BONUS TRACK: I met actor/musician/fishing show host, John Lurie (New Orleans, 2017)
I received a Jazz and Heritage Foundation grant to record three episodes of a Louisiana fishing show for the radio — a strange concept, not getting to see the fish. My idea was to fill in the blank spaces with coastal reporting, so that the show would give people information wrapped in visceral fun. I called it infotainment…
Inevitably, any time I discussed my radio fishing show idea aloud, someone mentioned the series Fishing With John, starring original New York hipster, musician, actor (most famously Down By Law), painter, and sufferer of Lyme disease, John Lurie. Lurie filmed six episodes of his fishing show all over the world from New York to Costa Rica to Thailand, with weird guests including Dennis Hopper and Tom Waits.
I’d loved the surreal Fishing With John so much that I once interviewed wizard and true star Todd Rundgren as we fished for catfish on the flooded Mississippi River batture in White Castle, Louisiana Together, Todd and I even sang a tweaked version of the Fishing With John themes song: “Fishiiiiiiiiing. With Todd. Fishiiiiiiiing. With Todd.”
My own fishing show aimed to be more about actual fishing and coastal issues than Fishing With John. Still, I got the comparison so often, that I finally messaged John Lurie on Facebook, and asked him to call me, and let me pick his brain. Facebook is the pits mostly, but sometimes it is amazing. Lurie agreed to call me, but then didn’t — until one night he did. At the time, I was the perfect distance into a great wine and weed buzz when my phone lit up with his New York number. Given his Lyme disease, Lurie may have been stuck in his apartment feeling the Covid-19 isolationist vibe long before the rest of us. Either way, I really appreciated the call, and the following great talk we shared about his famous fishing show, and how I should go about recording my own weird show for radio:
MPW: You’re forever associated with New Orleans because of Down By Law. But then I read somewhere you also lived here?
John Lurie: I grew up there, for a little bit. We moved there when I was 6 and left when I was 9. I used to go and we’d fish for snapping turtles — we lived in Airline Park. I guess they call it Metairie now. We fished for snapping turtles but I also found snakes every day. About a year ago I was supposed to have a show at NOMA with the paintings and it got cancelled. But I was there in New Orleans so I went to the canal we used to fish in, and it was pristine! You could see from the bridge, I saw a large gar swim by, a lot of fish in the canal! It was this crappy mud thing when I lived there. The snakes were all gone though.
They banned shell dredging in Lake Pontchartrain…so the Lake is doing really good now.
I was 7 so that’s like 50 years ago right? We used to go every Saturday swim in a very beautiful Lake Pontchartrain. I told that to someone lately and they just started laughing…
Yeah, it’s hard to get the old locals on board sometimes with Lake Pontchartrain. They remember when it was on the “impaired water-bodies” list.
But it’s nice that it’s coming back, and that the canal from my childhood was doing so well. I saw a three foot gar and a couple of bass.
So tell me how you started your famous fishing show that features so very little fishing…
Dennis Hopper said he wanted to go to fish in Thailand, and I had this memory of Jacques Cousteau in Thailand. And the whole thing was about how the tin miners dragged the bottom and there was no fish left. It was like, a lot of the places we went there was no fish left…
That was your original inspiration for starting a fishing show?
No. I came home from a wild night and there was nothing on TV but fishing shows, and they were very relaxing. I mean, like, me and Willam DeFoe actually had been fishing, and me and Flea (from Red Hot Chili Peppers) had been fishing. I mean, I do fish! But I thought, What a great excuse to do basically an interview show but take it as far from show business as possible. That was really the idea, to get away from the phony showbuisness veneer. I couldn’t think of anything better. But I love fishing and it was depressing to find out that like, in Jamaica the reefs were destroyed and there weren’t fish unless you got really far from shore.
That show came out, and it had this legal mess, so it didn’t come out for eight years after I made the episodes. I made them in 90 to 92. Then it was in this real ugly legal thing it took me years to sort out. It’s a complicated story…a Japanese company was paying for it, and they were great, but they started going bankrupt… It was just a mess and it took years… it’ll upset me to tell the story, so I’d just as soon stay away from it.
It’s funny when you say it was made in the 90s. It seems even older than that, partially because when you watch you immediately think, People don’t really get funded to do interesting/weird thing like this in such a professional way anymore. It seems like a relic because of that.
That was the fluke. It was this Japanese company that was looking to do something. There was this moment when the Japanese were buying everything into New York, trying to invest in things. I just fell into it, it was a fluke.
So you didn’t like, pitch your fishing show idea for years?
No it was almost like a joke. I kept threatening to do it. If I tried really hard to do it, it probably would have never happened. Then suddenly it was all right in front of me and I was like, Well I have to do it.
Did you learn some hard lessons? Did you all have two boats to film with?
Yeah it’s a hard thing to film, especially depending on who you are. If you are somewhere there are waves, it’s very hard. Or when we filed in Costa Rica, the river was a rushing river… You have to have a boat on the camera, the cameraman has to have something that hides him, then you have to have a second boat to shoot your boat. They’re very, very hard to shoot, and it’s hard to do sound too. It’s sort of a documentary, but it’s also sort of like a narrative movie… A very hard thing to shoot. Especially if the budget is small. Do you have two cameras?
[Long explanation] No we only have one.
You’re gonna need two cameras though, I think. And you’ll need to synch up the sound…
Well the intention is it’s just sound, for the radio. And we are very low budget, so far. What about the concept of you getting out there, putting in all the effort and then not catching any fish? Did you bug out when you didn’t catch anything? There are more or less no live fish on Fishing With John…
The best episodes were when we didn’t catch anything. I mean, like the Jim Jarmusch one, we caught five or six sharks and I edited down to just one shark. It depended if there were fish or not. But it didn’t matter. When you’re out there fishing, you think it matters because you want to catch a fish, but it wasn’t what the show was about. If we’d never caught a fish in any of the shows, it would have been more in keeping with the kind of people who were on the show. But when you’re out there, you want to catch a fish…
When we were in Costa Rica and there were alligators, and first we’re like, Oh film the alligator! And you think you’ve got this amazing thing when you’ve shot an alligator. But then you get back home and you turn on a real nature show and it’s like…they have 50 alligators! Our one alligator not a big deal. Same with when you’re out there thinking, My god look at these fish we caught!
You would love fishing in Louisiana; it’s brackish water, but if you dip your hand into it, you can’t even taste the salt a lot of times. It’s strange, you see dolphins and gators, and then redfish alongside bass…
You catch bass there?
There is so much fresh water here now, some days you can’t keep the bass off your live shrimp. Historical Geographer Richard Campanella told me that ten years ago you couldn’t catch bass inshore here. A lot of it is because of man-made fuckups, but also diversion projects cut into the marshes, and suddenly there’s Mississippi River water pouring into the saltwater marshes…
[John Lurie didn’t really respond, just listened…]