John Lurie on His New Cult-TV Adventure and Why He Misses Anthony Bourdain

John Lurie on His New Cult-TV Adventure and Why He Misses Anthony Bourdain

January 21, 2021

Midway through the first episode of his new show, Painting With John, John Lurie stands on the porch of his home in the Caribbean, gazing at a serene purplish-pink sunset. “I felt I should I use this beautiful moment to say something poetic, but I don’t have anything. So just imagine I’m saying something poetic,” he says, addressing the viewer. Then, after a beat, “Why put it all on me? There’s a sunset. You think of something poetic.”

The sequence captures a quintessential Lurie-an mood, in which gruff, deadpan humor mingles with arresting beauty. Fans of the polymathic artist know this sensation well from a variety of media, dating back more than 40 years: the otherworldly grooves and trancelike improv of the Lounge Lizards, the No Wave–turned-globalist-jazz band Lurie led and played saxophone in from the late Seventies through the late Nineties; his naturalistic turns in classic Eighties films including Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise and Down by Law, and Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ; his lovably droll early-Nineties travel show Fishing With John, featuring famous guests like Dennis Hopper and Willem Dafoe; and the surreal, painstaking, and often oddly poignant paintings he’s focused on in the 2000s, since an extended bout of Lyme disease (followed more recently by cancer), has prevented him from playing music.

Season One of Lurie’s new show — the first of six episodes premieres January 22nd on HBO — grew out of casual pre-pandemic phone-camera clips taken by his longtime assistant, Nesrin Wolf. “She’s been wanting to put little things of me painting on Instagram forever,” Lurie told Rolling Stone via phone earlier this week. “I haven’t really felt comfortable, but this was really funny, and I said, ‘Let’s do this.’”

Lurie then invited Erik Mockus, who had made videos for his fictional-bluesman alter ego Marvin Pontiac, to shoot and edit the show. “We had fun working and then we just sort of started building it, just like you would start putting an old car together in the garage, or something.”

Painting With John tweaks the formula of an instructional art show in much the same way that Fishing With John did the nature program. As with the bulk of Lurie’s output, it swirls together a mystic’s appreciation for the sublime with the dry wit and healthy skepticism of a New York–bred wiseass. We sit with Lurie as he paints and simultaneously reminisces in his gravelly rumble of a voice about everything from the time he spent hours snorting coke in a broom closet with Rick James and Studio 54 co-owner Steve Rubell to the time he bartered for a live eel for a Lounge Lizards cover shoot in a Chinatown backroom. He also spends plenty of time disparaging his own credentials as a painting authority (“I really don’t know what the fuck I’m doing”) and good-naturedly griping about the show’s talking-to-the-camera format. But hidden in between the quips and colorful tales are genuine insights about nurturing creativity and preserving what Lurie calls “that childlike wonderment thing” that’s always driven his art.

The show also offers a window into Lurie’s quiet life in the Caribbean. He ended up there, he says in Episode Six, after feeling “boxed in,” but says that the move ended up being beneficial. We see the now-68-year-old downtown artist living a very different life, and looking considerably more grizzled than the last time he hosted his own show, sporting a bushy gray-and-brown goatee. But there’s something like peace in his nighttime painting sessions, soundtracked only by the sound of tree frogs, and his sitcom-like banter with Wolf and another woman who works for him, Ann Mary Gludd James. (“Do you mind telling the people at home what a good and fair boss I am?” he asks them at several points; they try to roll their eyes, but the three inevitably crack up.) Add in the lush beauty of the undisclosed island where he lives and background music drawn from the back catalogs of bands and his soundtrack work, and you have a dreamlike audiovisual world that somehow only could have sprung from Lurie’s brain.

In a wide-ranging chat, Lurie talked about why he doesn’t really have beef with Bob Ross, the time he hit Painting With John co-producer Adam McKay in the head with a pool cue, what he misses about his late friend Anthony Bourdain, and why he was always a better fisherman than you thought.

