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The Lounge Lizards sprang forth from the earliest days of New York post-punk, circa 1979. As critics and cultural arbiters of the time pronounced an early death for punk rock (perhaps prematurely), the ensemble fronted by alto sax man John Lurie responded by dredging out the infantile corpse and reanimating it from a jazz perspective, updating aggressive angst with cool experimentation. Over the 20-year course of Lurie’s maturation as a composer, the Lounge Lizards have grown more worldly in their influences and more ambitious in their experiments. Their latest efforts, Voice of Chunk and Queen of All Ears, show the ensemble in peak form, playfully reinventing themselves at every turn with street-smart sophistication.
But where Lurie has really made a name for himself, and has perhaps found his true niche, is in scoring soundtracks for (and occasionally acting in) independent films: among them Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law, and Mystery Train, as well as Blue in the Face and 1998’s Clay Pigeons and Lulu on the Bridge. His knack for creating and manipulating atmosphere combines with a seemingly innate sense of how to pair sounds with images and stories. Lurie’s diverse work is state-of-the-art in an arena where artistry is fading fastindeed, artists of his caliber and indie-credibility level are the purported bread and butter of the upstart Independent Film Channel.
None of which explains why the cable network opted to grant him a fishing show.
Midway through the first episode of Fishing With John, in an interminably long stretch of nothing much happening, John Lurie and Jim Jarmusch sit at the bow of a fishing boat in Montauk, N.Y., waiting for the elusive blue shark. “The eyes of a fisherman, poised, ready for anything, even danger,” deadpans narrator Robb Webb, suggesting imminent adventure. But the musical score and on-camera story are more tellingLurie stares blankly into the sea to the tune of “Struggle of Man,” a rambling bit of score music with sinking bass and cello, plodding drums, and maddening, neurotic xylophone vibes suggesting mounting depression and despair. Jarmusch, chain-smoking and mumbling under his breath, asks, “Why am I here?” The question is less the philosophical inquiry one might expect from the master of the glacially paced indie film than a thoughtful condemnation of the enterprise of fishing and the very premise of the show.
In fact, Lurie and his guests never have a particularly good time. They rarely catch anything. They don’t really talk about film or much of anything else. They don’t promote upcoming projects. They just go to exotic locales and squander a lot of time. It’s a transcendence that true fishermen know well, and the show’s effect is magnificent. When Lurie finally gets a bite on his line, the music kicks into “Shark Drive,” a rousing, bouncy ensemble anthem punctuated periodically by all nine musicians shouting the lyric “Shark drive!” and making triumphant growling noises. Suddenly, the drawn-out process culminates with the act of actually reeling in the 12-foot shark, which takes so long that Lurie eventually tires and hands over the pole to Jarmusch. They shrug at their catch, release the shark, and head back for New York.
Fishing With John is among the most satisfying viewing experiences to be found among the shady genre of cable TV series. (Note: Chief among District Cablevision’s failings is its conspicuous neglect of the Independent Film Channel. Viewers in D.C. can catch the show, which debuted elsewhere in June, Fridays at 11 p.m. during Bravo’s “IFC Fridays” teaser campaign.) The show ostensibly rests on the premise of “an investigation of sport, adventure, and camaraderie” but it is, at base, a fishing show: made-for-television male bonding. Incredibly boring guys who make incredibly brilliant movies go fishing.
Lurie, his soundtrack music, and his cast of unlikely guests are the only surface characteristics that differentiate Fishing With John from crude documentary-type Sunday morning sport-fishing shows. The guest list thus far has been a round-up of quirky actors and directors, most of whom Lurie has worked with before, and most of whom seem to be friends of his. Even the narrator seems, at first, to be only marginally ironic, and Fishing With John’s parody of fishing shows is slight and subtle. The only real difference, as IFC’s splendidly dry plugs for the show intone, is that “John Lurie knows absolutely nothing about fishing.”
The 23 tracks on the Fishing With John soundtrack constitute an eminently listenable album, a stand-alone artifact (rare among soundtracks, particularly those for TV shows) of intriguing experimental work. Lurie’s original music for the series not only corresponds to the action (or lack thereof) on screen, but also incorporates stylistic elements from the local music traditions of each show’s settingLurie’s hand-picked selection of world musicians is as tastefully obscure as his cast of guests for the show.
When Lurie and guest Tom Waits lazily paddle a canoe across Jamaican waters to fish for coastal red snapper, Lurie teams up with the Cassatt String Quartet and percussionist Nana Vasconcelos on “Canoe,” an exploratory riff on Jamaican folk music and reggae. The soundtrack album also includes rough “field recordings” from the episode of Waits singing an improvised “River of Men” (“Fishers of men, fishers of men, up one side and back again along the River of Men” ) and “World of Adventure” to while away time in the canoe. The 51-second track “Tugboat” chugs along dutifully as the pair head out to fish off the coast; the disconcerting “Backwards Flute” (flutist Bart Feller and cymbal crashes by Billy Martin recorded backward, Jimi Hendrix-style) kicks in when Waits gets seasick and they call it a day. Later in the episode, Waits finally catches a red snapper and promptly sticks it down his pants.
As Lurie and Willem Dafoe freeze their asses off ice-fishing in a claustrophobic shack, Lurie exquisitely captures northern Maine in January with “Freezing Guitar,” a meandering and discordant delirium plucked out on a loosely strung instrument. When he pairs up with Dennis Hopper to track giant squid near Bangkok, he calls in his John Lurie National Orchestrawhich includes Lurie on soprano sax, and drummers Calvin Weston and Billy Martin, aka “Men with Sticks”for moody, heavily percussive jazz with Eastern musical structures and elements of Thai folk music.
The best music on the soundtrack album comes from the episode with Matt Dillon fishing for snook and tarpon on Costa Rica’s Rio Colorado. Fishing-wise, it’s the least memorable episode of the series’ first seasonthe narrator explains the lulls by pointing out that “Fishermen don’t usually have much to say to each other”for which Lurie compensates by going over the top with the music and going wild with the Costa Rican influence.
The strangest moment on this collection is “Fish Dance,” a loopy operatic interlude with libretto sung by the Fishing With John Singers: “There is a dance/A special dance/Beautiful and powerful/The dance seems silly/You must have courage but/Those who do it are graced/Yes!/With good luck in fishing.” The song is as beautifully surreal and absurd on the record as it is when paired with the image of Lurie and a bemused Dillon actually dancing the ritual. Indeed, Lurie’s strongest trait as a jazz musician and composer is his willingness to play alongeven when he’s being taken for a ride. CP