JOHN LURIE INTERVIEWED BY JEFFREY GOLDSMITH BACK IN THE DAYS OF FISHING WITH JOHN
John Lurie has been out of sight for a while.
As the leader of the Lounge Lizards, and now the John Lurie National Orchestra, he blows a mean sax, as featured in Jim Jarmusch’s little known first feature, Permanent Vacation.
Then Stranger than Paradise brought John quasi-stardom. Down by Law, and parts in The Last Temptation of Christ and Wild at Heart, followed.
I’ve heard rumors about his absence from the media, and now John orders a gimlet, I, a beer. We light our cigarettes and I start recording.
JG: Some might say you’re an underground figure. What do you think about that, being underground?
JL: There is no more underground, is there? In the East Village you used to be able to stand on the corner of 6th Street and 2nd Avenue. When we got back from tour we’d go and stand on that corner and run into everybody we knew in a couple of hours. Things were happening. I met Jim Jarmusch on the corner of 4th Street and 2nd Avenue and smoked hash until 7 o’clock in the morning.
JL: ’79. ’80. ’81. And then yuppyism. Then suddenly everybody in New York either became a real estate agent or a bum. You used to be able to live here and not be wealthy. Now you can’t.
JG: Back in 1974, where did you get the idea and how did you prove you were psychologically unable to work?
JL: At the time I thought it was a scam and now looking back at my behavior I don’t know whether it was a scam or not. I just thought, “What if you’re nuts and not in a mental hospital, maybe they could have some kind of thing?”
JG: Where did you go?
JL: I went to some social worker and played up all my weirdest idiosyncrasies with this woman, talked to her several times over about a month and she recommended me for it. And then they call you in once a year.
JG: How long did you live off of that?
JL: Four years. That’s how I learned to play the saxophone and I didn’t have to deliver pizzas or something.
JG: Do you think the fact that you’re self taught has made you original?
JL: Completely. Jazz these days is just this weird encyclopedia of licks. Nobody’s doing anything that’s coming out of them and I know what I’m doing is coming out of me. Dave Tranzo, with the Lounge Lizards, unbelievable slide guitar player, you never heard anything like it, he’s going to give up music.
JG: What? Why?
JL: JL: You just can’t get anywhere. Calvin [Weston], the drummer, he was cleaning office buildings in Philadelphia, just lost his job. He played with Ornette Corman, he played with Blood Ulmer. He’s such a monster as a player that everybody’s terrified to play with him. It’s like unless you really, completely throw out creativity, unless you completely conform, you’re out of it.
JG: Is this why you set up your own distribution with 1-800-44-CHUNK?
JL: Well, yeah, and I’ll never know if that made any money or not. There were some very embezzly things going on…
…and John turns off my microcassette recorder to tell me what’s been going on, off the record. Basically, it was a mess, a recurrent theme in John’s business-life, but try that number if you’re interested.
JG: Subject change. Why do you like fishing?
JL: Fishing is great because you like those places and then it gives you an excuse to be there. You actually think you’re doing something, except sometimes you get a little bit too concerned with catching fish. It detracts from the overall experience.
JG: That’s very Buddhist. Eliminate desire, gain happiness.
JL: The whole thing about fishing should be completely Zen, but I remember when I was 12 and trying to untangle the line because some big, giant fish is jumping 20 feet away. Fishing can be completely aggravating and I hate that part.
JG: Who did you go fishing with the first time?
JL: My dad. We caught sunfish off a dock. Itaska Park in Minnesota somewhere. I used to like fishing. And then I didn’t fish for a long time. And then me and Willem [Dafoe] went fishing in a canoe in Maine. We caught mackerel. Tons of them. Willem cooked them right on the shore.
JG: Besides Maine, what’s a favorite place to go?
JL: It was fun doing the sharks in Montauk with Jim [Jarmusch].
JG: I liked the part in Fishing with John when Jim said you were each going to come back with one arm.
JL: I think Jim was quite frightened. The first time I went I was frightened.
JG: Now, why hasn’t Fishing with John been released?
JL: The Japanese company has gone bankrupt.
JG: And the German film, The Lounge Lizards Live in Berlin?
