The Bar Project: Voices from an Artists' Community

by Francie Lyshak

 

Francie Lyshak Brad Ellis Evan Lurie Joe Vojtko
Lavinia Coop Steven Harvey Bette Bourne Tony Nunziata
Ray Dobbins Gary Indiana Larry Mitchell Bill Rice
  Allen Frame Richard Morrison  

 

John Lurie

Musician, Painter

Content on this page requires a newer version of Adobe Flash Player.

Get Adobe Flash player

Click above to listen to an audio clip from the interview with John Lurie

 

Interview with John Lurie by Francie Lyshak

 

Francie: It is July 19, 2013.  This interview is with John Lurie, and old friend of mine, who was part of my community of friends in the late ‘70’s.  We are here to talk about the influence of that community on you as person and as an artist.  I know that you are painting now and that you were a solo saxaphone player when I knew you.  In between that time, you were in movies and doing some TV shows.  So let’s go back. Take me back to the late 70’s when you’re living in the East Village. You first knew us when we lived on Bond street.

John: You guys lived on Bond Street and I lived on 14th St. My saxophone was stolen, then I moved back to Boston and then to London and then came back to New York again in ‘77.

Francie: When did you do this Squat Theatre thing?

John: I did the Squat Theater performance before Men in Orbit. Men in Orbit was in ‘78.  When I did Men in Orbit I was with another different community of artists.

Francie: So back to this community and how it influenced you?

John:  The Leukemia thing, which is the thing I did at Squat, that’s got be in ‘77. There was nothing in there that could remotely be considered something about Rick Morrison. But it had everything to do with Rick.

Francie: So explain that.

John: So I did this performance called Leukemia. Maybe I can find the program, which was really influenced by Rick. His connection to the punk thing and the art thing was a big deal. The first part was just a saxophone solo. For the second part I made a tape that I recorded at Rick’s house with his broken stereo. I swung a baseball bat to this sound track. The idea was to use a baseball bat and it was called Fear Strikes Out. It was about this baseball player called Jimmy Piersall who went insane.

Some guy brought this archive stuff out of storage and photographed it for me. He wanted to make a film about me, the Cirque du Soleil people. I know that they discovered the program from that Leukemia thing. I made these posters. I said it was by One Boy. I didn’t use my own name. So the second part of the Leukemia thing was with me swinging this stick, with the soundtrack in the background. It was actually like a curtain rod that I had shaped to look more like a baseball bat. A baseball bat would’ve been too heavy. 

(John shows a digital image of the Leukemia program to Francie.  He points out the credits.)

John: You’re there.  There’s Evan [John’s brother], Detroit Richie is Rick, Julia is Julia Hanlon, Robert Liebowitz, Ned Asta, Shirley Wood was Mary Lou Fogarty.  
You see Rick’s influence. This is my program.

Francie: I know what this image is from! This is a picture from when Rick and I worked at Fernald in Boston. This was a home for the developmentally disabled. At that time there were no laws against taking photographs of patients. This was one of our favorite ladies. Rick took this photograph. I’m sure it’s from that time. I recognize her.

So you were talking about Rick’s influence on you.

John: I don’t know really how to describe it. I can’t look at a piece of work that he did and say this is Rick and this is what influenced me. It was more to do with his very critical nature and his very real nature. You would run things by him. You would show him a drawing or a piece of music or whatever and get his take on it. If he approves, it was like, ‘Okay, this is for real.’ It kind of whittled me down in a good way. It made me very discerning about my own stuff. He was so critical.

Francie:  Rick has always been ahead of his time.

Before we started the tape, you were talking about afterwards joining a community of people who were more ambitious.  They were a more heterosexual community. Rick was a genius, I would say.  But he wasn’t someone, I would say, who really wanted to be out on stage, front and center.

John: Also those people were really snobby. It was kind of a poor version of the Warhol crowd in a way. There was a kind of a punk sensibility.

 Francie: Who are those people?

John: You know, James Chance, Anya Phillips, Arto Lindsey. They would turn their noses up at a lot of stuff. I don’t feel that people like Rick or Marylou were remotely interested in winning them over. I very much was. That made a wedge. Then I felt a certain amount of disdain towards me for leaving.

