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Reluctant actor, visual artist and jazz purist John Lurie recently published a years-in-the-making memoir called The History of Bones, recounting his early life up until the mid 90’s or so. It jumps around a lot, like great jazz.
You might know Lurie from Fishing With John, or Painting with John, or his star turns in Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law, Stranger Than Paradise, or Mystery Train. Among his soundtrack and show contributions, he is likely most well-known for writing the original them to Late Night With Conan O’Brien.
All of that is largely irrelevant to hear Lurie tell it, because his first and purest love is jazz and his prowess on saxophone is nothing short of genius, a word I don't utter lightly.
Strange then that a downtown New Yorker and hipster would have to fight to get his musical voice heard. Or maybe not so strange in the 80's. Lurie’s band, The Lounge Lizards, was kind of on its last legs, about to implode from the weight of in-fighting and uncontrollable artists when their definitive artistic statement “Voice Of Chunk,” was made, with a transcendental refrain that appears in opening track “Bob The Bob” and in in the reprise “Bob the Bob Home.”
Like many creative stalwarts, The Lounge Lizards were either ignored or largely misunderstood or both during their heyday (at least in America) but it didn’t stop their artistry or their creative ways of getting the album in front of audiences.
According to his memoir, at one point in either a fit of desperation or inspiration, Lurie hits upon the idea to create an infomercial to sell his album. This was pre-TikTok, pre-internet, pre-iPhone, in the dark ages when there were few TV stations, cable or otherwise.
The audacity and naivety to just make a commercial with a few of your ex-girlfriends or friends (one of them being Kazu Makino who would go on to form Blonde Redhead) is something that shows the 80’s were way more weird and outlandish than history would give that decade credit for.
As an ad, its deadpan, perhaps unintentional hilarity, costumes and sets is something out of a David Lynch film, someone Lurie also worked with. As he explains in his memoir, back then, you were competing with big corporate brands like Coke. If you didn’t have money, the stations would just run duplicates of your ads (think a copy of a copy of a copy) until the color washed out and the sound turned to crap. Despite this, Voice Of Chunk sold 30,000 copies which was a lot for an independent jazz album then. It still is today, too, considering very few people actually buy albums any more.
I prefer to think of the off-kilter sound and vision as being complimentary to the music. And while necessity is the mother of invention and a sixty second spot would have most likely been out of their budget, Lurie does a lot with 30 seconds. Think about that the next time you watch a 90 second spot and wonder if it was worth it.
If you aren’t familiar with the music of John Lurie and The Lounge Lizards, Voice of Chunk is the place to start. Even if you aren't into jazz, the melodies and song craft are undeniable.