“Jesus Returns” by Sasha Frere-Jones
To celebrate the release of The Jesus Lizard Book, Akashic will be featuring excerpts from Book on our website once a week throughout March. Today, we bring you Sasha Frere-Jones’s 2009 essay, “Jesus Returns,” originally published in the December 14, 2009 issue of the New Yorker.
New York! See Sasha Frere-Jones in conversation with David Yow, David Wm. Sims, and Mac McNeilly at Barnes & Noble Union Square on Tuesday, March 25, at 7:00 PM. Not in Manhattan? Click here for full event details about upcoming Jesus Lizard events in Austin, Brooklyn, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
In 1987, the singer David Yow and the bassist David Sims were at loose ends after their band, Scratch Acid, broke up. Based in Austin, Scratch Acid was a volcanic, loopy, and virtuosic group led by one of the few singers who can convincingly claim Iggy Pop as an influence. Yow and Pop both use their bodies as much as their voices to transmit information, and that information always includes the message “Anything goes.” Pop was famous for cutting himself and smearing himself with peanut butter; Yow, at the one Scratch Acid show I saw, in the ‘80s, pulled what looked like peanut butter, or worse, out of his pants and threw it into the audience. (It was flour, water, and food coloring.) Yow is less herky-jerky than Pop—he throws his body around without any particular rhythmic predictability, seeming to engage with an invisible opponent. Sometimes they do a jig; other times he crouches as if grabbed from behind, or kicks as if shaking off the pincers of a persistent crab.
With the guitarist Duane Denison and a drum machine, Yow and Sims became the Jesus Lizard, and in 1989 put out an EP, Pure. Soon after, the band added the drummer Mac McNeilly and recorded its first full-length album, Head, the following year. By the next album, Goat, from 1991, the band had sorted out how to do what it did best. The action in Jesus Lizard songs is in the contrast between the tight, regular grid that the three players create and the way Yow jumps all over it. As a singer, he’s not much interested in melody; rather, he acts like a storyteller who has just arrived, out of breath and perhaps drunk, with the need to tell us something unsettling. Over the course of six studio albums and three EPs, Yow screamed, moaned, spat, hollered, and barked—it’s hard to find anything on them as pedestrian as singing. The lyrics are unwholesome. The first words of “Puss,” from the 1992 album Liar, are “Get me something to stop the bleeding,” and it’s soon clear that the bleeder is either the singer or a woman who has been “punched in the jaw.” In the chorus, Yow repeats, “Get her out of the truck,” and not likely because he intends to take her to the hospital. Yow’s lyrics are peopled by drunks who hit one another, annoying “mouth breathers,” seasick guys who can’t swim, and others in physically perilous situations.
If Yow embodies chance and volatility, the band has the reliability and strength of a large, lonely machine. Few people have ever played straight time with as much gusto as McNeilly; when he locks in with Sims, the drums and the bass make a single menacing vamp sound terrifying for two solid minutes. Any musician who feels the need to fancify time signatures would do well to study the Jesus Lizard. The band makes 4/4 time seem like an enormous playground, far from the view of authorities.
The group broke up in 1999, but Touch and Go, one of the most respected independent labels of the ‘80s and ‘90s, has just reissued the bulk of the band’s discography—sadly, these may be the label’s last releases—and you can hear all the circuit-board detail and power on Liar, which is as good as any hard rock record made in the past twenty years.
About a year ago, Yow, who is now a graphic designer at a Los Angeles advertising agency, Sims, now an accountant, Denison, and McNeilly decided to try reforming. All four told me how they worried about doing their legacy a disservice. (“I started using a treadmill to get in shape,” Yow said. “I couldn’t do much about my gut, but I did improve my stamina.”) After practicing for three days at Denison’s house in Nashville, the band played their first shows, in Minehead, England. I saw them in September at the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in the Catskills. It may have been the only reunion show I’ve ever seen where I forgot almost immediately that the band hadn’t played together in more than a decade. Sims performed, as he often does, planted with one leg in front of the other, and whipping the neck of his bass upward on downbeats. (There is something vaguely nautical about the band; Sims often makes me think that he’s on the prow of the SS Lizard, taking stock of the roiling sea.)
Denison is more of a stoic, and in the Catskills he looked the part, with his silver hair and gray bowling shirt. He now plays a custom-made aluminum guitar. His musical lines could be a metallic alloy as well—light but unyielding. His playing isn’t prone to feedback or scrabbling, and he has little interest in being the loudest member of the band. His clipped rhythmic figures feel like threats or occult messages, sinister without being brawny.
At the Catskills show, I couldn’t always tell who was doing what. (I do remember two of Yow’s bits of Dada banter: “If I were you guys, I’d be you guys”; “Happy 9/11, everybody!”) Last month, at the Fillmore New York, everything was clear. At the start of the group’s spectacular set, Yow—already loosening his shirt—wanted the lights turned up. “Just make them really fucking bright. Doesn’t matter how ugly they are.”
The band played a long set, and in an hour and a half the intensity never let up. Yow gave the most Yow-like performance I’ve ever seen. Within minutes, he was drifting atop the crowd, where he often spends at least half of a Jesus Lizard show. (Though Yow almost becomes the physical property of the audience, there is an unspoken contract that nobody touches the instrumentalists.) What emerges in the live setting is not just Yow’s fearlessness but the weirdly sweet streak that runs through all the sweaty tough-guy activity. When a Jesus Lizard song is drawing to its close and Yow is far from the stage, with his microphone cord lying across the crowd like a buoy tie, people make sure to pass him back so that he arrives in time for the beginning of the next song. At the Fillmore, Yow formed a bond with the bouncer nearest the front of the crowd, rubbing his shoulders and massaging his scalp after being safely deposited back onstage.
Yow spat, danced in his black cowboy boots, held the mic up to his biceps, and pulled out various parts of his genitals. He has turned these acts of indecency into a kind of origami over the years, sometimes prompting puzzled audience members to ask each other, “What’s in his hand?” Seeing the Jesus Lizard live makes almost any other band seem like a bunch of layabouts by comparison. The morning after the Fillmore show, I found myself rubbing my belly and kicking empty boxes in my apartment. I didn’t have a song repeating in my head—it was just David Yow’s body.
SASHA FRERE-JONES is a writer and musician who lives in Brooklyn.
Posted: Mar 5, 2014
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