Fishing, Painting, Fireflies, and Metaphor
by Alex DiFrancesco
It was about a decade ago, and a romantic partner and I were driving back to New York City from the Catskill Mountains. My partner at the time’s name was Oscar, he was about twenty years older than me, and owned a cabin and some property at the top of a mountain upstate. We’d spent the weekend there, and on Sunday night, we were driving back into the city, down the highway, with WNYC on the car radio. We were mostly quiet, Oscar focused on the road in front of us, and me drifting in and out of thought, tired from hiking, happy to be in a heated car and headed back to Astoria, Queens, where we both lived. In the quiet, a song started playing through the car’s speakers. It was jazz — jazz is something I’ve always appreciated, but never been deeply into — but it was a totally different kind of jazz than I’d heard before. There was something joyful and a different kind of wild about it, something I responded to by immediately leaning forward and turning it up.
There are two main things I love in art — relentless sadboying (which this was not) and a good, joyful fuck-you (which this firmly was). The first category holds the work of many of my long-time heroes: Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, Phosphorescent, Gillian Welch, Blaze Foley, Townes Van Zandt; the second holds other who are a completely different thing, and bring me every bit as much happiness: Laurie Anderson, Yoko Ono, my noise musician/performance artist friend Marzi Margo, the writer Never Angel North, a lot of Donald Barthelme. This music that I was listening to in the car was shouty, silly, but at the same time serious and skilled. I’ve long held that you can’t be weird as an artist without knowing exactly what you’re doing first. This was weird. This was some kind of knowledge of what should be done and a doing of exactly what it wanted, anyway. This was some weird communication with God, like Laurie Anderson’s self-invented instruments and her using them however the hell she felt like, car horns blaring at a gazebo, or the translation of what it felt like to go into space. I loved it.
The song ended and the WNYC DJ started talking about the band — John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards, a seminal underground New York City band in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Oscar, who had worked in the music industry in the ‘90s, began effusing about them, and about Lurie’s television show Fishing with John, which I had never seen. I went home and watched every episode on YouTube. The show is often called things like “Waiting for Godot on water” in regards to its dry humor and the fact that nothing really happens, except a jazz musician takes his famous friends, who don’t really know much about how to catch a fish, fishing. Willem Defoe dies of frostbite in Alaska and Matt Dillon does a dance for making fish appear in the streets of Costa Rica. There is a deadpan wilderness narration that makes non-sequitur asides like, “Can I have a bite of your sandwich?” It’s an amazing show and quickly became a favorite.
But there’s one episode that I’ve returned to over and over, not just for the humor and for the fact that one of my favorite musicians, Tom Waits, is the co-star that week. But Tom Waits sticking fish down his pants and getting seasick is not the reason I’ve watched this episode over and over — it’s because I think this one contains metaphors and lessons on what it means to be an artist in the world.
The set-up for the episode is just like all the others — Lurie brings someone from his long and illustrious art career along on an ill-fated fishing trip. This time it’s Waits in Jamaica. They play cards, they go out on a tug that looks like it’s about to sink into the water. They muse about whether or not fish have ever tasted the finer cheeses as they lose their bait and resort to a piece of Waits’s sandwich. They walk along the beach and talk about the things that wash up alongside it. In a particularly poignant moment, Lurie (who has since retreated to a Carribean island and taken up painting after contracting chronic Lyme disease which left him unable to play saxophone) talks about how if he lived in a place like the one they were in, he would just walk along the beach and make art with the things he found.
As I’ve watched this episode over and over, I’ve been struck by how much the concept for this show (which Lurie has said in interviews was originally conceived as something to be played during rain delays in baseball games) feels like a metaphor for what it means to make art in the world at all. You have a wild, probably a ridiculous, idea. Suddenly, you are dedicated to it. You are dragging everyone and everything you know into it. It may end in disaster, it may fuck up everything in your life. But somehow, this thing in your head is something you have to make real in the world. And it doesn’t matter what the cost is.
