September 10, 2005
The second time I saw Lungfish, an older guy in big thick glasses standing by himself asked me for a cigarette. I gave him one, and he introduced himself: Roger Miller from Mission of Burma (he actually said, “Roger Miller from Mission of Burma”). He was in Baltimore for a day, doing some sort of live film score thing at the Maryland Film Festival, and he’d only just found out that Lungfish was playing that day. (Even in Baltimore, their hometown, Lungfish only plays a couple of shows a year, tops. They’ve been known to go years without playing. They’ve got mystique like that.) Miller had heard them for the first time a few months previous and fallen in love. I guess Miller didn’t know anyone at the show, since he kept coming up and talking to me. After the band got done, Miller was awed. “That guy,” he said. “That guy just drilled a hole through the universe.”
Lungfish isn’t a band that anyone could readily describe, but here’s about the best I can do: Bruce Dickinson singing for a screwed-and-chopped TV on the Radio. That’s totally not right at all (and it sounds terrible), but you try doing any better. More to the point, Lungfish understands the psychedelic possibilities of extreme repetition better than any band I’ve ever heard; the only ones that come close are the Boredoms and Three-6 Mafia. Typically, the band starts out with a slow, hammering snakecharmer riff. Then they keep going with it. Then they keep going. All the while, Dan Higgs howls over the top like a wise old demon. When all this is being done right in front of you, loud, it’s an overwhelming experience, a total immersion thing. For this band to be playing in my hood on my birthday, not even a month after I moved to this city, this was a gift from God.
Lungfish’s live show looks something like this: three skinny middle-aged punk guys standing at the back of the stage, off to the side (behind the curtain at Southpaw), feet planted, slowly grinding out their elephantine riffs, and one guy standing at the front of the stage, singing. Higgs is basically Rick Rubin playing Captain Ahab, an insane, focused, rabbinical, hulking, hairy, balding man with fierce, intense eyes. He might be in his 50s, but I can’t really tell. He wears worn-out suits, and his hands are covered in tattoos (and he tours as a tattoo artist, so the rest of him probably is as well). Sometimes he walks with a cane. I used to see him all the time around Baltimore, at supermarkets or record stores, and I was always scared to approach him. When Lungfish is playing, he becomes a demon, snarling, climbing over monitors, hiding behind the curtain, staring down every member of the audience. It’s always a breathtaking performance.
It was weird seeing them outside Baltimore. When Higgs announced the band as “Lungfish from Baltimore, Maryland,” somebody yelled “Mount Royal Tavern” (a local dive bar), and a bunch of people cheered, but I didn’t recognize anyone except Matt Sweeney. But then, Lungfish released ten albums over seventeen years, and any number of people have moved up here from Baltimore. But Lungfish deserves more than local-indie-rock-hero status; they deserve the sort of fawning attention that Acid Mother’s Temple (or, hell, Jandek) gets when they come to America to America. They can melt the flesh off your face, and that has to be worth something, right?