SWINGING MODERN SOUNDS #30: What Is and Is Not Masculine

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Tad Friend’s profile of John Lurie in the 8/16-8/23 issue of The New Yorker from last year starts thus: “From 1984-1989, everyone in downtown New York wanted to be John Lurie. Or sleep with him. Or punch him in the face.” A curious and disheartening opening. Hard to think otherwise. And the profile does not improve in the column inches that follow. If the operative words for the magazine profile generally are “seduce and betray,” then Friend, whose eager surname might have tipped Lurie off, has done us all a service. He has fashioned one of the surpassingly obvious examples of seduction and betrayal—so straightforward as such that it should serve as a template for those considering profiling or allowing themselves to be profiled. Friend slyly alludes to the seduction part of the profiling job in sentence two, as shown above, and he completes the betrayal part of the job in sentence three—with fisticuffs. Then he finishes the graph with a bit of slang that is not quite slang—“He was the man.” Which means what exactly? What does this sentence ever mean? That masculinity consists in the foregoing, in punchability and fuckability?

Let’s be clear about why I’m writing about this profile, before going further, this profile about which I have been thinking about for a some months: I’m writing because I am a very partisan adherent of Lurie’s music, and an acquaintance of the man himself, and, I suppose, because I am a person who cares about what Lurie stands for: art, aesthetic ambition, sensitivity, openness, generosity, unpredictability. I’m writing about this profile, because I think this profile is a failure. It fails to do justice to its subject (opting instead to be clever and arch in that New Yorker way, clever, condescending, self-satisfied, off-handedly cruel, lazy, elitist, devoid of bona fide literary purpose), and actually supplants reasoned consideration of Lurie’s life as a whole for a willingness to do him genuine harm. It does him harm in ways that I will adduce below and which are unmistakable. And it does harm while neglecting Lurie’s music, an absence which is for me emblematic of Friend’s carelessness, especially when this is music by one of America’s few genuinely original composers in the eighties and nineties, who, with his insight into his form, changed much of the New York music that followed him.

Music would be a natural place to start a consideration of Lurie the man, but Friend does not start there, with music, he starts, as he must, since his piece is preoccupied with celebrity, with the movies.

But let’s begin again in the first paragraph, and think through the implications carefully: “From 1984-1989, everyone in downtown New York wanted to be John Lurie. Or sleep with him. Or punch him in the face.” First, we learn that everyone in “downtown New York,” a.k.a., “the known universe—basically,” thinks and behaves in exactly one way, in lockstep, has, identically, the same opinions, and the same opinion on the subject of Lurie and his reputation—and presumably this “everyone” necessarily includes Tad Friend himself, or at least this must be is the implication (because he is able to speak for the more general “everyone” without fear of opposition). We are all of us sitting around “the known world, basically,” and thinking about John Lurie and consumed by, well, envy.

Invention of Animals

Yes, what is the feeling delineated in wanting to “be” John Lurie, as indicated in Friend’s opening, what is the nature of that feeling? There’s no other word to describe Friend’s feeling, but envy, specifically something like professional envy, based on Lurie’s film roles, at least as articulated in the profile, in two films by Jim Jarmusch, Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law. Movies. A barometer of success in a degraded culture. That industry beloved of those preoccupied with lengthy IMDB résumés or with the numbers of clicks on this or that web site. Maybe Lurie’s success is enviable in the fact that at one point he finally had money to dry clean his suits, which Friend adduces as the sine qua non of achievement in the eighties (though as a graduate of Shipley and Harvard, his father, one-time president of Swarthmore College, it is hard to imagine that Friend was ever far from the blessings of PERC).

To bring up movies first (and dry cleaning), is to underestimate intentionally the music. How might one do otherwise? And yet: if one had parsed the available facts of the case a little further than what is commonly available, one would know that the “fake jazz” of the original Lounge Lizards, a term which Lurie himself abjures and has regretted publicly (and he is one of the men I know of who is best able to admit when his thinking has changed, or when he is wrong, and this seems to me a genuine sign of the masculine, this aspect of Lurie being but fleetingly caught in Friend’s description of his “lacerating candor” before the profile goes back to its cuteness), the term lasted the duration of exactly one album (the eponymously titled first album, produced by Teo Macero). The hip crowds who liked the swagger of “fake jazz” dematerialized in New York City rather quickly when the Lounge Lizards became more complex. The fault here would seem to lie with the audience, with the “known world, basically,” with the kinds of audience members who wanted to “sleep with” Lurie or “punch him in the face,” which is to say the heartless and artless and celebrity-afflicted, the profile writers, the would-bes, but nevermind. As Lurie himself has been quick to point out, the period in which, according to Friend, people wanted to be Lurie, was the period in which Lurie did not much want to be Lurie himself.

