Touch and Go records, for a time, was best known and appreciated for being the nihilistic counterpart to Dischord‘s idealistic do-gooder persona. Though it was just as ethics-bound as any other hardcore label of the time, it was unique for being able to attract the most aggressive of indie acts. The meathead posturing of most bands of the 1980s could hardly pass muster against the likes of Negative Approach, The Meatmen, No Trend, Killdozer, Big Black and Rapeman. These bands of drunken losers and angry nerds were seemingly doing something else when political correctness assumed control of the national dialogue, and in doing so were able to maintain the subversive nature of hardcore and post-hardcore “alternative” rock. Caught in the middle of the maelstrom were The Jesus Lizard.
Though nowhere near as blisteringly sinister as the aforementioned acts, the band possessed a potency of its own that allowed them to exceed the achievements of their peers and become one of the weirdest bands on the sometimes interesting but most times stale Lollapalooza circuit. The Jesus Lizard released five records with Touch and Go before jumping to Capitol — seemingly because they could — just in time for the simultaneous explosion and implosion of post-grunge alt-rock in the mid-’90s, and with their influence still being felt today, perhaps more so than when Kurt Cobain was still alive, the label felt it necessary to commemorate their strange, but generally far from puzzling genius.
Indeed, The Jesus Lizard’s popularity was astounding not because of their oddness, but in spite of it. Though Mr. Yow’s stage antics were a sight, and witnessing them in show was a sure-fire way to enhance one’s indie cred, that would not have been as possible without them first being a solid rock band that would draw in the unwashed curious rather than repel them. What started as an odds n’ ends side project, in which live shows were not even considered, very quickly blossomed into one of the most show-stopping, groove-laden noise rock bands conceivable — Sonic Youth notwithstanding. The rereleases of the band’s Touch and Go efforts provide a solid reminder of, if not a seductive introduction to the band’s deft act of balance between human excess and the rock minimalist force of the blues riff and funk rhythm.
The late-1980s was an interesting period for new bands. Around that time Mudhoney, The Pixies and Fugazi, to name a few, were put together by musicians in their mid to late-20s who, having retained their imaginative edge, but shaken off the rougher influences or simplistic renditions of them, looked to newer pastures in the making of song. Similarly, The Jesus Lizard was brought together having already made strides with bands like Scratch Acid and Rapeman, but they worked on their first songs under the pretense that they would record only one album and be done with it.
Though Pure lacks the confidence and polish — so to speak — of their later work, there is nothing indicating that this was meant to be a throwaway item for simple amusement, as it would have been with side projects like The Thrown-Ups or Pailhead. Often such records are done when there is nothing better for certain bands to do, for their own amusement or to get out of their minds ideas that are sinful to their actual bands. The chemistry conveyed from these individuals indicates no fleeting relationship. Duane Denison’s guitar work meshes well with David Wm. Sims’ throbbing, articulate bass work. It screeches and slashes but is hardly unhinged, maintaining a simple chord structure. “Blockbuster” unravels a mid-tempo groove that combines the seductive with the hostile, while “Rabid Pig” picks it up with the tense rigidity of Big Black’s early work — however their use of a drum machine was merely out of necessity. Songs on this EP are begging to be played — more accurately inflicted — upon an audience, though Yow’s energies as frontman were only a fraction of what they would exert in subsequent albums. Head and Goat are at once similar and distinct. Having evolved from a side project into an actual band, with a human drummer, they didn’t so much alter their sound in any revolutionary way, but it was more focused. Head picked up where they left off essentially, only they were more overwhelming in their aggression.
The guitar was given room to move, often veering from drunken math rock to a very unglamorous halfway home blues rock. The man-made drumming filled the chromatic industrial hole left by the drum machine, and David Yow’s vocals are given greater prominence with Steve Albini’s methods of mixing and distortion. It’s a wonder what they would have done with a less compatible engineer. At times he’s smothered, at other times he’s rabid, and at all times he’s generally uneasy at the very least, yelping, hollering and screaming lyrics with the immediacy of a ransom or suicide note. Yow’s lyrical skills have been undervalued in rock’s canon. Yow’s first-person rants are alive with viscera but very economic and contained within a given songs rigors, both aspects which would have given approving chills to the likes of Céline. Where Steve Albini’s Big Black lyrics are comparable to fireside narration, Yow’s are from the source on the street corner, the last room in the motel or a gas station restroom.
Goat was an elevation of all that had been strengthened previously, a transition piece indicating the multiple directions they’d take in Liar and Down. In essence they evolved into being a kind of retarded Stooges. Head was the self-titled set up, Liar was Funhouse, and Down was Raw Power. Given all albums a substantial listen, it is easy to tell that the center of the band is David Wm. Sims. Like Jah Wobble’s reggae dub-influenced bass work for Public Image Limited, Sims articulated the band’s sound, establishing for the listener that these were songs they were listening to, not just crashes and thuds. He provided steady lines of funk and blues charging throughout in tones that were at once heavy, pulsating and melodic, doing for The Jesus Lizard’s surreal bar rock what he had done for Rapeman’s sociopathic cock rock (pun definitely not intended).
As with most rereleases of monumental works of art, there comes with them a helping of written reminiscence by various parties involved, however directly or indirectly, with the band. The practice of looking back upon greatness was once of some amusement but has since devolved into broken-record patterns of veiled conservative musings of the “good old days” in which everything was always better than now and never worse and glorified gossip. In the case of The Jesus Lizard there is no better example of this. In addition to tired reiterations of David Yow’s personality and how bizarre and real it was — and remains to be I’m sure — from the likes of Henry Rollins and Page Hamilton, there are more than a few people willing to use The Jesus Lizard as evidence that the ’90s was a stellar period for music. In essence, people who were of proper age from 1988 to 1994 were better suited to take on the baby boomer conformity than those who constitute the lobotomized excuse for a youth culture today, though the first great generation of irony doesn’t, in this strange case, see the clear irony.
These albums, to be sure, are better used in the possession of those with novice ears, as The Jesus Lizard is the type of band with an already solid, possibly unwavering base of listeners who feel no need to repurchase their original editions of said albums — indie rock nerds are the exact opposite of other collector nerds in the condition of their items: the less pristine, the cooler they are. The Jesus Lizard’s work is the perfect curiosity-raiser. Younger listeners have either heard a few interesting things about them or have been tempted time and time again by the odd cover art of their albums and have gone past the point of maintaining resistance. What they’re getting though, might not be what someone was getting 15 or 20 years ago. As with any band that is influential, it goes that the bands they influence would outdo them several times over. It has never been truer with The Jesus Lizard, having been reunited recently, now must contend with audiences who’ve weaned themselves on Botch, Coalesce, Pissed Jeans, Cable, Mclusky, Thoughts of Ionesco, Ink and Dagger, The Icarus Line and so on. This is not to say that The Jesus Lizard are stale. They were the shining example of doing a lot — very loudly, mind you — with very little, revitalizing the creative potential of the bass, guitar, vocals and drum dynamic, and showing that one need not waste money on Benington tuition to make efficient use of one’s freakish nature.