Lizard King, Fisher King: A talk with John Lurie

Musician, artist, actor,  genuine one-of-a-kinder, John Lurie first came to prominence as co-founder of The Lounge Lizards, the eclectic, boho-punk jazz collective that sprang to life out on the arch edge of New York’s late-1970s no wave scene.

Born in Minneapolis in 1952, he credits his parents with instilling within him a sense that it was alright for him to do what he felt he was supposed to be doing. So he started blowing saxophone. So he co-wrote a film with Jim Jarmusch that turned out to be Stranger Than Paradise. So he started acting, and appeared in films by David Lynch, Wim Wenders and Martin Scorsese. So he started painting. And so he made a cult TV series about fishing, even though he didn’t know anything about fishing.

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Directed by Lurie for cable TV in 1992, Fishing with John is the greatest and unlikeliest TV show you’ve maybe still never heard of. The concept is simple, in the way that Zen is. In each episode, Lurie and a companion – Tom Waits, Willem Dafoe, Jim Jarmusch, Dennis Hopper and Matt Dillon – arrive someplace far away, be it Jamaica, Maine, Thailand, Montauk, or Costa Rica. They fish. They talk. They fish some more. The narrator enthuses that ”These are real men doing real things.” Nothing really happens. The show ends.

What sets it apart from most fishing shows, and most celebrity vanity projects, is that (with the possible exception of Dafoe) no one involved seems to know, or care, anything about fishing, or, indeed, why they’re even out there doing it. Few fish are ever caught. Instead, they stumble along, swapping shaggy stories, and muttering about the discomfort, the boredom, the stupidity and, sometimes, the danger of the undertaking.

If anything is captured, in fact, it is the men themselves. You get more of a passing sense of what Jim Jarmusch might be like from watching him mull over the ethics of fishing than you do from a dozen interviews. The Tom Waits episode, ending with a visibly grouchy Waits stomping after Lurie through lush Jamaican greenery bitching, justifiably, that this is the most absurd thing he has ever been talked into doing, plays like Samuel Beckett in the sun. Or more to the point, like a perfect sequel to Jarmusch’s movie Down By Law, in which Lurie and Waits co-starred as perpetually bickering cellmates.

The episodes are mostly documentary, but Lurie imposes increasingly disconcerting hints of narrative, creating a curious, unspoken tension between artifice and reality – arguably a defining trait of the music he has made with The Lounge Lizards, and in projects like his Marvin Pontiac alter-ego.

The show was filmed in the early 1990s, but wasn’t broadcast until 1998. I spoke to Lurie in the summer of that year, shortly before the first episodes started airing, for a feature that originally ran in The Guardian. This is a longer transcript of the interview, in which, as well as Fishing With John, he talks about his music, his folks, how he first started playing, and the importance of things that happen by accident.


I want to ask you about Fishing With John, but you also have some Lounge Lizards gigs coming up here in the UK, so I thought we might start there. How do you view touring these days? Is it a necessary evil?
JOHN LURIE: What touring? No. I love it. I love it when it goes right. But, y’know, when you arrive at the place and the piano’s tuned to 432, and the bass amplifier’s made by some company you’ve never heard of, and you can’t hear yourself onstage, and all you can eat is ham sandwiches for four days…that gets a little horrible. But, no, I mean it’s what I do. I love it.

Listening to the current Lounge Lizards album [Queen of All Ears], there’s a real intensity – echoes of things like Coltrane, Mingus, and an influence from African music – alongside more humorous, cartoon-soundtrack-style stuff. Thinking about the way the group has changed over the years, would it be fair to describe the development in terms of a move away from irony?
JL: But the irony’s still there…it’s more elegant right now.

How do you mean, more elegant?
JL: Well, kind of almost more religion in it or something, you know what I mean? There’s more… I dunno, you can’t really talk about this stuff without sounding silly, but there’s more spirituality in it, there’s more love in it, there’s more…I dunno. It sounds dumb to say that stuff out loud. But it’s true.

How would you say that change had come about?
JL: Well, it’s over a long, long, long, long period of time – just slowly kind of cleaning the mirror.

When you first put the group together, did you ever imagine it being a long term thing?
JL: No, it was just a joke. I mean, not a joke, but we just threw it together for one gig and then we were in every magazine in New York, and there were screaming girls in the front and we were like, “Oh. We’re going to be big stars….we have to keep doing this.” I’d always been really jealous of people like The Beatles. Like: How do you do that? And I always thought writing music was something I would do by myself. But I was lucky, it just happened a little late, but it was cool.

