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Incident Far From South Street: John Lurie’s Tragic Acoustemology

Addendum: Since initially writing up this mention of the New Yorker article, I have been reflecting on Lurie, his music and art, and the situation in which he finds himself — a situation exacerbated by having become, as a result of the New Yorker story’s publication, the subject of increased public discussion. I want to be very clear about a few things:

First, this summary of the New Yorker article is just that, a summary of an article. I had no knowledge of the facts of the situation myself — in fact, I knew nothing of the circumstances at all until I read the article when it first appeared online. The New Yorker article puts forth suggestions, such as the author’s depiction of (notably) anonymous friends of Lurie attributing to him a certain amount of paranoia; this isn’t my perception of John Lurie himself — it is my reading of the article’s depiction. More recently, Lurie has been interviewed by jambands.com, and he talks about the New Yorker piece, and where he’s at. The purpose of the summary I wrote was to set context for my primary interest, which is the touching sentiment in the example of acoustemology at the very end of the New Yorker piece.

Second, I increasingly feel that the means by which I paraphrased the article don’t align in any meaningful way with the affection I have for Lurie’s work. To say that I had a European subway poster for Stranger Than Paradise above my bed for approximately a decade after college, or that one of the highlights of my early work as a professional music critic involved interviewing Lurie about his score for that film, doesn’t begin to do justice to how much his conception of jazz, and his approach to composition and performance, have fed my ears and my thoughts for more than a quarter of a century.

Third, I am worried about Lurie, and want nothing more than for him to be able to put all of this behind him. I spent much of my early 20s watching him on the stage of the (Houston Street) Knitting Factory, and at the Puck Building, and want to imagine him in whatever the early-21st-century version of those places is (well, preferably a step up from those places). I want him to be able to reconnect with the considerable audience whose admiration he should be able to enjoy comfortably.


 

The recent feature story on John Lurie published in the New Yorker (“Sleeping with Weapons,” newyorker.com) reads like the plot to what could be a recent-vintage Paul Auster novel.

It’s the tale of an aging Manhattanite artist who retreats to the desert, fleeing perceived fears. He is as vain as he is talented, and as paranoid as he is vain, and readers don’t take long to recognize that the true enemy is inescapable: himself.

Lurie (pictured above, from his thrift-store-suit heyday), the once and (one hopes, despite the dire tenor of the story, which appears to portray a highly sensitive and less-than-stable individual) future Lounge Lizards jazz saxophonist and band leader, currently hides in plain sight in Palm Springs. What he’s hiding from is a friend back in Manhattan whom he considers a threat to his life.

According to the story, written by Tad Friend, these are among the things we know about Lurie: he only recently started playing saxophone again, for the first time since 2001; he has been suffering from various physical maladies, some of which may not exist; he sleeps with a machete under his bed (along with pepper spray and a “ninja baton”); he is that rare individual who hires a personal assistant who does not know how to drive.

That assistant, a Turkish woman, brings to mind the dutiful, bewildered, and self-composed Hungarian cousin from Jim Jarmusch‘s Stranger Than Paradise, the 1984 film that put Lurie’s face on the cultural map. While there is a particular individual whom Lurie fears enough to have left New York, he shares in the article various other personal antagonisms, including one involving Jarmusch: “When ‘Stranger’ came out,” he says, “I became this guy Jim discovered, this dumb Kiefer Sutherland guy.” The complaint seems odd, since Lurie went on to work with Jarmusch again, and because as the composer of the score to Stranger Than Paradise — a spare string quartet that is one of his great musical accomplishments — Lurie certainly was not easily mistakable for the character he portrays in the film. (Also, in 1984 Sutherland was at just the start of his career, and had filmed nothing of any consequence. This means that even if the complaint isn’t recent, its depiction is.)

In any case, at the very end of the New Yorker piece, Lurie says the following:

“There’s a spot on Astor Place, near where the cube is, between Broadway and Lafayette — a saxophone sounds incredible there at about six o’clock.”

