Painting an Unhappy Tree: John Lurie on His New Series

Larson Sutton on January 19, 2021
Painting an Unhappy Tree: John Lurie on His New Series

John Lurie has learned to master the pivot.  It’s a survival move that has enabled the multi-hyphenate artist-musician-composer-director-producer-actor to spend the decades of the ’80s and ‘90s as a saxophonist and songwriter, leading the improvisations of a no-wave jazz ensemble-The Lounge Lizards- at downtown NYC hip hangs such as The Knitting Factory and sold-out theatres across Europe, drafting the theme song for Late Night with Conan O’Brien, helming soundtracks for indie nuggets like Manny and Lo, and earning a Grammy nomination for his Get Shorty score. 

Then, when a severe bout with Lyme took over his life, Lurie shifted to painting, devoting his time to dozens of fever dream watercolors, often ascribed with titles, at once, literal and cryptic; “They were weird.  But they saw something even weirder” just one example.  He showed his work online- on Twitter and his own website- and in galleries in New York, Los Angeles, and Tokyo.  Too, he was an actor when he wanted to be, as likely to be jailed with Roberto Benigni and Tom Waits in Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law as he was an apostle in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ

At the turn of the 21st century, Lurie concocted a pseudo-reality, documentary TV series turned cult favorite, Fishing With John, that paired him with Waits, or Jarmusch, or Dennis Hopper, for exotic fishing trips with entertainingly mixed results.  In recent years, Lurie battled cancer, but managed to dig out some unreleased tracks from his vault for a John Lurie National Orchestra release, The Invention of Animals, and issue two Marvin Pontiac records; Pontiac, his fictional, mythical bluesman committed to a state mental hospital whose “existence” fooled, and subsequently irritated, more than a few believing journalists. 

Now, at the dawn of 2021, comes Painting with John, premiering on January, 22 at 11 PM EST on HBO and streaming on HBO Max.  Featuring his original music, the six-episode season starring and written and directed by Lurie brings all of his creative pursuits together into a half-dozen, 30-minute bursts of idiosyncratic and whimsical storytelling, advice, and a “search for an inner adult.”  Over the course of several days of email, the somewhat-reclusive Lurie discussed the recurring role of music in his life and work, the origins of the new show, and his disagreement with TV’s other famous painter.

Music, as well as organic sounds, are omnipresent throughout, including you, almost reflexively, humming and singing little melodies.  If your painting could be seen as the spine of the show, the heartbeat of Painting With John is the soundtrack; entirely of which is your music.  Was this intentional- to have your music as almost a sub-topic; the subject of stories; scoring your painting? 

I can see how you see it like that but no, it was not intentional, at least not at the start.  Erik Mockus (camera operator and editor) set that in motion.  I thought there would be only a tiny bit of painting and it would be mostly me telling stories and occasionally fooling around with (co-stars) Ann Mary (Gludd James) and Nesrin (Wolf), if they were comfortable with the camera being on them.  I was worried I might have a tough time being filmed while I paint and also thought that it would be boring to watch someone painting for any amount of time.  Erik sat at the breakfast table with his computer and, after a day, he had put together this one-minute thing of me painting to the music from “Goodbye to Peach.”  I was surprised at how well it worked and then completely shocked at the raving reactions I got when I emailed the clip out to a few people.

It does work well; like two sides of the same coin.  Are you ever actually listening to music while you paint?

No, never.  Or very rarely.  When I got really ill with the Lyme, I could not only not play anymore, but for years, I could not listen.  Music hurt to listen to.  Whatever music does to someone neurologically that makes it pleasant became something different and quite awful.  Like fingernails on a blackboard.  So I shut music out of my life and out of my mind.  I am a lot better now and can listen to music but I never listened to music casually.  When I listen, that is what I am doing- I am really listening.  Occasionally, I will play some Ali Farka Toure pieces when I paint but not often.

Though the show is set in the Caribbean, you are probably most identified as a New York City guy.  Was there any thought of doing this in New York?

I don’t really live in New York anymore.  The only thing with the island is, if you have a toothache, the dentist there says, “I can pull it for you but can’t do anything else.”  So if you have a dental or medical problem it is best to deal with it in New York.

There’s video of you on YouTube, from several decades ago in the middle of a Lounge Lizards performance in Europe, talking about the “fast painter” (Bob Ross).  In Painting With John‘s first episode, titled “Bob Ross Was Wrong,” you declare boldly that Ross was wrong.  What is it about Bob Ross that has made him such an evocative subject for so many years for you?

He isn’t really an evocative subject for me.  I used to watch him.  But he is an evocative subject somehow; everybody knows Bob Ross.  So of course, I refer to him if I am making a painting show.  I am already getting labeled the Anti Bob Ross, but I am not anti-Bob Ross at all.  I appreciate him quite a bit.  I am just talking shit.  The only thing I knew for sure is that I wanted to paint a tree and say how unhappy my tree was.

If it’s true that Ross was wrong and everyone can’t paint, what about music?  Can anyone make music worth listening to?

