My favorite Painting With John story is a reminder of Lurie’s enduring and earnest love of music. He remembers sitting at his mother’s breakfast table with his brother Evan and blasting “Afro Blue” from John Coltrane’s Live at Birdland. “Evan had just had mouth surgery and was supposed to be very careful to not yell or laugh too hard because the stitches would come out,” Lurie recalls. But once Coltrane came blaring in with a sharp solo, Evan instinctively mouthed the notes. “The stitches come flying out of his mouth and blood spurts all over the table, and Evan is just laughing and keeps going.” Lurie chuckles at the memory and then gets a little quiet. “That’s what the music costs.”
Here are eight pieces from the 68-year-old’s dynamic career as a musician, composer, and bandleader.
Sax solo from Jim Jarmusch’s Permanent Vacation (1980)
Before the Lounge Lizards cut their self-titled debut in 1981, Lurie was featured in Jarmusch’s first movie, Permanent Vacation, kicking off a long and collaborative friendship. The film follows a young man named Allie who ambles through Manhattan, running into colorful characters along the way. Naturally, Lurie is one of them: a lone saxophonist at the end of a dark alleyway. “What do you want to hear, kid?” Lurie asks, dressed in his signature cheap suit. “I don’t care,” Allie whines, “as long as it’s vibrating, bugged-out sound.” That description would better fit the ensemble arrangements of the Lounge Lizards, but here, Lurie slips into a woozy nocturne. It’s one of the film’s better moments and an early display of Lurie’s ease on camera. As he holds his horn against the black backdrop of a New York City street, the mood turns lonely and vulnerable and sweet—a moment of sincerity in a film doused in affectation.
“Do the Wrong Thing” from The Lounge Lizards (1981)
When the Lounge Lizards first started out, Lurie took a page from No Wave band James Chance and the Contortions, who were doing their own manic impression of James Brown at the time. “Do the Wrong Thing” is a solid example of this borrowed-twice formula at work. By the time it appeared on the Lounge Lizards’ self-titled debut, they’d already had the song in their live rotation for a couple of years, having played it at the legendary CBGB, where Chance and countless other punks cut their teeth. The song is brash and snotty, with Lurie’s saxophone and Evan’s chords jabbing outward like little switchblades. The Lounge Lizards’ early work prodded the critics as well. The Washington Post reduced the band to a jazz spoof act and assured readers: “You won’t find any soul in this music.” Four decades later, the record still rattles with urgency. It’s the sound of five restless men so hyped to play they are in a constant state of eruption.
The Resurrection of Albert Ayler (1985)
Lurie has cited legendary free jazz saxophonist and composer Albert Ayler, who passed away in 1970, as a major influence, and he backed up the claim by writing The Resurrection of Albert Ayler, a four-song suite that was eventually released as the B-Side to his score for Stranger Than Paradise. The suite features Lounge Lizards mainstays like guitarist Arto Lindsay, percussionists Dougie Bowne and E.J. Rodriguez, and trombone player Curtis Fowlkes. The four distinct movements flow as a continual piece, gliding from spacious, spiritual jazz to tangled sections that pit strings against drums against horns. In the final fourth of the piece, titled “Resurrection,” Lurie repeats the sax phrases he expressed in the first movement—a sonic rebirth to bring things full circle.
“My Clown’s on Fire” from No Pain for Cakes (1987)
This four-and-a-half-minute vamp from the Lounge Lizards’ 1987 sophomore LP sounds like the stuff of a sinister sideshow: clanging brass, dueling drums, and Lurie’s sax squawking above the racket. The Lizards’ fondness for these sprawling, cathartic blurts of sound is traceable throughout their catalog. Even as their music grew more refined, songs like “My Clown’s on Fire” offered an encapsulation of their best qualities as a band: stamina, sense of humor, and the ability to expel raw emotion into high-energy compositions. There were plenty of composers in the No Wave scene whose work seemed to anesthetize the mind, but the Lounge Lizards always dealt in the muck of feelings, whether blissful or frightening (cue: flaming clown).
“Voice of Chunk” live on Night Music (1989)
In this live performance from the short-lived TV show Night Music, the Lounge Lizards tear into the title track from their 1988 record Voice of Chunk. As the band progressed, their sound became simultaneously cleaner and more complex. “Voice of Chunk” epitomized Lurie’s interest in African polyrhythms and interweaving melodies, a combination that made his compositions particularly rich.