Book ‘Em: The Jesus Lizard Still Kicks Ass
“ . . . And no matter where, when, or how, (the Jesus Lizard) were always the best band on the stage. I don’t care if you were Slint, Bitch Magnet, Cop Shoot Cop, Circus Lupus, Wreck, Sonic Youth, Helmet, Dirt, the John [sic] Spencer Blues Explosion, Breadwinner, Table, Tar, Brainiac, Six Finger Satellite, Caspar Brotzmann Massacre, Girls Against Boys, or the Martians, the Jesus Lizard were better than you that night, and wherever they played the next night without you as well.” – Matthew West Taylor, former Touch and Go Records art director
The 1990s were occasionally a blur to me, and a significant factor in that was post-punk Chicago quartet the Jesus Lizard. In lieu of forming my own band, self-publishing a fanzine, starting a record label or embarking on some other creative adventure, I met and interviewed many musicians, edited and wrote for several publications. I documented and disseminated their creativity and their stories, not mine. And the blur? That was mostly alcohol induced. But I’m not writing this essay to apologize, analyze or rationalize my earlier life choices. Rather, I’m writing this as a review of the Book, a new book about the Jesus Lizard that serves as a coffee-table document for punkers, discerning indie music fans, artheads and collector-completists alike. It’s worth Book‘s modest price ($22.46, from Akashic Books) for the visuals alone, but you also get unflinching song analysis from David Wm. Sims, random doodles from David Yow, and testimonials from admirers ranging from Jim Thirlwell and Mike Watt to Steve Albini and members of Pavement. Here’s what Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto had to say: “Amazingly, their musicianship equaled their showmanship, which sounds like a simple thing, but it’s not.”
It’s ironic that Book clarifies a lot for me, chronologically and critically. I first met the band sometime after Head, their first LP, had been released. A college friend of mine, Elizabeth Gregory, had once booked a small club in Raleigh, NC. We both had made our way to Los Angeles, and the Jesus Lizard was playing a show at Hollywood’s Club Lingerie. Elizabeth was providing legal representation for the group and invited me to the show. Book lists the date as November 3, 1990, which anchors the chronology. One vivid memory from that night remains: Elizabeth introduced me to the band prior to the gig. As she introduced me to frontman David Yow, she mentioned “Mark is a rock critic.” Without missing a beat, Yow exclaimed in mock awe, spun me around, grabbed my shoulders and simulated anal penetration. (Er … nice to meet you, too, David.) I don’t recall much about the band’s performance that night, but suffice to say it was powerful enough to make me a fan. (Elizabeth Gregory is now married to the Jesus Lizard guitarist Duane Denison, and her “rather multilayered story” is found on pages 44-45 of Book.)
Book, as the jacket flap promises, “comprises photography, art, and other imagery with written pieces by all four members of the seminal indie rock band, and contributions from other musicians and friends. Included are many Polaroids by [bassist] David Wm. Sims, a delicious recipe by David Yow, an exhaustive list of every show the Jesus Lizard played and much, much more.”
I made a conscious decision to see the band play live every chance I had. In June 1991, I saw them co-headline with Austin, Texas, four-piece Glass Eye at Al’s Bar in downtown Los Angeles. By October 21, 1993, I was living in San Diego, and saw the Jesus Lizard headline a gig with Girls Against Boys, Drip Tank and Brainiac. Did I miss their 1992 So Cal swing-throughs with, respectively, Brickbat and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion?! If I did, again, it’s all a blur.
By early 1994, I was neck-deep in editing Warp magazine, a national action-sports and youth-culture publication (later, the inspiration for the Vans Warped Tour) when my art director and I decided the Jesus Lizard should be on the magazine’s cover. I flew to Chicago for some day-in-the-life and interview time with the band. That included playing nine-ball with Yow, going to brunch with the band at a neighborhood diner and being a guest/fly on the wall at a backyard cookout with the band members and their friends in attendance. I remember going to David Yow and his wife’s brownstone shortly after arriving in Chicago and deciding I would out-Yow him–instead of shaking hands, I would French kiss him. That didn’t go over well, as Yow, aghast, quickly eluded my attempt. My misguidedness was seemingly forgiven, the weekend went well, the magazine article was published and time marched on.
Later in 1994, I began to experience tingling sensations in my left forearm. One week before Thanksgiving, I woke up with partial blindness in my left eye. At only 28 years old, I was mystified and a little concerned. “Could I be having a small stroke?” I asked myself before I went to check in with my primary care physician. A couple of weeks later — after referrals to specialists, a brain MRI and other tests — I would be clinically diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS).
Here’s where Book clarifies my life chronology even further. Not surprisingly, I’ve blocked out a lot of that overwhelming time in my life and decided to call my date of diagnosis December 7 (easy to remember, since it marks Pearl Harbor Day). But I also recall that the Jesus Lizard played in San Diego the night of my diagnosis, that I went to see them and went backstage to say hello (no French kiss attempt this time). David Yow asked me how it was going. I answered, “Well, earlier today I was diagnosed with MS.” Yow looked at me for a moment, saw I was not joking and said, “That sucks, man.” He paused, then asked, “Can you drink?” I replied, “I guess so,” and Yow handed me a bottle of Jim Beam on the band’s dressing-room table and said, “Here you go.”
Book shows the actual date was December 9, 1994.