Last Friday, a new collection of obscure blues legend Marvin Pontiac (1932-1977) surfaced. The Asylum Tapes appeared with no advance warning or publicity materials, just this statement: “Marvin Pontiac was anonymously sent a 4 track tape recorder during the years he was held at Esmerelda State Mental Institution. This is what he did with it.”
Before you question the ethicality of selling outsider art made by a mentally unbalanced individual, take note: Marvin Pontiac is the musical alter ego of John Lurie. Which makes this album even more notable, since Lurie hasn’t released new music in seventeen years! At one time downtown NYC’s renaissance man-about-town, Lurie came to prominence in the no wave era with his fake-jazz band the Lounge Lizards. Starring roles in Jim Jarmusch’s 1986 film Down By Law and the 1991 fishing show Fishing With John made him ubiquitous in the expanding boho-alt media culture. Then, after 2000’s The Legendary Marvin Pontiac: Greatest Hits (his first-ever vocal album), Lurie suddenly ceased performing to cope with chronic Lyme disease and dedicate himself to painting.
The Asylum Tapes finds Pontiac/Lurie intoning primitivist lyrics in an addled baritone, plucking Mississippi Delta-meets-Northern Africa guitar and banjo, and honking occasional blasts of electric harmonica, now without backing band. Though lacking the ensemble magic of Lurie’s previous music, it’s not necessarily a quiet album, filled out by multiple voices and the occasional snippets of nature recordings. Given his reported tribulations of the past two decades, songs like “I Am Not Crazy,” “I Want To Get Out Of Here,” and “Don’t Fuck With Me” may in fact not be vehicles for play-acting — a criticism leveled at Lurie’s otherwise acclaimed first Marvin Pontiac album.
John Lurie’s synesthetic art remains fascinating no matter his platform, which until last week seemed limited to painting and Twitter. Whether or not The Asylum Tapes means more recordings are forthcoming, it’s a pleasure to be hear his music and voice again.
A sociology professor living in upstate New York, Leonard Nevarez is patiently waiting until his kids are old enough for a family roadtrip to Maryland Deathfest. He blogs at musicalurbanism.org and is writing a book about Martha & the Muffins and the late 70s/early 80s downtown Toronto music scene.