Here’s a composition from that very period: “I Remember Coney Island.” Allow me to say that some of the album, The Lounge Lizards, with its remarkable Cool Jazz black and white album cover, was a sort of shuck for people who thought jazz was all about a veneer of seriousness but didn’t really understand the work. There were compositions for these shallower listeners on the first album, like “Harlem Nocturne,” which has a sort of film noir feel to it, full of flatted fifths and sevenths and which you can imagine playing as the moll pulls off her stockings. But “I Remember Coney Island,” which is among the very earliest of Lurie compositions, refers both in title and in performance to something much more antic, and much more demanding. Its jazz shuffle is sped up to an almost unplayable velocity, and the drum part (by Anton Fier) is full of rolls and fits, and the arrangement careens through some keys and moods, and, with its skronk guitar part (Arto Lindsay), and its Vox organ (courtesy of Lurie’s brother Evan), it summons what was most demanding about No Wave (not punk!), that incredibly fertile NYC neighborhood ethos, while at the same time doing, arguably, some of what Dizzy Gillespie was doing, if Dizzy, e.g., was on crank at the time. You can’t imagine the cool audiences, the Steve Rubells and Rick Jameses of the period, thinking they were going to listen to this just for fun. It’s for people who give a shit about music, about how music is imagined, about what music can do, about how composition can reflect place and history and attitude.

Not included in the profile! At all! What is included, after the not very attractive opening about sleeping with and/or punching John, and then some rather sycophantic stuff about Lurie being the man, is a very thorough misunderstanding of what we will now refer to as John’s deadly serious and chronic illness.

What kind of sick is sick, according to Friend? Friend refers to the Lurie’s prolonged neurological malady first as a “mystery illness,”[i] which it is not, except for the fact that the long-term effects of Lyme Disease were, at an earlier point in medical history, somewhat in dispute—for the simple reason that all the mechanisms through which Lyme lays waste over time were not yet entirely understood. Tell that to the sufferers. As the disease continues to make itself felt in the Northeast, it continues to lay low some portion of the people who get it in very dire ways, and unluckily John Lurie is one of these, having by now been diagnosed by eight different purveyors of contemporary medicine with chronic Lyme Disease. Still and all, Lurie has had no end of difficulty in attempting to get reliable treatment—at least until very recently, when he began to have some modest improvement—and some of this despair about his physical well-being is native to him in conversation. I have seen a few of his bad days, and they are really bad. As I have written elsewhere, I was once lucky enough to read with Lurie (he’s working on a memoir), some years ago, and as part of the reading, he attempted to play his harmonica, and because of the intensity of the harmonica playing, he got up, from his stool, when finished, and immediately collapsed. It was one of the saddest things I have seen in my performing life, and I say this because I revere John Lurie the musician, and to see a world class musician play so briefly (and this expertly, I should add) and then walk out of the room and collapse, is not only sad, but you can tell immediately what the music costs, likewise what it costs not being able to do the thing you once loved to do, by reason of: mystery illness, as Friend puts it.

Cleopatra

And so: John Lurie was really sick for a very long time (though he did improve quite a bit in 2008), and I have seen him be really sick. “Mystery illness” sounds a great deal like it is blaming the victim, an interpretation that becomes increasingly obvious when the day on which Lurie fell ill is more noteworthy, in Friend’s profile, for his concerns about penile size than his illness. Friend correctly alludes in part to Lurie’s own later feelings about his plight[ii]—but in refraining from quoting Lurie directly about the illness, in refraining from putting the questions to him directly so as to get a journalistically credible quotation on this point, he makes this all sound more like a crazy, funny disease—the acronym, the use of “lame” to describe the acronym, when Lurie is precisely “lame,” or unable to walk easily, among other complaints. Is there no attempt, by the reporter to look into chronic Lyme and to attempt to understand it? Are all sufferers with “fibromyalgia” just neurotic women who need to lighten up and enjoy life?

The answer to this, the answer to why Friend so consistently misunderstands Lurie’s own accounts, supplanting the facts with clevernesses, with a sprinkling of the kinds of details beloved not of artists but of media workers, has partly to do with some primitive attempt to understand Lurie’s own gifts as a storyteller, Lurie who favors the eccentric detail. The eccentric detail also has something to do with what is great about Lurie’s music. Because strange details are a kind of modesty, they are Lurie refusing to dwell on the painful stuff in conversation. It’s in the music, yes, high feeling is always in the music, is always confronted there directly, not in words, but in music and its capacity for high feeling, and that is lost on Friend, because the music is lost on Friend, who considers it “borderline annoying,” and undestined to sell lots of copies. More copies would mean more interest would mean closer to the movies, or a cinematic level of cultural penetration, which would mean bingo! So before we go on, let’s pause here briefly to consider some more of the music entirely left out of Friend’s piece.

“Voice of Chunk” is from an album by the Lounge Lizards of the same name that is absolutely not “jazz-punk,” which was terminological shorthand. “Voice of Chunk,” is something quite other than “jazz-punk,” something quite astonishing and rare. “Voice of Chunk” began as a saxophone solo, as many of these later compositions did, this one being composed while Lurie was working on a movie with Roberto Benigni in Italy, after which it was fused to a Gnawa rhythm that Lurie had heard and admired. Lurie’s alto solo, which features some of the sounds he was developing in the middle and late eighties, far from the madding crowds of the professionally envious, has beautiful bent quarter tones, and a sort of wah sound he got out of the horn in those days, and the first iteration of the theme is done in call and response with (Roy Nathanson), which is followed by a furious and memorable guitar solo by Marc Ribot, who like almost every other jazz player of note in the nineties spent some time in the Lounge Lizards, and this solo is followed later by a sort of a Cuban rhythm played on piano by Evan Lurie, John’s brother, which in turn allows the saxophones to come in front again for the gentle and soaring theme, in unison at the end. The sound of “Voice of Chunk” is this sound of joy and determination and mild sorrow and bowling shoes and maps of the Orient, by which I mean “Voice of Chunk” is lost in the Casbah, smoking something dangerous, catching a glimpse of woman unveiled.