You’ve said on Twitter that you were hoping to cheer people up a little bit with Painting With John. Was the show specifically designed to lift people’s spirits during the pandemic?
Actually I sort of had a thing with the pandemic where I saw it coming. I was reading about China and what was happening, and it was just like, “Well, this is going to go all around the world and there’s no immunity to it. It’s going to be like that movie with Dustin Hoffman and Cuba Gooding Jr.” But people were pretty depressed before the virus. [Laughs]

In the first episode, you say that “Bob Ross was wrong” and make it clear that in contrast with his work, none of the trees you paint are happy. When did you first realize that you had a bone to pick with him?
Ah, but I really don’t. I mean, I appreciate Bob Ross. What he did was important, but I just knew I wanted to say that none of the trees in my painting are happy; they’re all miserable. I’ve been obsessed with this idea really, about how my parents instilled something in me and my brother and sister that kept the creative spirit in us alive into our adult lives. And so these [monologues] weren’t particularly planned or written out. We set up the camera and I would just talk nonsense, and sort of tied it together. If I’d done it on paper I might have rethought it, but it’s also fun to just start out with the first line being “Bob Ross was wrong.” It’s just like, “What?!? What’s he saying?”

Like, did you see that Morgan Neville documentary on Mister Rogers? How could anybody have anything against Mister Rogers, and they protested at his funeral. So I guess Bob Ross is gonna get his. [Laughs

That bit in the show about how hard it can be to hold on to your childlike wonderment was really powerful. What’s your advice for someone who feels like they’re cut off from that?
If you’re even thinking like that, that’s probably a good start, no? It’ll come back. I mean it’s in there; just doodle. Start doodling. Give yourself five minutes a day to doodle.

It seems like with this show and with Fishing With John, you’re poking fun at that type of program. Is that harder to do with Painting With John, since everyone already knows you’re a great painter, whereas fishing seemed more like a hobby?
Well, I actually was kind of serious as a fisherman but I had to hide it [laughs]. Anything I did where [it seemed like], “Oh, he does know how to drive a boat …,” I had to cut it all out of the show. So it would be more like I was bumbling, you know? I guess I could have done really bad paintings for the show. But the paintings are more important to me than the show itself so I couldn’t do it. [Laughs]

It’s really cool to watch you tell these surreal and often hilarious stories, and then watch you work so precisely with the brush. It’s an interesting contrast. 
I can’t tell how it works at all. I’m just so curious as to how this is going to be seen, but the little bit of press that’s come out so far, it’s like, oh, people get it. But I didn’t expect this was going to go to HBO. I was just doing this little thing and then Adam McKay saw it and said, “I’m going to get this seen,” and then it’s like, “HBO wants it.” It’s like, “Really?” So I’m a little unprepared for what’s gonna happen next. 

Did you have a prior relationship with Adam McKay?
No, no, though I did hit him in the head with a pool cue once.

Tell me about that.
He reminded me about that when we spoke on the phone. I was in a bar in the East Village and they had a pool table and I was playing. There wasn’t much room and I had to hit the ball with a certain amount of English, like with a snapback, so that the cue ball kind of bounced off and came the other way. I drew back the cue after I hit the ball, and when I pulled back, I pulled really hard and I hit somebody in the head with the stick. I said, “Oh, I’m sorry.” I turned around and I saw it was Will Ferrell, and this was a long time ago so Will Ferrell wasn’t super famous. But I recognized him and a couple other people from Saturday Night Live, and apparently the guy I hit in the head was Adam McKay. I just said sorry, and he was like, “No, it’s fine.” And so when I talked to him on the phone, he said, “You know we met before; you hit me in the head with a cue stick.”

In the show, you stress how important it is to have fun every day; at one point you mention how that idea is really celebrated in Thailand, through the idea of sanuk. How do you balance sanuk with the obvious dedication to your craft that it takes to get really good at something?
They’re not opposed to each other. Sanuk, you can put into anything, like washing the dishes or sweeping the floor. But also there’s that Zen thing of just sweeping the floor and noticing how the dust moves. But yeah, sanuk is just about, [in Thailand] they have fun with everything all the time. So if they’re moving boxes together, they tease each other… But they’re parallel-path things; they don’t fight each other. Unless you fuck a painting up and then the sanuk is gone.