I have returned to this idea in my own life so often. Every time I try to write a book. Once, when I drove across state lines in the middle of winter, in a massive snow storm, finding myself on steep back-road inclines with tractor trailers that had been forced off the highway barrelling behind me, researching for a story no one in the world cared about but me, I pulled over to tweet, “This is the most ridiculous idea I’ve ever had. Now I know what Tom Waits felt like in that episode of Fishing with John.”
By the end of the episode, Tom Waits is seasick and furious. He famously did not speak to Lurie for years afterwards. They are walking back across the island, and he is berating Lurie, saying he is ruining his own life, and dragging everyone down with him.
In the early 2000s, Lurie disappeared. Or, more accurately, he went into hiding. It was a disastrous combination of his chronic illness, a friend-turned-stalker, and a hit-piece written in a major magazine that gave as much time to interviews with his stalker as the “profile” of Lurie it sold itself as. Since he couldn’t make music, since he was largely cut off from the world in an undisclosed location with his assistant Nesrin, Lurie got serious about painting. Unsurprisingly, I also adore these paintings. They have the same humor, skill, and odd, funny, and smart names as his jazz compositions did.
Lurie never really went away, not totally. He became something of a legendary presence on Twitter, an artist who really only communicated with the world that way anymore, outside his paintings. We started interacting there about four years ago, and have stayed in pretty steady communication via countless DMs and emails since then, with a few phone calls in between. I’m pretty protective of him, in a way I’m sure he doesn’t really need. There was something I figured out right away while interacting with Lurie, though — he believes in art more than anything. That talking-to-God-in-the-music I heard the first time I listened to the Lounge Lizards in a car coming back from the Catskills wasn’t in my imagination and it wasn’t there by accident.
In his recent show, Painting with John, Lurie tells a story from his childhood — he and his brother were listening raptly to a jazz album shortly after his brother had oral surgery. And, while they were listening, his brother became so caught up in the music that he mimicked a line of it and blew out the stitches in his mouth, making blood fly across the room. He kept going, blood everywhere.
“That’s the cost of the music,” Lurie says. It’s not a solemn statement, nor is it overwrought. He just believes this, says it, moves on, probably cracks a joke a minute later. But this casual acknowledgement of what it costs to be an artist — it brings me back to the moment in Fishing with John when Tom Waits is berating Lurie in Jamaica. This is the cost. You are foolish to your friends, you are ruining your life. And yet, you make the art. You make the show. You plow forward. You make the music while blood flies everywhere.
I’m a bit of a fuck-up, and I always have been. I’ve, at this point in my life, poured about 30 years and $150,000 dollars into the idea of becoming an artist. I don’t have a house. I’m not married. I screwed up my years in my master’s of fine arts program so well and burned so many bridges that I doubt they were worth it in any way. I don’t have what you’d call a very successful life. Even my successes in the realm of writing, where all of the energy of my life has gone, aren’t that dramatic. There are people out there who are doing far, far better than my few little paperback books that get some nice reviews and disappear forever.
John Lurie’s art (though he’s a successful artist, and a bonafide genius and polymath in many ways) makes me feel a lot better about this. When I was writing my master’s thesis, I was sick of the plotted bullshit I was putting out, complained to John that I wanted to do something different, experimental, something that melded everything I loved onto the page, but I knew it would never sell, and so I was writing something I thought would. John told me straightforwardly that selling is never the point of art. That I could write a book I hated and sell a million copies, and that wasn’t going to make me happy. Or, I could write exactly the book I wanted, never sell it at all, and never be dissatisfied with what I made. As simple as this advice sounds, it was something that no one, in years and years of studying art, had ever told me before.
That is the contract, though. It’s the deal you make as a non-commercial artist. You can’t predict what will be well-received, what will sell well, what will change one person’s life, what will disappear without a ripple — none of it is what an artist is there to do. No. For the artists I admire, for the kind of artist I want to be, art is the crazy idea that you cannot let live only in your head. Art is making that idea real in the world. Maybe it ends in disaster. Maybe it ends up with the people in your life furious at you. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that weird communication that you hone over your life as an artist between your instincts and the divine, listening to it, translating it, over and over, until you get it just right.
