Fake Music For Fake Times

Marvin Pontiac, <em>The Asylum Tapes</em>
Marvin Pontiac, The Asylum Tapes

America is a fake country.

As a political state, its beginnings were multicultural, multi-lingual, and built on an economic foundation of feudal exploitation via slavery and indentured servitude. Perhaps that explains the virulence of the idea that Americans are, and have always been, white English speakers who worship a (Protestant) Christian God and have earned everything they have. Unlike, say, France or Japan, we never had blood, a language, or a geography that automatically defined us, we’ve only always had an idea. And that is a philosophical one, not the racist values and culture of Charles Murray and other pseudo-intellectuals.

We’re fakes and so we demand something real, authentic, and we turn actual reality around as something we scorn, from the New York Times mocking Al Gore for being his genuine self, to the infantile whining about fake news over anything someone in charge doesn’t like or want to you know.

Into this ridiculous, tragic mess, returns the greatest fake musician of the last fifty years, John Lurie. By fake, I mean real, realer-than-real: surreal.

Within and on the edges of pop music, artifice is vital—the musicians on the record and on stage are in some sort of disguise. At the very least, they are their performing selves, something sharply distinct from their everyday, authentic selves; at the most, they are Ziggy Stardust.

Or they are Marvin Pontiac, who is really John Lurie. Or maybe it’s the other way around.

There are two Marvin Pontiac albums, the first, The Legendary Marvin Pontiac, from 1999 (Northern Spy will reissue it on LP for Record Store Day), and the second issued at the close of last year. These are wonderful recordings, not just clever and unique and hip—which they are—but full of strange and beautiful things (and on Lurie’s Strange and Beautiful Music record label) and haunting and wrenching emotions for the sensitive listener.

Any artist would want to credit something as good as these records as their own, authentic voice, and that’s the ambiguity in this fakery. These are not only Lurie’s finest musical statements, but are his most authentic ones as well. Where the Lounge Lizards were playing a multi-level artistic con—hip musicians playing at hip musicians making a sort of hipster jazz, while actually pioneering important ideas about how to be constructively irreverent against a tradition that demands a slavish reverence—Lurie as Marvin Pontiac sounds like the artist he was always becoming.

Marvin Pontiac’s legend is that he was the son of a Malian father and a Jewish woman from New Rochelle, was raised in Bamako then moved to Chicago, where he picked up the blues. He had two hits in the 1950s, “I’m a Doggy” and “Pancakes.” Then he lost his mind, “drifted into insanity” in Detroit, and was run over by a bus in 1977.

You could read that on the jewel case of The Legendary Marvin Pontiac, as well as apocryphal blurbs from David Bowie and Leonard Cohen. And there was “I’m a Doggy,” first on the track list. You put on the CD, heard a slow, funky blues beat underneath a wailing harmonica (with surprisingly contemporary production values), before Lurie’s unmistakable deadpan, baritone, sprechstimme comes in:

I got a bone for you
I got a bone for you
I’ve got a little bone for you
I got a bone for you
‘cuz I’m a doggy
Yes, I’m a doggy
And I’m naked almost all of the time

Yeah, he’s a doggy. An actual doggy. That’s something of the tone of the album, which is musically serious and lyrically oddball. Those two elements come together in plangent and effecting moments, over and over again, like in “Small Car”:

This is a story about a place
Very, very, very far away from here
Where tiny little farmers lived with their families
And small one-inch long barking dogs
And they made their cars out of cans.

In a car, in a car, in a small car, in a small car,
In a car, in a small car, in a small car drivin’

These farmers thought there must be a way, to know why the
stars are shining, and they wanted to see, and they decided to go on a mission.

In a car, in a car, in a small car, in a small car,
In a car, in a small car, in a small car drivin’

So they decided to go for a ride and they drove on the highway,
they drove on the highways past the armadillos,
like the armadillos in Switzerland and they said:
"Oh... It is so beautiful!"

And it is beautiful. The music overall is a stylish and pleasurable mix of blues, funk, and West African pop, and Lurie has a superb band behind him, with the likes of Marc Ribot, Angelique Kidjó, Calvin Weston, John Medeski, and Tony Scherr. All the grooves and arrangements are in the pocket, and the music and stories are human. What at first seems to be a front turns out to be something honest and revealing, even if it’s presented as an absurdity:

One Sunday morning
She woke up in my bed
One Sunday morning
She woke up in my bed

She looked in the mirror
I saw she likes what she sees
She put on her jewelry
Went to her grandma’s house

But she didn’t make me pancakes
She didn’t make me pancakes
She didn’t make me pancakes

So it’s a song about doomed relationships. Or maybe I spend too much time alone. If you follow Lurie’s Twitter feed, you get the sense he spends a lot of time alone too, painting, watching sports, and in between making Marvin Pontiac: The Asylum Tapes.

This is a solo album, and taking on the enterprise alone tells me that Marvin Pontiac is Lurie in his truest self. This is committed (no pun intended) music, much more blues than the first one, but still not quite blues. It opens with “Unbelievable”:

It’s really unbelievable
It’s really unbelievable
The beauty and the horror in this life
The beauty and the horror in this life

There are the absurdities, like “We Are the Frog People,” and “I Don’t Like to Stand on Line.” There’s a lot of anger under those songs, and there’s a lot of experience and sorrow under many of the others, like the scream in the background of the Buddhist ritual of “I Am A Man,” or “It’s Always Something. It’s Never Nothing”:

Things are not alright

Or this story of “Santa Claus:”

One night in April
Santa Claus came to my house
And he didn’t have any pants on

On paper, that looks like a joke, on the album, it’s something of a fugue-state nightmare, something that emerges in the mind of man who spends most of the day lying on the floor, staring at the ceiling.

Maybe I’m the type of person this is for. Maybe this is music for lonely people. Maybe that’s what Lurie is, lonely, like so many of us. That last track on the Aslyum Tapes is “I Am Not Alone.” Overdubbed and a cappella, Lurie croons “I am not alone / preacher come to see me / he doesn’t understand / I am not alone.”

But the only answer comes from the reverb, so it’s all bullshit, it’s fake. It’s white lies that tell a truth. These albums leave you with a mark, but not one they impress on you—listen to them and you end up picking the scab off some truth that you had been hoping to fake your way past.


George Grella

GEORGE GRELLA is the Rail’s music editor.