“We buried the elephant in the sky”

Did you strive for both of those things at once in your musical career, too? The Lounge Lizards were such a tight and accomplished band, but it seemed like there was also a healthy sense of fun there. 
It’s like being a basketball coach — it’s a game but you’ve got to have a certain amount of discipline and format so that the fun can come out on top of it. Anton Fier deserves a lot of credit actually, ’cause he was [the Lounge Lizards’] first drummer and I had written this music, but we were fooling around. We had one rehearsal, and me and [guitarist] Arto [Lindsay] were punks, we were just screwing around and then Anton, in the first couple rehearsals, really kicked our ass like a drill sergeant. He got us to rehearse, which in the punk days you would have turned your nose up to, but it was the right thing to do.

When you were on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, you said to him that back in the day, you almost had to hide the fact that you’d practice saxophone because it wasn’t cool at the time to be good at your instrument.
Yeah, no, they would have all sneered at it because everybody that was in a band was really an actor or a painter. There were all these bands starting in the East Village and nobody could play.

Was it harder to get taken seriously, because people were celebrating that kind of punk ideal?
Oh, when we started to get good, we lost our audience. [Laughs] We really started with doing our stripper tune, or a Peter Gunn kind of thing and with Arto crashing around and then we would fuck it up on purpose. Or we used to do [Thelonious Monk’s] “Epistrophy.” But, like, at breakneck speed with Evan [Lurie, John’s brother] playing, but he would play it on the organ like [sings the melody double-time, out of control], and I would go bam, bah-bahhh! Instead of like how it’s supposed to go. The audience would go crazy and at the beginning, it was, like, the thing to see, but we were campy. Andy Warhol would be in the front row and it would be mobbed. And then as the music got more serious and better, we lost our audience. I mean, completely. When we played at Tramp’s one night, there were nine people there and it took a long time to get it back because as the music became more elegant and serious, it was hated. So it took a while.

And we never caught on in the States. It was Europe and Japan that said, “Oh…,” and we started getting booked at jazz festivals and things like that. We couldn’t get a record deal forever and we got booked at no jazz festivals in America. I wonder if that’s going to happen in my nineties or something. 

Those later records like Voice of Chunk and Queen of All Ears hold up so well. That music is obviously featured all over Painting With John. Is it bittersweet in a way to revisit that body of work? What is it like for you to hear it now? 
Yeah, I do want it to get recognized for what it was. I feel like it hasn’t really been noticed yet. So I hope the show does point to the music and the Marvin Pontiac stuff, too, but those records you mentioned, for sure. I hope it does make people go, “Oh!” And I hope they kind of discover it on their own. ‘Cause recognition, I try not to let it be something that’s important, but you want something recognized and respected. You don’t want it to just disappear completely.

But I can’t play the saxophone anymore ’cause of the Lyme disease. So it’s kind of weird. We put out a record a few years ago. We re-released this live stuff for with the John Lurie National Orchestra. 

I love that record. 
It was a trio thing and all of a sudden, the jazz press was like, “Oh, yeah, John Lurie was a great saxophone player.” And I was just like, “Where the fuck were you when I needed you to write that?” So we could have played at Lincoln Center instead of [some] grunge punk club. It did kind of piss me off that they didn’t recognize it at the time and now, 20 years after I can’t play anymore, they’re like, “Oh, his saxophone playing was amazing.”

You’ve talked a lot about that moment in New York, and how downtown was sort of the center of the universe. With this show, it’s so much about you being in this remote location in the Caribbean. Do you think it was ultimately good for your art that you made that change?
Well, I don’t think so. It was better for my health, but [not] for my art. When I first got the Lyme disease, I was just stuck in my apartment — I went to the doctor and never left otherwise, and I would just paint. I was sort of making windows for myself, you know? And there were a lot of flowers in the paintings because I was creating that and then I moved down to this place where there’s flowers everywhere. So now, it’s like, “Oh, these fucking flowers are everywhere.” [Laughs] Does that make sense?

Yeah, absolutely. So many of the coolest moments of the show are where we see this beautiful foliage and you’re standing there appreciating it. It really gives a sense of the stillness and the peacefulness of the setting. Is that what it feels like when you’re there?
I mean, we tried to make it more idyllic than it was. We didn’t have an episode about the giant termite nest that’s stuck in my water tank, you know? [Laughs] Maybe we should have. But yeah, the internet goes out all the time; the phone doesn’t work, which is good, but there’s still noise there.