Francie: Because you got famous?

John:  It was even before that happened. When I did that Leukemia thing there were a hundred people there. Then I made Men in Orbit. Then I started hanging around the Mudd Club in 1980. That was way different than going to The Bar and playing pool.

Francie: Speaking for myself, I could say that I would’ve felt kind of abandoned.

John: I did that, yeah.

Francie: That would be like, ‘Oh well, John’s got riper fruit somewhere else and he’s not interested in us anymore.’

John: Then I went on another level, which was as a movie star, and was the last thing I wanted to be or that made any sense.

Francie: After all you are busy when you’re in that kind of world.

John: I mean but that’s how I ended up in this bad place, so isolated when I got ill and then in trouble. Then there was nobody. Except for whenever anybody else was in trouble, I stood up. But I wouldn’t even have known if you were in trouble. And that was a point, around ’82 or ‘83 that was the beginning of AIDS and heroin and people were dying all over the place. You just kind of went, ‘Oh that’s weird. You know what I mean?’

Francie: How did that affect you, when people started getting AIDS.

John: Robert Leibovitz was one of the first ones. I just assumed he was going to get better. I didn’t know what AIDS was. I’d go visit him in the hospital. Then I went to England for a while and when I got back, you said,  “John a couple of people of died.” One was Jason Harvey and the other was Robert Liebowitz. I had just assumed that Robert was going to get better. It was before even the ‘gay cancer’ you know. Then people started falling out of windows and overdosing. Then people got kind of safer too, but that was later. By ‘82, ‘83 I was a heroin addict. So that changes everything.  Except while everyone else was completely strung out, I would get high for like four or five days then spend two or three days really sick. I did that for years. Instead of just getting high all the time, I was always fighting it.

Francie: Were you careful with needles?

John: I must’ve gone through that. John Endy died of AIDS 15 years ago. I used to shoot up with them. I must’ve gotten through it like land mines.  I slept with literally hundreds of women. I did get hepatitis B.

Francie: You got lucky.

John: I guess. I wasn’t out-of-control. But I did share needles with people who later got sick.   And do you know David Armstrong? He reminds me a bit of Rick. Not in that hard way, but there’s something in the eyes, that soft-spoken thing. I never knew Larry Mitchell that well.   They were part of the Ithaca people. To my mind it was like the twins, Lazer and Felix Zelig, and Gary DiPasquale, Tom Stearns.  Sweet people!  That troupe seemed very gay. 

I almost began to think that all the smart people I knew in New York, that all the men were gay and the women were like half-and-half. To me it was just like, ‘Well there’s something wrong with me, I’m not gay. I’m obviously too repressed.’ It turned out to not be true.

Francie: There is something to say about that, because part of what I’m finding about this community is that there was an enormous number of artists who were part of this community. Most of them were gay. Some of them, like you were not. What people shared was an artistic sensibility and a certain political sensibility that drew them together. It wasn’t only sexuality that drew these people together. It probably was a glue that was important for some of those people’s relationships, but it was also the artist in us.

John: Otherwise I never would’ve gone close to it. It was like meeting you and Rick in particular. I remember everybody was pretty thoughtful and smart. It wasn’t the art that really grabbed me, but then I did have such a kind of go-getter kind of mentality at that time.

Francie: You were ambitious

John: I was ambitious.

Francie: And maybe you believed in yourself in a way.

John: I was really insecure. I was just compelled to make things. I was compelled to make things and keep trying.

Francie: Also it was performance for you.

John: I was very shy and didn’t know that yet.

Francie: But you had to perform didn’t you? I mean you weren’t going to just sit in your room and just write music? You needed to perform.

John: It’s weird because I was so shy. I almost did it to cure myself of the shyness. I was so shy I couldn’t go into a restaurant and order food. I was like broken shy. Before I met you guys I had this mystical experience when I was like 20. I spent years trying to recapture that. I moved into this ashram. I moved to Wales and lived in these people’s summer homes for the winter and just fasted and read all these books on religion and the occult. I went kind of nuts (laughter). Then I came back and slowly reintegrated myself. Even around the time when you guys were on Bond Street, I was doing that. In Boston, I would play the saxophone until my lips bleed. I would meditate and do yoga and that’s all that I ever did. Then I sort of met you guys and I was so shy and weird. You guys were kind of sweet to me and sort of nurtured me along. Then I bumped up and bumped up and bumped up. Next thing I’m hanging around with Bruce Willis (laughter). Which never actually happened but…. (laughter).

