Why Did John Lurie Disappear?

Tad Friend writes in The New Yorker August 9, 2010:

* Celebrity is the power to rivet attention, and Lurie realized that his riveting faculties had lapsed. He told Perry, “When I went into my house, I was famous—I come out six years later and nobody knows who I am,” meaning it as a cultural observation: I am Rip Van Winkle, returned but unknown.

* Palm Springs is a golf-obsessed retirement community, and he doesn’t get recognized there, even when he buttonholes strangers at the local Starbucks for a little conversation. Lurie said, “This thing that’s happening now wouldn’t be happening if I were more famous, Tom Cruise famous, because I’d be insulated. And it wouldn’t be happening at all if I were less famous. Somehow I got it just exactly wrong.”

* From Grenada, Lurie sent a Facebook message to Perry’s brother, telling him what was going on and saying, “I think [John] is in deep trouble. . . . I am certainly not asking you to do anything against your brother but to help him. Or to suggest to me how I should proceed.” Lurie simply wanted guidance, but Perry took the message as a strike against his own vulnerability: his anxiety about his privacy and his reputation. Lurie’s friend and former sound engineer Patrick Dillett said, “The two Johns know each other so well, their emotional strengths and weaknesses, that it’s like ‘Spy vs. Spy’ ”—the Mad cartoon about equally matched belligerents. “It’s almost like fighting with yourself.”

* That Lurie’s requests for help from hired advisers and even from friends kept boomeranging only stimulated his suspicion that human beings sort of suck. He’d been so generous with his friends, loaning them money, even buying them houses—where were they now? Lurie said, “There were sixty people at my fiftieth-birthday party”—in 2002—“and only five are still in my life. It was all too much for my friends; they started to lose interest. It was like Darfur.” A number of Lurie’s friends now felt that Perry was his default topic, and paranoia his default mode. Patrick Dillett told me, “It had reached the point that if I said I saw John Perry in an ‘I Love John Lurie’ T-shirt John would have said, ‘That’s because he wants to kill me.’”

* I drove Lurie back from Joshua Tree late in the afternoon. He slumped in the front seat, saying that his head was roaring. As the sun slipped behind the Little San Bernardino Mountains, Lurie said, “Illness has a beautiful way of bestowing a glow on you. You notice the way the light hits the top of the trees.” Then he fell silent for thirty miles. As we passed the outskirts of Indio—a scatter of isolated houses braced against the darkness—he said, “How do these people end up here? Do they all have stalkers?”

The dream of artists—which is simply the dream of friends and lovers, magnified—is to plant themselves in other people’s heads. By that standard, John Perry has created a masterpiece. Last summer, Lurie wrote a friend that Perry “has been in every facet of my consciousness for months. . . . Every dream, every brush stroke. He has infected my mind.”

* The protracted duet has become a kind of living performance piece, but neither man is able to see it as art: Perry because he views himself solely as a painter, and Lurie because he never before associated art with a fear of death. Curiously, though, the struggle seems to have inspired them both; artists sometimes require an enemy.

From The New York Review Of Books, Aug. 18, 2022:

* Lurie, the band’s saxophonist and front man, was already fairly well known as the breakout star in Jim Jarmusch’s breakout independent movie Stranger Than Paradise (1984), and the follow-up, Down by Law (1986). He epitomized a flavor that everybody wanted around the mid-1980s: a real artist with outstanding personal style, an offbeat sense of humor, and a rebellious streak, making his mark on the world through unconventional channels. I was so impressed with how outside the box this promotional stunt was. This is the way, I thought. He’s figured out how to own the means of production, without involving the music industry. It looked as radically avant-garde and hip as Devo did the first time I saw them, and Lurie immediately became dear to my heart as an animal more substantial and interesting than his prevailing East Village It Boy image suggested.

His image was an indelible one in the 1980s. When it came to arousing blizzards of strange, forbidden female desire, he was on par with swaggering former SNL star Pete Davidson today—a charmed, confectionary Marilyn Monroe for the female of the species to have impure feelings about; a respected artist; a kind of emotional porn star. Lurie had the Jean-Paul Belmondo baggy suits, the lanky, concave frame, the saxophone, the bent nose, the street and Hollywood credibility—everything you needed to be a French New Wave star in the 1980s, including the black-and-white art films. “From 1984 to 1989, everyone in downtown New York wanted to be John Lurie. Or sleep with him. Or punch him in the face,” wrote Tad Friend in The New Yorker in 2010. (It is an article that Lurie openly reviles, and not for nothing: Friend devoted it primarily to legitimizing the career of Lurie’s stalker, and painted Lurie as sick, paranoid, and bedeviled; it ultimately suggested that Friend was delivering his long-awaited punch to Lurie’s face.)

* He eventually settled in New York and sated his hunger for spiritual enlightenment when he shot heroin for the first time—there, he sort of found nirvana, for quite a while. “At this exact moment my spiritual quest was gone,” he observes. Nonetheless, certain Eastern spiritual concepts seem to have burrowed their way into his consciousness. “There is no such thing as talent,” Lurie declares. “There is only cleaning the mirror.”

As a young artist in the East Village circa 1977, he lived off Supplemental Security Income (SSI) after faking a schizophrenia diagnosis (which he felt a little bit guilty about, though he says he did sometimes hear voices). SSI was how a lot of artists got by in those days, although Lurie still had to augment it with “a lot of petty crime, dealing pot, traveler’s check scams…. I got the idea to steal my own horns and collect the insurance.” He lived in a government-run railroad apartment on East 3rd Street for fifty-five dollars a month and did wacky performance art pieces with titles like Leukemia. He made avant-garde movies on Super 8 with a group of like-minded bohemians, dropped acid, and hung around the Mudd Club on a nightly basis. He used to practice the sax late at night in the subway station on 14th Street and First Avenue.

* “Andy Warhol would be in the front row. It is amazing how fast one becomes arrogant.” That arrogance, essential to Lurie’s image, didn’t always advance his career. When record company executives came by the dressing room to express interest, the entire band would scream at them to get the fuck out.

* “To be thrown into that kind of fame is very unbalancing. It is worse for your chemistry than drugs, in a way. You want the attention and the adoration, it gives you a buoyancy, but it rarely leads to anything real.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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