A Guide to the Music of John Lurie

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The actor, visual artist, and star of Painting With John has lived many creative lives. Here, we highlight his underrated work as a saxophonist and composer.

LONDON  MAY 10  Sax player John Lurie of the 'Fake Jazz' combo The Lounge Lizards perform onstage at the Soho Theatre on...
John Lurie performing with his band the Lounge Lizards in 1981. (Photo by David Corio/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images)

On his new HBO show Painting With John, John Lurie creates intricate watercolors from his house in the Caribbean while telling star-studded stories from his previous life as a downtown New York icon. Like how he once did cocaine for three hours in a nightclub broom closet with Rick James. Or the time he met Barry White: Lurie recalls being shocked to learn that the R&B legend was a fan of his band the Lounge Lizards—but he was even more amazed to discover that the singer’s robust speaking voice made his testicles vibrate. Lurie rarely talks about his own music in the show, but it’s still a driving force: Every song in its soundtrack is one of his own.

After years spent obsessing over the harmonica in his youth, Lurie taught himself saxophone and formed the Lounge Lizards with his brother Evan in 1978. The self-described “fake-jazz” group sprouted from New York’s punk and No Wave scenes, and was propelled by discordant ferocity. In between records, Lurie worked as an actor, most famously in Jim Jarmusch’s early films Stranger Than Paradise and Down by Law. In the ’80s, he navigated the same slice of lower Manhattan as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Richard Hell, Patti Smith, and Debbie Harry.

The Lounge Lizards in 1981. (Photo by David Corio/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images)

Lurie released four studio albums with the Lounge Lizards, each growing in sophistication and cohesion. His solo work is largely relegated to film music, some of it famous (his score for the 1995 mob comedy Get Shorty was nominated for a Grammy), and some obscure (African Swim, Manny & Lo). In the late ’90s he released an album of “greatest hits” by Marvin Pontiac—a mysterious blues man admired by the likes of David Bowie and Leonard Cohen. But Marvin Pontiac didn’t exist. It was Lurie all along. Listening to his work chronologically exposes Lurie’s increasing interest in Afro-jazz, untraditional time signatures, and a more polished approach to melody throughout the years.

Lurie began experiencing symptoms from Lyme disease around 2000. The illness redefined his relationship with certain creative outlets, and the energy he once poured into playing saxophone is no longer available to him. In recent years he’s mentioned that he can play the harmonica and guitar but he’s still too afraid to pick up his sax.

Lurie circa 1985. (Photo by John van Hasselt/Sygma via Getty Images)

 

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