“I thought people would be up in arms about pretending to be a black person,” Lurie said in a 2008 interview, “but people were more upset that I pretended to be an insane person.” –2013 John Lurie interview at eMusic
Something seemed fishy about the amazing 1998 The Legendary Marvin Pontiac – Greatest Hits release, on Strange & Beautiful Music. Who was this madman with the lyrical genius of Dylan meets Robyn Hitchcock meets crazy-guy-on-the-corner-by-the-bodega, and where did he come from? How did such an incredible record emerge whole cloth from an artist none of us had ever heard of? Then his biography turned up online, claiming that Pontiac had been:
The son of an African father from Mali and a white Jewish mother from New Rochelle, New York. The father’s original last name was Toure but he changed it to Pontiac when the family moved to Detroit, believing it to be a conventional American name … When his mother was institutionalized in 1936, the father returned and brought the young boy to Bamako, Mali where Marvin was raised until he was fifteen. The music that he heard there would influence him forever.
Plausible? Almost sorta kinda. But why did Pontiac’s voice sound like a more blues-drenched version of New York jazz musician/painter/actor John Lurie (Lounge Lizards)? Oh… because Pontiac was Lurie! Realizing that the whole Pontiac thing was a ruse didn’t diminish the magnetism of that record for me though – it amplified it if anything. Went looking for more, but that was it — just the one audio scrapbook.
Until now. Pontiac (who was supposed to have been killed by a bus in 1977!) just dropped a follow-up recording, The Asylum Tapes, allegedly recorded on a donated 4-track deck while he was confined in the Esmerelda State Mental Institution. This time it’s Lurie solo (the first collection was recorded with John Medeski, Billy Martin, G. Calvin Weston, Marc Ribot), but it’s raw, weird, soulful and full of demented wonder.
New Yorker: So what’s Lurie up to with this project? I suppose it’s no more mischievous, really, than an actor singing in character, and many of our most prized artworks goof around with form, testing the permeable membrane between fact and fiction, between art and something else. … Our hunger for the authentic or the unmediated has mostly begotten us a cavalcade of deeply unreliable things, such as Donald Trump, laminate flooring, fake-fake news, artisanal moonshine, and reality television.
Reportedly Marvin’s music was the only music that Jackson Pollack would ever listen to while he painted. This respect was not reciprocated.
Not sure The Asylum Tapes will get us any closer to answering hard questions about how Pontiac ended up in the bughouse, but it’s deep, beautiful, soulful, sort of funny, and totally worth your time. Available for streaming on iTunes, Spotify, etc.