Review by George Yatchisin
John Lurie, musician, artist, reluctant actor, avatar of 1980s downtown New York City cool, makes this pronouncement fifty pages in to his fascinating memoir The History of Bones, “Also, people always talk about talent. But really, of this I am quite certain. There is no such thing as talent, there is only cleaning the mirror.”
How better to clean one’s mirror than to pen a revealing memoir? You don’t have to read deep in the book to decide Lurie is an uncompromising artist more than willing to be an asshole, but by the end he seems more sinned upon than sinning.
Well, depending upon how you feel about drugs—it’s some kind of twisted cosmic joke on him that he’s lived through Keith Richards-esque amounts of heroin and cocaine only to have his health comprised by one tick bite on Long Island that gave him chronic Lyme disease. That said, he’s an honest addict, for the book makes heroin as rich and terrible and tempting as the Velvet Underground song about it. Then he tells of the occasion he was kicking heroin for the fiftieth time only to hear the news Thelonious Monk died. That anecdote ends, “If I have made drugs seem glamorous at any time in this book, which they can be from time to time . . . if you can’t make it to Thelonious Monk’s funeral because of your heroin problem, you are a pathetic loser.”
So, he’s indeed his harshest critic. Not that he doesn’t like what he’s done in his life, as he makes the case for all the beautiful, unusual music his band the Lounge Lizards (alternate names not chosen: The Sequined Eels or The Rotating Power Tools) made from 1979 until 1998, when he could no longer play saxophone because of his debilitating Lyme disease. The book testifies to all his practice and work developing a sound and engaging his mind and escaping a teen suburban hell of Worcester, Mass. One memorable anecdote has him deciding it was wise to ride a bike from Boston back to Worcester—that’s 45 miles—in 15-degree weather. There’s a lot of that kind of outlandishness throughout his life, a sense an artist has to push past what any “normal” person might think is a reasonable limit; the only thing harder to count than his heroin highs are his sexual conquests, which also seem more addictive than romantic. Early in the book he talks of a time someone asks if he wouldn’t, please, do something only for Lurie to write, “I tried to wouldn’t, but it was not possible.” That sums him up almost as well as the title of the Lizard’s best album, Voice of Chunk.
The book is a worthy read if for nothing else than to get a glimpse of lower eastside Manhattan in the dire and dynamic late 1970s and early ’80s—that first time he did heroin was at Debbie Harry and Chris Stein’s place, he’s a mentor/foil/antagonizer to Basquiat, and no fellow creative person seems hemmed in by genre, as musicians painted, painters made movies. On the other hand, things were so dangerous he got beaten up brutally more than once.
Throughout, though, it’s music that centers and saves him. He chronicles countless gigs, good and bad, disses and praises the Lounge Lizards revolving cast of musicians, from Arto Lindsay to Marc Ribot to his long-suffering brother Evan Lurie, and really captures both the tedium of the road and the highs of taking an audience with him when he felt he was truly nailing things. Unsurprisingly, the music industry is the villain of the piece, and he tries to go as quickly as possible through the lawsuits and dastardly shenanigans; suffice to say, few agents, assistants, or promoters escape unsullied. (I was sad to hear EG Records and the Knitting Factory turn out not to be the paragons of independent music I always assumed them to be.)
And then there’s the movies, where Lurie could never win. Either, it seems, people felt he was just being himself in quirky classics like Stranger than Paradise and Paris, Texas, therefore all credit went to the genius director who cast him, or he was called bad at his craft. A craft it turns out he doesn’t much appreciate anyway—it led to his fame, but also took so much away from his music. On top of that, there’s the Jim Jarmusch problem. Lurie not only insists that most of Stranger than Paradise was his idea, but he also goes even further, insinuating Jarmusch took a script Lurie was working on for Roberto Benigni, a fish out of water surrealist Western, and then suddenly came up with the Johnny Depp vehicle Dead Man.
Perhaps it can all be summed up by this fact—for a long time the book’s working title was What Do You Know about Music? You’re Not a Lawyer. So, most of these truly disastrous tales he bundles in one chapter he suggests you can skip. But he cannot not write them. Which makes sense, as this is a book that’s honest to a fault, and I use that cliché advisedly.
Oh, about the book’s title, there’s a Lounge Lizards song called “The Incredible History of Bones.” (For his memoir, he modestly edits out the incredible.) On one of their few national TV appearances in 1998, Conan O’Brien introduces them as follows, “Our next guests are here to perform their song ‘The Incredible History of Bones,’ which is not on their latest release Queen of All Ears. Please welcome John Lurie and the Lounge Lizards.” That they get a possibly commercial break only to thumb their noses at it, that even so late in the game Lurie got called out as the famous person with his back-up band, well, that’s so much of his story right there. And you can still find the clip on YouTube. The band kicks butt, starting slow and sinuous, building a groove, and then letting loose—this isn’t what anyone expects from televised music. Much more rotating power tools than lizards lounging, let alone his flip and regretted comment the band played “fake jazz.” There’s nothing fake about Lurie in the slightest.