David Yow has finally managed to crowd surf his way to coffee tables everywhere. Here is a book whose unwieldy shape demands it be splayed across a flat surface, or pile-driven through it, in veneration of a band whose jump to a major record label actually saw them sell less albums. To the brave souls who bookended that legacy with an actual book, one is astonished by its physicality, somehow both ordinary and extreme.
This is the tale of the Jesus Lizard, just a regular rock group who managed to take the four-fold ingredients (bass, drums, guitar, vocals) endemic to the genre and exploit their banality with an alchemy that both alienates and entices. Removed from the sweaty setting of concert halls worldwide, split from the speakers that siren their songs, the reader is pushed to consider the band on abstract terms between bounties of anecdotal praise from music industry veterans of every stripe.
Each band member contributes their own take with varying results, none more potent than bassist David Wm. Sims, who assumes the role of critical exponent on behalf of the group. At his most gracious, Sims permits contradictory viewpoints, allowing engineering luminary Steve Albini to have a say the very page after he’s overtly critical of Albini’s work on the band’s best known albums. Offering track-by-track insights, Sims’ pragmatic sense veers egoistic, as if he’s expecting everyone else contributing to the book to do the same, which they don’t, leaving his prose stuffed with self-concern in weaker moments, securing Sims the unfortunate distinction of making his band members seem all the more well adjusted. By comparison, guitarist Duane Denison is praised for accentuating the aspects of the band that are entertainment focused, drummer Mac McNeilly quits the group to spend more time with his wife and kids, and vocalist David Yow provides a chocolate bourbon bread pudding recipe. Sims is stuck carrying the brunt of self-reflection, his bass never sounding quite good enough until the band’s penultimate album.
The real writing gem in here is delivered courtesy of Mike Watt, whose Faulknerian cloudburst descriptions are the only occasions the reader comes close to knowing the true impact of the band: “I have run w/my eyes closed, twirled dervish ecstatic, and can say this was kind of a parallel bus ride w/all my onion-skin consciousnesses hog-tied and confused as much as I was in the other seats.” Pictorially, there’s simply no topping the mirrored portraits of David Yow, shirtless and wearing a Minnie Mouse headband on the left page, hands drifting ever-downward, the first image giving way to a second, his black-shirt-clad chest on the right page, both pictures displaying that dumb, smug, sexy look trademarked by one of the greatest frontmen in rock and roll history. “The Jesus Lizard Book” is a worthy addition to any fan’s coffee table because it is bereft of bullshit; a taut, understated, powerful glance at a group whose relevancy will remain substantial, a blueprint for a rock band at the end of the world. (Kenneth Preski)
“The Jesus Lizard Book”
By The Jesus Lizard
Akashic Books, 176 pages, $29.95
The Jesus Lizard Book Release Party takes place March 27 at the Empty Bottle, 1035 North Western, and features a panel discussion with the band and Rian Murphy of Drag City, along with readings by Joe Meno and Megan Stielstra. $8 or free with RSVP.