New York. For the majority of established artists in the US today, reinventing oneself has not been something to aspire to. Those who do so are more often than not driven by sheer necessity, material or narcissistic, than by a truly, deeply felt inner need for artistic innovation. Often artists and performers see no need to change unless fearing irrelevancy or realizing that they'll inevitably go out of fashion. Think Madonna, Meryl Streep or Gerhard Richter, to name but a few contemporary examples.

- © John Lurie
© John Lurie

But there are also the others: Artists who change their ways for pure, deeply personal reasons; people whose lives and art have brought them to a point where they simply can’t keep on doing what they’ve been doing because their body or something deep within themselves simply refuses. They want – need – to do something else, for their art as much as for themselves. For some members of this tribe, reinvention can mean the road to oblivion. For others, of course, it can turn out to be a blessing.


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John Lurie Art
Strange and beautiful
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- © Credit: Ray Henders
© Credit: Ray Henders

John Lurie has reinvented himself several times over the course of his career, and not always voluntarily. But how he has been handling these changes, both good and bad (or choosing not to handle them, which is sometimes an even bigger challenge), deserves not only respect but downright admiration for his resilience as much as for his achievements.

- © John Lurie
© John Lurie

Having turned 61 in December, Lurie has assembled a body of work that spans nearly four decades and includes several careers rolled up into one truly extraordinary artistic life. His work, now of modest fame but indisputable global impact, began in the Downtown scene of New York City after first arriving there in 1974 and settling there for good four years later. Having first made a name for himself as a musician with his jazz ensemble The Lounge Lizards, Lurie, born in Minneapolis and raised in New Orleans and Worcester, Mass., went on to act in 19 movies, including such classics as Jim Jarmusch's "Stranger Than Paradise" (1984) and "Down by Law" (1986).

Following a few more stints on the big screen, in the Nineties Lurie went on to produce and direct six episodes of his own TV show, "Fishing with John", while continuing to put out a constant stream of new music; most notably, writing the first theme song of "Late Night with Conan O’Brien", composing numerous movie soundtracks – among them, a Grammy-nominated score for "Get Shorty" – and releasing the album "The Legendary Marvin Pontiac: Greatest Hits" in 1999, a "posthumous collection of the work of an African-Jewish musician", which turned out to be a fictional character he created. He seemed to be doing well in every regard.

By the end of the 1990's, however, things started to crumble. Due to a rare illness called Chronic Lyme Disease that he contracted around 2000 (putting an end to his musical work), as well as the turmoil caused by a former friend turned hardcore stalker (a strange and terrifying story that took up a considerable amount of space in a 2010 feature in the "New Yorker", in which Lurie felt grossly misportraited and misquoted, see also http://therumpus.net/2011/06/swinging-modern-sounds-30-what-is-and-is-not-masculine/), public appearances have become rare in recent years. With music and acting a thing of the past, he bounced back nevertheless, successfully reinventing himself as a painter. As John Lurie has declined to speak to journalists in person ever since being the "The New Yorker" story, this interview was conducted via e-mail.

Wiener Zeitung: What does the daily routine of the painter John Lurie look like nowadays?

John Lurie: First thing I do after brushing my teeth and stretching for a moment is look at the one or two paintings I was working on the night before. Then I go to the computer and see what horrors are waiting for me on there. Then I almost immediately go and work for about 20 minutes because I see things I had not seen the night before. Yet, this can be dangerous because my hands aren't so steady first thing, but one wants to get the things as you see them. My ability to see what should happen next comes and goes, so when I see it I want to do it right away. I paint on and off all day long. Sometimes for just a few minutes.

What is it that you want to see in a painting you finished?

That is hard to answer because it is more a feeling. It just kind of goes – AH – in your chest. There are ones that are ok, that I worked on for a while, that are good paintings, but they never hit the – AH. But once in a while, there is just that thing.

Ever since you’ve started out as a painter, your work is very consistent when it comes to style, materials used and subjects taken on. How much randomness is there in your work?

