Tales of Bohemian Living with The Lounge Lizards in 1979 New York

John Lurie on the Days of Sex, Drugs, and Car Crash Jazz

I had disappeared into hermit mode to edit Men in Orbit when I met Leisa Stroud. Nobody remotely like her had ever been interested in me before. She was only twenty but years more worldly and sophisticated than I was ever going to be.

Editing Super 8 film is horrible. At least for someone like me who is not neat. The film is tiny, about a third of an inch wide, and you have to pick your frame, splice it, and then glue the little pieces together. Glue gets everywhere: on your shirt, on the middle of the frame, in your eyelashes, on your sandwich.

You have to view the footage through this little viewer thing that you crank by hand, which makes a loud, unpleasant, metallic wobbling sound as you turn it. Then you cut the bits out that you want and keep it all organized. It is a nightmare. It was taking forever to weed through all the footage and make a story out of it.

One night, Michael McClard and James Nares and some others were going for a drink and yelled up to my window for me to come down and go out with them.

Leisa was there. This was the first time I’d met her. I had my soprano with me and somebody convinced me to take it out and play for a minute on the street. Hearing me play for just that moment had her completely taken. Leisa had just gotten back from London and started asking everyone who this interesting new boy was.

A couple days later, I ran into her again. I have the feeling she was lurking around near my place to meet me.

I had gone out only to get cigarettes after a couple of wild, drunken days with Madge.

When we got to my place, I looked in the mirror and saw that I still had on the makeup Madge had drawn on my face. I hadn’t been able to wash it off because Madge and I had had sex against the sink, which was now sitting on the floor, where it had crashed to pieces.

Leisa looked at the sink and laughed really hard and somehow, as women often seem to, knew the entire story without my telling her a word.

*

I was still playing the horn, but at this stage, in the East Village, nobody was doing what they actually knew how to do. All the painters had bands. All the musicians were making little movies. I had worked hard for years on music but had to hide the fact that I actually knew how to play or that I practiced every day.

My band, The Lounge Lizards, first played on June 4, 1979. We had two other possible names: The Sequined Eels and The Rotating Power Tools. Now I kind of wish that it had been The Rotating Power Tools.

When you have a gig on Wednesday and you are on the way to the Xerox shop to make your first poster, it seems like it will just be that one concert. It will last twenty-four hours. It seemed most of the bands then lasted twenty-four hours.

I didn’t imagine that years and years later we would be dragging this inappropriate name around that no longer matched the music as it got more serious and more elegant.

Jon Ende gave me the name. I was on the way to make the Sequined Eels poster when Leisa came flying down the street, behind me, to tell me that The Lounge Lizards was better, that she had just talked to Jon Ende and that The Lounge Lizards was a better name.

Leisa was the fastest runner. When we had no money, we used to dine and dash. I hated to run after eating, so when I was finished, I would walk out and head up Second Avenue about eight blocks from the restaurant. Leisa would come dashing up behind me. We’d run back to Third Street, giggling, and hide in the apartment. It was a good thing that she ran so fast or the band would have been The Sequined Eels. We rewrote the band’s name by hand at the Xerox place and ran off the posters.

Leisa had the best ass. The best ass ever.

She was whiter than me and she dyed her hair platinum blond, which increased the effect. I didn’t really believe that she was black until I met her dad. He was black. He was also short, bitter, and angry. He was an artist and an aikido master. I didn’t like him and he didn’t like me. He asked Leisa if I had spent a lot of time around autistic people, which I took as an insult and compliment all in one.

Leisa and I would go to the Mudd Club every night. The Mudd Club was infinitely cooler than Studio 54. It was wilder and there was a better mix of rich and poor, and black and white. We’d go to a gallery opening or some other function, eat all the free cheese and hors d’oeuvres, and then go out to the Mudd Club, and Leisa would finagle us drink tickets and cocaine.

I had discovered 1940s clothing in the thrift stores and would go out looking all fancy in my three dollar baggy suits and slicked back hair.

The most absolutely willful person, Leisa had the ability to make a room full of people get up and go to a different party on a moment’s notice. I have to give her a lot of credit for pushing me to persevere when I was feeling down about running the band. She was largely responsible for getting the band off the ground. She could network.

