The first time I saw the Jesus Lizard play was Oct. 21, 1989. I was going to see the Rollins Band play at a scary little dive called the Lifticket in Omaha, Neb., in what was then a scary little neighborhood called Benson. These days, the Lifticket is a cleaner, bigger venue called the Waiting Room, and the neighborhood is a trendy bar district with a farmer’s market open on Sundays. But it was a rough part of town in those days, hardly a place for a 14-year-old kid on a school night.
Tim Moss was the record store guy at a local punk rock record shop called Drastic Plastic. He sold me my first cassettes by Dinosaur Jr., Bauhaus, the Pixies, Big Black, Minor Threat, the Minutemen, etc. — all gateway drugs. These days, Tim plays in the band Porn, and is the road manager for bands such as the Melvins and Faith No More. Back then, he sang for Ritual Device, the scheduled show openers. He was cool and said he could get me in despite me being a solid seven years underage.
Tim also got me hooked on the Jesus Lizard’s only release at the time, a five-song tape titled Pure. Over the weeks leading up to the show, I listened to it so much that the song titles on the cassette wore off. I'd seen a handful of punk shows by then: the Cramps, D.R.I., 7 Seconds. But those bands were already canonized saints of a previous generation. When the Jesus Lizard took the stage, it was like nothing I had seen. The music was raw, mean and visceral. It felt fresh and dangerous. Vocalist David Yow darted across the stage like a shirtless and deranged Gollum as he growled into the microphone, occasionally dropping his pants to expose his manhood.
The group was so new that they even played “Mary Had a Little Drug Problem” by Scratch Acid, the band Yow and bass player David Sims had previously been in together. Sims stared at the ceiling through most of the show, wide-eyed and half-smiling. Guitarist Duane Denison looked stoic as he swayed only slightly to the music. Drummer Mac McNeilly, an Atlanta native who replaced the drum machine on Pure, sat behind the drums with the posture of a praying mantis as he pounded through “Blockbuster,” “Bloody Mary” and a few other songs I didn't know.
Their set had barely begun as I stood smashed against the stage, front and center in the writhing crowd, when suddenly Yow's body clobbered me. Before I knew what was going on, he'd been lifted above me, riding the crowd and screaming into the microphone, screaming into my ear. He rolled over and splat! His sweaty, hairy armpit cupped my mouth and nose, and when he pulled away it made a suction, kind of like when you make the armpit farting noise with your hand.
Most people probably would have run to the bathroom to throw up. But I felt like I had been baptized, anointed by the manly juices of Yow. I was forever changed.
“I don’t think anyone could walk away from that and not feel unaltered by it in some way,” McNeilly laughs when I tell him the story 20 years later. "But you know there are probably a lot of people out there thinking, 'I wish that was me!' Well, maybe not a lot of people, but some people would kill to be anointed by the sweat of Yow."
Between songs he barked at the bartender, “Get me a beer!” He then crawled across the top of the crowd, and they carried him all the way to the bar and back to the stage as he sipped from his pint glass, pinky finger raised high.
Since that show, the Jesus Lizard's been canonized in its own right as one of the greatest American rock bands of the ’90s. The group bowed out of existence in 1998 — not with a bang, but a whimper. This year, they’re back on the road, restoring the band’s legacy and reminding the world what a force of nature they really were.
That scene at the Lifticket left an impression on Henry Rollins, too, who could be seen hulking in the corner, doing athletic stretches before his turn to play. He offers his own recollection of the show in the liner notes for Touch & Go Records’ new reissue of Pure. The Rollins Band headlined that night, playing songs that would end up on the live Turned On album, one of his last good ones. It was probably a great show, but really, I couldn’t be bothered. I had just experienced one of the greatest shows of my life.
After Pure, the Jesus Lizard went on to release four Steve Albini-produced albums with Touch & Go: Head, Goat, Liar and Down. Each one built skulking power, changing the face of noise rock with pummeling rhythms and creeping punk dirges until peaking with Goat in ’91 and Liar in ’92. Both albums seethe with intensity and rolling bass and drums, countered by scratchy guitar lines and Yow’s flailing voice, driven, as it is, by mania and subtle nuances in equal measure.
At the time of its release in ’94, Down was a disappointment. But truth be told, Goat and Liar were hard acts to follow. Those albums capture the group at peak performance. After cranking out so many great songs, there only can be one “Then Comes Dudley,” “Puss,” or “Boilermaker.” The group’s sound was in dire need of growth. But as young fans often do when a band changes direction, people got pissed with the release of Down and viewed it as a weak link in the chain of brilliant albums preceding it.
With the arrival of the Jesus Lizard's reissued catalog coinciding with the band's first shows in more than a decade, Down has aged very well. Prior to its original release, the group spent a considerable amount of time on the road playing shows with Nirvana. Listen to the slower, more spacious arrangements and cyclical rhythms of “Fly on the Wall” and “Queen for a Day” now, and Nirvana’s influence on Down comes out in subtle ways. Likewise, give a listen to Nirvana’s In Utero, and you can hear the mark the Jesus Lizard left on their sound, on such songs as “Scentless Apprentice” and “Milk It.”
Pound for pound, the reissues of all four albums thrive on their own strengths, and the new analog-to-digital conversion of each one, overseen by Albini and Bob Weston, makes them sound better and louder.
“I have favorite songs off of all four albums, but I hear from most people that their favorite albums are Goat or Liar,” McNeilly says. “We were really strong players because we played all the time. Writing happened whenever we could, but we found our footing right in that time period. But for other reasons, I like Head as well,” he adds. “It was the first record we did together, and it sounds very different as well.”
In ’96, the Jesus Lizard made its major-label debut with Shot on Capitol Records, but by then many of the band's fans had already jumped ship by then. Like Down, time has been kind to Shot. The album doesn’t possess the same grit that defined the Jesus Lizard’s T&G releases, but songs such as “Thumper” and “Thumbscrews” rock pretty hard. “It’s the big, loud, rock and roll record that we spent years trying to make, and I feel like we were firing on all cylinders with the performances and the songwriting,” Sims says. “Yow finally got to work with a producer, Garth Richardson, who really got down into the details and pushed him to work harder on vocals than he ever had in the studio, and it really paid off.”
Still, the album is vilified by many of the group’s fans. But as Sims puts it, “a lot of people made up their minds that they didn’t like that record before they even heard it.”
McNeilly left the band shortly after to spend more time with his wife and kids and was replaced by drummer Jim Kimball. The group went on to release one final album, Blue, in ’98 before calling it quits.
After 11 years, the Jesus Lizard’s unexpected reunion has been one of the most talked about shows of the year. And the YouTube videos don’t lie; since their return to the stage at the ATP Festival in May, they've been playing as hard and fast as they did the first time around. Sure, they’re a little grayer now, but the performances on the old videos and the recent ones are completely interchangeable.
“We’re all pushing 50, but we all feel pretty good,” McNeilly says. “We didn’t want to be like a bunch of old men huffing and puffing on stage and have people say, ‘They’re nice guys, but they just can’t do it like they used to.’ That would have been the most embarrassing thing I can think of, and a good reason not to have a reunion. So we practiced a lot and we’re playing the songs the way they need to be played.”
Twenty years after getting a face full of the Jesus Lizard for the first time, I’m still marred by the taste of Yow’s sweat. With any luck, it will happen all over again.
Editor's note: Story has been edited to reflect the correct date of the Omaha, Neb. performance 20 years ago.