Really? To me it seems to jump all over the place and sometimes I wonder if I should try and make it more consistent. Randomness in working with oils and working in watercolor are very different. With watercolor, the random elements are usually the more beautiful. The way the water floats and joins the previous color almost always gives you something quite exquisite and that you could not have expected. In a way, your job is not to ruin what nature just gave you. The way I work is often like improvising in music. You have to make snap decisions based on intuition and your experience of what has happened before. I like working wet in oils but not everything works and some things you have to wait until they dry to add the next thing. I am not what people would call a patient man, so I usually work on several at a time, so some can be drying while I work on another. I was very lucky to have been in the desert and in Turkey during the summer when I did most of the oils, because they dried 20 times faster than they would have in a more normal climate.

How long do you think about a painting before actually starting with it? Do you think about it at all or do you just go with the flow and allow yourself to get carried away by the process?

I usually am compelled to start working by a combination of colors. So I start with that. There is nothing but the vaguest of ideas of anything else other than the colors. I will do that and then see what I have. I have had paintings that leaned against the wall for several years before it was clear to me what to do next or how to finish it.

How much do you consider yourself an American painter?

Until you asked that question I had never thought of the idea that I am an American painter. I suppose I am. I am American and I am a painter. In this sense I see that Norman Rockwell and I have something in common.

How much do you care about certain traditions in paintings? Who are the painters you consider important, perhaps even paragons?

You know, my mom taught art and I have been aware of stuff since I was a child. But I did not study the history of painting like I did with music. And the best thing my mom did was to – in all three of us (John Lurie has a brother, Evan, and a sister, Liz, annotation) – hold onto to that childlike thing that makes kids’ paintings so amazing. Somehow I still have that and I have it with confidence. But to answer your question – no, I don’t care about traditions in painting.

I care about Brueghel, not his figures but things like the corner of a table, a patch on the wall. Just the incredible beauty and detail in something so random. Cezanne – because in a bowl of fruit, he would just throw in a color that couldn't possibly make any sense; a blotch of purple in a peach, that makes no sense, that you don’t see unless you inspect it closely, but it does make sense, perfect beautiful sense.

Van Gogh, who did for painting what Jimi Hendrix did for the guitar, though I guess a little earlier. Jackson Pollock, because we think of the idea of how he painted them, but when you see one – a good one – you go: "Holy Shit, that is amazing, look at that, it is perfect."
I am a big fan of Schiele. I used to hate Klimt because I had only seen him in books but when I saw an exhibit – I think in Vienna, actually, like 30 years ago – it blew my mind. I like cave paintings. Manet, not his people or landscapes but those paintings where he just paints some asparagus or a fish on a dinner table – that stuff rocks me. Jean-Michel Basquiat was my close friend and we would paint together. All the time. Or sometimes he would paint while I practiced the saxophone. But every once in a while, if he wanted something to look fucked up, he would use his left hand. I loved that he did that. I wonder how art history will see that.

You’ve been suffering from Chronic Lyme disease for quite some time. How does the disease affect your painting – not necessarily the process, but the actual paintings themselves?

I was outside in a hotel parking lot when it was drizzling a couple of years ago. I get a lot of different kinds of visual disturbances because of the Lyme, but that night, because of the migraine aura, it was like I was in a moving Van Gogh painting.  There were halos around all the lights. It was quite beautiful but also quite horrible to be locked into this and there are physical sensations that go along with it that are painful. I read somewhere recently that they believe that Van Gogh had temporal lobe epilepsy. These kind of neurological abnormalities must certainly affect the paintings.

Would you ever have stopped making music if it wasn’t for your disease?

I doubt it.

I’ve been watching a video of a discussion you participated in in November 2012, in which you say that "I don’t have this showbusiness thing together"; something which is obviously a bad thing in terms of making money, but not necessarily when it comes to artistic worth, as art and the art world are two different universes. How do you deal with the ways and means of the latter?

Of course I want the work to be recognized and of course I want money. But I can’t let it affect me or the work. I want to keep working in the purest sense, so I am very cautious about getting too close to an art world that often seems to have an agenda promoting snobbery for snobbery's sake.

Does posterity matter to you in any way? Or don’t you give a damn what the world is going to think about your work after you’re dead?