One thing that I have not said about Lurie’s later playing, is how it utterly avoids jazz cliché. There aren’t a lot of Ellingtonian music school harmonies, or the noirish melodies of the first Lounge Lizards album. Nor does Lurie, in the later iterations, race through a lot of modulations, the way a soloist might have done in the hard bop days. He makes key changes count, rather than exhibiting a sheer mastery for the sake of it. He sounds more European than American, therefore, which is perhaps why the Lounge Lizards were so popular in Europe. But what else does this pure tone imply? It implies a kind of delicacy, or the sort that we associate with the most incisive jazz players. Miles Davis with the mute on, for example. Or the John Coltrane of “My Favorite Things” or “India.” Yusef Lateef, playing his flute. The Lounge Lizards were capable of making an ungodly amount of racket—I know, I saw them play—but they were also capable of exceeding gentleness, and it’s in this way, perhaps, that they were more masculine than, a lot of, let’s say, cock rock bands, who needed distortion boxes and black leather and tuning their guitars down to the key of C, in order to lend seriousness to their endeavor. Lurie’s tone is pure, and almost world-music vernacular, as if he were a trained singer who eschewed vibrato, and it’s the capacity for this purity, and the beauty with which he wrote his themes in the eighties and early nineties that makes him the man that he was and is.

The “mystery illness” section of Friend’s profile is ungenerous and unforgiving about John’s illness, things Lurie never is himself (he is excessive, sometimes, he is touchy, he is despairing, he holds people to a high standard, but he is never ungenerous), but this writing about the illness is nothing compared to how the article treats Lurie’s stalker. In fact, the account of Lurie’s stalker, according to Lurie (and he is the man of “lacerating candor” after all), was intended to be only incidental in the article.[iii] The profile was going to be about Lurie’s burgeoning career as a painter (the medium that best suits him right now), but instead the stalker takes up two-thirds of the whole, in column inches, and maybe three-quarters of its spirit, which is part of why the whole is undeniably grinding and unpleasant.

Among the crimes of this portion of the profile, beside its inclusion in the piece in the first place, was the decision to use the name of the person doing the stalking in this, a national magazine. What led Friend to think this was the correct approach? Lurie himself was nervous about using the name of the guy in question[iv] and urged Friend to consider another solution. Lurie’s concern was not entirely about how using his name might enrage the stalker, rattle him, and thus make him less likely to abandon his campaign. Nope. Lurie was against using the name of the stalker, because he was really worried about destroying the guy’s life. This is the kind of impractical generosity that I associate with Lurie: he found using the name of the stalker unjust.

And yet: Friend seems to have been unable to resist the allure of the gossipy part of this grim story, the story of two acquaintances who fell out dramatically and the dramatic consequences thereafter, and if you think like a tabloid writer, or like a hack, it’s perhaps possible to understand why this would seem like the meat of the story on John Lurie (ostensible subject of the profile); it’s the meat of the story if you are a meat-and-potatoes guy, a fetishist of parodistic ideas of the masculine, but it has nothing to do with who John Lurie is among family and friends. And once Friend makes this decision, to use the name of the stalker (I will refrain from using it here), the story just plunges off the cliff into unremitting tawdriness. It is more than painful to read. It is long, boring, and devoid of insight.

Let’s pause over some of the mistakes, for there are a great number of mistakes. For example, Friend talks around the word “stalker,” using it mainly when quoting Lurie himself, although he does say that P—- “stalked” Lurie, in the past tense, in contradistinction to Lurie’s catalogue of harassments that continue unabated to this day.[v] Which implies, right from the outset, that Friend’s account structurally, functionally, and affectively gives P—- equal time. Friend’s account gives Lurie’s stalker equal time. Imagine, for example, if an article about David Letterman’s ongoing problem with Margaret Mary Ray invited her to have her chance to defend her position, I just really loved him!, and then followed up with a few of Letterman’s detractors and gave them some time on the show, too, in order to bolster Ray’s claims. Or imagine if the article on Sarah Palin allowed the disturbed guy heading up to Alaska with his gun to have a full airing out of his life story and his ambitions for the future, whatever the cost to the Palins. Because of her politics she must die! This is the effective methodology here, and it has an even more invidious effect, an unconscionable effect, over the course of the piece. By giving equal time Friend effectively makes Lurie sound crazy, or like he’s overreacting, or like he is on trial for being on trial, and thus in the unenviable position of having to defend himself twice over, not only from P—-, but also from Friend.

Here’s a digest—and if you already know the story feel free to skip ahead, because it is a very long story, and a story entirely less interesting than Lurie’s work. P—, a visual artist of not significant notoriety, wanted to make a how to draw instructional video, and asked his acquaintance John Lurie to be the first subject for the series, this despite the fact that P—- claimed that Lurie’s fame was of no great importance to him (thereby indulging in the lie that tells the truth), “It would be natural to assume that we all felt John was the man,[vi] the way he had been, but the truth is that, downtown, we were the famous ones, in a sense, and John was like our little brother.” And: “I didn’t need John to get in anywhere, or to get laid. There was nothing John had that I wanted, except more recognition for my work.” The last perception apparently accounts for P—-‘s engaging Lurie’s services for his promotional video, a not-terribly-good idea, right from the outset—drafting your very ill acquaintance as your first subject.