How did the John Lurie National Orchestra project come about?
JL: All these things happen by accident. We just got together to try and work on some kind of new rhythms for the band to write new stuff, and we played the first day and nothing happened, and we just played and played, and then suddenly we just fell through this hole and figured this thing out. And we got so much better than that record [the JLNO album Men With Sticks]. I don’t think the sounds on that record are so good. There’s a live thing of the trio I’m thinking of putting out, one of our last gigs – the sound is not that great, but the performance is just incredible. I love playing in that situation, because with The Lounge Lizards I almost become, like, coach, bandleader, conductor: it’s like flying a plane or something, and so I don’t concentrate on my own playing so much. But with the trio, I could just play. I could just play, and it was great for me.

How would you say that you’re perceived in the jazz world?
JL: Oh, who knows, it depends. I mean, obviously we can play. Obviously we’re doing something different – I mean we’re not taking Charlie Parker licks and turning them inside out – thank God. I dunno, it depends, because the jazz world runs such a large gamut. But clearly we can play. There’s no way that you can say we can’t play. The guys in my band could play with anybody, there’s just no doubt about it. With the exception of maybe me.

How did you come up with the Fishing With John show?
JL: It was…kind of by accident, y’know. I went fishing with Willem…I dunno, it was just one of those silly ideas that sort of started and then…I don’t know. I’ve been asked this question a lot, and I really do not know what the answer is. It was kind of like: ha, wouldn’t that be funny to do this…And then something happens and then something else happens and suddenly I had the money to do it, without really working too hard on getting it…And so I was doing it, y’know.

You didn’t have to pitch the idea to get backing?
JL: No! No…It was just another one of those accidents. I was sort of joking about doing it, but I wasn’t serious about it, and then somebody hooked me up with this Japanese company who really wanted to do it. So suddenly I kinda felt like, well, I got the money, I guess I have to do it. They were shot over years, and I did it whenever I could. The first two were filmed in 1991, then the rest were in 92-93, but I only edited them like a year ago, because the Japanese company who was paying for them went bankrupt in the middle.

You said the idea might have started when you went fishing with Willem Dafoe. Is it something you do a lot?
JL: Nah…Well a little bit, but I mean, now it’s become…It’s kinda like music too, y’know: you get together with your friends and play for fun, before you have a band. And then, once you have a band, you just kind of do it when you have to.

People expect it of you?
JL: I dunno. People keep mentioning it to me. I get a lot of gifts involving fishing stuff now.

How did you choose who to go fishing with for the series?
JL: Well, me and Willem had gone fishing before. Then Jim [Jarmusch] felt like he owed me a favour, and so I could drag him along. Jim was the first one actually. And then Tom Waits seemed like a logical choice, because he’s just so brilliant with language. Dennis [Hopper] I didn’t know. I’d met him in Japan doing something, and then I’d thought Dennis would be great; and the Japanese people wanted Matt Dillon for it, and I knew Matt a little bit.

Did any of these people know anything at all about fishing?
JL: Willem knows a lot about fishing. Willem’s like serious about his fishing. Otherwise: no, the rest of them are hopeless. I mean, really, unbelievably hopeless.

Does Willem Dafoe actually use that huge ice-drill thing he uses to make a hole in the ice?
JL: He seemed to know what he was doing.

I noticed that you were keeping well back from it.
JL: Yes I was. Because that’s a true story that gets told in that one, about the guy losing his arms. Some guy had lost his arms like a week before, and he drove himself to the hospital. That’s my favourite part of that episode with Willem: how did he get his arms into the car?

How was it worked between documentary and…how much of it was scripted?
JL: A little bit scripted with each one, but not so much. Mostly they were done in the editing. With Willem, it was easy – we didn’t even decide that we were starving to death until we did the edit. We just play-acted a number of different ways. With Dennis, it was just straight documentary, and the same with Jarmusch. With Tom, we set up some situations, but there was no dialogue scripted, because it would’ve ruined it.

When your hand froze in the Willem Dafoe episode, was that real?
JL: That was for real. Yeah, I was really in trouble.

Did you have visions of never playing again?
JL: No, at the moment it wasn’t like I was thinking ‘You’re never gonna play again.’ It was: Your hand’s gonna be frost-bitten. I was really scared. I mean my whole hand went numb, like immediately. Zoop. I had no feeling. First of all it burned, and then it was numb. Yeah, I was really scared.