I once went — we were doing the Thailand [Fishing With John] show with Dennis [Hopper], and we went to this little tiny island. I think we went to Ko Phi Phi, and they shut off engines to the boat and it was just like this whoosh that you’re not aware of because it’s all the time. But this whoosh of God knows what we hear, with cell-phone towers and… it just stopped. And it was so peaceful. But I think we can kind of subliminally hear all this shit.

One of the really fascinating episodes is the fourth one, where you’re talking about fame, the toll it can take, and how you’ve actively tried to undo it. Do you feel like you’ve succeeded?
Yeah, but now I’ve done this show, so who knows what’s gonna happen next. Like I said before, you want recognition for the music and for the paintings. It’s like, you make this thing, you want it out there, and then the way to get them out there is to have fame. The work doesn’t seem to go out on its own merits, so you’re kind of willing to put up with that. I mean, it depends — fame does get people to return your phone calls faster. But kind of the message is, there’s these kids who want to be famous, and they don’t even know what that means. So I’ve been on both sides of it and there’s a certain plasticky thing it does to your soul that makes you lose your balance.

You also go into how you were starting to become friends with Bourdain just before he died and how he seemed haunted by fame. What’s your best memory of him from the short time that you knew him? 
I mean, I hardly knew him. He came to my place in New York and we just hit it [off] immediately. I was talking to him about this kind of famous horrible shit that had happened to me and he just got it. Or he already knew what most of it [was], and had figured it out on its own because there’s stuff I can’t talk about in the press. He read between the lines and understood what had happened, like, before I explained it, and nobody had ever done that. Then he just was my new best friend within minutes. Like, he was going to Europe and when he came back we were going to go out to eat, and I said, “Pick a place where nobody knows you, so they just leave us alone.” I said, “It’s such a relief to not be famous anymore.” He just stopped like he’d been hit in the head with a hammer, and then he looked at the floor, and he looked at me and said, “I think I’m agoraphobic now.”

It just hit me so hard; it was just like, God, the guy can’t protect himself from this shit and he can’t go anywhere ’cause they know him everywhere. So we were supposed to have lunch. A few days later, I open up the computer and he’s killed himself. It was just … What the…? It just hit me all so weird. So awful.

You said on Twitter that you were furious with him after you heard the news. 
I was, and then people got mad at me for saying that, so I took it down. But that was one of my initial reactions — I was enraged. One, just ’cause I hurt so bad; I was just angry at the person who’d hurt me. But mostly, yeah, that was my natural reaction. And also I just hope wherever he went, I hope he was OK. But yeah, I was angry.

I think people can understand that it comes out of care and concern. There’s another memorable part of the show where you say that you don’t trust someone till you’ve heard them laugh. Because I know you’ve been following politics closely lately, how would you rate Joe Biden’s laugh?
Nah, not so good. I mean, at the moment, it’s just, anything is better than Trump. Kamala Harris has a halfway-decent laugh. I don’t trust her either, actually, but she’s got a decent laugh.

Were you watching live when the Capitol riot happened? 
Yeah. I love that kind of shit, so I called Evan on the phone, and I said, “I love this!” Because I like hurricanes and things like that. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but on the island, if there’s a hurricane — they seem to all go north of us, but when it turns the other way, I get disappointed. I don’t know what’s wrong with me like that. The mayhem kind of excites me, I suppose. But yeah, I was watching. As it was happening live, you didn’t know how horrible it was, what was going on. And is the fucking thing based on racism? That’s really what it seems, right? 

Yes. That and xenophobia. 
These white people who are pissed that they’re losing their privilege and that’s why they support Trump and that’s why they’re … I don’t know, man. I had no idea it was really that bad.

From the show, it seems as if you’ve been a little suspicious of America for a long time.
Yeah. I would say [that], yeah. 