It is probably legitimately the case that: P— paid a fair amount for a crew and worked hard to borrow a suitable apartment from a friend. But Lurie’s illness (as I know myself) flares up capriciously, and especially under bright lights. And so during a shoot that was supposed to take forty minutes and took four and a half hours John got really sick (Friend, having apparently seen the video, concurs on this point), and could not finish. In fact, Lurie collapsed outside the apartment, upon attempting to leave, as I have seen him do elsewhere. He required P—- to help put him in a cab. The video went uncompleted.

In the days afterward, Lurie volunteered to complete the shoot, but not to forgive the grim circumstances thereof, but P—-, after having given some mixed signals about who was paying for the shoot, demanded that Lurie foot the bill. This seems to have had a great deal to do with Lurie’s refusal to look at a rough cut of the video. This portion of the story, even in Friend’s version, does not reflect well on P—-, who it’s worth mentioning had already been involved with the law, episodically, beating a bouncer in 1998, holding off two policemen with a baseball bat in 2008, etc. There was an abundance of accounts to this effect that Friend did not include, in fact, though he certainly managed to include a great number of inaccurate hearsay about Lurie (including remarks in the article that were either largely or entirely fabricated about Matt Dillon, Tom Waits, Willem Dafoe, Woody Allen, etc.; in fact, almost none of these remarks about “famous people” checks out, unless you believe unsubstantiated third parties, or J— P—-).

The Anchor Is Stuck. I Cannot Go Anywhere. Time For a Sandwich.

Now, if you accept the idea that P—-effectively stalks Lurie, if by stalking we mean, to pursue or follow in a stealthy, furtive, or persistent manner, and if you accept that stalking amounts to compulsive, sociopathy of a certain kind, in which deceit and fabrication are fairly normative activities, a conclusion that seems difficult to controvert, then you have to accept that Friend, by interviewing P— gave a rather large platform to P—- in which, on the one hand, to make himself look reasonable, and, on the other, to make his case seem much less ill and obsessive and lethal and imaginary than it in fact is. Friend goes at length into P—‘s early life, and in the process, by giving him the full benefit of a magazine profile that was ostensibly about Lurie, ennobles him to a degree, to the point of, and this I find rather shocking, giving P— a full page photograph, which includes, in the rear of the image, a painting by P—. Meanwhile, though, Friend alleged to Lurie that he loved his paintings and that these were such as to lead him to write the profile in the first place, no image by Lurie is included. From the profile, what you would know about Lurie’s paintings is that, well, they are often very funny.[vii]

So: after the shoot, according to Friend, P—- walked across the Queensboro Bridge and contemplated plunging in (because a video shoot didn’t go well!), and, not long after, he called Time-Warner cable, pretending to be Lurie (is that legal?), to see if he, Lurie, had left the shoot early to watch a boxing match. And if he did, what of it? Is Lurie meant to guarantee that he set aside time after the shoot to gnash his teeth and rend his garments? When Lurie didn’t immediately compile a response to the seven-minute edit of the video shoot, some days later, P—- went, according to Friend, off the deep end, and began “speed-dialing” Lurie.

What does this mean? What does “speed-dialing” mean in Friend’s account? Apparently there is some discrepancy between Lurie and P—- about how many calls consists of harassment. P—- apparently says he called “thirty or forty” times, which is the figure Friend uses, whereas Lurie says more like a hundred, or, more precisely, “He called me on speed dial every few second for seven hours.” If true, let’s say three calls a minute, to be judicious, which would be 180 calls an hour, times seven hours, or something like twelve hundred calls. A constant stream of calls. But this is madness, this splitting of the hairs over how many calls constitutes harassment, just to entertain Friend’s reductive version of the story. One call is not harassment, arguably, or perhaps two, just to make sure the message is received. But any number above three is disturbed, and anyone who calls you thirty times, much less a hundred, unless to tell you about a death in your family, is not your friend. At some point, Lurie picked up the device and encountered P—- on the line, and what P—- said to him here is, well, in Friend’s supposedly fact-checked version it is, “Come down and talk to me, cocksucker,” and presumably the cocksucker is included in order to insure the masculinity-verging-on-gayness theme soon to be promoted by Friend. Lurie’s version has P—-, he of the code of honor, saying something like “Come get what you deserve.” After this exchange, Lurie got out of town. He had, it bears repeating, done nothing wrong, unless your idea of wrong is suffering with a neurological complaint and growing fatigue under bright lights.

Next day, P—- went to the police, and filed harassment charges against Lurie, so that whatever P—– did to him, Lurie, next would seem like “self-defense.” Pay close attention here, because P—- is still alleged to be a friend of Lurie’s, the kind of friend who calls thirty, or twelve hundred, times the night after Lurie collapses during a video shoot, demanding that he cover the cost of the shoot, and who then files a spurious harassment charge with the police the very next day. The question before us, for the sake of the story, is, again, what constitutes stalking? To pursue or follow in a stealthy, furtive, or persistent manner? Stalking, generally speaking, at least when it is practiced upon celebrities, is a kind of veneration, and desire for exclusivity that is utterly inappropriate, and relentless, and which may end in violence, has ended in violence. There are specific aspects of the criminal charge of stalking, and by nearly all of these accounts, what P— did in the months following, repeated calls, veiled threats, hacked computer accounts, and so on, qualifies, and P—, while using what appears to be remarkable capabilities enabling him to pass as a civilian when it is essential to do so, is still able to admit to the utterly bizarre, as though it is normal: “I decided then to embark on a course of using the demons of [Lurie’s] own mind coupled with his lack of character to share with him the fear and frustration he had dispensed upon me.” Note the overwriting here, especially dispensed upon me. It’s almost enough to cause the casual reader to forget: You mean you were trying to make your former friend fear for his life because you lost $6000 on a slightly desperate idea for an instructional video?