Were you ever in danger elsewhere?
JL: Oh, every show people almost got killed it seemed like.

The flight you and Matt Dillon took in Costa Rica seemed pretty ropey. He looked genuinely freaked out.
JL: Oh he was scared. No, that plane was terrifying. I mean, if you saw what those pilots looked like. It was unbelievable. That was incredibly dangerous. And then somebody almost…It’s a little thing out in the jungle right, where there’s just like a little asphalt strip where the plane takes off. But it’s really like in jungle-jungle-jungle. And these four planes come to pick me and Matt and the crew up, and it was a hundred and ten degrees, it was really hot, and someone almost backed into one of the propellers on the plane. And then, for real, if you had fallen out of the boat where we were in Costa Rica, that would have been it: you would have been gone, because the current was so strong, and there really were a lot of sharks. Although Thailand wasn’t really dangerous.

Did Tom Waits really get sick, or was that put on for the show?
JL: Yeah, he really got sick – and he was actually mad at me about the whole thing. That thing at the end, where he’s yelling at me? That’s real. He was really mad. He didn’t speak to me for two years after that. He was really mad.

Have you patched things up there?
JL: Kind of.

You fell out over a fishing trip to Jamaica?
JL: Yeah, well – he got mad at me. I had went to such an immense amount of trouble getting that boat into place, you know. It’s a long story, but that tug boat that we’re on? That was sunk. And I got that raised and fixed, I got an anchor shipped in from Miami, I got the whole thing stationed about three miles from shore next to these logs that we had collected that had barnacles on them, so fish would come to the logs – this was so much work it was insane. I mean, I turned into Werner Herzog doing this. Then Tom takes one step on the boat after two weeks of solid work getting this thing all in place, and he instantly gets sea-sick. So, he’s mad at me cause he feels, like, embarrassed, and I’m mad at him because it’s like…damn. So we move the whole thing into shallow water where we can’t catch any fish…it was just bad.

I have to ask, what was the guy under the blue blanket all about in that episode?
JL: Yeah, that’s the cameraman. Most people don’t even see it. I know, he’s right in the middle of the frame… The instructions to the cameraman on the boat were: if you’re on the boat and you think there’s a chance they might be able to see you, you’ve got to put this blue tarpaulin over you. I just left it in because I thought it was so funny. Only one out of ten people see it, and it’s so bizarre, because it’s right in the middle of the frame, but nobody sees it, it’s really unusual. We were gonna have a contest of find the mistake. Because, also, those fish we catch in the Jamaica show were fake. We bought them from those guys with the fish traps, they were just barely alive when we reeled them in.

Do you have a favourite memory from the filming, across all the episodes?
JL: Well, there was a great moment…I mean it’s not really on film so much, but when me and Dennis were in Thailand riding in this fisherman’s boat, and it was just me and Dennis Hopper in the boat, and the sun was going down, and there’s something about the breeze on your body that is just unbelievable and the view was unbelievable, and we were just laughing, both of us, hysterically, because it was just, like: life can’t really be this good. It was just too much, you know?

I wanted to ask you about Stranger Than Paradise. You co-wrote that with Jarmusch?
JL: The very first part of Stranger Than Paradise was completely my idea. Jim had been given this unused film from Wim Wenders and he didn’t know what to do, he wanted to do this other film he had been working on called Garden of Divorce, but then he had this film in hand, so I just said, “Look, who do you want to use?” And he said “Well, I want to use you and Eszter [Balint] and one other person.” So I said, “Why not make it that Eszter’s my cousin, she comes from Hungary to visit me, I don’t want anybody to know that I’m Hungarian, I’m a gambler and I’ve got this pal, and then we kind of become attached to her…” So, that was all mine, in like a two-minute phone conversation. That was more like a collaboration. It was how it should be, not the producer tells the director who tells the this who tells the that…everybody was working together in a creative way rather than the opposite, you know?

Were there any parallels between you and Willie in that film?
JL: I dunno. I mean, the guy is kind of pretty small-spirited. He’s pretty dumb. He’s pretty mean. He’s pretty selfish….I hope I’m not any of those things. And, if I am, I’m not going to tell you.

He’s pretty grouchy, also.
JL: He’s grouchy too. Well, that, actually, to tell you the truth, was I was quitting certain drugs. It’s a very funny thing, because we shot the New York part like a year before the other two parts. The part in Florida, I’m completely going through withdrawal. We did Cleveland last, and by the time we got to Cleveland, I was fine. So I was the only person on the whole movie who was actually getting in a better mood as it went along, rather than the other way around.

