Behind The Legend of the Legendary Marvin Pontiac: A Conversation with John Lurie
Billed as the posthumous music of a willfully obscure musician named Marvin Pontiac, The Legendary Marvin Pontiac: Greatest Hits package came with a photo purported to be one of the few ever taken of the troubled genius. A biographical profile told the tale of this hard luck case; Pontiac was ostensibly born in 1932 to an African father from Mali and a Jewish mother from New Rochelle, New York. A life of conflict with fellow musicians (including an alleged fist-fight with blues harmonica great Little Walter) and of mutually contemptuous dealings with the music business had caused him to become untethered, institutionalized and, eventually, hit and killed by a bus in 1977. He left behind 14 or so blues and R&B songs, many with African echoes. Think of Tom Waits or Captain Beefheart, with a little R.L. Burnside in the mix, and you get an approximation of the musical territory.
Though few of even the most diligent music historians had ever heard of Pontiac, the Greatest Hits album came with written tributes from such admirers as David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Leonard Cohen, Angelique Kidjo, Mike Gordon of Phish and Flea. Among the musicians credited with playing on Pontiac’s Greatest Hits were Art Baron, John Medeski, Jane Scarpentoni, Steve Bernstein, Marc Ribot and Calvin Weston – all familiar figures from New York’s downtown music and art scene, with John Lurie and the Lounge Lizards a common thread. This should have struck some as odd, as some of these people had not been born in 1952, supposedly the year that two of the best tracks, the suggestive “I’m a Doggie” and the highlife lament “Pancakes,” had some cult impact in various parts of the world.
The songs and musicians were real, as were the accolades from Bowie et al. The biography, though, was total fiction. Marvin Pontiac never existed. The vocals – low, rumbling, hypnotic – harmonica, guitar work and compositions were a front for John Lurie. Lurie is founder of the 1980s-1990s alt-jazz group the Lounge Lizards. He’s a saxophone player, a painter, an actor (most notably in the Jim Jarmusch indie film classic Stranger Than Paradise) and he’s the host of the acclaimed 1990s TV series Fishing With John. eMusic’s Wayne Robins recently spoke with Lurie about the enduring music – and the endearing scam – of Marvin Pontiac.
Did you create Marvin Pontiac so you could sing without having to take the heat for it?
For a long time, I was threatening to do a vocal record. But the idea of me putting out a record where I sang seemed ostentatious or pretentious. Like The Music of Telly Savalas – “Now this fucking guy is singing?” I don’t sing very well, I was shy about it. As a character, it made it easier.
But you have the names of the real musicians on the credits. Why not make up those names too?
I put the musicians ‘names down only because my assistant at the time, Jaime Scott, was a great guitar player, he did great, he really nailed it, so I felt he had to get the credit.
What were the sessions like?
I’m rough in the studio. It had to be right. Most of the fun stuff was when I added the vocals [later].
Where did the African influences come from?
I used to listen to Ali Farke TourÃ© a lot. I play guitar, and he’s doing the same thing. Obviously he’s doing it better. And I was very influenced by what Fela was doing 20 years before. “Pancakes” [according to the Pontiac bio, a bootleg hit in Nigeria in 1952] has a broken balaphone on it – an out of tune balaphone, which is like an African version of a marimba.
Did people get upset by elements of the hoax?
I thought people would be up in arms about pretending to be a black person, but people were more upset that I pretended to be an insane person. But I wrote all the lyrics before I wrote the bio and made him insane. I also had a publicist for the record who chickened out. He said, “I can’t pretend it’s not you, they [the press] will never speak to me again if we pretend this is an insane African guy if they find out it’s actually you.”
Do you think people discovering it was you changed the context of how they heard it?
Some people were angry. I didn’t do it to be mean, I did it to create a world. What’s odd to me is how differently people hear it when they realized it’s me and not some African guy killed by a bus. I finally proved a white man can play the blues, I proved it. The music is completely real, completely organic and real, it doesn’t feel like some kind of manufactured fake thing, it’s as real as can be, I have no doubts about that.
What about the tributes from Bowie and Iggy and all the rest.
The tributes were real. I knew Iggy already, Bowie already, Flea was like my best friend. I wanted Bob Dylan but he said no. Leonard Cohen [who calls Pontiac's music "a revelation"] I didn’t know. But my travel agent was his travel agent. This friend of mine was coming in from France and we needed to rent a house in South Carolina. I tell this to my travel agent and added, “by the way I need to speak to Leonard Cohen, and she says, ‘I don’t think so, I can’t do that. ‘So I tell her to book the house, and 15 minutes later she calls me and says, “OK, here’s the number.” It’s a 310 area code, I didn’t know where the 310 area code is, I thought I was calling the landlord or real estate person in South Carolina. And a gravelly voice answers [Lurie does Leonard Cohen intonation]. “Hul-lo?” I started to laugh so hard I hung up the phone. I waited a half hour to call him back. I sent him the music. They all heard it [before endorsing it].
How did you get over your self-consciousness about singing?
I couldn’t pull it off in the studio. I had to do a test track to know when to bring in the trombone and background vocals, and the engineer wrote on the tape “vocal attempt.” A year later I set it up to do the vocals at my house. The engineer Pat Dillett, he produced it with me, and finally we had a breakthrough. Now I can put it on and listen to it and say, oh, cool. The Lounge Lizards stuff, all I hear are the mistakes. The Lounge Lizards played live in the studio, you do a great performance, but there’s always this one little thing…
Why aren’t you playing music anymore?
I got so beat up by the music business, and my health fell apart. I’ve got some weird neurological problem, it could be lyme disease and it could be something they haven’t named. There are hundreds of thousands of people with neurological problems looking for an answer. Over the last six years it’s kept me inside. I’ve done everything you can imagine: IV antibiotics, herbs, homeopathic things.
Did you think Marvin Pontiac would emerge from his secret cult status?
I remember when I was young I believed it if you did a great piece of art, eventually it will be discovered. I think the album had enough legs that somebody was going to play it for somebody who was going to play it for somebody… I’ve been waiting for this phone call.