Will future generations discover John Lurie? It is not entirely clear whether his contemporaries did. On the one hand, the New Yorker dubbed the musician / actor / painter the ’80s Humphrey Bogart’ and British Vogue voted him one of the best dressed men of the 20th century. On the other hand, while his band, the Lounge Lizards, caught the attention of John Lennon, Bob Dylan and David Bowie, he struggled to land a recording contract.
THE HISTORY OF BONES: A Memoir (Random House, 448 pp., $ 28), which Lurie has worked on for at least a dozen years, is a picaresque roller coaster story, with staggering amounts of sex and drugs and the never-ending quest to retain some sort of artistic integrity. It also documents the East Village of the late ’70s and early’ 80s, a time and place where “no one was doing what they really knew how to do. All the painters had bands. All the musicians were making short films.
Lurie grew up in Worcester, Mass., Which he describes as “a horrible place” that “has a dome on it so that God wouldn’t be allowed in.” But like something out of a twisted fairy tale, one night at 4 in the morning, “a man with a wheelbarrow gave me my first saxophone.” Lurie finds his way to crime-infested downtown Manhattan, where he practices his instrument in the subway station and gradually assembles the Lounge Lizards, dressing in thrift store costumes and dubbing his music “fake jazz,” which ‘he ends up regretting. “We were powerful, intelligent, energetic, confident, self-centered and incredibly naive,” he writes. “Nothing outside of our 14 block radius mattered. “
As he fought to keep the group going, Lurie also watched some of his associates become cultural icons. He had a complicated and competitive friendship with artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, who slept on Lurie’s soil for a while. His relationship with director Jim Jarmusch is particularly strained: Lurie spits out the idea for the film “Stranger Than Paradise”, only to play a lead role but see the director downplay his contribution. The grudges did not subside: “I feel like I need to hurry and get this book published before Jim Jarmusch grabs it and publishes it as his own memoir.
Lurie, who recently surfaced with the enigmatic HBO series “Painting With John,” says he tried to refrain from criticizing anyone who hurt him (“these are such nasty stories, I didn’t mean not write them down and I can’t imagine who would want to read them ”), but his examples of how artists are ripped off, disrespectful and set up to fail are frequent and brutal. The standard he sets, however, is high and pure. “I would never have said that out loud to anyone,” he wrote, “but the purpose of my life was to find and express God through music.”
This confrontation of principle against commerce is, of course, the defining question for the music and culture known as punk. And for young people in America, punk doesn’t really mean the music born in the 1970s – the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, the Clash variety – but the more adolescent, melodic translation that came in the 90s with bands like Green Day, the Offspring and Flashing-182.