John Lurie: Out of Sight

Sunday, August 22, 2010

johnlurie-red I haven’t seen John Lurie in years. There’s nothing out of the ordinary about that, as I’m out of touch with so many people I knew in the 80s. But when I read Tad Friend’s article in the August 16 & 23 New Yorker (subscription required), I realized almost no one has seen him lately: he has been in hiding since 2008. I could get into why that is so, but it’s such a good story that I can’t do it justice here. I recommend that you read it.

As the many dozens of people who read this blog know, I write about people that I’ve had personal contacts with—however fleeting. And therefore I have a bone to pick with Friend’s description of Lurie from the time I knew him, which started during the release of “Stranger Than Paradise” in 1984 and continued for a few years after. Here’ s how Friend describes the John Lurie of those days:

From 1984 to 1989, everyone in downtown New York wanted to be John Lurie. Or sleep with him. Or punch him in the face. Lurie, the star of the Jim Jarmusch films “Stranger Than Paradise” and “Down by Law” and the saxophone-playing leader of the jazz-punk group the Lounge Lizards, was intensely charismatic… He was young and cocksure and he wouldn’t truckle. Between Fourteenth Street and Canal—the known universe, basically—he was the man.

I would revise this slightly. “From 1984 to 1989, everyone who was in downtown New York knows the previous paragraph to be utter bullshit.” I mean, Friend is a wonderful writer and all, but he is around ten years younger than Lurie, and not to mention Jarmusch, Ann Magnuson, Kathleen Bigelow, Richard Edson, Richard Hell, Beth B, Lydia Lunch, Amos Poe and just about everybody else from those days, including me. This just wasn’t a time when anybody would say “he was the man,” let alone think it. Maybe young Tad Friend was lurking around the Mudd Club, and maybe there are people now who say that John was the man, but I doubt it.  Not that he wasn’t talented or good looking or anything. It just wasn’t that kind of culture.

And thank god John wasn’t an arrogant schmuck like that. What was endearing about John in those days was his vulnerability, his insecurity about the way people perceived him. I remember a Voice feature story that was written about John during the “Stranger Than Paradise” days. The writer said John had a propensity to pull a fish face all the time. He was really pissed off about that. What nerve saying he pulled fish faces, like he was some kind of poseur! It was just what came naturally to him. It was weird for John to realize that fame, even the modest fame that was starting to get, can have its drawbacks. People start picking away at things that are second nature to you, even the way you move your face.

John was something of a kvetcher, wondering whether he got his due. In his opinion, he was the author of “Stranger Than Paradise,” not Jim. Here was his argument: “Stranger” started out as a series of improvisations, which Jim would watch and take notes. In his opinion all his lines were invented by him. I said, “First of all, what you’re saying is nuts. There is so much more to writing a script than a few lines. But for the sake of argument, let’s say that Jim copied down a lot of things you said. But what would you have been doing that day when you did those improvs? Jim made it all happen. He got the money, made a brilliant movie and now you and your band are getting publicity, and you’re getting paid for the soundtrack.” John bought my argument and that was it. So John would definitely truckle if a situation was truckle-worthy.  He didn’t get in arguments for no reason.  (By the way I had to look up truckle in the dictionary. I learn something new every day.)

The last time I saw John was years later when I ran into him at a huge party for a Miramax movie. We were talking about the old days, when uber-publicist Peggy Siegel hurtled into our conversation, in breathless pursuit of a  photo op.

“Are you famous?” she asked John.