Making Me Understand: John Lurie

I’m starting a recurring feature (since I think I’ve posted enough in this blog to do that now) called Making Me Understand. Ruminations from inside my illness about art (any form) that has taken on new contours for me as I struggle with disease. I already posted one earlier this month, a quickie on a Frank O’Hara poem. This one may run long, though, because there are some odd coincidences in it. Go grab a coffee. A cookie, too. Relax.

When I think back to how the name John Lurie first entered my consciousness, it takes me back to a place I’ve been spending a lot of time in in my head lately – college. I attended a very large state land grant university, and lived in a brand-new foreign language dorm where we each signed a contract vowing to speak our chosen language as much of the time as possible. Italian was mine.

It was awkward and difficult at first – the native speaker who lived with us was getting a Ph.D. in Math, her English was atrocious, and none of us were all that fluent. But we were committed. I cheerfully answered the phone for four years, “Pronto?”

One of my roommates, M, had taken a gap year between high school and college, and went off to be an exchange student. She had taken Spanish and expected to go to Spain. She was sent to Sardinia instead. She was in a tiny town where the old ladies continually told her what a shame it was, she was such a nice girl, but as a Jew she was going to burn in hell. (Forgive me, M, if I paraphrase incorrectly.) She had many adventures. I envied her – but also maybe not, because it sounded like a hell of a place.

M told us one night about a movie she’d seen while in Sardinia. It was called Daunbailò. “What?!” It didn’t make any sort of sense, like most Italian translations of American film titles. I’d eventually go to see My Own Private Idaho while studying in Florence – dubbed of course. It was rechristened Belli e dannati (The Beautiful and the Damned).

It turned out to be a film title that didn’t make much more sense in English: Down By Law. And that was how I found out about Jim Jarmusch, and that Tom Waits and John Lurie and Roberto Benigni (one of whose later works I maligned here the other week) all went to Louisiana and made one of the best prison break movies I’ve ever seen. And watched obsessively, again and again, until I practically knew all of the dialogue. I’ve only ever reached that level of obsession with one other movie, Rear Window. Here, a representative and most favorite scene of mine:

And yes, I’ll confess I found John had that lanky attractiveness that I eventually also found in my foxy and very tall husband, J.

I have to say at this point that I feel a little weird writing this post, because John will probably see it. I asked him a couple weeks ago if it would be OK to use some images from his artwork and write this tribute. He was fine with it. I hope this turns out OK, John. Let me know.

About four years ago (Facebook tells me), I one day got a friend request from John himself. I was gobsmacked. How the hell did he know about me? The Facebook interface has changed a million times since then, but I have a hunch.

My “About” section on Facebook has a few choice quotes. And one of them comes from John:

“I am writing this real slow, because I know you read real slow.” – John Lurie

I’d seen that quote at an art show of John’s work in Chelsea, at the Fredericks and Freiser gallery. I see now from the website that was his first show there. It was my first exposure to his visual artwork.

After discovering his work in Jarmusch films, I became aware in the 90s of John’s music (which featured on many soundtracks) and eventually bought a few albums by the downtown so-called “fake jazz” outfit he fronted, The Lounge Lizards. His brother Evan Lurie was also a member, and there was a revolving cast of the biggest names in the downtown jazz scene cycling through. There is apparently some debate about the term “fake jazz” – what the Lounge Lizards were playing was in fact straight up jazz, and yet there was something about it that spoke to me, a lifelong jazz ignoramus, beyond the little bit of Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald we’d had in my house, to play in between symphonies and string quartets. It also gave me some early common ground (and cred) with my boyfriend-now-husband J, who is an unbelievable jazz buff. The incredibly rich orchestration of the Lounge Lizards’ work, and John’s occasional spoken word digressions, which were usually hilarious, drew me in. I dug this music.

Here’s an excellent entry point to their work, the music video for “Big Heart,” filmed, and directed by John, in Sardinia:

The wild, berobed folkdancing!  The band travelogue segments! A swim meet! All with this exuberant groove in the background. “Big Heart” makes your heart bigger. (But not in a medically dangerous kind of way.)

One of my favorite spoken word segments from the Lounge Lizards’ oeuvre is this track from their beautiful, final album, Queen of All Ears:

“The yak is sick! The yak is sick! The yak is burning up with fever!” (Have I played this for the kids yet? I think they are old enough to find it hilarious. Note to self: Soon.)

There is much more terrain to explore musically. I’m not a music writer. I do love music with every fiber of my DNA, but I also get a little tongue-tied when trying to explain what it means in a more global way. I don’t have the detachment of a critic, I have the geeky zeal of a fan.

I got to see the Lounge Lizards exactly twice. Once was in June 1998, I believe, at the Bowery Ballroom. I’d moved to New York City that February, but that show made me feel like I’d gotten my official citizenship. On the subway ride down to the show, I overheard some Israeli guys talking about me on the train in Hebrew. They were saying how good-looking I was. That never happens to me! But it was that kind of night. I even had a brief dialogue with John, who asked us (the audience, not ME) how we were doing, so I yelled back, “HOW ARE YOU?” And he complained from onstage that he wasn’t so good, because his suit didn’t fit right.