JL: That’s part of the same…
… “ugly” legal quagmire. Contracts are signed without John’s knowledge which screw up two major projects. Live in Berlin, a concert film and soundtrack recording, unreleased due to court injunction. Fishing with John, a half hour television show, six episodes of which were produced by the defunct Telecom Japan. The antics of guests Jim Jarmusch, Tom Waits, Willem Dafoe, Dennis Hopper, and Matt Dillon are on pause.
JL: …and that’s the really abbreviated version. Everything I did for the last two years is in a mess.
JG: How do you deal with these kind of setbacks?
JL: Well, in September I weighed 148 pounds.
JG: How much do you weigh now?
JG: On to the new deal. Men with Sticks by the John Lurie National Orchestra recently came out in Europe on Crammed Disk. How did it happen?
JL: We got together to work on some new stuff for the Lounge Lizards. Billy Martin’s got a place in Brooklyn and the first day was kind of awkward, really jammy. The next day we just fell into this thing.
JG: The sound seems to be a purification of the Lounge Lizards. Did you consciously boil it down?
JL: No, no. It’s so open, it can go anywhere. The problem is we had a couple of gigs that sounded incredibly indulgent and when you don’t have the energy it doesn’t work. I went on tour with this in October and November, but it was right after all this [legal] shit had happened. I felt like a phoney standing on stage. I felt like I had nothing to say anymore and I cancelled the tour for the summer.
JG: I came across the idea of structure vs. playfulness in reference to your music. Tell me about that.
JL: With the Lounge Lizards, I’m always in the situation that I’m conducting. And with this, that’s the whole deal. You have a structure overall, but there’re big, gaping holes in what can happen and they can go anywhere. Most of these musicians all have something you really don’t want to hear, a certain thing they studied too much in college, and so you try to move them off. Most of the guys are always too jazzy. Boo be di be doo be dee. Boo be di be doo be dee. You make the guitar player play with a paper clip between his strings.
JG: That’s John Cage. The prepared piano sonatas.
JL: I listened to those. He catches everyone’s attention with that, but really musically it’s so…..!
JG: I figured you had listened to Cage. Why do you think your music is more popular in Europe?
JL: Nobody knows about anything good that’s happening in America. What music do people know about?
JL: They only know pop, and the most sanitized jazz, the most stinky stuff. To me, the best people who are playing right now, Piazzola just died, but in the last five years, Piazzola and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who’s this Pakistani singer. In Europe, everybody knows who they are, and here, nobody knows. You can’t hear it. It’s out of the question.
JG: Do you think the music companies have anything to do with this?
JL: They control the airwaves. I don’t have a record deal. And my contention is, if Jimi Hendrix was alive today and trying to get a deal, he wouldn’t be able to.
JG: Is Jimi Hendrix an influence?
JL: Completely. Just the color in the music. Just the liquidness of it. You’re never going to be able to write this, but all this wadawadawada. He’s barring, like in Little Wing, and he’s doing all these flutters. And it dissipates in several directions in the same time. I just love that.
JG: When Jimi Hendrix died, he was in debt to the record companies, wasn’t he?
JL: He was in debt because he built Electric Ladyland and he had to keep touring to support it. He was in over his head, business-wise. Maybe it’s always like this. Like this mess that I’m in. Maybe I should throw it out the window and just completely become this autistic artist and continue.
JG: Maybe you should. You were once quoted as calling your stuff “primal music from New York.” Is this still valid?
JL: Last Saturday it was still valid, don’t you think?
JG: Personally, I think so, but what is primal music?
JL: What I’m mostly interested in is tribal stuff without formula, stuff that doesn’t go by marketing. I mean, this is automatically true, but all the stuff I listen to is Pygmies, Gnawa Music, African stuff, Tibetan stuff.
JG: How about Gamelan?
JL: I was in Bali, but that music is not more than 80 or 90 years old, but what’s amazing about those prepared piano pieces by Cage is that they sound very similar to Gamelan. I don’t know if Cage heard it, or if there was some kind of synchronicity, which is the same thing.
JG: Well, there’s the true story about the monkeys that always ate dirty roots on these two islands a thousand miles apart. One day, a monkey runs down to the sea and cleans his root and the next day on the other island a thousand miles away another monkey does the same thing and pretty soon all the monkeys on both islands are cleaning their roots.
JL: Well, what is that?
JG: That’s God. Did you try the mushrooms in Bali?
JL: No. I tried to buy opium, but I bought a fig wrapped up in plastic.
JG: Must have been delicious. You’ve been to Morocco, too?