His appreciation of Manhattan is a very specific one. He comes from an era when life only happened below 14th Street, and that remains very much his mindset. His understanding of this aural space, of those acoustic properties, exemplifies the idea of “acoustemology,” which Steven Feld has defined as “local conditions of acoustic sensation, knowledge, and imagination embodied in the culturally particular sense of place.” What’s striking is that when Lurie speaks of missing New York, of the life he left behind, what he focuses on isn’t just the place, but the sonic particulars of that place.

What he’s describing is a deeper understanding of sonic life. When people speak of the sounds of a given place, they’re often describing the sounds they hear: the street cars of New Orleans, the taxi cabs of New York, the calls-to-prayer of Mecca, the surf of Big Sur, the bells of London.

What Lurie describes, however, is a place’s capacity for — its potential for — sound, the way the physical environment shapes sound. And aside from mentions of his flourishing art career, it’s arguably the only hopeful moment in the entire story.

By Marc Weidenbaum

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9 Comments

  1. Daniel
    [ Posted August 12, 2010, at 4:36 pm ]

    It appears that this summary of Friend’s article in the New Yorker is extremely one-sided. After reading the article I did not find that it was as clear as Weidenbaum makes it sound that Lurie’s own enemy is himself. In fact, I found the article to be a rather disturbing and scary account of the obsessive stalking of a friend turned enemy.
    I think that Lurie’s brashness gains him unwarranted scorn. He definitely does not play into the role everyone wants him to neatly fit into and I have to say that I respect the guy for speaking his mind so boldly, even though some find it offensive.
    I think Weidenbaum’s summary is quite unfair and misleading.

  2. Patrick
    [ Posted August 12, 2010, at 6:41 pm ]

    I have to disagree with you Daniel.

    It is in plain sight, and very clear to people who know John Lurie that were quoted in the piece that John IS his “worst enemy”. (Why was there only 5 people at his birthday last year vs the 55 the year before? Obviously, he is the only one to blame for that).

    It seems that his fans refuse to accept that they idolize a flawed human being.

    Most importantly, I think this piece explores the depths one will go to, to regain attention. Turning his best friend into a “stalker” just so he can be talked “about”.

    I think Tad Friend dropped a big one when he quoted John Perry saying “You’ve been stalking ME”. (I don’t know why more people aren’t taking that quote more seriously).

    Is it not possible, that John Lurie participated in the “obsessive stalking of a friend”…. or will he forever be a victim? A victim of his “disease”, waning career, and now this, a “stalker”.

    And – what will become of John Perry?

    Is this the beginning of a budding career?

    John Lurie somewhat compared him to Basquiat. On the artists website (www.johnperrynyc.com) Abel Farrara is interviewed and does the same thing. “His work reminds me of Basquiat, something about it…”

    Has John Lurie, accidentally, revealed one of New York’s greatest, yet undiscovered talents?

  3. [ Posted August 13, 2010, at 6:00 am ]

    I have to say that I truly appreciate your perspective here, Marc. I did read the article on John Lurie, well part of it anyway, as my wife was talking about it, and I wasn’t familiar with his work, so it didn’t resonate much with me, but after reading your piece I may revisit.

    With that said, I’m pleased that the New Yorker article brought about your piece of writing because it resonated deeply with me, especially this portion: “What he’s describing is a deeper understanding of sonic life. When people speak of the sounds of a given place, they’re often describing the sounds they hear: the street cars of New Orleans, the taxi cabs of New York, the calls-to-prayer of Mecca, the surf of Big Sur, the bells of London.”

    Truly, site specific sound, and the consciousness of it and location is something that’s resonated with me as far back as I can remember, and it’s the striving to create those “impressions” in my own music that fuels my need to compose music… Anyway, great article, and I thank you for posting it.

