The Legacy Of The Jesus Lizard
photo courtesy of Touch and Go
A Look Back Through My Own UrineMy favorite band is cooler than yours. I'm sure of it. In fact, I'm so confident of this argument that I will proffer it in the face of the fact of it's completely subjective stance. I KNOW I'm right because my favorite band is The Jesus Lizard, Amen!
By Steve Funderburg (January 2003)
This is not a frivolous declaration in the least and I am using the same rigid standards by which I would select a wife. And if The Jesus Lizard were a girl I would marry her.
The first we heard of these jokers (by we, I mean underground music fans outside of Chicago) was in a few independent press media radar blips which surfaced in 1989 in the form of interviews with old-school punk rags like Flipside. In fact, it was in one such story that I initially received the news that the singer and bassist of Scratch Acid (the two David's, Yow and Sims) had put together a new project and apparently, the live show involved Yow's testicles being used as a sonic stage prop the likes of which you ain't never seen before. Well, obviously I had to check these guy's out. Hell, I had already found Scratch Acid's "She Said" to be fairly intriguing and as a bonus, Yow had evidently developed an increasingly perverse and demented stage presence, what was there to lose? Nothing.
The first Jesus Lizard release is an EP called Pure (Touch & Go, 1989), or as I like to call it, 'book one of the revealed word.' At once you hear stylistic elements of Chicago contemporaries and predecessors such as Big Black and Ministry and of course, there's the Steve Albini production. But no other band (saving ones including him as a member) would ever be as closely or intimately associated with Albini's particular studio bearing. For an introductory course, I suppose Pure does its job, which is to just give the listener a tease, or blink at the greater picture which could ultimately manifest itself. It also contains one perfectly conceived certified masterpiece in the form of "Blockbuster" and, not surprisingly, in this we find the first great look at the trademark Yow psyche. By all signs, he has tapped a muse perfectly suited to fit the twisted, uneasy music served up by Sims and classically trained guitarist Duane Dennison all to the beat of a steady if un-dynamic drum machine. However, none of this prepares the listener for what's next.
The following year, the first full-length album (Head, Touch & Go 1990) hits the stores and the revealed word is kicked up to regions well beyond eleven. The radical difference is quickly apparent and boils down a very important things: A human drummer by the name of Mac MacNeilly who to the bands good fortune happens to be the greatest drummer of all time. He's a human dynamo incorporating jazzy smoothness and precision and devastating rock steady grooves. How, I have no idea. This immediately gives Albini (returning to the producers chair for the first of four more Jesus Lizard sessions) the ability to do his "thing" properly. And his "thing" is all about the drum sound, and the knowledge that if the drums' full sonorous essence is captured, it can completely fill up any sparseness in the recording. Rob O'Connor, who is a writer on Yahoo's Launch music guide, describes Albinis production technique as having the effect of ensuring "their records never rise above a glorious din." This is horseshit of the highest order. The power is captured in glorious clarity, the perceived murk is more a quality of the music's swampy nature than any mixing inadequacies. Mac is a vitalizing aspect and his addition to the ranks coupled with the tender loving care of Albini makes it possible for the band to show themselves to us in full. Musically, there are still faint details of prior post punk pioneers in the overall sound maybe a little Fall lurking around in the mix, but it's the trademark Jesus Lizard rhythms that fully surface now and transform this band into something legitimately other. To be honest, the best description for it comes from drummer Mac himself: "we write the rhythms then twist them around to make them somehow uncomfortable."
But equal to the discomfort of the music itself is the highly unsettling abstract snapshots created in the lyrics of Yow. Tales of degenerate sexuality that might be appropriate for some stream of consciousness art house film swim in perfect disharmony with the precise and ominous guitar riffs and snake like time signatures. But it's a snake of a particular character, a sidewinder perhaps.
At this point, I can claim to have backed up my opening assertion, but more evidence is available. Inevitably, the Lizard DID eventually create a buzz, the kind any wanna-be alternative rockstar would sell his rare Weezer and Fugazi demo's with alternate Canadian artwork for. This is as it should have been and I remember being completely assured (spiritually comfortable) that it was NOT going to pass a certain ceiling in terms of actually effecting the popularity of the band on a commercial level. I understood this because the Jesus Lizard made it manifestly clear to anyone in 30 seconds that their music was inherently unpleasant and unlikable and thus, alien to any radio format. And this is my point, the Jesus Lizard are one of a hand full of musical artists to be a genuine example of genre pioneer, or at the very least the definitive example of Chicago post-punk as a sub-genre. By the time their second LP (Goat) came out, it was beyond argument that this would be the greatest band of the particular decade that know one would care about once the decade was done. It even got to the point where The Jesus Lizard was included in a privileged ring of three American bands to be granted the active patronage of Kurt Cobain, which to me is easily the biggest proof of his importance. Why, he even singled them out for the singular superlative of being "THE Band," proving that Kurt Cobain put his money where his mouth is when it comes to keepin' it real back in the underground. He actually puts them on a split 7" with Nirvana. The absolutely astounding haunted house slide guitar on Goat's "Nub" was probably key in convincing him The Lizard deserved the shot.
Goat is truly the quintessential Jesus Lizard album and goes a good way in helping the hapless listener to understand them by literally giving the listener a language with which to describe the experience. By exerting a more consistent control of the pace of the album-in contrast to Head-one can really examine the parts that make up the whole of the bands sound. And lo and behold, on track four we actually have a song called "Seasick", providing the only fitting title for the sensations the rhythms are meant to induce, whether you love it or not. I happen to love, love, love it and "Seasick" itself is a great marriage of Hemingway and too much cough syrup late at night.