I also happened to be a very avid amateur modern dancer when I moved to NYC. Every Saturday morning I took the train 45 minutes downtown to Noho, to the Jose Limón studio (sadly now gone). It was at the top of a building. I have no idea how I figured this out, but I became aware that John had an office in the building and was always hoping to run into him to say hi. One Saturday after class, I was on the pay phone in the lobby, and saw him saunter past on the way to the elevator. I interrupted my friend to yell after him, “JOHN, I’M A HUGE FAN!!” I heard the elevator doors closing as he said, “Awwww, thanks.”

In case you didn’t know it, John also produced a miniseries of fishing encounters with famous people, some of whom he was friends with, and some not. It was called Fishing with John, and it was hilarious. You can find some of it on YouTube if you want. But only if you like to laugh. If you don’t like to laugh you shouldn’t be here, anyway.

The second and last time I got to see the Lounge Lizards assembled onstage was at a 20th anniversary show at the Knitting Factory, in November 1999. (Oh look! I found it on MTV News!) It was another transformative experience. I have never done drugs (well, not until I got cancer and had few other choices), but this show was like a drug to me. It was much closer in and sweatier than the show at the Bowery, but every bit as great.

John later put out some recordings with The John Lurie National Orchestra, and then a recording under the moniker Marvin Pontiac.

I’ve never actually had a conversation with John face to face. I passed him once and said hi when he was up at Columbia University, to give a lecture on his artwork (I’m getting to that, wait for it). We’ve traded a few messages on Facebook.

Since he started drawing and painting, I’ve felt much closer to him. His artwork reveals truths through brushstrokes, blotches that look like stains (but intentional), and always, always, titles to the works that are jaw-droppingly accurate or just funny as hell. I didn’t know an artist could draw you in to his work with humor, but that was definitely the hook for me here. J bought me a lovely coffee table book of John’s work for my birthday one year: A Fine Example of Art. Unfortunately we have small children and all of our lovely art books have been under house arrest in a closed cabinet for years. When the children leave or get too old to destroy spines of books, I will rediscover it.

I’ve created a slideshow of some of my favorite paintings of John’s. All images belong to him and are taken from his art website, John Lurie Art. The site used to say, “If you live in a home, you have to buy a print.” And I’d say, if you have $500.00 to spend on an limited-edition, very high quality art print, I would love it if you did. My parents were kind enough to buy us one last year, the first one, “Men Walking to Work Over Flowers,” when Mom discovered John’s art on Facebook and promptly fell in love with it too. We never get tired of looking at it. The boys love saying the title of it to people. They like knowing the name of an artwork.

I leave the thing that most compelled me to write this insanely long post until last. It is some very sad news indeed. John can no longer play the saxophone. He suffers from Advanced Lyme Disease. Advanced Lyme Disease is a disease that is still very poorly understood by the general public. A recent documentary, The Punk Singer, about another musician, Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill, who also suffers from Advanced Lyme Disease, revealed to me the unremitting crappiness of this disease. And how frustrating it is to have a disease that is so poorly understood and so often not even accepted as a legitimate malady.

My situation is different, but I face the same incomprehension – in my case, it has to do with the treatment I’m getting – immunotherapy – and the fact that no matter how upbeat I may sound on this blog and genuinely feel in person, there are some who will never stop looking at me with abject pity because the C word by necessity cancels out any good thought in their minds.

On September 9, 2014, I arrived at the cancer center to get the results of my most recent scan. I was confronted by spots on my lungs and swelling in my lymph nodes, blindsided by a metastasis I certainly hadn’t felt happening and could scarcely believe, which propelled me down the weirdest rabbit hole of my life.

On September 27, 2014, J and I were in third row seats at Town Hall, for the culminating event of a month-long tribute to John Lurie’s music and art. The evening was called The Music of John Lurie. It featured many of the musicians who’d played with him in the past, and his compositions from the Lounge Lizards, and some of his excellent soundtrack music. I’d messaged with John a couple weeks before to tell him I was excited for the event. It wasn’t clear if he’d be there.

Then the stage lights went off. A figure made its way to the front of the stage in darkness and sat in a chair. Then the lights came up. It was John. Older, looking larger than life (but who isn’t these days?). He played some harmonica – just like he did onstage with Canned Heat, when he was a teenager in 1968. And then, a bit later on, this happened.

For maximum chills pay attention around 2:02. I thought I might jump out of my skin at that particular moment. But jumping out of your skin doesn’t actually save you from metastatic melanoma. It was so good to see my friend John, being celebrated by an auditorium full of people who love what he does, in every art form. I wish him health and long life. And I’ll keep looking forward to transmissions from his universe.

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