The calls, the hacked computers, and so on, made sure that the demons remained active. P—- called, and had his voice masked as Michael Jackson, P—- called, when Lurie fled to Granada, somehow apparently having learned of his whereabouts, and managed to suggest as much on the phone, It would be nice to sleep down there in the sand, though no one knew of Lurie’s whereabouts except his assistants. Lurie, you recall, was very ill, prone to alarm and to cognitive glitches as a result. He was scared.

The Skeleton In My Closet Has Moved Back Out to the Garden

Here’s another really great song, a very strange song in the repertoire of The Lounge Lizards. “Yak,” from Queen of All Ears. A rare vocal moment from Lurie, who usually lets the horn do the talking. Apparently the song began as a bass line first, a really great bass line, half funk, half mathematics, a bass line then joined by a Vox organ sound, an organ sound of the kind that we associate more with ? and the Mysterions, or with the No Wave period of club music in New York City, and therefore with the first Lounge Lizards album. Once we have the bass, and some slippery drum fills, and the organ, and a bit of slide, the horns come in, and the horn charts are luscious and ebullient, not like the horn section in a soul song, but like the horn section in Fela Kuti, or in certain ska bands. It’s an infectious groove that we have here on “Yak,” but that is nothing, when compared with what happens when the story begins. Originally, as Lurie tells it, “Yak” was a vamp that he used to introduce the band in certain live shows, before the encores. And you can see why: high energy. But then the composer was in Japan with jet lag, and was in the state of mitigated consciousness that goes with exile, with lack of sleep, with abundant managerial responsibilities, and in this state of mitigated consciousness he, Lurie, woke, and found, scribbled on a pad beside his bed, the word “Feed a fever, starve the yak.” Almost immediately Lurie introduced, from whole cloth, the story of the yak, live, onstage, to the delight of the band (it begins, appropriately enough: “This is a story about a small but strong and proud man, who woke up one morning and looked at his ceiling and said, ‘What I love in this life is God, my farm, and my family’”), and in the process the story began to extrude its cloven hooves, its additional material (“the strange and unusual beast called the yak”), sometimes improvised, but eventually accruing a certain shape, a shape in which the farmer, ultimately, is killed by a rake left out in the yard, after which the yak insists on taking over the farmer’s property, with a series of completely outlandish cries, avowals of devotion to the farmer’s wife, “Come to me on the hill! Come to me on the hill! Come to me on the hill!”

It’s all about the vocal delivery here, but it’s also about the mixture of comedy, and, somehow, a strange earnestness, a folkloric shape of the story, but also the improvised delivery. Is Lurie counting the numbers of repetitions of the rhythm section? Does he have a fixed amount of text to get through? No, he’s just telling the story, “Give the yak some toast, give the yak some toast, give him, some, uh, there’s some oatmeal here, give him some Raisinets.” What makes this jazz—if in fact that is what it is (and it’s worth using this word precisely as a variant on “punk-jazz,” or “fake jazz”)—is not the horns, which are great, and which are, ultimately, John Lurie’s secret weapon, but the way the story gets told, in line lengths that are improvised, crammed in, raced through, and the kind of devotion to this improvised, provisional, but deeply felt expression that we find in Lurie’s storytelling. The story is like the alto or soprano solo in this song, and in Lurie’s work, generally, since he stopped playing his horn. There is great earnestness in him as a storyteller, and “lacerating candor,” but there is also a lot of humor, and a lot of commitment to a line because it sounds good as a line. As if the story is the medium now, but the influences are still Mingus, Monk, Ornette.

Friend tries briefly to understand what motivates a piece like “Yak,” but it’s hard for him to get there. The best he can do is: “Yet Lurie’s former manager Sara Rychtarik observed that ‘with John, the doing of the art is a flow, but there’s an obsessive perfectionism about its presentation,’” and, in some backward way, the centerless profileless profile that Friend has written about Lurie does, formally speaking, seem to amount to more a contribution to flow than it amounts to the truth of the matter, especially when the best Friend can do to describe the music that comes out of Lurie’s flow is “a brassy, exuberant, borderline-annoying pulse of sound.” Somehow pulse really rankles here. Above all the word pulse seems unjust, since the whole notion of pulse is a strictly minimalist idea, an idea made seminal in Glass or Reich, music that wants for the slippery unpulsed rhythmics of jazz, and of Lurie’s beloved West African music. The Lounge Lizards did a lot of different things, but they never pulsed.

