptoms are now, even though there are hundreds of them. Essentially, it’s like the worst drug experience you’ve ever been on, all the time. But look, I just flew out to L.A., checked into a hotel, did a book signing and went to a party. Three years ago, I couldn’t have made it to the airport. I’m definitely better than I was. Hell, what if I come back all the way?