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John Lurie: The History of Bones (Random House)

A review of the memoir from the founder of the Lounge Lizards

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John Lurie: The History of Bones
The cover of The History of Bones by John Lurie

Like its author, a memoir of John Lurie’s could zig and zag in a dozen directions. There’s the acting career that brought him to the attention of Martin Scorsese and Jim Jarmusch. There’s the fact that Lurie has dryly played himself on two self-created “reality” TV series, and built a provocative career in visual art. You could center a not-at-all-tall tale on his role as instigator/boulevardier in the East Village of the ’70s-through-’90s, hanging with Andy Warhol, Rockets Redglare, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. But though Lurie’s vivid yet unflashy—and gorgeously recalled, dialogue and all—autobiography does touch on all of the above (richly) while avoiding much of the 21st century, it’s his stroll through the avant-garde/punk-jazz/No Wave music he helped create that makes for Bones’ most riveting reading.

This history follows the trajectory of his Lounge Lizards, portrayed back in the day as manicured fake jazz men. Lurie rails (as he did then) against such accusations, offering a zillion reasons why the Lizards’ and his solo work need not be forgiven for its adventurous Ornette Coleman-esque leanings (his bluesy, organ-heavy score for 1996’s Get Shorty was nominated for a Grammy too; just saying). With a detailed memory for musicians’ names, places, faces, and skill sets, he discusses the conditions and addictions of his usually intense associates as if scratching into resin with a palette knife.

The feel of drummers Michael Avery, Anton Fier, and G. Calvin Weston punctuates Lurie’s Bones to the point where you can feel the snip of their snares. He rhapsodizes warmly and with genuine awe about a chance meeting with legendary bassist Reggie Workman: “I will admit that for any horn player, getting a chance to talk with someone who actually knew and played with Coltrane is an enormous and exciting opportunity.”

As jaded as Lurie might come across at times, his reverence for the intensity and joy of music is clear. When he writes about going to Thelonious Monk’s funeral with the producer they shared, Teo Macero, he paints a portrait of devotion to jazz while ruminating on the unglamorous misery of drug addiction. “If you can’t make it to Thelonious Monk’s funeral because of your heroin problem, you are a pathetic loser,” he states emphatically. Lurie’s sense of fair play and justice is also prevalent, as he shows his disdain toward more precious players who look down their noses at collaborators for whom they hold wrongheaded prejudice. But he never paints himself as perfect; indeed, he draws the deepest blood when cutting into himself and his own mess.

Fun stories about Fela Kuti’s huge entourage of wives and musicians roasting goats in hotel rooms, fighting in the press with Milt Jackson over what “jazz” is, making music and friends with fellow skronk conspirators Marc Ribot and Curtis Fowlkes, hanging with lame label executives and A&R reps at Red Hot Chili Peppers gigs, and measuring just how large his own face was on the cover of Voice of Chunk (“About 30 percent bigger than in real life”) enliven a grim, grimy but electrically picturesque world of emotional, romantic, and psychic distress, as experienced by both Lurie and his friends. This gives The History of Bones balance and weight, a fullness you’d expect from a life well (and sometimes not so well) lived.

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