Francie: But that’s the idea   I guess you got over your shyness.

John: I’m so un-shy now. But there was even a time when the only time I would feel comfortable was when I walked on stage with the band. That’s when I was me. The rest of the time I wasn’t me. I’m not shy anymore. Now I’m shy because of all this shit. You can’t believe what it’s like to be sick all those years with Chronic Lyme disease and not see anybody, and then be driven from your house by a legitimate psychopath. And the amount of energy this man puts into this that I have to defend myself against! Then that New Yorker article came out and I just can’t live here. The security people looked at it. The psychiatrist looked at it and they said,  “You’re not safe.”

Francie: If he’s a true psychopath, he is going to seduce people into believing him.

John: Yeah, he’s a narcissistic psychopath and he fooled me completely. He fooled the guy from the New Yorker and that article was like slander by stalker. You can’t believe what it’s like living in isolation, speaking to nobody. While I’m in New York I’m trapped.  I spend a lot of time now on this island meditating and getting my health back.

Francie: I’m getting this picture that you’ve come full circle.

John: Kind of, yeah, with my whole spiritual life.

So were bouncing all over the place.   Let’s get specific to where you want to go. My view of that time is kind of different. I sort of see this group of people from the late 70’s as a ‘community’ more than as an ‘artistic community.’ I don’t even know what the Ithaca people were doing. I don’t know what Randy Wilson did. Geri Burke was a dancer. I know your paintings. I know Rick’s work. Other than that, I don’t know? Then there’s Bill Rice. But Bill Rice came a little later. I was never wild about Bill’s paintings. I felt like they were a bit of a throwback; but my stuff has become a bit of a throwback too.

Francie: Also Bill did a lot of theater at that time.

John: And he was good. I think he thought of himself as a painter though.

Francie: Absolutely he did.

John: I saw his paintings first, before his acting. He was a good actor and he had a great face.

Francie: Yeah, he was great on stage.

John: I wish he’d liked me more. But I think he saw me as, you know, the young hotshot.

Francie:  Let me ask you something. There was a show at Bill Rice’s studio called Salon/Saloon.  I think you had something in it.  James Nares and Chris Wool had something in it. James and you became friends.

John: Yeah, he was my best friend.

Francie:  So, do you know anything about that connection? How did you meet James?

John:  I met James through Eric. James was in London when I met Eric, when I went to Third Street.

Francie: Maybe it was just because of the neighborhood that somehow these connections were made.

John: Yeah, I met Eric who lived upstairs. Through Eric I met most of those people. I met James through him.

Francie: Eric lived on 3rd Street?

John: Yes, upstairs from me.

Francie: At which building?

John: He was at 23 East 3rd St. Evan was number 5.   Mary Lou and Rick were at number 7.  Evan was in the next building over.  Bill’s studio was in the next building past Evan.  

I remember you said something to me that was interesting about Third Street.   I kind of loved it there. You said something to me like, “This may cure you of your enamourment.”  I was bringing bums home with me all the time. Sinclair, do remember him? I used to let people stay at the apartment. I had that big place on 2nd Avenue that you were in for a while.   I used to let Sinclair stay there. I used to give to Tommy Jackethead. Do you remember Tommy? He used to wear his jacket over his head. So I moved to 3rd Street. There was a guy who would yell,  “Armageddon, Armageddon!” He would yell it all day long. I never figured out which it guy it was. Then Rikers Island released about 40% of its population and they just moved on to my block on Third Street. My block became like a jail yard. They killed off all the bums. I would call 911 and the police wouldn’t come. It was too dangerous. It got really bad. I got hit in the head.

Francie: I know there was a big crack line, selling crack on Second Street. I got a place down there. It was pretty hairy at that time.

John: They just killed off all those sweet bums. It was awful.