Meanwhile: on and on, Friend’s piece goes, ticking off the evidence for the fact that there is something very gay about all of this stuff, an interpretation of events that is Friend’s,[viii] and which finally gets parceled into a sort of performance art theory of what happened between Lurie and P—-:

“Both men were avowedly heterosexual, but Lurie felt that P—-’s
behavior . . . suggested a rebuffed lover. It brought back to his mind
the time that P—- had walked in while he was taking a bath and
remarked, ‘You’ve got a beautiful penis.’ P—-denies any intent to
imply that he would punish Lurie sexually, saying ‘I knew that
keeping it deliberately vague would infuriate him.’ He adds, ‘I’m
sure I might have said, ‘You’ve got a good-looking cock there, my
friend,’ but I would not have used the word ‘beautiful’ about a
friend’s penis.”

Is this not entirely absurd? This entire passage? Even a bit loathsome? Is not a gay interpretation, or a performance art interpretation which later supervenes on the gay interpretation patently ridiculous, when part of what is at stake is the security and piece of mind of a person and his former reputation as a performer and composer? Is it not reductio ad absurdum?

And here is another of Friend’s even more bogus theoretical adventures in the piece: “The dream of the artist—which is simply the dream of friends and lovers, magnified—is to plant themselves in other people’s heads. By this standard, J—- P—- has created a masterpiece.” And, just below that passage: “The protracted duet has become a kind of living performance piece, but neither man is able to see it as art: P—- because he views himself solely as a painter, and Lurie because he never before associated art with a fear death. Curiously, though, the struggle seems to have inspired them both; artists sometimes require an enemy.” This passage is the fame-monger’s idea of what art is. This is a writer of celebrity profiles affecting to have insight into art. Demonstrating again that art is only about audience reaction. That opposition and enmity and domination produce great results. Only a man (and man seems to be an operative word here) who could write the opening of this piece, about sleeping with Lurie, or punching John Lurie, only that writer could imagine that a protracted struggle with a dangerously obsessive-compulsive stalker with an avowed “code of honor,” who has committed violence in the past, could refer to this shameful tale as a work of art.[ix]

This is all more than I can accept from a major national magazine, or putatively the best magazine in the country, and from a writer of reputation. This piece is riddled with mistakes, and they have been fully enumerated by Lurie, who lodged all these complaints with the august New Yorker,[x] without satisfaction. 1) Friend says the person most in tune with Lurie’s needs at a certain point was J— P—-. Of which Lurie observes, “When I was most ill, I did not see or hear from P—- once, between the years 2002 and 2007. He came back into my life for about a month in 2007, when i started to get well. He came back and in the neediest way imaginable.” 2) Friend asserts multiply that P—- lives to paint, but according to Lurie, “The P—- I knew was hawking the same eight paintings since 1995—they made him look like a starving artist. But he never painted.” 3) Friend asserts that P—- taught Lurie how to paint in oils: “He spent part of an afternoon showing me how to mix linseed oil with paint.” 4) Friend argues that Lurie’s girlfriend, Jill, found some postings online by P—- sympathetic or reasonable. Of which Lurie argued, to the fact checking department at The New Yorker: “No one on the planet found what he was posting reasonable. Two people who’d had stalkers sent me messages saying P—- was a pathological narcissist and that he was likely to contact someone close to me—either to make me look hysterical or to make it look like it was all a big mistake. Which he did, with Jill. Jill only met P—- twice—and didn’t like him or trust him.” 5) And Lurie never “mouthed off” to Woody Allen, Tom Waits still speaks to Lurie from time to time, he never disparaged David Byrne, and Willem Dafoe is not “theoretically” Lurie’s friend, he is his actual friend. And on and on and on.[xi]

So: Tad Friend believes that Lurie is “the man,” and offers to profile him with “no surprises,” making special mention of Lurie’s painting, and then belittles Lurie’s illness, names his stalker, interviews his stalker at great length, and then, despite a police order that forbade P—- from contacting Lurie, Friend carries messages back and forth between, in order to dignify the point of view of Lurie’s stalker, rather than Lurie’s more than reasonable worries about his own safety, fails to described Lurie’s paintings beyond saying they are humorous, includes a photographs of Lurie’s stalker’s painting, refers to a mere paragraph of P—-‘s autobiographical ramblings as a memoir when Lurie has written an entire 340 page memoir, implies that the whole conflict has a whiff of the gay about it, implies that the whole conflict is a performance art piece, and fails to describe in any comprehensive way who John Lurie is, as a person, a loyal, forthright, and genuine person, and if all of that is not bad enough, he never bothers to describe Lurie’s music, though music was Lurie’s life, unto the advent of his illness. The result is exceedingly boring. The result is a profile that wanders around in conjecture and half-baked psychological theorizing to no purpose at all, except that Friend, and, by extension, the editorial staff of The New Yorker, must imagine that this salacious and tawdry narrative, whose broad outlines are mostly concocted by Friend himself, is somehow interesting.[xii] It’s not. It’s ugly and dull and perhaps even morally embarrassing, at least if you give a shit about art, music, literature, or the loftier aspirations of man and woman. It’s a shame to help a very ill man out of his retirement, in order to metaphorically “punch him in the face,” or, perhaps, to metaphorically seduce him before punching him in the face, or, perhaps, to subject him to a sort of trial in which it’s he who is untrustworthy, and unbelievable, when all he has been is ill and subjected to the ongoing harassment of someone who is clearly not well himself. All while leaving out the poetry and the art.  And though the piece traffics in the masculine, in this idea that what happens between men is extreme fighting and threats and disquisitions on one another’s penises, it’s precisely what Lurie has, loyalty, generosity, sentimentality, the love of children, that makes him more admirable, most estimable, as a man than the other two men who orbit around him in the piece.[xiii]