Posterity as a concept is somewhat in question, isn't it?  Is there going to be posterity? The people screaming "The End is Near!"  are not religious fanatics anymore, they are now scientists. So are you asking me if catfish and cockroaches will look at my work and go "Oh, that is beautiful!"? I think the amount that I care about how people are affected by the work is the same whether I am here or not. So yes, it does matter.

Why is it that though every time you show your face in public nowadays, you easily fill up rooms but rarely give interviews?  Is it because of your disease or because the "New Yorker" guy fucked it up for everybody?

Well, I was very, very ill for a long time. So I was just in my apartment for years. Then this stalker thing was very intense and it made normal life impossible, though my health had gotten a good deal better by then. But for that "New Yorker" article to be how it was, with the misquotes and almost mocking the situation I was in which was quite serious – that just took the life out of me. I just kind of gave up.
I didn’t paint for a year and a half. I began drinking heavily and it was hard to stop. It wasn’t even about journalism so much, it was about how any human being could look at what Nesrin and I had been through, how well we had handled it and the paintings we had made during an incredibly horrific time and then share it with the world the way he did. But I have a deep belief in the inherent decency of people. Of course one has to be careful of journalists because some, not all, believe that the only way they can have a career is to write creepy things. And the only way that they can appear to be relevant is to lower the bar so that they can touch it for a moment.
But you asked about posterity: That "New Yorker" article put a stain on me and before I pass on I certainly want to rectify that.

How aware are you of the fact that your style and the way you acted in the movies of Jim Jarmusch have had a profound effect on the lifestyles of young people all around the world (and, likely, for generations to come who are discovering them right now or are going to discover them in the future)? Or have you become tired of being asked about those movies?

I care about my music and my paintings. Those things are the depth of me and if I am important in any way, those things embody that. How my style or acting is affecting anyone just feels silly to me.

Your own TV series "Fishing with John" over the years has reached what is commonly referred to as "cult status" on a global scale as well. Are you at least making some money off the revival of these works that not only I consider strokes of genius?

Thanks. I made a little money off of it last year with Netflix and Criterion, not a lot. Is this the question? You want to know if I have any money left?

No, as that’s obviously none of my business. But there is actually one thing I’d like to ask you in this context: What is your take on the seemingly ever-increasing problem for a lot of artists to make money anymore in this day and age when anything seems to be available for free?

Concerning your paintings it’s certainly different, as one simply can’t download them. But you also have created a considerable musical body of work, all of which is available for free on the web. Does that bother you? What’s your take on the piracy issue?

Money with music is different. I don’t care if that is free. If I was just starting out or was in mid-career I would be worried and try to protect it. But now I just want people to hear it. But that is a little unfair, because I can't imagine fighting like mad to get your stuff out and spending every last penny you have to get it out and then people treating it like it is free. At least you should get back enough to make more music and be able to eat. Money comes at you – or at least me – in the weirdest, most unexpected ways.

You know that the most money that came to me was in two different things and it was perhaps six minutes of work on my part. One was writing the original Conan O’Brien theme and one was signing a contract for a year of voiceovers for Toyota – and they didn’t use me. Six minutes of work for millions of dollars. Of course it balances out when you consider the millions of dollars I spent trying to keep my music afloat. It would just be wonderful if things one does were recognized a little earlier so that I could have made more fishing shows or so that my situation for painting could be improved a bit.

When it comes to Social Media, Twitter is the platform of your choice; you present your work on there as well as comment on contemporary political matters, sports, Iguanas et al. Why Twitter and not any other platform?

I don’t know. I am old school, this stuff is new to me. It is also time consuming. I try not to shut people out. To not do this thing of "I am the celebrity and you are not". But some people can be very demanding on your time. I like posting the paintings. What other platform would be better? We have Facebook accounts and the paintings look pretty good on there. Instagram, Nesrin (Luries assistant, ann.) didn’t like how the paintings looked so we didn’t do it.

What do you wish for at this point in your life?

I don’t make wishes. I think the point is to take what you have been given and then deal with it the best you can. The worst things that have happened to me – the illness, the stalker, the "New Yorker" article, and it all being too much for most of the people in my life so many disappeared on me – these are horrible things. But I wouldn't trade these things in. It did more for me than any amount of success or good fortune. It solidified my soul.