Friday, July 2, 2010

New York: Harlem Nocturne

The Lounge Lizards: Harlem Nocturne


There are times when fringe musical genres suddenly burst into the mainstream, and hardcore scenesters declare that anyone who has become popular has “sold out”. These purists then adopt a subgenre that no one else knows about, and continue to revel in the fact that their music is the most obscure on the planet. In the early 80s, Mew York City scenestrers had this problem with punk and new wave. Their solution was no wave.

No wave music never did reach much beyond NYC. It was characterized by a strong beat and dissonant chords. The stranger the harmonies, the better. The no wave acts who became best known were probably the Contortions, Lydia Lunch, and the Lounge Lizards. Not exactly household names, but the musicians who passed through these bands have turned up in some surprising places. The Lounge Lizards are an excellent case in point. The Lounge Lizards seemed to be a band on their first album, but the roster changed with each subsequent release. The constants were the brothers John and Evan Lurie. The group started out playing slightly skewed versions of jazz standards. Harlem Nocturne led off their debut album. The song dates from 1939, and was written by Earle Hagen and Dick Rogers. Hagen in particular seems to have been aiming for an imitation of Duke Ellington’s style, and he succeeded well enough that Ellington would later record it. From there, the song became a standard, and any band with a sax player had to cover it. Even later, it was also adapted for electric guitar. The song has seen more than its share of odd covers, from Bill Hailey and His Comets to Conway Twitty. And if it sounds familiar, you may recognize it from the old Mike Hammer TV show.

Returning to the Lounge Lizards, over time, the Lurie brothers began to take on solo projects. John Lurie started to compose music for independent films, notably those of director Jim Jamrush. Jamrush gave his first serious roles to an actor named Tom Waits, and soon musicians who had played with the Lounge Lizards began to turn up on Tom Waits albums. The most notable of these was guitarist Marc Ribot. Other former Lizards have made their marks in New York City’s avant-garde jazz scene. But the most surprising legacy of the Lounge Lizards is what became of Evan Lurie. Would you believe, kid’s music? That’s right. Evan Lurie made contacts with the right people at PBS’s New York affiliate WNET, and now he writes music for PBS kid’s shows. His greatest success is a little show called the Backyardigans. The next time it’s on, play closer attention to the music. Here are these five brightly colored ultra-cute creatures, with their high chirpy voices. But the music underneath might be Bollywood or Ghanian highlife, or who knows what. Our children are being musically subverted, and I for one am grateful. And it all started with the Lounge Lizards.

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