For a long time, John Lurie was everywhere. If you cared about American independent art and culture between the mid-’70s and the late ’90s, you probably knew about his acting in films such as “Stranger Than Paradise,” “Paris, Texas,” and “Down by Law.” Or maybe as the host of his absurdist nature show “Fishing With John.” Or perhaps you heard his music as the composer of scores for “Get Shorty” and “Mystery Train,” or as the leader and saxophone player for his raucous jazz group, the Lounge Lizards.
During this prolific run, one of Lurie’s ventures was a little less visible. In 1999, his record label Strange and Beautiful released “Greatest Hits,” by someone called the Legendary Marvin Pontiac. According to press materials, Pontiac was a hard-luck drifter who made music in Mali, Chicago and Detroit before being killed by a bus in 1977. But since the album included a supporting cast of Lurie’s fellow New York musicians and featured a singing voice that sounded a lot like him, it wasn’t hard to guess who Pontiac actually was.
Lurie didn’t mean Pontiac as a hoax, but as an opportunity. “I can’t really sing,” he admits. “I kind of can now, but really couldn’t when I did the first [Pontiac] record, so I needed a mask to give me some footing. Plus, by doing it with a character, it freed me up to make it stranger than I would have with a record under my own name.”
“Greatest Hits,” which will be reissued on April 21 for Record Store Day, was a lively departure from his already-diverse Lounge Lizards oeuvre, filled with spirited singing somewhere between a croon and a growl.
Not long after he put on the Marvin Pontiac mask, Lurie actually receded from view. Around 2000, physical issues he had battled for a while became so debilitating that he stopped acting and playing sax. For a few years, just listening to music was painful. Eventually he was diagnosed with Lyme disease, a condition the 65-year-old still manages daily, spending most of his time on a tropical island outside of the United States. “It leads to an enormous amount of weird, migrating neurological problems,” he said. “It can be mild or severe depending on the week, day or hour.”
So it’s a small miracle that a second Marvin Pontiac release, “The Asylum Tapes,” recently turned up on streaming music services. It came with a brief explanation: “Marvin Pontiac was anonymously sent a four-track tape recorder during the years he was held at Esmerelda State Mental Institution. This is what he did with it.” Made by Lurie alone, the album’s 24 short songs are funny, scary and hopeful, and Lurie’s performance on guitar, banjo and vocals is full of life.
The music can feel ragged and impulsive, but turns out to be as well-timed as the best stand-up comedy. “Humor is important,” Lurie insists. “Humor has shaped the consciousness of American life perhaps more than anything else. Do you know who was president when Mark Twain was at his peak? Benjamin Harrison. Who the hell was Benjamin Harrison?”
Lurie’s surreal humor makes “The Asylum Tapes,” as he put it, like “fairy tales for adults.” In one song, Santa Claus arrives in April without pants; in another, Godzilla steps on Pontiac’s house. Many tunes concern animals, including the fitness-promoting bovine of “I Don’t Have a Cow.”
“I had heard that story when I was a kid, about a man who lifted a baby cow over his head 10 times a day and as the cow grew, the man got stronger and stronger,” Lurie recalls. “It might have come from my dad, who was always telling silly stories like this.”
Lurie says he hadn’t considered that his music would appeal to children, “but the first thing that happened was I sent [the song] “Unbelievable” to [Random House editor] Ben Greenberg and he sent me back a video of his kid going, ‘Unbelievable. Unbelievable. Unbelievable.’ Then a few more [things like that] happened. I love that it is happening. I can’t think of anything better, to tell you the truth.”
In the years between Pontiac albums, Lurie spent time on another lifelong pursuit. “Like most people, I started painting when I was 2,” he says. “I just never stopped.” His vivid, textured art is as playful as the music he creates as Pontiac, but it can also be strikingly dark.
“When I was extremely ill, I had tremendous visual disturbances, which certainly affected the work,” he recalls. “As unpleasant as it was to live with, I think it helped my painting a great deal. I made leaps that I don’t think I could have made without the illness.” He had his first show in 2004 at New York’s Anton Kern Gallery, followed by many more around the globe.
Returning to painting helped him connect to early artistic experiences. “The impulse is similar [to when I was a child],” says Lurie, who was born in Minneapolis and raised mostly in Worcester, Mass. “[It’s] an impulse we all have or had, it’s just that I have held on to it. It is a place in us that most people tend to close down, as it is seen as immature or unproductive, but I think it is the most important place. I think my mom, who was an artist and an art teacher, somehow nurtured that in me and kept it alive — or maybe just didn’t try to squash it.” As a teen, Lurie was also a music fanatic, starting on blues harmonica (he sat in with legend Mississippi Fred McDowell at age 16), then gravitating to jazz after being happily confused by John Coltrane’s “Live at Birdland.”
When Lyme disease put Lurie’s music on hold, painting filled the void. He claims that his painting and music are essentially the same, but also sees valuable differences in his processes. “With music, that moment of magic seems to come at the inception of the idea and then you build a house around it not to wreck it,” he says. “It is kind of like that with painting, but maybe I paint the background first. I have an idea for a palette of colors and start there, but the magic moments happen more in the middle, or late.”
Lately, magic moments come more often for Lurie. On a typical day, he paints for two hours, makes music for an hour, writes for an hour, goes for a swim, then revisits all of the above. He’s working on a memoir for Random House, “What Do You Know About Music, You’re Not a Lawyer?,” covering his life from childhood until the ’80s. “I am looking at this one as an audition to write the second, two,” he says. He already has titles for subsequent volumes: “I Suffered From Medical Bureaucratitis” and “There Has to Be a God or It Couldn’t Get This Weird.”
Those names sound a bit like something you’d see on Lurie’s Twitter feed. Musing sardonically on politics and sports, as well as posting his artwork, he has amassed a large following that has expanded his cult following. Though he still can’t play saxophone — “[it’s] too painful to go into — [I] miss the saxophone beyond what I can explain” — he hopes to make another Marvin Pontiac record soon, and his prodigious painting shows no sign of slowing. “I am trying to make things that are so beautiful that I get lost in them,” he says. “Hopefully, it affects others the same.”