The Jesus Lizard was the greatest live band ever. This is a sentiment echoed again and again and again in this lovingly crafted hardcover from Akashic Books. Book is filled with testimony from fans, critics, and fellow musicians alike, all trying to articulate the ineffable experience of seeing TJL take the stage, pick up their instruments, and promptly destroy the place.
And they’re not wrong. I saw the band in the first of three final homecoming shows in Chicago during their 2009 reunion tour. Though I was stoked to see the band, in many ways I was mentally preparing myself to be let down, wondering if I’d maybe spoiled the intimate quality of what they offered by seeing it unfold in what was probably hundreds of youtube clips for the preceding three years I’d been listening to them. Not only that, but they were old—like they were in their late forties old, and so nobody could fault them if they fell short of previous glory.
But—fuck me—I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into. The guys got on stage, drummer Mac McNeilly cracked his sticks, and within the first verse of the song David Yow was swimming over our heads in a gaudy red button-down and jeans, cowboy boots flailing above us as he shouted, “Give me something to stop the bleeding, cuz I’m fittin to blow. Knock her down the stairwell and kick her. I think you can take her.”
From there it became increasingly clear as the band bruised us with their set list—dark, pernicious, brutal fucking songs—and as Yow took down tallboy after tallboy of Budweiser, you really had no idea what was going to happen. My friend Kurt said he’d stopped making eye contact with Yow after the second song, afraid he was going to slink or slobber or scream his way over and have a laugh at his expense. This wasn’t unwarranted: near the last third of the show, Yow, by this point drenched in sweat and his own foamy vomit, steadied himself on the gate in front of Kurt’s sister and leaned over, gently, but firmly, placing his open palm over her nose and mouth and holding it there, mouthing the words, “I’m so sorry” over and over again with crossed eyes. The bouncer lifted him off of her and plopped him back on stage, coming back over to ask, “Are you okay?”
Leah was of course okay; it’s all showmanship, but it’s a certain kind of perverted showmanship that makes that band special. The thing that everyone remembers about TJL is the contrast made by having three of the best rock musicians in the world playing intensely visceral and intricately crafted songs that set the mood for their hype man’s hands-on and terrifying articulation of those same songs. It can be simultaneously hilarious and elating, both horrifying and gratifying—as I watched Duane Denison play the final bars of “Boilermaker” I could feel my neck tingle, and I pounded my fists against the gate separating crowd from stage. It’s music made to encourage a homicidal id. And holy shit.
Book does a fairly decent job of giving you a textual document of that, to the best that it can given its sensory limitations. The book is filled with great pictures, ephemera, candor, and reflections. David Wm. Sims, their highly articulate bassist (and de facto archivist, which makes sense since it seems he was the guy who ran that outfit), offers a song-by-song assessment of each album, giving readers a sense of the band’s headspace, their material circumstances, and their ambitions. For fans, this will prove to be endlessly fascinating with a lot of repeat value—it’s compelling to see something so affecting broken down in such frank, non-bullshit pragmatics. In addition, Sims has zero qualms about tossing tons of snark at Steve Albini, the legendary recording engineer from Electrical Audio (and a hell of a musician in his own right) who helmed the sessions of TJL’s first four records. Sims lacks the rose-tinted worship of the way those early records sound, insisting that their major label album Shot boasts the best representation of his skills as a bassist—which, fair enough. But Albini is given his space to air grievances as well, offering what seems to be a sound argument for what it meant when TJL moved toward more transparently careerist objectives. But this argument probably only holds for people who didn’t have to try to make a living being in a band. Because, really, what the fuck does Steve Albini know?
Either way, Book is admirable because it doesn’t try to limit any of those perspectives—and a wide variety of voices is given the room to speak. Mike Watt, Guy Picciotto, and Bon Nastonovich are only a few of the artists gathered to proselytize for the band’s legacy, to offer testimony to the fact that something so perfect ever existed. And each makes a compelling case not only for the validity of the band, but more largely for the restorative powers of art.
That night in Chicago, the band was finishing their second-to-last song of the set list, “If You Had Lips.” It seems that some of the audience must have bailed before the encore, because a pocket opened up on the floor and David Yow was dropped on his ribs. His body was quickly passed back over us, as limp and as moist as an old rag. He was clearly, clearly very hurt. The song ended and Sims came over, putting a concerned hand on his shoulder. Denison approached, waved his hand and shook his head, seeming to say, “It’s okay, we’re done. We can be done.” Yow held the microphone to his face and croaked a broken Thank You before exiting stage right with his bandmates. The houselights came on, the air lifted, and the crowd dutifully filed out.
As my friends and I made our way back to the car we saw an ambulance approach with its sirens blaring, hurrying to retrieve the singer’s injured body. At that moment it was clear to me that all good things in their most immediate present have to come to some sort of close—but even years later I’m still recounting every detail of that experience, what was easily the greatest rock concert of my life.
Book is working toward the same ends. Thank God we have it; long live The Jesus Lizard.
Joel Kopplin‘s fictions have been published in places like Sleepingfish, Atticus Review, and Metazen. His novella, Spaces, is currently available from Outpost 19. He is from Minnesota.