Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
John Lurie by Tim Lee Final
Nine songs
John Lurie

Band-leader of The Lounge Lizards John Lurie recounts the songs that have accompanied a life full of avant-garde artistry to Olivia Swash.

Unrivalled storyteller, actor, painter and No Wave icon John Lurie celebrates life in unexpected ways.

John Lurie’s rag-tag group of savants, embedded in the New York City wave of late-’70s and ‘80s art and music movements, connected the dots between innovative jazz and the city’s burgeoning punk scene. Although his first ever public musical performance was in London: a solo saxophone concert at Covent Garden’s defunct Acme Gallery. “I loved it there except for the weather and the food,” he says. “Punk was starting when I was living there and playing on the streets, and it was a little too much for me, actually. I was a pretty wild kid, but everyone spitting on each other and rocks being thrown? That was like, damn, that’s a bit much.”

Back in New York, Lurie lived with and mentored Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol would often be seen in the front row of The Lounge Lizards shows, and they had fans in David Bowie and Leonard Cohen. But he isn’t rose-tinted about the gravity of his drug-fuelled bohemian days. “It was like a warzone here at that time,” he recalls. “People were just falling out of windows – literally. I knew two people who fell out of windows. That doesn’t happen anymore.”

Although he’s humble about his acting talent, Lurie starred in early Jim Jarmusch films Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law, as well as Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, Marin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ and David Lynch’s Wild At Heart. As a composer, he was nominated for a Grammy for Get Shorty.

The Lounge Lizards started out a little tongue-in-cheek before transforming into a profound musical project. “We were wiseguys, and there was a lot of humour to it, but we’d do some serious music,” says Lurie. “But the serious music-people could never quite see that, because we were punks to start, and some people never got over that as the band got more sophisticated and elegant. The jazz people in particular were like, ‘Well, no, they wear suits with tape holding them together.’”

Lurie’s TV series follow a similar trajectory. His cult classic ‘90s TV show Fishing with John was a spectrum of unpredictable, joyful and friendship-damaging adventures with Tom Waits, Jim Jarmusch, Willem Dafoe and Dennis Hopper. It was pastichey, with an earnest narrator laying the drama and subtly rude phrases on thick over seasick scenes. Decades on, although humour is key in its endearment, the three seasons of HBO’s Painting with John just don’t reference anything. The show is its own thing entirely: validating, confident, life-affirming and funny.

“I think humour is really important,” he says. “In terms of artists who have made a difference to society in the US over the past few years – Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin – comedians have had more of a good influence than almost anybody else. So it’s just part of it. One of the many things in my arsenal is humour.”

Living on a paradisiacal Caribbean island, Lurie may be a little further removed from society’s social, political and climate issues than many, but by this point, he thought that human beings would be doing better. “Kindness too,” he adds. “You’d think that empathy and compassion would be part of evolution. Humans have more empathy and compassion than animals that prey on each other. We attack our own species – that’s bizarre.”

“You meet great people all the time,” he says, “but if you look at who the world leaders are… What the fuck? In the United States, look at who our choices are going to be for president. I mean, you couldn’t walk into a bar and find two worse people.”

“The outrageous suffering that’s going on in so many places in the world. We see more of what’s going on, because of technology and the internet… Maybe it’s always been like this, but it’s just heartbreaking.”

Lurie’s intention in creating Painting with John was to cheer people up, and it’s an escape that has resonated deeply. “We get some beautiful emails about what the show and the paintings did for them,” says Lurie. “Like, I got someone through the worst thing that ever happened to them, or, ‘As my wife was dying I was watching your show.’” The show sees Lurie’s colourful life mellow into vivid hues through his meditations and stories full of whimsy and humour, with glimpses into the quotidian of our magnetic host at his island home.

Painting was a metier Lurie initially honed in on after a mystery illness 20 years ago caused him neurological issues and severed his relationship with music. He later found out it was advanced Lyme disease. “I really lost music,” he says, “I couldn’t play or listen for a long time. So that was traumatic for me, and I’ve never really dealt with that idea.”

Creating the soundtrack to the show was the culmination of Lurie gradually picking back up the guitar again over the course of a decade. “I came back so gently-gently, working with these musicians again for the show,” he says. “There was just this groove. It was nice to see it on film because I’m just in it – my eyes are closed, and each one of them is just in it. It’s like they’re in another place, but we’re all there together. There was a lot of love there. No matter what, I created this situation, and that gave me a sense of satisfaction: that even if the music sucked, which of course I don’t think it does, we created this moment of people hovering off the ground, and I’m proud of that.”