Can you tell me a little about where you grew up?
JL: I grew up in Minneapolis, and then we moved the New Orleans and then to Worcester, Massachusetts, which is a horrible place.

Is that where you spent the most time?
JL: High-school, yeah.

Is that why it was more horrible?
JL: No, it just really is a horrible place. I was through there a little while ago and it’s almost like there’s a dome over it and God’s not allowed in. It’s just like…it just feels, whoof. It’s like a failed industrial town. It’s horrible there. Yeuch.

Was there anything of a musical tradition in your family?
JL: No. No, my mother was a painter and my father was a writer. No music, none.

What sort of painting did your mother do?
JL: My mother was Welsh, you know? She used to teach at the Liverpool Art School. Whatever it’s called…the one where The Beatles went. Yeah. She used to teach there. She used to do watercolours and stuff. And they’re kind of good. After she died, we sort of pulled out her paintings and it was like…damn – they’re good.

And what did your father write?
JL: Well, y’know, he wrote poetry and stuff, I mean they thought he…It’s a weird deal my father, because when he died, I thought he was a failure for never having written anything, and he went to NYU and he wrote the whole literary magazine under pseudonyms, and they thought he was going to be like the next James Joyce or something. And then , instead of writing, he went to the South and organised farm-workers for the Socialists… like, you know that movie Matewan? He did that stuff. And when he died, I thought he was a failure, kind of, and I went to my cousins’ wedding about a year or two after my dad died, and all these old guys were coming up to me and going, “You’re David Lurie’s kid? He was my hero.” It was great for me. I guess he was really brave, and really altruistic. But they were very cultured and very…easy with us. Me and my brother, Evan, and my sister, Liz, were allowed to completely pursue what was inside us. There was never anything imposed on us like, “You have to be a doctor,” you know. And they kind of also instilled in us this feeling of…I mean, me and Evan were poor, poor, poor, for really a long time, and we never really noticed it or were afraid about it. Because they kind of instilled in us the feeling…they just said that it was alright to do what you feel you’re supposed to do, and it doesn’t matter if you’re making a quarter of a million dollars a year. It doesn’t matter.

When and why did you first pick up a saxophone?
JL: Well, first, I played the harmonica. That was my first instrument – my sister had bought my brother a harmonica for his birthday and I played it a lot and I got pretty good, then I switched to guitar and – this is a famous story about me that sounds not true – but I was completely depressed. My father had just died, I was in my last year of high-school and if I didn’t go to college, which I didn’t want to do, I was gonna have to go to Vietnam. And I was in Worcester Massachusetts, and I felt like I was from Mars, because I had nothing to do with the people in this place. And I would stay up all night and go to school in the morning. And I was walking around about four in the morning one time, and I run into this weird guy who’s got a wheelbarrow full of dirt, and he tells me he’s just seen a statue turn into an angel. And I was kind of really looking for this kind of thing at this point in my life. I was looking for some answer from another level, y’know? And he had something this guy. He was insane, but he had something. And he brought me to his house and he gave me a bicycle and a saxophone, and that’s when I started. He was a black guy, his last name was Washington. I’ve been trying to, for years, remember his first name. He was a three-name guy, I can’t remember for the life of me… But he gave me a saxophone and a bike. He lent them to me, really, then I brought them back. I played the saxophone for about a month, and then I had a 1950 Les Paul guitar, really nice old guitar, that I sold and then bought a saxophone immediately. That was a big decision for me.

So you could either have become a saxophonist or…
JL: Or a bicycle messenger.

You first began to get known on New York’s Downtown scene, but what prompted you to move to New York in the mid-1970s in the first place?
JL: I was living in Worcester. After my dad died, my mom went back to live in Wales, and I was kind of bumming around America, then I came over there for a while, I was living there, and then I was living in Boston, which is boring. And my girlfriend moved to New York, and I went to visit her and it was just like…damn, this is amazing. I mean, you know, it couldn’t have been anywhere else at that time. There was just nowhere else to go. For somebody as idiosyncratic in what they do, it was the only place to come.

What’s the next thing?
JL: Well, I’m working on this thing called Marvin Pontiac, which is me singing…It’s kind of somewhere between…Fela Kuti and Leonard Cohen.

Postscript: In 2017, some eighteen years after that first Marvin Pontiac album, The Legendary Marvin Pontiac: Greatest Hits,  John Lurie unexpectedly released a second Marvin Pontiac set, The Asylum Tapes.
It is very much worth hearing.