It began in earnest — as Touch and Go Records co-founder Corey Rusk reminisces at the beginning of the engrossing new Jesus Lizard coffee table book titled (in typical Lizard four-letter-word fashion) Book — with 1989’s Pure EP and a debut gig that sizzling Chicago summer, alongside Slint and King Kong, inside a local Thai restaurant that hosted exactly one rock show.
It ended 10 years later. And then the Jesus Lizard jerked back to life briefly, in 2009, for a reunion run of some 40 shows (the “re-enactment tour,” as frontman David Yow characterizes it today) before going dark again.
Until now, albeit in literary form. The gorgeously crafted, 176-page hardcover Book — co-designed by Yow and Chunklet‘s Henry Owings, a long-time friend — dives deep and candidly into the Jesus Lizard’s first decade and touches a bit on that 2009 coda, too. Through many thousands of words, hundreds of photos, and collected ephemera, it celebrates the sweat, menace, humor, musicianship, lasting power, and genitals of one of the best bands ever coughed up by the rock underground.
Book was published by Akashic Books, whose founder, Johnny Temple — also the erstwhile bassist for Girls Against Boys — goes way back with the Jesus Lizard, having shared a label and many a stage with the band starting in the early ’90s.
“They were like our big brothers,” says Temple, who explains that he first broached the idea of a Jesus Lizard book with bassist David Wm. Sims during a party at Sims’s home in 2009. “He was open to it and talked about it with the other guys, and eventually they said, ‘Let’s do it.’
“I think part of the reason they were receptive to it is because books have a sort of gravitas to them that I think appeals to musicians,” Temple continues. “It also has to do with legacy. You put out a book and it solidifies your place in rock ‘n’ roll history. And since they were one of the kings of independent underground music in the 1990s, it makes all kinds of sense.”
Yow admits that he was initially as reluctant to make Book as he was to take part in the 2009 reunion. “I didn’t think it was a good idea,” he says. “You know, we broke up a long time ago; who’s really gonna care?” Yow says without a trace of false modesty.
Once Yow, Sims, drummer Mac McNeilly, and guitarist Duane Denison got on board with the project, for the next three years Temple waited to see what the book would turn out to be. “We had agreed that they’d send everything to me once it was all collected,” says Temple, “and when it finally came in, what I loved about it is that it basically functions as an oral history of the Jesus Lizard. You get this incredible sense of what happened during the life of the band.”
Following Rusk’s introductory essay, all four bandmembers deliver biographical pieces — with accompanying childhood photos — detailing their lives leading up to the formation of the Jesus Lizard.
McNeilly’s essay is the longest, owing perhaps to the fact that he was the least-interviewed member of the band back in the day, and the most entertaining and revealing. As a tween, he writes, he went through a lengthy phase where he was compelled to throw things at cars — “mudballs, snowballs, eggs, water balloons, dirt clods, hard pine cones, even a rock or two” — from ledges or cliffs. At 12, he recounts, he was struck by lightning when he went outside in a thunderstorm to feed the family’s golden retriever, metal dog bowl in hand: “I was thrown about 20 feet. I am lucky to be telling this story.”
“I love that he mentioned the lightning, I think that explains a lot,” laughs Yow. “Mac finally gets his say. I think it’s a great look into what a sweet, goofy, sideways kind of guy he is.”
Further in, amid myriad photos of the band onstage, backstage, and elsewhere, come a plethora of Jesus Lizard testimonials and anecdotes from famous friends and admirers like Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto (“The band exacted a toll on you because you could tell they were exacting a toll on themselves, and, as a result, something felt legitimately at stake when they were onstage,” he writes) and members of Pavement, Shudder to Think, The Spinanes, and Einstürzende Neubaten, as well as a legion of artists, super fans, photographers, bookers, music journalists, and others who orbited the band during its heyday.
“Like a steam engine tearing through a tornado, the drilled the music into my skull,” writes Chicago native Bernie Bahrmasel of the first time he witnessed the band he’d go on to see live 100 more times. “After about 40 minutes of drink, sweat and spit flying everywhere, they were done and so was I. My life would never be the same.”
Meanwhile, Steve Albini, who produced all of the Jesus Lizard’s Touch and Go albums, contributes a conflicted piece that praises the quartet as “the greatest band I’ve ever seen” and the “best musicians I’ve ever worked with,” but characterizes their jump to Capitol Records as “a betrayal. . . . They were so far ahead of the pack that dismissing it all to be a fourth-tier specialty act on a mainstream label seemed oblivious and destined for failure.”
“I thought [Albini] was honest. We let people say what they wanted to say, whether we agreed with it or not, and then we had our say,” says Denison.
Indeed, most of the band, and various associates, defend the deal with Capitol while also admitting the toll it took, in Book‘s later pages. There are funnier bits, too, such as Yow writing how he once, while performing in Holland after opening band Boss Hog, wore singer Cristina Martinez’s sweat-soaked dress and panties onstage (yes, there are accompanying photos).
One of Book‘s more fascinating inclusions is Sims’s frank, track-by-track breakdown of every Jesus Lizard album — from technical, song-nerd analysis to some of the thematic backstory — that are at turns funny, insightful, and poignant.
“When all that stuff came in to me, it exceeded my expectations,” says Temple. “It’s got a lot more depth than I was initially expecting. I think most people who are serious fans of the band understand that, for example, David Yow is not just some drunk guy stumbling around onstage. But I think anyone who reads [Book] will come away with a lot of information they didn’t know about their music and their personal histories.”
Or their twisted sense of humor. To that end, there are the excerpts from the infamous, near-mythic sketchbooks the band kept on the road; rudimentary, hilariously disturbing drawings with plainly descriptive captions like “Duane giving head to an Eskimo while jacking himself off wearing rubber gloves.”
The lengthy process of creating Book has brought the band much closer as friends, Yow says. “I hadn’t talked to Mac in 12 years before we did [the reunion and the book], and now it’s been a common occurrence to talk on the phone or email, and David and Duane, I talk to those guys all the time,” he says.
Still, Yow — who’s all but given up music in favor of his burgeoning acting career — says he has no interest in touring or recording with the Jesus Lizard again.
For his part, Denison doesn’t know if Book represents the Jesus Lizard’s final chapter. “I mean, we never foresaw that reunion happening, so you never really can tell for sure,” he says. “But maybe this book is a nice capper on it all, and if it works out that way, I’m fine with that.”
Members of the Jesus Lizard appear at the Barnes & Noble in Union Square at 7 on March 25 for a book signing and Q&A moderated by music critic Sasha Frere-Jones, and at WORD Brooklyn at 7 on March 26 for a book signing and Q&A moderated by Johnny Temple.