Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Jesus Lizard's essential 'Book'

The new Jesus Lizard book—titled Book, in classic Jesus Lizard fashion—is really something. I'd heard about the volume before it came out, and honestly, despite my intense fandom, it seemed at best like something I might want to flip through for a few minutes in a bookstore. I'm happy to report that I severely underestimated the concept.

Basically, Book (out 3/4/14 from Akashic) is an autobiographical coffee-table hardcover. It's beautifully illustrated with live shots from throughout the band's career, archival pics of all four members from childhood up through the 2009 reunion shows, flyers, candid Polaroids from the road, etc. There's a detailed band oral history, written by the members and other key players (Corey Rusk of Touch and Go, Steve Albini, the band's longtime booker and soundman, etc.) and presented serially, that takes you from each member's personal origin story to the band's endpoint. There are unabashedly biased notes on each LP by David Wm. Sims. (Among the revelations: He thinks Shot is the best Jesus Lizard album; he thinks Down—one of my favorites, incidentally—is the worst; and both he and Duane Denison still seem bitter over the fact that so many fans and critics dismissed their two Capitol LPs outright.) There are all kinds of great testimonials from peers (e.g., Fugazi's Guy Picciotto, Shudder to Think's Nathan Larson, Girls Against Boys' Alexis Fleisig, the great Mike Watt), critics, boosters and buds. There's a conversation between David Yow and Gang of Four's Andy Gill, who produced the final Jesus Lizard LP, Blue. There's a complete chronology of TJL live shows. Any fan will eat all this up.

But for me, what makes Book essential, is the window it provides into the innerworkings of a rock band and the camaraderie, both social and musical, that grows between the members. Interspersed within each member's narrative are testimonials from the other three re: what made him great. So we get, for example, Duane Denison's detailed run-down of why he feels David Yow was underrated as a lyricist, or a beautiful Mac McNeilly–penned tribute to his rhythm-section crony, Sims: "And that sound. It was an unmistakable mix of growl and the bite of steel that makes me think of being held in the air fifty feet high with one of David's bass strings whipping me back and forth." Anyone who's ever cultivated long-term relationships with bandmates will recognize this brand of reverence; what critics and fans say is one thing, but—at least in all high-functioning bands—the highest praise, the most perceptive appreciation always originates from within the group.

Along the same lines is my single favorite item in the whole book (p. 63, if you're following along): a sort of Jesus Lizard aesthetic manifesto by Duane Denison. Basically, this piece is him describing, modestly yet forcefully, the band's core strengths. Some examples:

"Almost all our songs were riff-driven. Finding a melodic phrase that bears repetition isn't easy, and a good riff should be repeated. Repetition creates motoric power, and a great riff should pick up momentum as it's played. That's what rock music is—energy, power, dynamics, excitement… I get fired up just writing about it! I always felt that focusing more on riffs and songs would better serve me than working on guitar solos and fancy licks. I think I was right."

"We all had a very strong sense of how we wanted our gear to sound. We had very specific tastes when it came to guitars, amps, and drums, and it wasn't quite the same as what was common at the time." [Ed.: Amen.]

"…in music, there's three kinds [of motion]: parallel, contrary and oblique. We used them all."

Equally as insightful are David Wm. Sims's frank essays on band economics. He talks about how all the members were able to buy houses after signing with Capitol, because they didn't waste money on fancy tour buses and other perks. And he walks us through the nitty-gritty of the major-label deal, discussing its various pros and cons. In the end, Sims makes it clear that he has no regrets about that chapter of the Jesus Lizard's history, or, really about anything else involving his musical career (except having once joined a band called Rapeman, a name he found abhorrent).

To me, the most poignant part of Book is the brief account of Mac McNeilly's struggle to balance family commitments with touring life, and his eventual departure from the band. Sims, on the impossibility of untangling this particular knot: "Part of me thinks we should have borne whatever career costs it would have imposed [i.e., to scale back so as to accommodate McNeilly]; another part is sure that it couldn't have worked. The more I think about it, the more turned around and sad I get. I'll never really know. Life can be like that."

Basically, Book suits the Jesus Lizard as well as, say, The Dirt suits Mötley Crüe. Because it's predominantly written by the four members, it captures their collective personally perfectly: sardonic and sometimes cynical but also deeply devoted to the art and craft of rock music, to carrying the guitar-bass-drums-vocals format forward, to adoring the underground but refusing to let it fence the band in. And, just as with much of the artwork that adorned the band's albums, shirts, flyers, etc., the visuals are all right on. (My only complaint is that Book isn't more portable—ever since I've gotten ahold of it, I've wanted to take it everywhere.) It's a satisfying period at the end of an exemplary career. Everyone I know loves the Jesus Lizard, and all those same folks are going to love Book. It's no substitute for the music, of course, but it's as compelling a companion piece as I could imagine. [Cue "Then Comes Dudley"…]

*Book info, origin story and endorsement from David Yow.

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