As a fisherman and bass player, you can imagine how Les Claypool’s lyrics and bass playing hooked me in 1990 when I first heard Primus’ legendary single, “John the Fisherman”.
“What the hell is this?” I asked my buddy, Yo (a.k.a Mike Gardner), a fabulous guitar player himself, who first turned me onto the wacky trio from San Francisco Bay. Yo and I were practicing songs, when he said coolly, “Just check them out. They’re insane,” as in really talented, eccentric musicians, particularly Les.
Claypool’s bass playing combines all that’s unique about the four-stringed axe: thumping, underbelly melodies that, if a cardiac monitor, would indicate the wildest of heart rhythms; hard, earthquake-like chords; and a wildly pumping, slaphappy thumb. He’s a bass player’s utopia; however, his bass playing is only one component of his eccentric aesthetic: that he and his mates harbored the audacity to release, what has become, an anti-radio cult ballad such as “John the Fisherman” made all those infatuated with not only bass but also the finned art giddy.
At this point in his career, Claypool may be as popular a fisherman as he is a bass player. His
appearances – one in 2004 trout fishing on Henry’s Fork in Idaho and another in 2005 in Quebec, Canada – increased attention about his love of angling and helped explain to his fan base why so much of his art boasts fishing- or water-related themes. A scuba diver and general enthusiast for virtually everything aquatic, Claypool has angled with other fishing personalities including former San Francisco 49ers head coach George Seifert, also an avid angler.
Claypool once said in an interview, “Hemingway wrote a lot about fishing and bullfighting. Bukowski wrote about booze and horse racing,” reminding fans that it’s not uncommon for an artist to have varied motifs. However, he added, “Yeah, there are all kinds of things I enjoy doing. I wouldn’t say I’m obsessed with fishing.”
Perhaps, but fast-forward two decades since “John the Fisherman”’s original release, and his “obsession” has gained new momentum. Riding the song’s tsunami of recycled success, which has been instigated by the contagiously popular Guitar Hero video game series (it appears on Guitar Hero II), Claypool and his many fishing themes are back. One need only look at Primus’ 2006 DVD Blame it on the Fish, and particularly its intriguing cover art, to realize that.
“John the Fisherman” is part of a trilogy known as “The Fisherman Chronicles”. The second installment is “Fish On”, which appears on the band’s second recording, Sailing the Seas of Cheese, and concluding the trilogy is “The Ol’ Diamondback Sturgeon” on Pork Soda, their third.
“John” was first released live in 1989 on Suck on This, their first live release, and features an intro that covers the opening 5/4 riff from Rush’s popular instrumental “YYZ”. In 1990, “John the Fisherman” was released on the band’s debut album Frizzle Fry, so technically, it’s the band’s first single.
The song and its bobbing, hypnotic rhythms are alternative rock’s tribute to fishermen across the globe. The song’s lyrics introduce us to John, a young boy who, “alienated from the clique society … finds peace in fishing.” Not listening to his mother’s pleas to find a more traditional lifestyle, John is determined to become a “harvester of the sea”. Years later, he voyages into the ocean as a fisherman one May morning, is caught in a nasty storm, and never returns.
“Fish On”, with its thoughtful, haunting introductory bass solo and bluesy, catchy riffs, includes three verses, each briefly narrating different Les fishing tales. The first occurs off Muir Beach with Les and Primus guitar player, Larry LaLonde. The second occurs with Les and his dad on San Pablo Bay where, amazingly, his dad hooked and landed a 100-pound sturgeon. The third occurs with Les and Todd Huth, who LaLonde replaced on guitar, as the buddies fished Bohuas Lagoon.
“The Ol’ Diamondback Sturgeon” offers an upbeat, springy groove that sounds more like a psychedelic exercise video than an alternative rock tune. Its lyrics pay tribute to the prehistoric fish known as the diamondback sturgeon and narrate a trip when Les caught and fought one of the beasts.
These three songs remind us, once again, of all that’s important about the fishing tale. They pay homage to the enduring value of the fish story, especially its resonance in popular culture. As one of my colleagues, Dr. Richard Swaim (an avid angler himself), recently reminded me, “Think about it. What two books are most commonly used in high school English classes? Moby Dick and The Old Man and the Sea.” Each song is a fish tale that ponders the solace and adventure angling offers, and when presented within the context of a funky, unique Primus groove and articulated by Claypool’s unusual, nasally voice, one cannot help but imagine themselves on that boat, drifting atop the waves, with Les himself.
Also, Claypool’s playful ruminations recall the childhood amazement that seizes one’s soul when pondering what lurks below the waves. Primus songs are first and foremost fun, and nowhere is this more evident than in these three tunes. Whether visualizing young John insistently rejecting his mother’s pleas to pursue a more traditional lifestyle, or reveling in the irony of Les munchin’ on a tuna salad sandwich while fishing, or imagining the ol’ buck sturgeon’s personified movements, these songs boast a youthful exuberance that only a fishing trip and the fish it celebrates can conjure.
Not coincidentally, these three songs also narrate trips with or about important men in his life. Whether with his dad or former or current band mates, Claypool’s compulsion to write these songs must have at least partially been fueled by the simple fact that he shared them with close friends. Once again, the plexus of men’s relationships, natural wonders, and storytelling emerges brightly while fishing.
Most notably in these chronicles, though, surface his fascination with sturgeon, and understandably so. A sturgeon’s prehistoric scales and body, enormous size (some grow beyond 400 pounds), and eccentric, whiskered snout distinguish it from many species. Sturgeons have no known enemies; are notorious bottom-dwellers, sucking shrimp, crayfish, and other insects from a river’s bottom; can, notwithstanding their intimidating size, leap fully out of water; live for many decades; and produce the delicacy known as caviar. How can you not fall for such a strange character?
Claypool – even his name sounds like a place where fish congregate – is obviously awed by many fish species. Some of his other ichthyologic song titles and musical projects include another Primus song, “The Family and the Fishing Net”; the solo project Holy Mackerel, Of Whales and Woe, and The Frog Brigade; and another band, Oysterhead, with The Police’s Stewart Copeland and, not surprisingly, former Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio. Of course, the name of his instrument is a popular heteronym that can also be misinterpreted for bass, as in striped or largemouth bass.
But it’s from the sturgeon that we can best learn who Les Claypool is: an enduring, eccentric behemoth of an artist who has gained the highest praise from his peers and fans while producing some of alternative rock’s most legendary bass riffs. Quite simply, like the sturgeon itself, Claypool is the Maestro of the Bottom.