ROCK / The Lounge Lizards and other animals: John Lurie, master of the hip and the narrow cheekbones, is back. This time, he's learnt how to play. Adrian Dannatt reports from New York

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Lowering his sax, drenched in sweat, John Lurie of the Lounge Lizards stares with pugnacious grace at the packed cellar of the Village Gate. One heckler shouts: ' How come you're still alive?' He smiles wryly: 'I was hoping you wouldn't bring that up.'

At the start of the 1980s, Lurie was the leader of a whole downtown New York art scene, master of an ironic, hip, overtly smart clique. A musician, actor, model and social fixture, Lurie had been too perfect for his own good. At Cannes in 1984, he was not only star of Jim Jarmusch's first film, Stranger Than Paradise, he also played a sleazy nightclub owner in Wim Wenders's Paris, Texas. In Tokyo he was an American icon, one of those dissolute, liquid-nitrogen hipsters whose Fifties attire and aura of narcotic mystery plays well abroad. French and Italians, like the Japanese, have long adored photogenic, junkyesque American musicians, whether Iggy Pop or Chet Baker, and Lurie's narrow cheekbones and suits were ideal. Like Chet, he was a jazzer whose legend was based less on his music than his beauty. Also like Chet, Lurie felt obliged to fully indulge every jazz-myth, including hard drugs.

And then he vanished. Like most of his contemporaries, gone to eternity or Kansas, Lurie was, for years, one of those missing, mythic personalities Manhattan breeds so well. Suspicion lingers that Lurie's long absence revolved around heroin. But there's another story. He spent some time developing a TV fishing show, one of his other passions, to feature Tom Waits and other celebrity friends, but which never got past a promising pilot.

If Lurie was no longer to be seen in the most modish Manhattan restaurants, always accompanied by a different catwalk goddess, if his moody stare accosted one less often in lifestyle adverts, perhaps it was because he was quietly upstate dangling for carp.

His triumphant comeback does have certain signature elements. He still strides on stage, sax at a lethal angle, like a Giacometti in Armani, features gaunt and handsome as ever, a face that demands cameras, lips and cheekbones poised for chiaroscuro pixels. With black suit and tie and white shirt, he looks like an extra from Reservoir Dogs, smile hinting at the pathological. He still makes quips and comments between numbers, a basso so profundo it makes your chair rumble.

We are a nostalgic audience - a shoal of Japanese girls he greets in their own language, European mannequins who linger at the end to proffer phone numbers - those who hanker for the decadence of New York a decade ago. I am among the guilty, having seen the Lounge Lizards at Interferon, a long-vanished club, in 1981.

Nowadays, Lurie gets separate billing from the band and plays unabashed star. No other original members rest, and the major surprise is not Lurie's bald spot (with which he remains infuriatingly sexy), but that the music is so good. Back in 1979 Lurie branded his style 'Fake Jazz', an appellation that went all too well with his musical inexperience, but in the following 14 years he's learnt how to play sax and clarinet, and also how to hire musicians on the basis of talent not dress sense.

Their music is a stomping, throbbing cacophony based around percussion, wah-wah guitars and horn. Lurie now plays a version of current hard-rock funk, while he used to play pastiche Sixties Free Jazz. The band are notably brilliant. If Lurie is still leader, nodding approval, shouting cues, he's actually more conductor than star performer, cool enough to lie down flat on stage, to wander in and out of the set, snap his fingers in the wings. With a rousing finale of 'Big Heart', their signature tune, Lurie heads into the audience, waving his sax above his head: 'See you in another decade,' he says.