One last song, therefore. “Big Heart,” which comes from the album of the same name. Starts with drums, with some talking drum, or some other African drums, admixed with a regular kit, a totally infectious drum part, and Lurie himself enters first, alongside a few arpeggiated chords on piano, and then the bass, which locks in with the drums, but which is exceedingly melodic, too, and after a few measures of this groove and the melody as stated by Lurie’s sax, all the horns dance around in for a while, in the warm, familiar cove of melody, and just when the whole thing seems so joyous as to be almost ecstatic, like the early part of an Albert Ayler song, when Ayler is still playing the melody of some old hymn, the drums fall out and skitter around for a bit, because it’s live, it’s all happening in front of some audience in Tokyo, and the Marc Ribot gets his solo, which reminds me that Ribot once told Syd Straw, who once told me, that it didn’t really matter what notes you played, as long as you played them in a rhythmically satisfying way, and a lot of Ribot’s solo on “Big Heart” is of this variety, completely impulsive, and big hearted, rising from cephalopodical ravings to reprise Lurie’s melody for a little while, Lurie’s beautiful and insistent melody, before the whole thing shifts back to its horn-iteration, and what is the purpose of this song if not to make big-heartedness seem plausible as a musical statement, to inductively prove big-heartedness, if big-heartedness doesn’t have something amphetamine about it, something that makes the heart race, ecstasy and impulsiveness, community, etc.; in this song, masculinity is what’s feminine, melody, coupled with rhythm, the two things make music, music which is about feeling, not an absence of feeling, but a growth of sentiment, and an apperception of movement in the world.

If that’s not enough for you, if that’s not enough heart, here are a couple of final links, the first consisting of just Lurie and two drummers, Calvin Weston and Billy Martin. Lurie playing solo saxophone. It’s brave and moving, this recording, like the man himself. If it’s true his music is lost now, if he has done all the music-making that he’s going to do, in part because of injustices like Friend’s profile, the least we can do is try to preserve its vitality and passion for those who might chance across it in the coming years:

And then this, “Small Car (ck),” from one of Lurie’s last recorded documents (link TK), his alter ego Marvin Pontiac, another brilliant piece of riffology, in which Lurie makes a trip into the Gulliverian land where “very small farmers” drive in “very small cars.” The guitars are all West African, the groove is West African, as is the call and response between Lurie speaking/singing monologue, and the massed women doing the backing vocals, “In a car, in a car, in a small car, in a small car, driving . . .” The birds swoop down on the cars in a friendly fashion . . . These farmers had some fear, but they were strong, these farmers . . . I have only one thing to say to you, I have one thing to say to you . . . At the completion of which there is the bright, irrepressible laughter of a woman.

___________________________________________________________

“One day in June of 2002, Lurie worked out hard to prepare for an expected nude scene in the HBO prison drama Oz. Afterward, he went to the West Village restaurant Da Silvano, still thinking about ways to enhance his appearance—‘I wanted to make my penis look enormous onscreen’—and then suddenly the world was spinning violently and he couldn’t move. ‘I had never been afraid to die before,’ Lurie said. ‘I had always thought either you go to the light or it fades to black. But now this creepy, ignoble, wormlike force rose up in me, saying, ‘I don’t want to die!’”—The New Yorker, August 16, 2010.  Note how happy the profile is to say the words Da Silvano!

“The following weeks brought a cascade of strange and overpowering symptoms: flashing lights and roaring sounds, a sensation like rain pouring on his skin, a Kryptonite-like reaction to Windex, an inability to hold so much as a skillet in his left hand. His condition was diagnosed as multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, and about ten other things, including postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, or POTS, a verdict he resented because its acronym was so lame. Lurie finally came to believe that he had chronic Lyme disease—a condition whose very existence, as he wryly acknowledged, was fiercely disputed in the medical commuity.” The last bit here, the wry acknowledgment, is more than contested by Lurie, who has never wryly spoken on the subject at all, though he did have to work through the competing agendas of many in the medical community to get a firm diagnosis, which he did by 2006. The wry acknowledgement is in the mind of the profiler alone.

There is e-mail to support this.

“On a human and spiritual level,” Lurie wrote, “this is very hard to figure out what is the correct thing to dobecause by simply telling my story it will have a devastating effect on someone else, someone I once cared about. No matter how grotesque, insane, or detrimental to my welfare his actions have been.” –Letter from Lurie to Friend, 2/2/2011, provided by Lurie.

And the whole public way that Lurie has been harassed by the acquaintance in question is so public now that you only have to go on the Internet for a few minutes to find bitter invective on the subject. For example, on Lurie’s Wikipedia page–interested parties are invited there to read the “edit history.”

Here’s that word again. Italics mine.

Friend does not, for example, include a reproduction of Lurie’s recent imagine that has the words “Somebody please fucking help me,” written on it.

Though various forensic psychiatrists of Lurie’s acquaintance have also advanced it.

It is worth pointing out, however, that P—- and Lurie do in fact agree about thing: they both detest Tad Friend’s profile.

Here are some exchanges between Lurie and the fact-checking dept., to support my observation concerning the high-handed and conjectural way in which the piece was composed:

Passage from article as cited by fact-checking: ‘After speaking with Tad Friend, Stephen Torton called me and said proudly, “I told them what Basquiat said – that you were the only artist equal to him.’” Lurie’s comment to the NY’er: “How did this get turned around? And how did it now get attributed to me? I never said that I was the only artist to Basquiat.”