Damn, man, are you kidding?  Don’t you ever watch the Super Bowl halftime shows?

Your various medical issues, including Lyme and cancer, have made it nearly impossible for you to play music anymore like you had before.  How much do you miss it and why?

At this point, I just can’t play the saxophone, though I did take it out and bought some reeds.  But I used to have such violent attacks when I played, I am a little tentative about trying.  I can play the guitar, banjo, and harmonica.  I made that Marvin (Pontiac) record a couple of years ago, which I am pleased with.  But no, I don’t want to get into how much I miss it and why.  I have never actually gone there in my mind, to think about that loss.  It’s too much.

For me, the thrill of The Lounge Lizards live experience hinged on combustible moments of improvisation within the framework.  What is it that happens when a musician is playing live that doesn’t happen at any other point in the process of creating music?

Man, when it is working, and you have been playing the stuff on the road for a while so it starts to really come together, it is just amazing.  It hovers off the ground and is filled with love. 

Is that feeling akin to painting in any way?  That a given moment affects the output?

Painting and writing music is very similar.  But I learned something from playing improvised music that I apply to painting.  It is different with oils or watercolor, but when it is wet, things happen that don’t happen when it is dry; you have to make split-second decisions that could fuck up the painting entirely.  From playing music live I have a “controlled abandon” that I learned.

The show is quite subtle.  There is a story about making an album cover for The Lounge Lizards’ Voice of Chunk that suggests you hold a deep commitment to following through on a concept.  In fact, the whole show implies your commitment to a concept and seeing it through.  How essential is that to making any art?

I don’t know.  My stubbornness is certainly part of it.  A painting can start out horribly and Nesrin will say “just throw that away.”  But I never do.  I work on them until they are good.  (My brother) Evan made this beautiful cathedral out of twigs and wire.  And what makes it particularly astounding is how little reason it has to exist.  It makes it even more breathtaking.  He spent weeks and weeks on it.  Oh, you know what?  You have to see my sister’s earrings. They are amazing:   

You utilize otherwise inanimate objects- a drone, a tree branch- and make them virtual characters on the show.  It’s the kind of adaptation to isolation that a lot of people found themselves experiencing in 2020.  Did you have a sense of that as you were putting this together or was it mere coincidence?

You know a bit about my situation, I don’t really want to get into it, but I lived in isolation for a very long time, which started out being hell but then turned into the best thing that ever happened to me.  They say that it is okay to talk to inanimate objects but if they start taking to you, you may have a problem.  Sometimes I will look at all the incredible suffering in the world and think, What good does this fucking painting do?  No matter how beautiful you make it, it helps no one.  This is an indulgence.  And then almost immediately after going into that mindset, which is somehow connected to a certain type of depression, out of the blue someone will write me or call me or comment on social media how much a painting has moved them and helped them. 

So how important then are the arts to helping humanity get through times like these?

The other day, I was watching the beginning of the second Sugar Ray Leonard vs Roberto Duran fight. Duran had beaten him kind of badly in the first fight.  And Duran was terrifying.  Leonard comes into the ring and you can see he is nervous.  That he is worried.  And that is no way to be approaching a fight.  Ray Charles steps into the ring and sings “America the Beautiful.”  About three seconds into it, a giant smile comes over Leonard’s face.  His body frees up as he is bouncing around, warming up.  By the end of “America the Beautiful,” you look at Leonard and know he is going to win.  You see Duran and he now knows Leonard is going to win.  Ray Charles is what made Leonard win that fight.  There is no doubt in my mind.

You mentioned indulgence.  The show could be seen as a comprehensive amalgam of you as a person and artist- bringing together your everyday self, your acting, your music, your painting- but is there a tacit implication of universality to which artists or aspiring artists could relate?  Otherwise, why make the show?

You know how the show started out was- I was almost finished with a painting but we had to go back to New York.  I had invented this technique that I knew I wasn’t going to remember how I had done it when we returned.  This has happened to me before, where I will set a painting aside for a month or two and then have no idea how to duplicate what I had done previously.  So Nesrin was videoing me with her phone, so I would have some idea how I had done this technique.  While we were shooting, we started teasing each other, which we do all day long.  But it was funny and kind of delightful.  So we thought we would just film some stuff to put on my website or on Instagram.  To cheer people up a bit.

So what is the mission statement of the show?  Just to delight?

No, that sounds extremely odd.  But that was how it started. It was going to just be little one-minute things.  But then it grew.  And we were given things as we went.  Plus, Erik being so good at everything, it became clear that this could be something more than one-minute goofy vignettes to cheer people up.  Do I have to have a mission statement?

I don’t think you have to, but most shows have a guiding concept.  Maybe that’s semantics, but is there a guiding concept preceding it or imposed in post-production?  It feels like there is.

One thing that I hope comes across, and I have no idea if it does or not, but I would like it to translate how much love there is in that house.

In the debut, you talk about searching for your inner adult.  Are you still searching for it?  And how has the show aided in that search?

I had to fill out a 10-page E & O insurance policy questionnaire for the show.  That was painfully adult.