'The Jesus Lizard Book" is a beautiful document of a band that wasn't afraid to be abrasive, chaotic, brutal and, sometimes, ugly. A sharply designed coffee-table book for a band that left bruises wherever it went — most of them on the tiny but resilient body of vocalist/provocateur David Yow? It seems like a contradiction.
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But the Jesus Lizard was never about making people feel comfortable. In Yow, the Chicago quartet had an onstage ringleader who was a comedian, an ungainly acrobat, a ranting storyteller, a one-man riot. Joining him on stage were three masterful musicians — guitarist Duane Denison, bassist David Wm. Sims, drummer Mac McNeilly — who didn't so much perform their songs as pounce on them. Their scowling intensity could make an unsuspecting audience take a collective step backward. And then Yow would hurl himself into the sea of bodies like an ex-con trying to break down the door of the snitch who put him behind bars.
Depending on your tolerance for mayhem, the Jesus Lizard's shows were either grotesque or not-to-be-missed events. The Jesus Lizard exterminated boredom. No wonder bands and artists such as Nirvana, Pavement, Steve Albini, Hank Williams III, Mike Watt, Fugazi and jazz saxophonist Ken Vandermark — most of whom are quoted in the book — revered them.
Compressing that rush into mere words and pictures is an impossible task, but "The Jesus Lizard Book," which was created by the band's four original members, does an admirable job of coming close. It does not shy from the sweat, beer, spit, nudity and groping. Some of the you-are-there photographs aren't for the squeamish.
The writing affirms that off stage, the four band members were genial, thoughtful gents. Essays by Sims and Denison testify to the careful attention to detail they put into the music. Yow deflects attention — something he couldn't help but attract while on stage — and heaps it on those who nurtured him, especially his family. We also find that this unlikely cat lover once spent a day off while on tour walking through a German town searching for a feline to pet. And the band's linchpin? It's the guy who joined it last: McNeilly, the affable and prodigiously talented drummer.
After McNeilly's departure in 1996 to devote time to his wife and their young children, things were never the same. The Jesus Lizard finally called it quits in 1999. And now it's gotten the book it deserves.
Greg Kot is a Tribune music critic.
"The Jesus Lizard Book"
By The Jesus Lizard, Akashic, 176 pages, $29.95