John Lurie by Eric Mockus

Painting with John’s gloriously spirited soundtrack is newly released on limited edition vinyl, and, as similarly proven when Anthony Bourdain bought one of his paintings, Lurie is a magnet for fellow icons. “We can see who buys [the LP], and they told me, ‘Wow, Matt Groening bought a record,’” he says. “That was just shocking to me, that he even has any idea… So I wrote to him and said, ‘I heard you bought a record, and it made me happy, I’ve been a fan.’ He wrote back and said, ‘I loved your memoir and I’ve listened to your music for 30 years or something, and your show on HBO made me laugh.’ I was just like… Matt Groening?! It was like when Barry White recognised me. You go back-and-forth, thinking, ‘I am everywhere, I am a big deal, I am important,’ to, ‘I am absolutely nobody.’”

Lurie made the soundtrack specifically to listen to from beginning to end. “I know nobody does it anymore, so I’m an idiot, but I hope just for once, people listen to the whole thing,” he says. “My line is that if you listen to the whole thing uninterrupted, when you finish you’ll be a better person. It’s like ayahuasca, minus the trauma.”

When it comes to his Nine Songs picks, it was a task for such a passionate and album-orientated musician. “It took a lot of thinking and a lot of work,” he says, “and some song choices I had to leave out. One of the things that was hard for me was that it had to be one song and not a whole album, because there are three that are absolutely the whole album.”

“For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield

I was only 12 or 13 when I heard this. It was mostly just AM radio then, and most of the stuff they played was all very bubblegum. Then this song came on, and it was haunting and so different.

I was trying to find out what this song was. I didn’t know the name of it but they kept playing it on AM radio, which is really weird. So I went to the record store and called the local radio station, and said I’d like to get a 45 of this song that starts out, “There's something happening here,” and the chorus is, “Stop, hey, what’s that sound.” It took forever to find it. I think that’s the first record I ever bought, so that’s why I included it.

“Chain Of Fools” by Aretha Franklin

My father was sick and was dying, and it was just me and him in the living room and he was stuck in one place on oxygen. He hated the TV but the TV was on, and Aretha Franklin was on. I didn’t know who she was. This thing came over me: I was moved, I got chills, and I thought I was going to start crying. I didn’t understand what was happening to me. I had to hide it from my dad because I was embarrassed. That was the first time that music really threw me across the room and baffled me. It was like someone had put LSD in my coffee or something.

It was at this college, and at the end when she finished, all the kids jumped up in unison and roared like you’ve never seen. My dad said this thing, and it didn’t strike me at the time, but years later it did. He said, “I can see that they’re really moved by it, and I think it’s real, but I don’t feel it.” So, instead of saying, “Kids, your music sucks, you should be listening to Bach, Stravinsky or Duke Ellington,” he was saddened by the idea that evolution had left him behind – that he couldn’t hear what they were hearing. I appreciated him so much in later years for that.

I wonder if you listened to some music on TikTok, you might have the same reaction!

Well, I have a painting called Kind reminder, kids, your music sucks.

“I Want You To Love Me” by Muddy Waters ft. Little Walter

My brother got a harmonica for his birthday, which I kind of stole. We became obsessed with Little Walter. He turned this simple, limited, country instrument into something unbelievable. If he’d been a saxophone player he’d have been Charlie Parker.

We did this thing on the last Lounge Lizards record called “Three Crowns of Wood”. We did it live in the studio, and when my brother heard the opening line he would get chills – he would show me the bumps on his arm. But I had made a mistake. I had jumped ahead by half a beat on the line, so I wanted to re-record my thing there. So I would send my brother out of the room and I would record it and listen back, and we would look at his arm to check if the goosebumps came back or not, and they did! So we decided it was the goosebumps test.

This song I picked – and it has to be the version with Little Walter from the Sail On album – I got those same chills from the harmonica solo many times.

“Out to Lunch” by Eric Dolphy

Eric Dolphy died really young, and I think if jazz had gone in that direction instead, it would’ve just been wonderful. Because it’s not this indulgent shit, where everyone is going, “rah-diddly-rah!” You’ve got Eric Dolphy, Richard Davis and Tony Williams, I mean it’s just beautiful, but not blaring and wild – it’s musical. Listen to the whole record.

And Tony Williams was only 18 when he recorded this, which is mind-blowing!

We were once on the same bill as him at a festival when he was playing with Freddie Hubbard, so they played right before. Freddie Hubbard was furious with Tony Williams because he just took up so much space. When you get that kind of adoring following when you’re 18, it can ruin you.

