This week’s English Sunday brings the story of one of the most influential African/Jewish musicians, the legendary Marvin Pontiac. Born in 1932, Pontiac was bound to become an inspiration to artists such as Leonard Cohen, Flea, Iggy Pop, Beck, David Bowie, Michael Stipe (all of which having expressed their admiration for Pontiac) and surely many, many others. But however inspirational he may have been, mystery still surrounds this extraordinary musician.
His childhood was spent mainly in Mali, where he moved with his father after his mother was institutionalized when he was four years old. The music specific to the area became one of the main reference points of his art, a conglomerate of harmonica, balaphone, standard blues backing and his harsh, earnest vocals. When he turned 15 he returned to his native US of A, living in Chicago and trying to get a start in the music scene. His debut however was marked by an accusation of having stolen Little Walter’s harmonica playing style, and after a defeat in a fistfight with his accuser, Pontiac had to flee Chicago. He moved to Texas where he worked as a plumber, but also continued with his music, but had no major hits.
As impressive as his music may be, his eccentricities kept him from getting into the higher levels of stardom. Always disdainful of music labels, rumor has it that any record producer trying to get Pontiac to play for him, had to go to his home in Slidell, LA and mow his lawn. Another pretty strong rumor was that Pontiac’s music was the only kind of music Jackson Pollock would listen to while painting, but this kind of admiration was not mutual.
1970 is another year of reference in Pontiac’s strange biography, being the year he claimed to have been abducted by aliens. After his return, he stopped playing music and dedicated his life to uncovering the truth about extraterrestrial life forms, holding the firm belief that it was the same kind of experience that drove his mother to insanity. After years of trying to communicate with these creatures, Pontiac would unfortunately hold the same fate. Insanity took over his life after moving to his birthplace, Detroit MI in 1971, where he remained until his untimely end as a result of a bus accident in 1977. The Legendary Marvin Pontiac: Greatest Hits is the only collection of recordings which is still available nowadays, and it is a true testament to the genius of the mysterious figure of Marvin Pontiac.
However, as probable a story as that may sound, it is not true. Marvin Pontiac is the fictional alter-ego of amazing Lounge Lizards saxophonist and leader, fascinating Jim Jarmusch approved actor, absurd fishing show moderator and mediocre radio host John Lurie. Pontiac was one of Lurie’s inventions in order to be able to comfortably sing vocals on one of his records. Released in 1999, The Legendary Marvin Pontiac is an interesting blend of crunchy blues and flowing, extremely textured African music. While being pretty coherent, Lurie’s record still manages to reach from the fairly standard ‘I’m a Doggy’ which plays like a Lightnin’ Hopkins number without all the grit, to the epic, world music inspired ‘Small Car’ which tells the story of tiny farmers driving tin can cars. Even while being Pontiac, Lurie always keeps his kinda frightening, kinda fascinating, but always funny in an absurd way persona, while singing about flies in his soup or about some pancakes which he really, really wanted. The record is a fun view into a different side of his music, and the contributing musicians (Billy Martin of Medeski Martin and Wood, John Medeski of the same trio, Marc Ribot, longtime Lounge Lizards contributor…) are outstanding, but is it worthy of the story woven around it? Is it a comment on influence and fame and the ability to manipulate using it? Or is it a joke? Probably. Worthy of a few listens and a great anecdote to impress your music savvy friends? You betcha.