Renaissance man, musician, actor, and painter John Lurie is one of our cultural giants, a national treasure on a cult level at least, but because of a stalking incident and a debilitating lyme disease sickness, the jack-of-all-trades artist somewhat dropped out of the public eye over the past two decades. (This terrific New Yorker piece details much of what has gone down in his personal life). But thanks to Twitter, where he showcases his art, Lurie has found a way to cope with his ongoing illness while still communicating with the public world.
Lurie’s made some major contributions to music, film and art. In the late ‘70s he formed the seminal jazz noiseniks The Lounge Lizards with Arto Lindsay, and as a painter he worked alongside Jean Michel-Basquiat and had the bizarre and unique experience of watching his friend become an art darling sensation overnight. But for many, Lurie is perhaps remembered most fondly for his contributions to film. As an actor, he starred in the landmark “Stranger Than Paradise” from Jim Jarmusch and worked with some of the greats including Wim Wenders (“Paris, Texas”) Martin Scorsese (“The Last Temptation of Christ”), Tom Waits and Roberto Begnini (in Jarmusch’s “Down By Law” and Begnini’s own “The Little Devil”), and David Lynch (“Wild at Heart”). Lurie also had a rich career as a film composer, scoring Jarmusch’s “Mystery Train,” “Down by Law” and “Stranger Than Paradise”) and Barry Sonnenfeld’s “Get Shorty” to name a few.
And then of course there is “Fishing With John,” the awesome 1991 television series conceived, directed by and starring Lurie that eventually took on a huge cult following. Lurie took famous guests like Jim Jarmusch, Tom Waits, Matt Dillon, Willem Dafoe and Dennis Hopper on fishing trips around the world that were hilariously dry, absurdist and just strange (The Criterion Collection put out the series in its very early days, but the series in desperately due for an upgrade).
Lurie was recently a guest on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast for an epic conversation that spanned his entire career. There’s some amazing stories about Tom Waits, who “stole” Lurie’s Lounge Lizard’s guitarist Marc Ribot (“It’s kinda lower than stealing someone’s girlfriend, that’s not the right thing to do!”). Despite the mild friction, they were still cool enough to do “Fishing With John.” “He was nervous to do the fishing show which shocked me,” Lurie said. “Because he’s a genius. There’s nobody like him. He [banged a fish against the boat and I complained] and he said, ‘Well, I’m not a doctor, John.’ He was nervous to do it, but he was the best-equipped person to do it.”
Lurie discussed many of the unmade and short films he attempted to get off the ground over the years. There’s “Walking With Fatty” (“It was about the weirdest things I’d ever encountered in New York”), “Men In Orbit” (described as a simulated Apollo documentary shot on acid — “It’s horrible!”) and “Hell is You” wherein he interviewed No Waver James Chance (he says none of them are available, so don’t bother tracking them down, though clips of “Men In Orbit” are below).
Lurie also discussed the little-heard-of-film, “The Garden Of Divorce,” the film Jim Jarmusch was trying to make before “Stranger Than Paradise.” Lurie describes it as a futuristic sci-fi thing (“It was terrible!”) and says that he convinced Jarmusch to shelve it and make “Stranger Than Paradise” instead. “Let’s just do this!” Lurie remembered. “I pushed him and pushed him and so we shot this little half-hour movie and two years later he got the rest of the money to finish it.”
While there are lots of bon mots, hilarious moments (“don’t call me dude!”), wild tales (how Lurie came into possession of his first saxophone) and great stories, one of the craziest anecdotes involves “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.” It’s a bit long, but the gist of it is that Lurie was hired through composer Howard Shore to write the theme song to the late night show when it began in the ‘90s. In fact, to hear Lurie tell it, he was up for the role of the band leader, but was eventually turned down because the producers told him, “Conan thinks you’re funnier than him and that scares him.”
Regardless, Lurie was still asked to write the opening music. The composer wrote what he said was like a theme from “The Jetsons,” submitted and then heard little other than Shore telling him they liked it, but had changed it a little bit. “Our theme?” Lurie said remember how perplexed he was and went on to say that Shore took it upon himself to modify what Lurie had written (“…and I’m thinking who gave you the right to do that? Who the fuck do you think you are?”). Months passed, Lurie hadn’t heard back and then he turned on the TV to see the Conan O’Brien show. His theme was being used on TV, modified by Shore, but with no credit.
Lurie talked some trash about this in an interview and the ‘O’Brien’ show lawyers eventually reached out to him telling him he had no recourse. However, unbeknownst to them. Lurie had copyrighted the theme song in the old school way of mailing it to the library. The lawyers then panicked and they had to settle and pay him an enormous amount of money, of which the actor/musician said he lived on for several years (this was a theme; he was hired to be the voice of Toyota, was then fired, but because of the breach of contract, the company had to pay him a huge lump sum of money that he lived comfortably off of for a long time).
“Who knows what Howard Shore’s thing was,” Lurie explained. “I’d love to talk to him about it. Cause I liked Howard and I’d kinda like to trust him on this. But I got a lot of people afterwards telling me, ‘You know, Howard stole music from me too,’ but you don’t know who to believe about any of it. He’s written some good stuff!”
There’s also an interesting anecdote about the score to the forgotten 1984 movie “City Limits.” Lurie wrote the score and wanted the Red Hot Chili Peppers to play on it, but they showed up hours late to the audition, so the producers axed that plan. The full, hour-and-change talk is below, and it’s a must listen.
Additionally, if you’re a huge “Fishing With John” fan (and you should be), you’ll love to watch these Q&As about the terrific cult show.
For context, you can watch the first show below (all of them are online, fyi).