First, some music to listen to while you read:
A little background: I’ve never seen John Lurie performing live music, and I probably never will (sadly). When I heard he was coming to the Coolidge Corner movie theater to present some episodes of his television show, “Fishing with John,” I figured it was the closest I would ever get, and bought a ticket. “Fishing with John” was actually my first exposure to Lurie’s work. I watched the first episode at my brother’s house in 1999 or so, and later rented the rest of the episodes from the local video store (remember those?) and watched them with a friend. We loved it, and when I got a DVD player, I bought the DVDs with director’s commentary. I also saw him in a couple of films, and someone gave me a copy of his “Marvin Pontiac” album a year or two later.
Amazingly, at that point I had still never heard the Lounge Lizards – I didn’t get into jazz until a few years later. I have a few of their albums now, but I am by no means an expert on their work – I tend to be so focused on live music that I kind of forget about people who aren’t actively touring and making music (feel free to excoriate me in the comments!). But every time I hear them I think “DAMN, why don’t I have more of their albums – this is fantastic!”
Anyway, I showed up to the Coolidge Corner Theatre not really knowing what to expect. For the last ten years there have been a lot of odd things going on with Lurie’s career – most notably, he completely stopped playing music due to a chronic illness. For a while it seemed as though he was completely off the radar, and then he popped up again as a painter in the mid-2000s. (You can see some of his work here.) In a rather bizarre turn of events, one of his paintings turned into an extremely widespread meme in Russia (“Preved Medved”). And in an even more bizarre turn of events, the New Yorker ran a long profile about him recently which painted a very strange portrait of him that made him sound paranoid and crazy. (From what I’ve heard, that article was basically a work of fiction that upset virtually every human being mentioned or quoted in it. Great job, New Yorker…)
The man I saw at the Coolidge was a surprise mainly because… well, because there was no surprise. He seemed like his old self, very much the same guy we’d just watched in 90 minutes of “Fishing with John.” Smart, charismatic, and very funny. He answered audience questions for a good forty minutes or so. Some questions were about the film we’d just seen, but many of them were general questions about him and his career. (I still can’t decide if “What do you have against cheese-on-cheese crackers?” was my least or most favorite audience question of the night…)
The most important part for me was when someone asked him how painting compared to music, and his answer was unintentionally heartbreaking – it sounds like music is still his greatest passion and he would like nothing better than to be playing his saxophone again and playing with his band. I recorded a little with my camera – not to capture video, but just to have the audio to listen back later… this is as close as I can get with a transcription:
Lurie: You know, I’ve got advanced Lyme Disease, so I couldn’t play music any more, I was just stuck in my apartment for years… and I was painting, it just sort of started as something to do rather than watch ‘Law & Order.’ And I never expected it to hit that thing that the music does, which I can’t – it’s kind of like where your soul becomes actualized into this realm or something… I NEVER expected that, but it DID, it started to happen with the painting about four or five years ago. It was lucky for me, I didn’t think that would happen.
Audience member: Now does [painting] sort of… scratch the same itch [as music], or is it different?
Lurie: There’s something about the music, where you are – you’re on stage in front of these people who seem to like you, and you’re with the guys, and you’ve been traveling and it’s been hell, and you’re on stage, and you’ve been playing for two weeks… and the music starts to lock together. And you’re like, hovering off the ground, and you’ve got goosebumps, and you visit God’s house for a little while. And you know, nothing else does that.
I also really enjoyed his answer to someone who asked why the saxophone was his instrument of choice:
I played harmonica first, and then the guitar, and then… this crazy guy gave me a saxophone in the middle of the night. I mean, for real – I was sixteen and I was in Worcester, Massachusetts, and my father had just died. And if I didn’t go to college I was going to have to go to Vietnam. And I had just… I thought I was a great harmonica player. And this Babe Pino – do you guys know who Babe Pino is? Babe Pino was the big deal harmonica player, and Michael Avery – who I knew – played drums. And they came to Worcester, where I lived, to play. I sat in with them, and I embarrassed myself. I was completely despondent… so I was walking around Worcester, Massachusetts at four o’clock in the morning. And I met this crazy guy with a wheelbarrow full of dirt – who gave me a saxophone. And I felt like – well, if there’s anything that’s a message from God, it was this. For real, that’s really how I started playing the saxophone.
There were a lot more good questions and answers of varying seriousness, everything from childhood Little League stories to audience polls about peanut butter crackers. I won’t hold out hope for a miracle and/or a Lounge Lizards tour, but I sincerely wish the best to Mr. Lurie and hope he can recover as much of his health as possible. I’m grateful for this rare appearance here in Boston. All the best!
And with that, I’ll just end this and leave you with another song. This one is from his fabulous and strange Marvin Pontiac album: