Some Propositions concerning the Lounge Lizards
Preface: The problem with being an engaged music listener is that it’s completely unscientific. Unlike being, e.g., a deranged baseball fan, or a hardcore weather person, or a day trader. Those pursuits have their elective affinities, but they also depend on rigorous templates of factual material. The deployment of these facts becomes an important part of the obsessive lifestyle of the cathected individual. In the case of popular music, however, this absence of statistical abstracts gives rise to annoying compilations of top-ten lists, desert-island discs, accounts of various shows. Concerts especially. It’s one of those High Fidelity–style games, talking about the gigs you’ve been to. Guys do it a lot. Apparently, going to concerts involves a masculine manipulation of worldly impediments. You have to wait in long lines, you have to exercise Machiavellian crowd-control instincts, or you have to exhibit first-rate scalping prowess. (“I just waltzed up to that black dude and got two third-row tickets off him five minutes before the show, only fifteen bucks!”) You camp out. You wait until the lights go down, and then you somehow connive your way down to the row where the industry suits repose. In these pages, I attempt to replace the High Fidelity–style obsession with a more serious apparatus, one which ideally gives the concert to which I address myself a stately, serious treatment. Please see below.
First Proposition, that the best concert I ever saw in my life was a gig by the Lounge Lizards, on April 12, 1992, at the Merkin Concert Hall, New York City. This concert was part of the New Sounds Concert Series, svengali’d by one John Schaefer, the host of the radio program of the same name, broadcast each night at 11:00 p.m. on WNYC, public-radio affiliate in my fair city. I first heard Arvo Pärt on New Sounds, first heard Górecki’s Third Symphony and David Hykes and La Monte Young and Ingram Marshall and a lot of other stuff. Some of this music has probably been lost to history, alas (viz., A. Leroy’s placid and hilarious “Home Sweet Home”), especially now that you can no longer listen to archives of the really old episodes.
Second Proposition, that a certain period of music by the Lounge Lizards amounted to some of the most transportative music ever recorded. See, somewhere in the midst of my enchantment with the New Sounds show, in the late ’80s, I heard this saxophone solo playing over the airwaves. It was late one night, and I was barely awake. My delusional semi-sleep was a recombinant mixture of hypnagogic voices and New Sounds, and I heard this saxophone playing. Sort of the most beautiful thing I had ever heard in my life. It was what I imagined music could do. I couldn’t really fathom how melancholy and enthusiastic it was. It started with one saxophone, and then there was a second answering horn performing these sort of arpeggio-like runs. Just when I was kind of getting used to the saxophones, a really fractured guitar came in, a downtown-ish guitar, the kind of guitar that would be used to repel gentrifiers on the Lower East Side, then some percussion, then the guitar just broke out into some massive cacophony, like a pallet of submachine guns toppling over onto the floor, drowning out the saxes. The piece ended with a childlike drum section, a rather meditative drum pattern. Then a little more solo sax. I woke, I waited, I stayed awake, just so I could hear John Schaefer announce what the hell it was.
Third Proposition, that the early Lounge Lizards dressed exquisitely. Well, when John Schaefer announced the band, announced the name of the song (and what a great name: “A Paper Bag and the Sun”), I was a little stunned, because I had heard the Lounge Lizards back in college when their first recording was released. My keenest recollection of that album was that they dressed well on the cover. The cover had them all wearing shirts and ties, as if they were a simulacrum of a genuine jazz band, in which spirit John Lurie, whose band it was, had once described them as “fake jazz.” This turned out to be something he ought never to have said, as for a time it made it difficult to take them as seriously as they deserved. That first lineup had Arto Lindsay in it, who was a great downtown guitarist, though in my view not as good as Marc Ribot, who later filled the same chair (on, e.g., “A Paper Bag and the Sun”). Originally, they also had Anton Fier on drums, who not long after convened the excellent Golden Palominos, including a configuration with Syd Straw and Jody Harris that I liked a lot. Still, I just didn’t get the first Lounge Lizards album. Seemed a little mannered to me, seemed like it was more about establishing mastery of a genre than about memorable writing. Even the impeccable credentials of producer Teo Macero—the guy who produced Miles’s first electric period—amounted to excessive pedigree. Upon hearing “A Paper Bag and the Sun,” however, I was in a fever, convinced that something amazing had happened to the Lounge Lizards, and that I had been wrong to consign them to the file of things given incomplete attention, and so I went in search.
Fourth Proposition, that it was also occasionally important to go to the movies. John Lurie of the Lounge Lizards had appeared in a number of movies in the middle ’80s, and I saw these movies, and I thought he was great, a natural actor, but movies just didn’t matter to me in the same way that music mattered. I liked Roberto Benigni’s rabbit soliloquy in Down by Law. I thought Eszter Balint was really pretty in Stranger Than Paradise. And I thought John’s television program, Fishing with John, was one of the best uses ever of the medium. John had an offhanded and relaxed charisma on the screen, whether large or small, but this did not command my more careful interest. It took John Schaefer and New Sounds to do that.
Fifth Proposition, that the New Sounds Live concert series, which took place for a half dozen Sundays each year, was almost as good as the radio show. I think it was in 1991 or 1992 that I started going to the New Sounds concerts, at Merkin Concert Hall, in the Lincoln Center area, and these were often amazing events. Sometime in 1993, e.g.,
I saw a full-length recital of La Monte Young’s The Melodic Version of the Second Dream of the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer from the Four Dreams of China, scored for brass octet in just intonation. The instruments were situated throughout the hall. Since the piece was scored in this unusual tuning system—unusual at least for Western ears—the players obviously have to listen to each other really carefully, so as to avoid slipping back into well-tempered mode. And that was just one show. Anyway, in the midst of this regular diet of concert-going, I learned that the Lounge Lizards were going to play. And by then I was already deeply in love with Voice of Chunk, the 1989 album that featured “A Paper Bag and the Sun.”
Sixth Proposition, that the phrase “the best concert I ever saw in my life” does have something fatuous about it. And yet despite my misgivings it is perhaps worth mentioning that I’ve been to my share of memorable concerts. I’m just not one of these persons who hoards my old ticket stubs, and who speaks reverently of his one hundred Dylan shows, or his two hundred Dead shows. I am glad I never saw the Doors play, and seeing U2 on the tour for their first album is not something I think about often. More often it’s the strange stuff that happened at a concert that I remember. Like this: my very first concert was Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Halloween 1976 (the series of shows he recorded for Live in New York), at the Palladium, to which I took my prep school roommate Andy, and at which Andy, after getting high with the unknown doper to his left, puked on his shoes during the encore. That I remember. Along with the banner that Zappa had strung across the stage: Warner Brothers Record Company Sucks.
Seventh Proposition, that it is the rare band that is actually better live than they are on their recordings. I saw Guided By Voices once, and they were certainly better live, but that is because their recordings were, at that point, deliberately low fidelity. Music that is about dancing, as in the case of the B-52s, never came alive for me until I saw it performed. In the case of the Lounge Lizards I thought that Voice of Chunk was more than well recorded, and so it didn’t occur to me that they could possibly be better than the recording. But wait, I guess I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me describe the event!
Eighth Proposition, that your memory of the best concert in your life is not to be trusted, but that doesn’t make this memory less important. Your memory is not to be trusted in any case. And yet what I have learned from hoarding my erroneous memories is idealism of a kind. So: the first half of the New Sounds Concert that afternoon (yes, afternoon, 3:00 p.m.) was given over to the Mikel Rouse Broken Consort. Apparently, this portion of the bill was meant to be the Kronos Quartet half (I have since seen them play a couple of times), but they rescheduled. Then there was intermission. Some portion of the Lounge Lizards then came out onstage, while John was meant to go over and talk to John Schaefer at a little interviewing station. Schaefer was meant to ask Lurie some polite, diverting, softball questions, as he did with his guests. I was looking forward to this part, because I thought John Lurie was really cool, and it was going to be interesting to hear what he had to say. And yet when John Lurie sat down with John Schaefer, his two drummers began playing and Lurie kind of looked at Schaefer, and then he kind of looked at the audience, and threw up his hands, what am I supposed to do?, and fled back downstage. Before it was clear what was happening, he had already picked up his horn. Whereupon he began to wail. At about the time of this show, Lurie was also playing some gigs with a much smaller ensemble (this evolved in part because it was easier than mobilizing the numerous Lounge Lizards for national and international tours) called the John Lurie National Orchestra. This ensemble involved the two drummers, Calvin Weston (he can be found on a number of Lurie-related recordings) and Billy Martin, who went on to be in Medeski, Martin, and Wood. That day, the opening number featured this trio. They just went for it. Of which more below. Meanwhile, it’s possible that the non-conversation I’ve just described with John Schaefer never happened. Before I got a copy of the set list,1 in order to write this piece, I was sure that the intermission had happened in the middle of the Lounge Lizards performance.
Ninth Proposition, that spontaneity is highly to be prized in the concert setting. For example, one of the most excellent concerts I ever saw was not a concert at all. It was the regular Sunday service at Al Green’s church in Memphis. I guess Al talked a little bit, but what he mainly did at his service was sing. And how he sang was in a really improvised way, where he would tease out phrases and ideas until he felt like he was done with them. This process often took a while. It was musical ministry in the best sense of the term and I stayed for two hours or so. The service was still just getting going when I left. That kind of spontaneity, where you just open your mouth and sing, was genuinely inspiring to me. And the opening section of “Lawn for People,” the first song that the Lounge Lizards played, trafficked in this very sort of spontaneity. Look, I recognize that Lurie composes a fair amount. He can write the notes on the staves. He is not a jazz composer the way that Miles was. But Lurie still manages to invert, subvert, and remodel melody lines on his sax until he feels like he has said what he needs to say. With just the two drummers he was filling Merkin Concert Hall all the way to the back wall. The band came in piece by piece somewhere toward the end of the solo—Mickey Navazio on guitar, Dave Tronzo on slide guitar, Michael Blake on tenor sax, Steve Bernstein on trumpet, and Jane Scarpantoni on cello (or this is my informed guess from this recollective vantage point)—and once they were all playing, it was even louder and even more ecstatic. And this went on for twenty minutes, this song, before they even broke for a rest.
Tenth Proposition, that call-and-response is the essence of spontaneity, and call-and-response connects music back to some ancient impulses, its role in the formation of community, to African music, although I suppose there was call-and-response in some early Christian singing, too. It is well represented in African music, however, this impulse, in Fela Kuti, in King Sunny Ade, in the music of the pygmies, in almost any African music, and African music has influenced Lurie, at least the way I see it. You can hear West African time signatures, e.g., in the Lounge Lizards and in his pseudonymous Marvin Pontiac recordings. The relationship between the saxophones in the Lounge Lizards, it’s all about call-and-response, all about the movement between players, which makes his musical ideas more forceful, legitimizes them. Though I had expected to hear the Lounge Lizards play songs from Voice of Chunk, and would have claimed, had I not seen the set list, that they did play more than just the one tune from that album, “Uncle Jerry,” I didn’t care, because the principles were the same in all of these songs (most of which apparently went unreleased, in the long period of Lounge Lizards–related difficulties between Voice of Chunk and their last official release, Queen of All Ears). The audience was aware that it was hearing something amazing, something greatly celebratory, and so even though it was the afternoon, which is a pretty ridiculous time for a concert, there was some palpable energy that was getting fed back and forth, some vibe, and it was apparent in the relationships between the ensemble (“They have to love each other,” Lurie said once), in the way ideas got transported from one player to another, and in the communication between ensemble and audience. Lurie, a rather flamboyant, even overpowering character, was nonetheless a part of the ensemble. It became very much a group, and that was essential to the hardcore genius of the later Lounge Lizards, but it was especially essential to the Lounge Lizards live, like an African drumming ensemble, or an old Dixieland jazz band. Lurie wrote the material, but his solos, when they came, weren’t egomaniacal or pyrotechnical or overly florid. They were just new ways of thinking about whatever phrase was about to be introduced into the circuit. It was ecstatic, it was confident, it was relaxed, it was never self-satisfied, and while the music of the Lounge Lizards may have been indebted to older jazz forms, the band never sounded indebted. They sounded like nothing else on earth, except the Lounge Lizards.
Eleventh Proposition, that you don’t need a big encore and all of that stylized nonsense in order to mount a memorable show. On April 12, 1992, the Lounge Lizards played only five songs. They scarcely made it over the forty-five-minute mark. And only two of the songs were ever released, one of them long after this particular concert. Who cares? It was an afternoon gig. It was being recorded live for radio broadcast. I assume the Lounge Lizards were encouraged not to go on endlessly, so as to be reasonably edited into the broadcast. Knowing a little about Lurie’s life and habits as a young man, he might have been up late the night before. He might not have wanted to do some afternoon gig on the Upper West Side, for the Lincoln Center crowd. Maybe this was nobody’s favorite gig, least of all John Lurie’s, but it was mine, and that’s the way it goes. Sometimes the really great gig is the one you had no idea would be so good, and it’s not about how many people were in the audience (I saw an outrageously good Wedding Present show in Tucson last week before about twenty-five people), or whether the sound system was good, or whether the band had hangovers, or anything else. It just happens sometimes. The Lounge Lizards happened to be flawless the day I saw them. I assume they were just as great other times. (I saw them play on television once, and they were stunning there, too.) But that day I really learned something about music. There was an awful lot of disconsolate music circulating in those days (grunge!), and the only music that attempted to remediate this misery was the jam-band baby food of ersatz hippiedom. But the Lounge Lizards operated outside of this opposition. They were joyful, but never in a dim-witted way or in a way that was somehow approving of the deranged world. Joyful because joyful advertises what music can do and what ensemble playing can do. Joyful in a way that makes notions of genre and taxonomy pointless. Joyful where you just pick up the horn and blow.