That’s the thing I heard the first time I heard John Lurie’s music. And that moment when Tom Waits is berating Lurie in Fishing with John — it’s become the ultimate comfort for me, oddly. It’s carried me through so many times when I had to explain, to myself or others, all the reasons I wasn’t living life the way that life is supposed to be lived. Why I was always broke, or high, or making a mess of things, and somehow and inexplicably, holding onto whatever story or book or essay I was writing as the thing keeping me going, the connection between my instincts and the divine. R. Crumb one said, “To be to be a real, sincere artist in America is to be a loser in society,” and, holy shit, if John Lurie could be accused of what Tom Waits was accusing him of in that moment and pull something beautiful like the show Fishing with John out of it, well, maybe there was hope yet.
Lurie’s new show, Painting with John, which is currently about to start its second season on HBO, doesn’t have as much of the wild adventure as Fishing with John. There are no guests to torment, the show features Lurie mostly alone on his Caribbean island, painting. Lurie’s older now, near 70, not the film and television star he once was, not the perilously cool jazz musician, either. He talks into the camera, reminiscing about his life, talking about the magic of art. There’s something kinder about this show, an elder statesman of the arts delivering the hope that art has given him for the last several years while he hides out from the world. We’ve all spent a lot of the last two years hiding out from the world, and it’s perhaps even more comforting than the idea behind Fishing with John, that we have to go into the world with our ridiculous endeavors and make them real. The John Lurie on screen these days is not the relentless John Lurie of the ‘70s or ‘80s or ‘90s.
The first time I watched this show, Lurie had sent me the pre-production videos, and I was drunk and probably high, and I watched them in the dark of a summer night, alone in my apartment, during the pandemic. A firefly got into my apartment somehow, and was blinking on and off all around the room as I sat through the videos. I had been drinking and taking drugs a lot, severely depressed, and Lurie had been kindly and calmly preaching harm reduction at me via email for about a year and a half at that point — I didn’t have to stop getting high, he said, but I really should think about not taking so many depressants when I was depressed. I really needed to pick my moments better. I really needed to get my shit together. I’m stubborn and I can be pretty short-fused. Lurie is usually one of the only people who will say things like this to me.
There was something about this show, something I saw in all of Lurie’s art, ever since that first day I heard it on the way back to the city. When Lurie lost his ability to play music, he picked up a paint brush. The world and his chronic illness had taken from him the thing he’d practiced and perfected through his whole life, his music. And instead of giving up, Lurie found something that he could do instead that still fostered that communication with the divine. Watching Painting with John, I felt the same hope I used to when I watched my favorite episode of Fishing with John. At some point, life stops being a wild adventure. It can even take from you the things that have been your lifeline. But the lifeline remains, maybe hidden in a different form. This is what it means to believe in art, to believe in muses, to believe in higher powers, even. As Lurie painted and talked on the screen, I thought of the world around me, at once so empty and so full of people pretending nothing was happening, going on with their lives. I thought of John Lurie, on an island, alone, all these years, and then, with most of us confined to our homes, alone too, reaching back out after such a long silence. I sent him a drunken email about the firefly in my apartment.
“I send you my show and you email me about a firefly?” he asked.
“The firefly is a metaphor,” I replied.
“Oh! A metaphor!”
He proceeded to torment me for days about this drunken email, about fireflies.
Which is classic Lurie. The man can make something in hopes it’s a bright spot for the universe. And, sure, there will be divine communication with whatever the spirits are who make art, maybe even with God themself. But there will also be a great, joyful dose of “fuck you” in there, too.
Alex DiFrancesco is the author of All City, Psychopomps, and Transmutation. They live in Cleveland, Ohio, and ride a pink Vespa.
Photo: Mathieu Le Roux/Unsplash