Leisa was incredibly sexy and energetic, and she was smart. David Byrne, Brian Eno, Larry Rivers, and a host of others all had crushes on her. That Talking Heads song, “This ain’t no Mudd Club, this ain’t no CBGB, this ain’t no fooling around,” whatever the name of it is, and some other songs they did were also apparently about her. At least, Leisa claimed that this was what David Byrne had told her, and by the way he acted around her, I think it was most likely true.

The Lounge Lizards had a song for her too. It was called “Leisa’s Too Short to Run for President.” And another: “I Want a Basketball, I Can Bounce,” which was written in yearning homage to her incredible ass when we had split up for a day or so.

Leisa brought me into the world of glamour and cocaine. Then later into heroin. She insisted that I shave every day and hold cab doors open for her.

*

After Men in Orbit, I wanted to make a real movie. I was working on ideas for a film that was going to be called “Fatty Walks,” stories of the odder occurrences that I had had in New York. I watched Eric Mitchell and others run around desperately with scripts, trying to raise money, and I didn’t think this was going to be any fun at all.

This was before The Lounge Lizards started. Instead, I was going to write and record the music for the movie, then bring the music in to the money people and play it while I explained the story. This would be more real and exciting, and I’d get the money easily.

Yes, I realize this was naïve.

While I was in the process of writing this music, Jim Fouratt asked me who was a good band to open for Peter Gordon’s Love of Life Orchestra on a Monday night at Hurrah, a club on Sixty-second Street.

I said, “Oh, my band.” “You have a band?” “Of course.”

I didn’t have a band, but Evan had just moved to New York. Arto Lindsay and I had been having these great jams with Seth Tillett and James Nares, and sometimes Eric Mitchell. We had played in front of an audience once for Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party. We did Thelonious Monk’s “Well You Needn’t.” James played drums and Arto and Seth thrashed wildly about on guitars. I played the alto and actually played the head of the song over the confusion they were conjuring. All the girls rushed to the front of the stage and were screaming. This is very nice, when girls do that.

It really came together, and I am sure that it was helped by the reckless force of the communal cocaine. Though cocaine ruined dozens of subsequent gigs, it certainly solidified the first one.

We only knew the one song, so when it was done and the girls kept screaming, we played it again. I was in the cab with Leisa and some other people on the way home, all full of exuberance. We passed a hardware store with a big sign that said “Rotating Power Tools.” I called James when I got home and said, “We should call the band The Rotating Power Tools!” James liked the idea, but then we never played again.

So The Lounge Lizards, on June 4, 1979, were: Arto on twelve-string electric guitar, a Danelectro that I think he got at Sears; Evan on Farfisa organ; and me on alto and soprano. Arto brought in Anton Fier to play drums, and I called Steve Piccolo, who had been in my band Crud in high school, to play bass.

Steve Piccolo was a bona fide genius. His IQ was 170 or whatever number makes one a genius. At twenty-four, he was already a vice president at Merrill Lynch on Wall Street. Steve was incredibly musical and just an inch behind Paul McCartney in his ability to write melodic bass lines. He showed up for the first show in his Wall Street suit and carry-ing his bass in a plaid plastic suit bag. Piccolo was so stiff and so straight we used to joke about putting heroin in his coffee. Six months later he was strung out and dealing, with syringes in a cup on his desk like one that would normally hold pens.

We had one rehearsal. Everybody brought something big to this situation. I had written the melodies already, but what everybody added—Arto, with his cataclysmic guitar, Evan’s odd choices on the organ, Anton’s solid drumming, and Steve’s melodic and harmonic sense—really made it something unique and special. I had learned something from James Chance and the Contortions that had freed me up a bit. The undercurrent roar of wild dissonance by part of the band helped it escape the drudgery of what jazz had become. My heart and roots were mostly in jazz and classical music, but after Coltrane, I felt there had been nothing, no big voice to push it along. Now jazz was played to people eating their dinner. The word jazz had become synonymous with boring. It seemed anachronistic to think about trying to do something really musical in this world.

The rehearsal was a little vague and shaky. What was this? I didn’t really know what it was or what it was supposed to be, and it didn’t fit together. The night of the gig, we pitched in and bought a gram of coke, which we snorted at my uncle Jerry’s place around the corner from the club, while he was out of town. The music, magically, forcefully, came together onstage. It really came together, and I am sure that it was helped by the reckless force of the communal cocaine. Though cocaine ruined dozens of subsequent gigs, it certainly solidified the first one.

We are in the dressing room after and the door flies open. People are freaking out. Smashing things. Nobody had ever heard anything like it. There hadn’t been anything like it. Leisa has done what she is great at and gotten everyone down to see it.