Passage from profile, according to fact-checking:“[Mutual friends Wayne and Dominic] told you that P—- said he wasn’t going to hurt you, but that he believed you had messed up the shoot and therefore had to pay for it.” Lurie’s comment to the NY’er: “No – no one said anything like that.” –  Wayne said – “He is insane. Call the police.” which he confirmed to Tad.  After speaking with P—-, Wayne said that he had to hurt me because of his “code of honor” and never strayed from this and said P—- could not be reasoned with. He also said that it was not about the video shoot but something that had happened years ago. Dominic insisted he could talk to P—- and get him to be rational—Dom would call me and say it was over, that he had solved it and then an hour or day later I would get another insane call or email from P—-. (And, as Tad knows – Wayne and Dominic can hardly be termed ‘mutual friends.’)”

Fact checking: “That day P—- called your apartment, and Nesrin answered and told him you were taking a nap.” Lurie: “NO – P—- called 30 or 40 times BEFORE nesrin answered and said I was sleeping and that if he kept calling he would wake me.” Fact-checking: “P—- told Nesrin, “Go wake his ass up.” Lurie: “NO -  according to Nesrin  - when she said I was asleep – he said – ‘no! he is not! ‘ and then over and over – ‘go and wake him up! wake him up! go and wake him up!’ SEE NESRIN’S E-MAIL”

Fact-checking: “Some of your friends felt you had grown too paranoid.” Lurie: “No that is not true – people who knew little about the situation just couldn’t believe it was real. But none of my real friends thought I was paranoid. Only people who did not know the facts. But this is what has me very very nervous about the article – I made an assessment of the situation based on many facts and things I was told that apparently are not going to be in the article. If these things are omitted then I assume your readers will also think of me as paranoid. Tad has to take into account that the people who really know P—‘s nature were terrified to talk to him. Pat Dillett’s Spy vs Spy thing really doesnt work for me because it turns out that I had no idea who P—- was – When I called Mo he said that there was a girl named Zoe who moved out of New York because she thought P—- was going to rape her. I understand that the Zoe story is hearsay but that that is what Mo told me and that this affected my assessment certainly is not hearsay. Same thing with P—-’s ex – she told me that he prided himself on waiting longer than his victim before he attacked. That he had a history of doing this to people. I couldnt believe it – I had absolutely no idea. P—-’s reaction to him coming to Big Sur to assist me and that I would  bring someone to shop and cook was just so strange I should have known something was going to happen – he would stamp his feet on the floor like someone had taken a 4 year old’s ice cream away and yell  - no! we have to go alone!!! I think this is most relevant.”

Fact-checking: “You told Tad you wouldn’t apologize because your fault was minor.” Lurie’s comment: “What???I have searched and searched for my fault in this – but cannot find it. I wish i could If I could find it or someone could show me – I would be more than happy to apologize. I have no idea – none – what I did wrong. I have asked Tad if I did anything wrong that I dont see, repeatedly as he is more objective  and each time he has said no. So this is very odd  and surprising to me.”

Also: “I never said – I am the only real artist who survived – nor do I believe anything like that. I am confused what I might have said that was interpreted as such.”

There are many more such exchanges, all of them saved by Lurie, and amounting to an extremely long document of dubious moments creeping into the profile. The vast majority of these changes were not included in the finished piece.

Again, just in case you think it worth accepting Friend’s idea that the stalking and harassment continues to this day, check out this web site, which collects a lot of the threads of the story, including along the way a phenomenally long item-by-item rant by P—-, a rant including lots of adolescent posturing: http://www.dangerousminds.net/comments/is_john_P—-_a_phantom_in_john_luries_head/.

As in Friend’s line “Celebrity has the power to rivet.” Huh? This is so TMZ.com.

Astute followers of this story in all its attenuations will recognize that I have left P—-‘s recent hunger strike out of this piece. I have done so for two reasons: 1) because I am writing a piece here about Tad Friend and The New Yorker profile of John Lurie, and 2) because I continue to feel that J—- P—- should have been left out of the Friend profile initially and thus should be ancillary to this essay too. For the record, I feel that P—-‘s hunger strike of May 2011, in which he refused nourishment until The New Yorker apologized for the profile in question, was bizarre, and evidence of considerable disregard for his own physical well being (arguably a symptom of mental illness). Further, because it ended utterly inconclusively, with The New Yorker standing by their story (when has a magazine done otherwise?), and then weaseling around thus: [New Yorker] “Makes No Contention That P—- Has a History of Persecutory Behavior or That He Might Stalk Others In The Future,” which may have been enough for the lawyers, and for P—- to eat again, but which, it bears mentioning, fell well short of saying that P—- has not stalked Lurie. The New Yorker sold Lurie out, again, by appeasing a seriously troubled and dangerous person, but they also did not say that P—- had not stalked Lurie. Ergo, no new ground was broken, as regards the truth of the story. Everything just got a bit more tawdry.


Rick Moody is the author of five novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and most recently a volume of essays entitled ON CELESTIAL MUSIC. The Wingdale Community Singers, in which he plays and sings, have released three albums, of which the most recent is NIGHT, SLEEP, DEATH (on Blue Chopsticks/Drag City). His new novel will be released in 2015. More from this author →