THE JESUS LIZARD formed in Chicago in 1988. Long before the band’s formation, members of The Jesus Lizard were veterans of the US underground. Vocalist David Yow had been an aficionado of the infant American punk scene, and in the early 80s had teamed up with fellow Texan David Wm. Sims (bass) as noted Austin-based band Scratch Acid. After two LPs, Yow and Sims moved to Chicago, where Sims briefly joined Steve Albini’s provocatively named Rapeman, then began working with Cargo Cult guitarist Duane Denison.
With the addition of Yow, The Jesus Lizard came into being, and although a debut EP, Pure, was recorded with a drum machine, it wasn’t long before Phantom 309 drummer Mac McNeilly was recruited full-time. The foursome’s primordial, often indigestible stew of blues and punk drew comparisons with The Birthday Party but The Jesus Lizard were no mere plagiarists, and have consistently managed to reinvigorate a genre often in danger of extinction or self-parody.
Almost from the beginning, David Yow became the face of the band. Ever unpredictable in live performance, with his disembodied voice howling his tales of violence, bodily corruption and decay from within the crowd, he has endured serious self-inflicted injury on several occasions. This, as well as performing naked, has made for some unforgettable gigs, notably at a London show in which, declining the generous offer of a blow job on stage, he proceeded to piss himself, headbutt the monitors and demolish the ceiling.
Yow’s stage persona belied the startling, if mostly impenetrable poetry of his lyrics, one of the most important facets of the band. The first two albums – Head and Goat – revelled in some grotesque and provocative imagery, but the group really hit their stride with Liar, which had producer Steve Albini describing his charges as ‘The greatest currently active rock’n’roll band on the planet’.
Albini’s production was all-pervasive on the early efforts, but during the recording of Down, The Lizard risked his wrath by daring to tell him what to do. Though enraged, Albini accepted the order and his subordinate role resulted in an easier album – on the ear if not the mind, for the wretched images of dirt and decay persisted, and Yow’s vocals were given an alarming new clarity.
The Jesus Lizard’s particular brand of rock’n’roll excess can hardly be sustained indefinitely, and a quote from Yow bears this theory out: ‘I can’t imagine doing this in five years. It seems to me that the four same people are likely to come to a dead end eventually. ‘ Still, in 1995 the band signed to major label, Capitol, to record Shot, another wedge of death-metal-grunge that showed little sign of burnout, and equally little sign of mainstream chart success.
Liar ( Touch & Go).?Scarcely easy listening, but strangely enthralling. Highlights include the harrowing “Slave Ship”, focusing on some poor unfortunate baking alive in a ship’s hold. Elsewhere, “Rope” details the twisted corpse of a suicide, and “Zachariah” heralds a small town’s terrified reception of a fire and brimstone preacher.
Down (Touch & Go). Dubiously surreal in places, but predominantly up to standard. The high-point is the slow and cinematic “Horse”, telling of a dysfunctional hillbilly clan’s descent into murderous violence. Prostitutes, disgruntled employees and corrupt politicians populate the rest of the songs. Literate yet primitive, and grimly compelling.
Photo by Brad Miller