Were you a member of a critically acclaimed indie rock band in the ‘80s or early ‘90s? Check your messages: Somebody is probably working on a book about you right now.
After years and years of titles featuring the big bands of the ‘60s and ‘70s, books diving into the ‘80s represent a logical next step. Many customers who bought ‘80s music when it came out have by now worked themselves into positions of influence—or at least positions with more disposable income. Publishers have recently gone after those earners with a visual history of the Replacements, a fresh burst of material on Nirvana, and examinations of specific labels or regional music scenes.
Now we have The Jesus Lizard Book.
The founding members of Jesus Lizard—Duane Denison (guitarist), Daniel Sims (bass), David Yow (vocals, stage pyrotechnics)—met in Austin. But it wasn’t until they reunited in Chicago in 1989 that they really kicked it into gear, adding Mac McNeilly on drums. The group put out a series of releases on the Chicago label Touch and Go, several produced by Steve Albini, the studio overseer for a number of famous rock albums, including the Breeders’ Pod, PJ Harvey’s Rid Of Me, and Nirvana’s In Utero.
In 1995, the Lizard made the leap to the big leagues, signing with Capitol. They disbanded four years later, in 1999.
Their book collects essays about the band from a number of sources. Members write about their pre-Lizard lives and comment—courteously—on each other’s skills. Corey Rusk (founder of Touch and Go), critics, other rockers and fans also contribute. Yow even shares his chocolate bourbon bread pudding recipe.
The volume devotes a section to each of the group’s albums, which Sims breaks down song by song. McNeilly ends a 1992 letter like a stoner character in a high school movie: “So take care, and I hope you’re enjoying yourself. Life’s too short not too.” According to Sims, the song “Waxeater,” from Head, “reworks a riff from the Stranglers.” He cheerfully adds, giving credit where it’s due, “one of the pillars of my music career has been pillaging the style and sound of Stranglers’ bass player Jean-Jacques Burnel.” Yow writes that the “the original working title of ‘Tight ‘n’ Shiny’ [from the Head album] was ‘Metropolis.’ That’s how it was written on set lists for a while, but being that I had a tendency to pull my balls out … we changed the moniker.”
Yow quickly acquired a reputation for stage antics like those he mentions, and the book has plenty of photographs of the front man in various poses. While his balls don’t appear, he’s often relatively naked, exhorting sweaty crowds. On one occasion, he wears women’s underwear. As the man who penned the liner notes to Liar puts it, “No shirt, no shoes—you must be David Yow.”
For those who never got a chance to see Yow live, New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones offered a description in his 2009 column about the band’s reunion tour. “Yow,” Frere-Jones wrote, “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.” Chris Weingarten, a critic at Rolling Stone, declares, “The opening second of Liar is hands down the greatest opening sound of any album ever recorded. It makes the introductory chord of A Hard Day’s Night sound like a chorus of wet farts.”
Other rockers show up to pay homage—guys who will likely get their own books soon, if they don’t have them already. Guy Picciotto (Fugazi) calls the Lizard album Goat “as pristine an example of recorded sound serving a band’s material as I think exists.” Bob Nastanovich and Mark Ibold (both played in Pavement) express their admiration for the Lizard’s live performances.
Albini also makes an appearance, adding a little drama to the proceedings. The Lizard “were my favorite band of the era by a large margin,” he writes, “the greatest band I’ve ever seen … the best musicians I’ve ever worked with … the purest melding of the sublime and the profane.” But Albini has never cared much for niceties, so he also makes it very clear that he does not like the records the band put out later on Capitol. “It isn’t overstating it to say that the Jesus Lizard’s descent into ‘professionalism’ felt like a big betrayal … Their Capitol records came out to thudding disinterest.”
The Lizard respond with a few careful shots at their one-time producer. It’s their book, after all. Denison calls those Capitol albums “overlooked and undervalued.” And Sims suggests that despite Albini’s aversion “to the word producer … I never noticed a significant difference between what he does in the studio and what other producers do.”
Rusk’s essay, which starts the book, begins, “I’m not out to write a grand opus about whether the Jesus Lizard were one of the most important bands of their time (they were) …”. Except for Albini’s brief detour, The Jesus Lizard Book maintains this tone throughout—it’s a nostalgic piece, a remembrance of past glories, a victory lap.
Books, like deluxe reissues, can give a band a second chance, exposing new eyes and ears to past work. But often, the people who buy the book turn out to be the same fans from the first time around. The Jesus Lizard book probably won’t create any new fans, but it will give the old ones something to enjoy.
At least until someone writes the definitive story of Fugazi.
Elias Leight’s writing about books and music has appeared in Paste, The Atlantic, Splice Today and Popmatters. He comes from Northampton, Massachusetts, and can be found at signothetimesblog.