I was visiting friends and family in Chicago around Thanksgiving and I went to see the Jesus Lizard.  It was a fine show, the lead singer had a really hurt rib, the set list was solid.  Afterwards, we were all happy and sweaty and some friends and I went for pancakes.  A good night out.  And I am now wishing more and more that I had never gone – there’s a part of my brain is really stuck on something and I just can’t let it go.

If you’re familiar with the Jesus Lizard or you’ve seen them play at something other than Lollapalooza, you won’t get much out of what I’m about to say.  In fact, I’d say skip it.  I’m trying to kid myself that I can spell out what’s going through my head without falling into nostalgia.  This is important; the punishment at MS for writers who are musically nostalgic is amputation, as it should be.

If, on the other hand, you weren’t around when this band was really doing their thing or you just missed them altogether, bear with me for a second.  I’d like to tell you something – at least, that’s what I think I’d like to do.  Maybe I’m just trying to make sense of something that won’t leave me alone.

The Jesus Lizard – at about half of the dozen or so times that I saw them – were the greatest band I have ever seen.  This is a common sentiment so I don’t think it’s news to hear someone carrying on about it.  I knew it before I saw them last week.  What I’d like to tell you about is why they’re probably the greatest band I ever will see and that it has been haunting me.

I’ll start by presenting some evidence.  Here’s a piece of video from some show they played around ’93 in Texas.  The sound is straight from the camera’s built in mic, it’s not much of a visual angle and the crowd is fine but not crazy.  This song is called “Then Comes Dudley”; it’s the first song off their best record: Goat.

(Also, check out this guy’s other videos.  Some crazy stuff on there.  Alex Jones crazy.  Well, how about that.)

I am a fan of some extreme music that seems to push buttons a lot harder than this does – at first.  Furious noise music, straight for the throat, stuff that immediately leaps past limits.  I’ll bet many readers of this site take pride that they like the darkest, fastest/slowest, scariest, hardest stuff of anyone they know.  By comparison, for just a moment, you might think that this four piece rock band playing a four minute song is tame.  This song is – what – 115 bpm? Standard tuning, just a Hiwatt half stack, no double bass drum? But what I have quietly come to realize in the nearly two decades since I first saw the Jesus Lizard is – this band beats it all.  No matter what you’ve got, they are scarier, they are darker, they are the most terrifying music and it all seems so simple at first.

Watch this song unfold.  Don’t get too caught up in how fucking nuts David Yow (the lead singer) is.  And lots and lots of folks will go on about how each of the band members was exceptionally talented at playing his instrument but don’t worry about that.  Just watch: they let the song’s skeletal structure circle around and around.  The drums, the bass line – over and over – the guitar dropping in and out – it just keeps circling around and around, deeper, around and around …

I cannot watch this without choking up.  Here, in front a thirteen inch screen of some lousy laptop a decade and a half away – I still cannot believe what it happening by the time the video gets to the 3:45 mark.  I could be deluding myself – maybe I’m mistaking old memories for new insight.  But the feeling of visceral dread I get watching DW Sims whip his bass around as the final chorus part drops says it’s something more than that.

By creating music that was ruthlessly straightforward, the Jesus Lizard at their best were absolute musical power and it was overwhelming to behold.  When you were in the room with them, they didn’t like you or dislike you or even regard you.  They played these songs – hugely loud and perfect – and it all was going to happen whether you wanted it or not.  Standing by the stage, bass amp raging to your right, guitar amp screeching to your left, the singer’s wet palm over your face and being eaten by the drums, you felt manically alive and present, right there in that moment.

Versus what?  Well …

  • Michael Angelo Batio (et al) may be able to play guitar faster than anything in the world, but – outside the novelty of his technique – he’s boring to watch. You can’t blame him, he’s got to play all of those notes in such a short period of time and can’t be wasting any time jumping around.
  • When the crazycore guitarists plant both feet and whip their hair around in a sync’d windmill, they know that you know that they know that they are doing something for you to look at.
  • Psychotic power/violence programmers in front of a laptop may rain holy terror out of the PA.  And there they are standing on stage, maybe checking e-mail or something.
  • Superspeed blast beats by a drummer tapping a trigger and a bassist barely able to nod his head so fast as he just stands there and grimaces and squints… you’ve kind of got to will yourself to go with them and stay there.
  • Crash Worship pounding the hell out of everything in a dark, sweaty people-filled basement of an East Village squat threw your physical self into the rhythm, but it all went down better the more obliterated you were. The music just did not play on the brain the same way.

I swear I’m not knocking any of that.  But you take a look at what’s happening by the end of this song and – dear god– they are not joking around at all.  The pace of the music, the starkness of the songs, the lunacy of the singer all balanced together and it was more deeply affecting and unsettling than anything else I’ve ever stood in front of.

I am not a religious person and my metaphysics are pretty straightforward but I will tell you without hesitation that this was transcendent.  Just by being in a room with a band playing music in front of me – just by people making sound together – my sense of the time, the world and my place in it were changed.  I can’t even say that it made me feel happy or sad or … I don’t even know what.  But I do know that I was overtaken by something that I couldn’t name or understand.

When I watch that video and see those guys doing it again, it’s haunting.  It seems more real than the world around me – the memory of it all is very strong.  I’ve been walking around this past week with this hanging over me and I still can’t shake it.

There’s a point to all of this: while you can’t bottle what happened in that room, they made two or three records that really deliver.  I haven’t yet heard the remastered versions released this year but everyone says they are an improvement off of an already solid set of recordings.  If anyone’s still reading this far who hasn’t heard Goat (best) or Head (second) or Liar (third) and I’ve sparked your interest, go get one of these records.  Behind the intensity of their performance was music that is a textbook of violent economy.  There’s no objectivity to this, but they sound to me like they could have come out last week and would still be jarringly new.  Some day I will play them for my great grandkids and give them exquisite nightmares, too.

Christ, what a thing that band was.


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