PRINT Summer 1998


John Lurie

JOHN LURIE FIRST WENT FISHING when he played St. James (either the Lesser or the Greater) in Martin Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. Jesus (Willem Dafoe) told his disciples to “become fishers of men,” and James, cranky and irritable as usual, misheard him and thought he said fisherman.

Today, two thousand years later, Lurie is still at it, wandering the planet, tackle in hand, fishing for the fiercest game in the seven seas, from man-eating sharks to submarine-eating giant calamari. Fishing is an art, as anyone familiar with Moby Dick or Trout Fishing in America can presumably attest, and nowhere is it seen more artistically than in Lurie’s new television mega-miniseries Fishing with John. In six episodes on the Independent Film Channel and Bravo! networks, he travels to exotic crannies of the world with such like-minded outdoorsmen as Willem Dafoe (Jesus), Matt Dillon, Dennis Hopper, Tom Waits, and Jim Jarmusch, seeking out elusive aquatic prey (is it still prey if you throw it back?) and proving that not only is fishing an art, it is enlightenment, entertainment, and sometimes a life-and-death struggle against hunger, boredom, and motion sickness.

Lurie produced, wrote, directed, scored, and starred in Fishing with John, and he’s really good at all those jobs. From Bassmasters to The Fishin’ Hole to Suzuki Great Outdoors, fishing shows are a tube mainstay, and John Lurie elevates this venerable institution to a whole new level, doing for the American fishing format what Cézanne did for the still life, what Godard did for the cinema, what Jerry Tarkanian did for college basketball.

Years in the making, the show debuts this summer (it’s also in theatrical release in Japan). Combining elements of documentary (narration, spontaneity, real fish), fiction (Lurie and Dafoe freeze to death in the ice-fishing episode), and religious ritual (Lurie and Dillon’s “ancient Indian” fish-catching ceremony in Costa Rica), Fishing with John truly transcends genre. The extraordinary soundtrack Lurie composed for the show is one of the first releases from his new record company, Strange and Beautiful Music.

As leader of the Lounge Lizards, the jazzical ensemble he founded in the late ’70s, Lurie has continually experienced major problems with major record companies, despite a large international following. The Lounge Lizards have transcended genres and confused the guys who decide what bin you go in from the beginning, when Lurie described the band as “fake jazz,” a characterization he no doubt regretted once he found he was taken seriously on the jazz scene. The Lounge Lizards were actually more like punk jazz or new-wave jazz, steeped in the tradition from Ellington, to Mingus, to Coltrane, to “free jazz,” but also versed in funk, noise, minimalism, and world music.

Lurie’s new music, released on his homemade label, includes the Lounge Lizard’s latest, The Queen of All Ears, which shows the band very much at the forefront of the new jazz but still evasive when it comes to classification. It’s trance music, funk music, sophisticated soul, klepto-klezmer, situation-comedy bop, and tribal religious music of some yet-to-be-formed tribe. Released simultaneously is a CD containing two independent-film sound tracks, African Swim/Manny & Lo. Lurie, who was nominated for a Grammy for his Get Shorty sound track, rises to the challenge of accompanying visuals in a way that produces extraordinarily original music as dramatically variable as life itself.

All of this product is magical. Lurie’s magic is a perfect blend of stage magic and spiritual magic—call it sleight of soul. John Lurie seems compelled to do the impossible, defying the odds by being odder still. Things like keeping a nine-piece band working, starting a record label, creating a cosmically delirious television show, and making music that truly takes you higher.

Glenn O’Brien is a writer based in New York.