John Lurie, with a 'Fishing With John' screening, hopes to 'reacquaint myself with the world a bit'
For the past few years, John Lurie’s been a hard man to find.
The onetime downtown mainstay has become something of a nomad, largely steering clear of New York. Suffering from advanced Lyme Disease, Lurie, once the saxophonist and leader of the unclassifiable but brilliant Lounge Lizards, is unable to play music any longer. Nor is the former cast-member of HBO’s “Oz” and Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law and Stranger Than Paradise able to act. For the creator, writer, and star of the beloved TV series “Fishing With John,” even a trip out on the water seems like it’s probably out of the question.
But Lurie’s unwanted retirement may be over. Tomorrow night he will appear for a screening of “Fishing With John” at Nitehawk Cinema in Williamsburg, participating in a Q&A afterward, moderated by Devon E. Levins, the host of East Village Radio show “Morricone Youth.” I interviewed him over the past week over email (Lurie would not speak on the phone or in person) about the event and his reemergence.
“I was thinking if this goes well with ‘Fishing With John,’” he wrote, “I would show them over a bunch of nights and then talk to the audience after, reacquaint myself with the world a bit.”
And for outside observers, it sometimes seems like the world and John Lurie have been at loggerheads. In 2010, a New Yorker profile of Lurie, detailing the stalking ordeal that is the reason he’s spent so much time away from New York in recent years, depicted him as a paranoiac and called the veracity of his illness into question. Lurie remains shocked.
“That New Yorker profile was appalling. I don’t think you can put any more stock in that article than if the title was ‘Aliens seen crawling out of John Lurie’s brain!’ and bought the magazine on a grocery check-out line.” Many of his friends agree, including novelist Rick Moody, who wrote a passionate defense of Lurie and his music and an eviscerating critique of the article for The Rumpus.
While the New Yorker never responded to Lurie’s or his supporters’ repeated protests about the story, his stalker, the artist John Perry, did manage to elicit a response from editor David Remnick after going on a hunger strike last year in protest of his depiction in the piece. Remnick said the piece had been thoroughly fact-checked and refused to retract it. Perry ended his hunger strike after The New Yorker issued a statement to the same effect.
For his part, Lurie said he was unsure if he’s completely out of the woods on the eve of his return to New York.
“I really can’t say. There has been a lot of creepy activity on the Internet recently, and I am quite certain who is doing it. So the obsession is still there. I guess we will just have to see.”
Safe or no, tomorrow’s screening of “Fishing With John” could well become the first step in Lurie’s Robinson Crusoe-like return to the mainland. For a certaion generation, the television show “Fishing With John” was one of the great found objects of late-night television (or television in general). Both a fishing show and not, the short series (six episodes aired in 1991 on Bravo and were later rebroadcast on IFC) sees Lurie paired off with famous friends like Jarmusch, Matt Dillon, Tom Waits, and Willem Dafoe, and fishing in locales exotic (Jamaica, Thailand) and domestic (Montauk, Maine). “Fishing With John” parodied the chat-show genre and warped it into something at once silly and profound, with a pitch-perfect baritone nature-show narration by Robb Webb that injected nonsequiturs into the action and commented on the frequently visible awkwardness between Lurie and his companions.
While the Nitehawk screening has an air of reverence about it, Lurie seems to see it as a pretty modest context.
“Someone, I think [writer] Glenn O’Brien, suggested that it be aired during baseball rain delays. I thought that would have been perfect. No explanation, it would just float on. You could imagine people tilting their heads a little funny as they watched it on their couch,” he said.
He's feeling "a good deal better" these days and has managed, in lieu of playing music, to devote much of his energy to painting. His canvasses, which often portray animals and humans in uncanny encounters, favor muted colors. He paints his animals with austere dignity and his humans as skeletal grotesques, the bleak figures sometimes thrown into relief by lush and vibrant backgrounds. He’s self-taught, and his paintings occasionally display an amateurish looseness, but so did most of his other endeavors, at least initially.
The Lounge Lizards turned from downtown avant-weirdos into a large ensemble that could shift between angular, delicate chamber pieces and wild group improvisation, and part of the charm of “Fishing With John” is Lurie’s endearing unfitness for his role as the host of a fishing show—or any other kind of show.
The paintings are also clear continuations of the same themes and sensibility that drove his music and his TV show. Titles like When I die, I want to go like my grandfather, asleep and at peace. Not like those people screaming in the other car and The Spirits are trying to tell me something but it's really fucking vague would sound at home as bits of narration on the show. One painting, Bear Surprise, features two naked picnickers having sex while a bear approaches, arms above its head, yelling “Surprise!” in a speech bubble.
In Lurie’s art, as in his TV show, nature comes across as droll rather than sublime, inscrutable rather than indifferent. Nature may not kill you, but it will make you feel kind of stupid. While it never made it to air during rain delays, “Fishing With John”still provokes a sense of head-scratching wonder. Soporific professional fishing shows have largely been replaced by the likes of “Hillbilly Hand Fishing” and “Deadliest Catch,”but “Fishing With John” resonates in an atmosphere where shows like “Survivor”and “Bizarre Foods” trade on a taste for savage nature and the ersatz primitive. The show deploys, in a tongue-in-cheek way, tropes straight out of Heart of Darkness and “To Build a Fire”: in one episode, Dillon and Lurie perform a ritual dance based on some poorly translated advice from a “wise man” in Costa Rica; in another, Dafoe and Lurie “starve to death” after a hallucinatory episode while ice fishing (or so the narrator tells us).
Lurie, of course, is very much alive. He’s thinking about a couple of new projects, including a film about himself and his companion Nesrin Wolfe, and possibly a book about his stalking—among other ordeals—entitled There Has To Be A God Or It Couldn’t Get This Weird. As he has remained mostly isolated over the course of the past few years, he says his painting has functioned “like a message in a bottle kind of thing,” a way to connect to a realm of cultural production in which he was, at one time, seemingly omnipresent.
The audience that arrives tomorrow night (and, one hopes, at events tentatively planned for the spring as well) is likely to be comprised not of beleaguered channel surfers looking for something different but of stalwart Lurie fans. He has plenty out there, and many of them have been waiting a long time for Lurie to resurface. Of course, he’s been waiting a long time too.
‘Fishing With John’ will play at Nitehawk Cinema (136 Metropolitan Ave, Brooklyn) at 10 p.m. on Nov. 15. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with John Lurie.
Painting at bottom is titled 'Deer at Stoplight.' All Lurie paintings Courtesy John Lurie Art. Stills from 'Fishing With John' courtesy The Criterion Collection.