In 92' we were treated to album number 3, Liar (Touch & Go 1992). This is easily the sharpest and harshest (not to mention heaviest) Lizard album of them all and kicks off with the ingenious "Boilermaker," which also ranks as one of the bands 5 best tunes. What a beautiful meditation on discomfort, distrust and suffocation. Also present is "Puss" from the split 7" with Nirvana.
Well, to make a longer story shorter, let's just add that for the next six years The Jesus Lizard managed to swim at nearly the same level ol' John Spencer managed to swim at between '94 and '95, and, mind you, without any thing even approximating Spencer's girl friendly booty shakin' mojo.
Let's briefly review the rest of the official catalog of the revealed word. Albini's final foray into Lizard country was 1994's Down (Touch and Go), a quieter more reflective LP with a larger range of emotions and anti-colors than it's three predecessors. Although Albini chose a tinny bass sound for this album (a sound he has used on some of his own Shellac albums) songs such as "Horse" where the use of organ is an incredibly effective mood setter, and "Elegy" show a new lush elegance not heard on prior OR future recordings. Then on to 1996, a major label contract with Capitol records and my personal favorite, Shot. Here, the guys opt for a conventional producer and bring in GGGarth, who's credits include everyone from Rage Against The Machine to The Melvins. I think the deal with this record was to show that even though the band is bathed in "clean" conventional studio mix, they are still the Jesus Lizard and that means dark, ugly and weird. In classic JL fashion, a ditty of pure rhythmic lunacy called "Thumper" is our introduction. I could not tell you what time this is played in but trust me, straight-four it's not. But there ARE some great grooves on this record: check out "Trephination" and "Now Then." By this time, JL had also played European festivals and even had a slot on the Lollapalooza tour. But no big label or heavy exposure could do much to save the Lizards' life. But it sure delayed their death.
In the interim, between '96 and '98, the band experienced the crucial loss of Mac. As a huge fan, I am a little surprised that I have never really gotten a substantial explanation of his parting but I have heard things about grueling tour schedules and family obligations. Regardless of why, the guys had to know they had hit a road bump after his departure. During the life of the Jesus Lizard guitarist Dennison had been doing a jazzy little side project, The Dennison/Kimball trio, and it was from this project replacement drummer Jim Kimball was selected. Was he as good as Mac? Hell no!
Don't get me wrong, he's a fine drummer but could not live up to the power and precision of the attack known as Mac. But the closest he would ever come to doing just that was "I Can Learn," the first song of the last JL studio album Blue (Capitol, 1998). With Blue, the Jesus Lizard were giving us a conscious last will and testament and they employ the production talents of Andy Gill (Gang of Four) to bring this fatal vision to life. There are some interesting things going on in the mix here, but a lack of focus and consistency as well as the loss of Mac's propulsion are undeniably harmful. To be fair, there is an EP worth of viable material here. I would even admit that lyrically "A Tale of Two Women" is the bands greatest moment. But overall, not a proper end for my favorite band AKA the best band ever.
Thankfully, it doesn't need to be. You see they had recorded another album. But this album was Bang (Touch & Go 2000) and it was put together by culling B-sides and rare material. Now here we have a proper ending AND a great anthology style overview of the bands career. If you want to dip your toe in the water than this is the album to do it with.
But these guys were never meant to be The Lizard indefinitely and now with them gone forever, I can settle into the comfortable assurance that my favorite band will never disappoint or embarrass me. They will never pull a Bauhaus and reform to cash in after a slew of questionable projects fail to bring long standing success for individual band members. This ain't gonna happen because there are probably less than a few thousand hardcore Jesus Lizard fans left in North America and that number probably dwindles every year. Good. This band is what used to pass for a hip rock critic's wet dream back when music writers were expected to be more adventurous than putting all their money on the goddamn White Stripes. So I will enjoy them in happy solitude and I don't care if you think it's ridiculous posturing to champion a band based on their inaccessibility. I will tell anyone to their face that Cheap Trick are an incredible band and at their prime. THOSE guys could fill entire stadiums with hysterical teenage chicks. Big deal.
But you see, Cheap Trick are, even at their most Godly, a Rock'N'Roll band. The Lizard, by sheer fact of their rhythms and song structures, were NOT a rock band. They had guitar, bass and drums as well as an energetic charismatic icon in Yow, but were discernibly "un" rock, "un" punk, "un" metal and "un" any comfortable pigeonhole which comes with the luxury of a pre existing audience. Now that I think of it, the choice of Yow as frontman alone constitutes independent evidence. He is not young, but old (by the time JL got signed to a major, Yow was in his mid thirties). He is not handsome, but majestically ugly. He does completely inexplicable things like claiming his love for Led Zeppelin publicly and directing an Offspring video! So you see, the only band to righteously approach the phenomena of '60's bands like Captain Beefheart, the Velvets and the Stooges is the Jesus Lizard. But no one REALLY noticed that because modern writers and music purists are way more pedestrian then they can ever admit to themselves and they need to hear the familiar trail map provided by pop music, or they can't dig it. The Pixies, Husker Du, and Smashing Pumpkins were significant bands, but only in the context of being tremendously creative and original pop music. The Lizard is interesting because all these bands spent the late eighties and or early nineties receiving critical praise but JL was not interested in making pop or rock music in any recognizable form. That, in my opinion, makes them MUCH more worthy of praise and less likely to capitalize on it.
As I said before, the Jesus Lizard are cooler than your favorite band, and now I've proven it. Why else would a grown man rub his shriveled ball sack on a live mic and call it art?
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