JL: That’s where the Gnawa stuff comes from. I did The Last Temptation of Christ there.
JG: You wanted a role in that for a long time. Why?
JL: ‘Cause Scorsese I thought was so great, and I liked the book. The book is amazing. The whole situation in Morocco was just weird.
JG: Where were you exactly?
JL: Marakesh. Ever been there?
JG: No, I was in Chechaouen mostly. Tell me about a story about Marakesh.
JL: I was with Willem and there was this Theater of Cruelty thing. Not exactly, but all these people were doing weird little things to get money. One guy’s sticking a sword through his stomach or I don’t know what. One guy just pours tea on the ground or I don’t know what. There are three guys and two of them are hitting this other guy, they’ve got him on a leash and it’s like Waiting for Godot meets Antonin Artaud or something. It seems like they’re whacking the shit out of this guy. Sony had given me this camera and I would get to keep the camera if I made a five minute video for them. So I wanted to go shoot these guys ’cause it was completely disturbing, but it turned out to be really phoney. When you got closer you saw they were actually hitting him with something that was made out of foam rubber. It wasn’t a real stick. It was actually really bad theater. I went and gave them money so I could film it and then suddenly all these people were bothering me for money. Me and Willem started to walk away and as we were, this little girl kept pulling on my sleeve. “Give me money. Give me money.” I had given her money already, but she wanted more. She wanted me to buy something and she kept pulling on my sleeve. Finally I stopped and I grabbed her by the shoulders and I said, “Stop it,” in French. And it was like the whole, fucking souk – this thing of like a hundred yards square – everybody just froze. It was like I had crossed some kind of weird line. I had reached out and touched this girl in a kind of aggressive way and everybody just froze and stared at me. It was ooowaaah!
JG: Speaking of strange, why do you think people are stuck with an image of you as a stranger in paradise?
JL: That’s unfortunate if they are. There was a full page picture of Stranger than Paradise in the Village Voice today. It’s like, “God, I might as well die.”
JG: I heard Jim Jarmusch cut part of your performance in Down by Law, a part you loved. What did he cut?
JL: There was a script for Down by Law and I said, “Jim, this is the same character as Stranger than Paradise.” And he said, “Well, make yourself some new scenes.” And it was the best acting I’d ever done and then Jim, basically, as he was editing, cut them all out, one at a time. It was iffy about who did what on Stranger. It was his movie, it was his right to do what he wanted, but to me it was incredibly painful.
JG: What do you mean, “who did what on Stranger” Who wrote the line, “You got all this stuff without money?”
JL: Now that, that was Jim’s. It wasn’t the normal situation – you go in, there’s the script, everybody knows what their job is – but it was more blended together in a nice artistic way. Then the world took it to see Jim as this auteur and me as this beast he let out of a box once a year.
JG: An old friend of mine was outside Lincoln Center this past horrible winter, trying to hail a cab and, lo and behold, John Lurie catches one, opens the door and turns it over to her. Why?
JL: I remember this. They were trying to decide whether they were taking a cab or not. And then, I came up behind them and it was really their cab. Why didn’t I just take it, you mean? Well, I’m actually a nice guy.
JL: But I guess I don’t want people to know that. Well, let’s get out of here.
So I throw a bill on the table and we go out and John buys some Camel straights, takes one and gives me the pack. We light up and walk down 8th Avenue towards his apartment.
Outside his gate, I give him back the tapes of the Tom Waits and Jim Jarmusch episodes of Fishing with John, but wonder if I’ll ever see them again.
I shake his hand at his front steps, then walk away wondering if this conversation took place not in a bar, but in a propeller-powered airplane, stalled in the sky. I wonder if all of these questions and answers were mere gropings at flight controls neither John nor I will ever truly understand.
The Scream of Calvin Weston
by Jeffrey Goldsmith
JG: I was really amazed at the screaming you did the other night at the Thread Waxing Space.
CW: The screaming at the gig, I just hollered out all of my kids names and every name that I howled out was a different emotion. It came from my heart. When I got off stage and went to the back, I was just full of tears. I’m sorry if I sound really bummed out, but I’m really bummed out. I don’t know if this is much of an interview, ’cause I’m so fucked up.
JG: Everybody’s rooting for you. I am, anyway.
CW: Well, I’m glad to hear that and I’m rooting for myself just to try to keep strength. It’s hard, man. It’s really fucking hard.