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In Defense of Nihilism: The Jesus Lizard Reissues

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Emerson Dameron kneels before the Temple of Yow and thanks Touch and Go for bringing back Pure, Head, Goat, Liar and Down at the moment we need them most.

In Defense of Nihilism: The Jesus Lizard Reissues

A mean streak under a soup-thick haze of masochism. A guitarist who stripped “rock” to its most confrontational aspects, dispensing with its pop element entirely, until it was no party and all crash. An animal on the mic, mixed well beneath intelligibility, who happened to have a cartoonist’s eye for humorous detail, who sang of a world populated with mouth-breathers, abused children and other frustrated losers. “Sometimes we act like animals / Sometimes we act like little girls.”

There won’t be another band like the Jesus Lizard. Not anytime soon.

The Lizard was conceived under the Texas sun. Guitarist Duane Denison hooked up with Davids Yow and Sims, immediate veterans of the misanthropic noise outfit Scratch Acid. Someone had access to a drum machine. But, before they plied their trade, they moved.

Welcome to Chicago, Illinois. The public works are for shit. The government is comically corrupt. The weather is awful 48 weeks of the year. Most friendships consist of trading insults over warm cans of Old Style. One suggested city motto: “It could be worse.” At the time, it was a cradle for both the uneasy American version of the burgeoning “industrial” subgenre and a particularly hopeless strain of punk rock. Our heroes made themselves at home.

The Pure EP will forever be recalled, if at all, as “the one with that fucking drum machine.” Yet, it endures as a bold statement of purpose, including “Blockbuster” and “Rapid Pigs,” a generous preview of the Lizard’s future calls-to-action. But, yeah… they needed to hire a drummer. These guys weren’t Wax Trax material. They were already the Led Zeppelin of noise.

For real. Listening to Head, their proper debut and their first record with Atlanta-bred drummer Mac McNeily, one might compare the Jesus Lizard to its obvious forefathers in the Birthday Party, and its obvious contemporaries in Big Black (although Big Black didn’t know when to jettison that fucking drum machine, which was immediately), in the Butthole Surfers (although the Buttholes were always only in this for laughs, even if they weren’t, and whatever their smug hypocrisy cost their sponsors), and on the AmRep roster. But, in its comedy and violence, and in its ruthlessly unsentimental deconstruction of the blues, Head belongs much more in the tradition of Led Zeppelin II than to any other current. It shifts from a menacing punk pastiche (“Waxeater,” which sounds like nothing less than “Communication Breakdown” by way of the dead JFK to the Dead Kennedys’ dead RFK) into the pseudo-industrial crusher “Pastoral” into “Killer McCann,” a paranoid nightmare on wax that could be the last testament of a hostage. “One Evening” belies its direct Led Zep inspiration. I don’t know, but I’ll bet the Jesus Lizard ingested all of “classic rock” before inventing its own misanthropic racket.

Goat considerably upped the ante. The dark, cold misery of “Rodeo in Joliet” (an ode to a south Chicago prison town with nothing going on)… the unprecedented and unduplicated slide-based menace of “Nub” (an ode to a sort-of-friend with a fresh phantom limb)… the screaming mindfuck of “Lady Shoes” (again, singer Yow always functioned best as a hostage to fate, beyond hope of escape). This was some negative, powerful shit, and anyone would recognize. At this stage, the Jesus Lizard was gearing its music toward live performance, treating the albums as rough drafts. Not that the albums aren’t worth having, but, to date, the Jesus Lizard is a band that that is hands-down best appreciated live. You can listen to a recording of a man singing “I can swim! I can swim! I can swim!” Or you can see a man shouting these words while stripped to his scrawny essence, obviously obliterated on substances, and trusting his crowd to keep him from splitting his head open. Option B is more interesting. As if to prove the point, the reissued Goat appends live versions of “Lady Shoes,” “Seasick” and the blistering “Monkey Trick” that easily outshine the studio versions.

David Yow is one of rock’s great to-the-point-of-masochism purist showmen. He gladly destroyed his body and his brain to satisfy the pain-gluttony of his audience. (The sporadic nudity… the self-inflicted violence… the alcohol poisoning… look it up, if you’re interested.)You’re free to act as if you don’t see it happening. But I think that’s rude. If anyone makes this kind of sacrifice to put on a show, I think it’s a show worth watching.

At least in this case. When the lyrics are this full of black humor and witty self-deprecation. Not that the lyrics matter much. When the Jesus Lizard printed lyrics on its albums, they were usually as illegible as they are unintelligible. Unless you’re a big nerd, you’ll take the hint and guess, with your own experience as a prompt, at what they meant.

Next came Liar. As all the good screenwriting manuals instruct, its opening cut “Gladiator” starts in the middle, throwing fans and the unsuspecting alike right into the JL maelstrom. Liar also includes “Puss,” the closest thing the Lizard ever had to a hit (largely by virtue of Kurt Cobain’s magnanimous fandom, and a resultant split single with Nirvana, and also because of its dueling vocal lines (get them both stuck in your head, bitch) and unrepentant “All Right Now” riffdom). If the Jesus Lizard was ever stupid, it was always self-consciously stupid – the asphyxiation fetish celebrated in “Rope” is, by any meaningful standard, pretty fucking stupid, but making it the occasion for some of Yow’s most desperate tongue-twisters and some actual shredding from Denison… it’s yours to parse.

Down stands as the woulda-been breakthrough. Yow’s howlings are higher in the mix, and the entire band sounds more disciplined. And here’s “The Associate,” the deepest thing the Lizard ever laid down, as broad as a Minutemen album in its scope, absorbing jazz affectations and the patience of prog in its long-form diss of a departed lover, a gal who’s “got skin like porcelain… like restroom porcelain… The best place for you is the hell out of my sight… This is the way I remember it.”

This was it. The Jesus Lizard signed to a major, fell out with its long-term, notoriously fickle producer Steve Albini, released a few half-assed stabs at too-late Nirvanadom, and faded.

Now, the first few records are out again. Why should anyone care? Well… they’re certainly of their time, in a lot of ways. But I’ve not personally endured any historical epoch that could better use a pure, cathartic shot of skull-cracking, bowel-cleansing negativity. So I’m glad the Jesus Lizard is still around. It’s like, after 10 years, remembering how to properly pop a blister.

By Emerson Dameron

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