Twelfth Proposition, that all things must pass. John Lurie has been ill for a few years now. He has trouble playing his horn these days, so much so that the Lounge Lizards are probably on indefinite hiatus. It now seems that the amazing last two albums Voice of Chunk and Queen of All Ears are the endpoints of an astonishing and perennially underrated musical career, a musical career that at least for me was an influential thing, a career that has made me a better writer, in a way, because of how it has reminded me to stay loose, to allow talent and inspiration to flourish without getting precious or exercising too much control. That said, I want to append one last morsel of story. A couple of years ago, in the course of speaking in public about how much I love the Lounge Lizards, I got to know Lurie a little bit, and one night we did a reading together, on the Lower East Side. Each reader was meant to try something that he had never done in public before. This was hard work for Lurie, because he has done a lot of things in public, and probably reading from his memoir-in-progress was the only thing he hadn’t. But after he read from his memoir, which was enthusiastically admired by the crowd, he got out his harmonica. Harmonica was among John’s first instruments, and he’s an extremely good harmonica player, and for a couple of minutes, despite his not great physical condition, he played one of the most heart-rending and beautiful harmonica solos I’ve ever heard, after which he stumbled out of the room and literally collapsed in the hall. He said to me later that it might have been the last time he ever plays music in public. A respectful silence is probably the only way to greet this news. It’s sad, for sure, very sad. Still, by its nature, live music has only its immediate duration. With Lurie and the Lounge Lizards, the music is in the province of memory, now, and that’s where it’s kept alive. A real shame for those who won’t get to see them play. Memory is faulty, full of mistakes, full of longing, but still interacts with music in a flexible way; memory is kind of like music itself, like jazz, it’s unpredictable, and memory gives musicians something to work toward, as it also gives writers something to write about.
Thirteenth Proposition, that the artist should have equal time, should perhaps have the opportunity to respond, in his own voice,2 to lines written about him by his fans: “I remember that show. It makes me sad what you wrote. What I remember is when Calvin would start in with that groove that was the opening for ‘Lawn for People.’ I can see him sitting back there playing and just yelling with a rage that was somehow also joy. Billy Martin would come in, playing odd time against Calvin. Then I would play over them. That way, I would really get a chance to play because the rest of the time I was having to lead the whole band. Then the band would come in, one at a time, behind me. Then the main theme came in with Michael Blake on tenor and Dave Tronzo on slide. It was like an anthem to a small, insane country that had just gained its independence, that thing, ba da doo ba, bo de da. Tronzo could really nail that line. It was, I think, the only major melody that I ever wrote.
“There was so much love and strength. It was something that, while we were playing, could absolutely not be denied. Of course, in the light of day, in offices in tall buildings all over Manhattan and Los Angeles, by neurotic women in suits with tight lips and short, white men with exceptionally small genitalia, it was denied constantly, without exception.
“But while we were playing there was a mounting ecstasy and power that could not be stopped. And what you saw was a shortened, forty-five-minute version of the set we normally played for three hours.
“It was macho in a way, but macho like your baby’s first steps.
“So it’s sad because it was beautiful, sad in a nice way, but also it’s sad because of the enormous sense of loss. And also, somehow I feel like I failed. Not that many people, especially in America, ever saw that band. The recordings capture something in moments but not the whole thing, and there were enormous gaps, sometimes five or six years, where I could not afford to bring us into the studio. So as great as the music was, I did fail in a way because it never really got out there.
“If we are playing, no matter how great it is and there is no one there to hear it, then what good is it? How does that do anything for the world? I used to say in interviews, ‘I am wiser, stronger, kinder, and way more handsome than George Bush. I should have more effect on the world.’ But of course I didn’t.
“I remember that I did talk to John Schaefer for a minute before going on, but it was awkward. Mostly because it is odd to switch gears like that, to go from being interviewed to playing. I remember telling Schaefer that the title of the piece was ‘Lawn for People,’ and he made an odd face and I thought he was going to ask me what it meant, but I was rescued because the guys started playing, and didn’t have to answer. And I remember because it was only one of three or four times we played in the afternoon. I’d just come back from Thailand from shooting Fishing with John with Dennis Hopper. I’d written ‘Lawn for People’ there after the shoot along with another one of the songs we did that day. It was good, and it was new material, and I remember thinking, “Good, we really got this down.” And then, as excited as I was to listen to the recording, I was equally disappointed to hear the tape.
“I kind of have to agree with you about the early band. We postured really hard because we were shy. At least, I was shy. So in the beginning we hid behind humor and a sort of sneering, like ‘We are cooler than you.’ When we started out we didn’t have the courage to be beautiful. But also, it took years to figure out how to make the music sound like it was supposed to sound. When it was funny and campy, everybody loved it, and then later when it got really good, evolved and became elegant, nobody liked it anymore, except you, I guess. And so now I realize that there were some people out there who were actually feeling what we were doing. I think that because of the early stance of the band and then because I was so known for the movies, that some music types decided that the Lounge Lizards were somehow disingenuous, when nothing could be further from the truth.”