“What do you call this music?”

And I say, without giving it any thought, “It’s fake jazz.”

At that moment, I thought to myself that that was pretty good off the top of my head, just throw that out there. But it stuck, for twenty years. It stuck—for forty years, it stuck. It is still stuck. When the music had nothing to do with any notion of fake jazz, 2,473 lazy journalists would look up The Lounge Lizards and see it and go, “Oh, that is colorful, I’ll call it that.” That stupid tag of fake jazz stuck like some horrible gum in my hair.

Sometimes we were great, but not consistently. We didn’t really know what we were doing yet.

Peter Gordon did the first and last generous thing that has ever happened to me in the music business. His band was the headliner and we were supposed to get like a hundred bucks. But, because we were so good, and because he realized that so much of the crowd was there to see us, he gave me an extra $75 out of his own money. Might sound like nothing, but it was a big deal and incredibly generous.

We were in all the papers. It was very exciting. I remember walking with Arto a couple of nights later. We were glowing in our success.

“If we could just get two hundred bucks for the band, each gig, and play once a week, we’d be all set.”

We started playing around. Tier 3, Hurrah, Squat Theatre. We used to play for thirty-five minutes. That was our set. That was all we knew. I made the whole band dress in thrift store suits. All the white shirts and ties were crumpled. It was kind of elegant but it was also off; for example, if there was gray gaffer’s tape holding your black shoes together, that was better than if there wasn’t.

Lisa Rosen was standing in the audience one night next to a man who looked at us, five very white, emaciated guys, and said, “My God, they look so unhealthy.”

Lisa said, “I know! Isn’t it wonderful?”

There was Lounge Lizard Madness. Lines would go around the block with people scrambling to get tickets. Andy Warhol would be in the front row.

It is amazing how fast one becomes arrogant.

The cocaine had worked so well the first time, we kept using it. I was also so shy that I couldn’t imagine getting up onstage without the help of drugs and alcohol. But coke, which had worked so magically on the first gig, never seemed to work as well after that. In fact, it ruined a lot of shows. I’d be up onstage gnashing my teeth. I’d feel that nice thing of the coke dripping down into the back of my throat, but then my mouth would go numb and I couldn’t control my lips, and the mouthpiece would come flying out. We’d play everything too fast. “Too fast” isn’t even a way to describe it. It was frenetic and often as confused as it was powerful. It should have been called “Car Crash Jazz.” Melodies hopping out of great smashing turmoil.

Cocaine is a bad, horrible drug.

Sometimes we were great, but not consistently. We didn’t really know what we were doing yet. One of the most important things about playing music live is hearing yourself onstage and knowing how to cope with monitors and dealing with what you cannot hear. It is a constant problem, especially with loud bands, at least the poor ones, and we were very loud and very poor.

Despite the inconsistent performances, we were getting a lot of attention from the press. Record company people would come into the dressing room and we’d tell them to get lost.

“Hi, John! I’m from Columbia Records and—”

“Get the fuck out of here!”

Guy would stand there in his fashionable hair and outfit for a second, looking confused.

The whole band would just scream, “Get the fuck out of here!” I wish we had never stopped telling them that.

Leisa and I were broke. The band would play sometimes, but then after a week, we wouldn’t have any money left. They kept turning off the electricity or the phone. I had a bag full of sunglasses that I had bought to give out to the audience at the Leukemia piece at Squat Theatre but never organized it. So I had about a hundred pairs of cheap sunglasses. Leisa painted them and got $3 apiece from the local punk stores. She scampered home with $300 in her hand.

We never ate enough food and drank too much. Liquor was usually free, but food was harder to come by.

_____________________________________________________

Excerpted from THE HISTORY OF BONES by John Lurie. Copyright © 2021 by John Lurie. Excerpted by permission of Random House, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

John Lurie
John Lurie
John Lurie is a musician, painter, actor, director, and producer. He co-founded The Lounge Lizards in 1979. In the decades since, he has released albums (including those by his alter ego Marvin Pontiac), acted in films, composed and performed music for television and film, exhibited his paintings throughout the world, and produced, directed, and starred in the Fishing with John television series. His most recent series, Painting with John, debuted on HBO in 2021.





More Story
The Great Cosmological Debate of the Twentieth Century Resolving the great cosmological debate of the mid-20th century was not on their agenda. Yet in 1964, astrophysicists Arno...