When did that start?
Well, my parents were pretty left of left of left. They started young. I mean, my dad, before Vietnam was even something to protest, these kids, these nerds were setting their draft cards on fire and they were being beaten up by these football kind of guys. At 15, I was desperate, drinking Nutrament and five raw eggs for breakfast to gain enough weight to be on the football team so I’d be in with these Neanderthal guys. They were the kind of guys who were beating these kids up on the TV and I didn’t really understand what was going on. My dad was dying, and I said, “What could I do to make you proud of me?” And he said, “You can show as much courage as those kids who burned their draft cards today. I’d be proud of you.” I didn’t understand it all at the time what it meant, but it was a good message. So they instilled that in me. It’s not like being against America. It was just, like, fighting for what’s right. 

The Barry White story you told in the show was awesome, how you met him and he said he was a fan of Voice of Chunk. Was that the best celebrity compliment you ever received, or were there other other great ones that came out of left field that you never expected?
Maybe. … Martin Scorsese, we were having lunch during Last Temptation of Christ and he turns to me — everybody’s [hanging] on Marty’s every word during the movie. And so we’re out at lunch, and Marty turns to me and says, “John Lurie, your music is for alienated people,” and he got up and walked away. [Laughs] I don’t think that was a compliment.

“Martin Scorsese, we were having lunch during Last Temptation of Christ and he turns to me and says, ‘John Lurie, your music is for alienated people,’ and he got up and walked away.”

One person you don’t really talk about in the show is your old friend Basquiat. Do you feel like there were specific things about painting and art that you took away from knowing him?
He was a kid who slept on my floor. So, it’s the other way around. You know what I mean? He followed me around; he was 17 and I was, whatever, eight years older. I didn’t even think to mention him in the show.

Though there’s a great story I wish I had told, where we were really stoned — he used to smoke this pot that was just insane — and we were very stoned, and we used to do this thing of slow-motion boxing. Then I stepped backwards and into a tray of paint, he throws another punch in slow motion, and I stepped right onto a canvas that was on the floor that was half-finished and I was like, “Ah, Willie!” I used to call him Willie Mays. “I’m so sorry, man!” He just laughed and said OK. Then years later, after he died, the painting was at the Guggenheim at this gigantic show — I’m pretty sure it’s the same one, unless other people stepped on his paintings, — and there’s my footprint on the painting right? So I stepped forward, and there’s still the velvet ropes that separate you from the painting, and I’m not past the velvet rope, but my arm is past it and I’m pointing: “Oh, look, there’s my footprint.” And the guards come running over, like, “Sir, sir, move away from the painting.” It’s like, damn, I’ve already fuckin’ stepped on it; what am I going to do with my finger? 

“They were weird but they saw something even weirder”

You’ve been very open for a while now about your struggles with Lyme disease and cancer. How do you feel day-to-day health-wise? 
It comes and goes. I feel fine at the moment, but last night around 1 a.m., I thought I was gonna die for about 10 minutes. I mean, this stuff just comes over you. It’s hard to figure out what’s from Lyme disease and what’s held over stuff from the cancer treatment. The side effects kind of come and go for a long time, more than what they warned you about before you do it. I’ve talked to other people who still, three years later, have weird side effects left over. Also, I’m 68 years old and I’ve beaten this body to a pulp many times, so it’s hard to know exactly what’s what’s going on. But you just get these migrating symptoms throughout the course of the day. 

That said, it seems like you’re pretty productive, and keeping on a tight schedule with your painting.
Oh, I paint all the time. I paint hours and hours, and I feel better when I’m painting, and also the symptoms seem to sort of drop away. Sometimes my vision will be so fucked up or I won’t be able to move my hand properly because of the illness and then I have to stop, but that’s rare. Usually I can kind of just work through it and it sort of drops away till you stop. I saw a great thing with Johnny Cash once when he was on Larry King, or something like that, and he had … I forgot what was wrong with him. But he’d have all this pain and he’d talk about walking out on stage and how it would just drop away, and it’s just … it’s just, like, concentrating on your work and then the pain drops away. But I try to paint every moment I have. I put myself in this sort of a trance state and just paint. I’d rather be doing that than pretty much anything else. I’m compelled to do it. 

There’s that moment in the show where you’re talking about how it occurred to you at one point that painting could give you back what you lost from music. Has it really filled that hole for you? 
Yeah, yes. I mean, there’s not that thing where, like, you’re hovering off the ground and visiting God’s house for a while. You don’t quite get that, but you get something close.

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