  4. m.d.
    [ Posted August 13, 2010, at 10:24 am ]
  5. steve
    [ Posted August 13, 2010, at 7:40 pm ]

    I’ve been in touch with John a lot over the whole arc of this Perry thing, and I think that the conclusion that he is his own worst enemy is a simplistic distortion, very one-sided, minimizing Perry’s impact and actions, as well as the effects of a relentless illness. That’s not really Tad Friend’s take on this either as far as I can tell. Insofar as there is a conclusion to the article it seems to be some kind of silly mythologizing about modern artists and their need for angst. I was interviewed for the article and have to say I clammed up fast when I realized how out of touch the writer was — with John’s art (and visual art in general), and with whatever real effect this was having on his art (that could have been fascinating). Plus there was his bewilderment (disingenuous I presume, but maybe just ingenuous) at my suggestion that publicizing this matter just conceivably might exacerbate an already bad situation. It was apparent from what he recorded (and did not) that his interests and ideas were pretty well formed before he got around to talking to me. Entertaining article, just not about the John I know.

    anyway, your idea about acoustemology is really cool

  6. schenectady
    [ Posted August 13, 2010, at 9:57 pm ]

    I agree with you, Steve. Very well put. I know John too. The way Tad Friend told the story does not seem to convey the reality of what happened. I think it overplays the relationship that Perry and Lurie had before the incident, and underplays the harshness of Perry’s threats and the hell that John went through because of the threats and stalking.
    Tad Friend spent several days with John Lurie and spoke to many people about John. He seems to have left out much of the good and supportive comments, and focused more on the negative. I think that Tad Friend did write an interesting story, and there are some beautiful parts, but as someone who was involved in the reality of the story, the article just really does not do John Lurie justice.

  7. IrishJazz
    [ Posted August 14, 2010, at 6:21 am ]

    It should be no surprise that the New Yorker article valued “even-handed” narrative complexity over the essentials of the story. John Lurie, citing illness and fatigue, left of what John Perry hoped would be a career-making TV pilot shoot. Perry became suspicious, then furious, then threatening. (Threats with some credibility, given his past propensity for violent assault.) The terrorized Lurie took to the road. In the time since, Perry has insisted his ambiguously menacing behavior is just a series of misunderstood attempts to reconcile.

    But who cares about Perry? If he was interesting, he would have been the subject of the story. (The brief video clip of his show online is any indication, he is not exactly spellbinding.) Instead the focus returns impatiently to Lurie. Are his illnesses all real or do they show a propensity toward self-induced suffering? Does he need a stalker to validate his fame? Will he ever emerge from “self-imposed” exile? However darkly nuanced, this is celebrity psycho-biography.

    In answer to Patrick (assuming this isn’t Perry under an assumed name again- not an unreasonable assumptions given that no one reading the article would come away with the sense that a great artist is at risk of being obscured) the reason that no one has picked up on the quote that Lurie is stalking Perry is because it is an absurdity. The light doesn’t chase the moth.

  8. tired
    [ Posted August 14, 2010, at 10:19 am ]

    good to see some comments here in support of John

  9. [ Posted August 14, 2010, at 10:47 am ]

    Howdy. This is Marc; for those new to Disquiet.com (there appear to be quite a few), I’ve run the site since I founded it 1996. Its focus is ambient/electronic music, and sound art, and how more broadly how sound is perceived, constructed, analyzed, ignored. Comments have been on it for a few years now.

    The back and forth here has been appreciated, regarding the New Yorker issue, and the state of John Lurie — and people’s input has been helpful in fleshing out the context. (I haven’t posted every comment that this post has received. There has been a flurry of comments at various points, and some were not, as I saw it, constructive — due to redundancy, or a lack of temperateness. This is true as both “pro-Lurie” and “pro-Perry” camps.) And I think that aspect of this thread is complete now; I won’t be posting any subsequent Lurie/Perry-focused comments.

    I’m not saying the comments are closed on this post.

    If folks want to pursue the “acoustemology” subject (which was the reason I wrote it, and which Borghi picked up, and which Ellis linked to, and which some folk appear to have noted via Twitter), that’d be great.

    Thanks, as always.

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