“Brilliant Corners” by Thelonious Monk

The reason I picked this was really a traumatic thing for me for a long time. The first year the Lounge Lizards were together, we were punks when we started in ‘78 or ‘79, and Anton Fier was really the stricter, more disciplined of the early days. He was the drill sergeant. We’d already done [Thelonius Monk covers] “Well You Needn’t” and “Epistrophy” and we’d done a nice job of making original versions in our punk way of those songs. And he said, “Let’s do ‘Brilliant Corners’.”

The melody is very simple, except they go into, like, quadruple time. There’s this phrase, and I couldn’t do it! To play it all the way through – I kept fucking up. I worked on it and worked on it, and I hardly ever fail on something like this once I set my mind to it, but I never got it. I never fucking got it. It bothered me for years! So much that at one point, for no reason at all, I made a confession on Facebook that I could never play “Brilliant Corners” up-tempo. Then somebody sent me this thing from a book saying “Sonny Rollins couldn’t do it! They had to stop the recording session and have him do it in pieces.” I still feel bad that I never got it, but I feel less bad if Sonny Rollins couldn’t do it.

“Tum Ek Gorakhdhanda Ho” by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

My brother Evan told me there was this musician we should see playing at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music), and I trust his judgement on this stuff. BAM is very uptight, you know, well-dressed people who pay for their culture by season. There’s these nine guys with moustaches sitting on the stage with a harmonium, just sort of meandering. They’re barely singing, it’s just like they’re mumbling. After about 20 minutes of it I look at Evan, like, “What the fuck did you bring me to?” It keeps going and becomes more musical and more moving, and you sort of get hypnotised by it. By the end Nusrat’s doing those lines, and I was so moved, I yelled, “WHAT THE FUCK?!

At other stages people are smashing their heads against the stage. I mean, people just go into a thing, and you can see why. But I saw it with the bourgeois crowd: the BAM subscription people. I saw him again a few years later in Central Park, and a leaf fell out of a tree and was floating down through the sky. I looked up at it and had that thing – kinda like when you take a psychedelic and something strikes you about life, and of course, it all makes sense yet doesn’t make any sense at all. It was like that. I just sat there laughing. To see him live was just unbelievable. And I’m sure he’s not singing about how his girlfriend left him, he’s singing about… it’s a Sufi thing I think, right?

Yeah, the original poem's words are about theological debates and paradoxes, free will versus determinism, etc.

Yeah, you can feel that that’s what it’s going to be about, you don’t even need to understand the words. It’s like the first time I saw Martin Luther King. It wasn’t just the words, you can feel what it is. Talk about getting the chills from something.

“Original Sufferhead” by Fela Kuti

I didn’t choose this for political reasons. I mean, they threw his mother out the window, but it wasn’t because of that, I didn’t learn that stuff til years later. On maybe our second or third Lounge Lizards tour, our promoter was Martin Meissonnier who also did Fela. We had a bus with a video player, which at the time was an unusual thing, and all these tapes of Fela playing live. What really struck me and changed my music was that you can feel that it is noble. What we were doing, especially in 1979 and ‘80, was just such wise-guy shit. So it changed me, it was like, “You have to try and get to a more noble place in your music.”

From the same album, “Colonial Mentality” where the women are singing - it’s been stuck in my head for a month. It’s just like, how do you write a melody for vocals like that?

“Yala” by Oumou Sangaré

People should know about her, she’s just amazing. I was really depressed and we were on tour in some small place in Germany… Bremen or Ravensburg or somewhere. I was walking around and I ran into Michael Blake, who had headphones on. I asked him what he was listening to, and it was some Sangaré song. I put his headphones on and it just transformed this small town in Germany into a delightful place, listening to that music and looking at the guy packing up newspapers – it just changed the scene entirely. It didn’t matter.

In Mali, there was a time when Islamist militants weren’t allowing music. They were cutting off musicians’ hands. To be from there and to play music, is… Yeah, she’s tough.

“Milonga del Ángel” by Astor Piazzolla

The whole of Piazzolla’s Tango: Zero Hour album is just amazing. It’s the same as the Eric Dolphy record. When great musicians play and it falls somewhere between the line – in this case it’s between tango and classical music – this is really serious, real beautiful music. It’s almost classical. But then, I don’t know if every note is written, it’s loose, but I’m not sure.

It’s from a great album that, musically, is just unbelievable. This is the super romantic song that everyone gets and is moved by. But it’s the whole record. Astor Piazzolla deeply moves me and is for real, I think.

Music from the series Painting With John is out now on Strange & Beautiful Music via Royal Potato Family. Find John Lurie on Instagram.

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