“For God and Country.” So reads the sign above the stage at the American Legion Hall in Peoria, Ill., where the Jesus Lizard are playing a warm-up gig for their Lollapalooza opening slot. And it couldn’t be a more appropriate message for the moment because these Jesus Lizard fellas –— well, after seeing them live, it’s clear that they are men on a mission.
Shirtless and covered in sweat, singer David Yow stalks the stage like a drunken hobo crossed with the bastard son of Robert Plant. Slithering like a snake charmer, he unleashes a demon howl into the microphone, nonchalantly ignoring the volleys of kids flying onto and off the stage. Bassist David Wm. Sims skulks around intently, leaning deeply into the rhythmic lurches. As the band pounds into “Boilermaker,” their pile-driving ode to a cold Bud and a shot of bourbon, the kids go insane, descending on the stage like a swarm of locusts. Distracted by the sudden melee, Sims pauses to whack a hesitant stage diver on the head with his bass. (“That big, dumb-looking kid? He was in my way, and he made me fuck up twice,” Sims says later of the violent outburst.”) His oily back covered with deep, red scratches from the overenthusiastic hands of mosh-pit revelers, Yow pushes the mike into the faces of the front row, letting them scream to their heart’s content before he leaps into the crowd.
Over on stage left, classically trained guitarist Duane Denison calmly bobs his head; seemingly oblivious to the commotion, he serves up hot slabs of blues punk with the precision of a surgeon wielding a meat cleaver. Holding it all together is drummer Mac McNeilly, whose permanent shit-eating grin belies the volcanic fury he coaxes out of his kit. As the band starts its final song, a grinding metallic dirge titled “Then Comes Dudley,” Yow unzips his jeans to unveil the “Tight and Shiny,” the pièce de résistance of the many party tricks he can perform with his male member. As he twists his testicles into a form resembling a sweaty, shriveled kiwi, adoring fans with outstretched arms lean in for a grope.
A pudgy adolescent leaps up in front of Yow and, unzipping his baggy shorts, begins to perform his own set of penis maneuvers. Yow, not one to be upstaged, shoots the kid a withering look before shoving him into the hands of his peers. The song winds down; Yow grabs the mike and yells, “Good night, diarrhea.”
America, welcome to the Jesus Lizard. You have been warned.
In actuality, despite their confrontational stage antics, the members of the Jesus Lizard are some of the nicest fellows you’ll ever meet. Although they write songs about murderous pygmies and careen around the stage like, well, murderous pygmies, offstage they’re soft-spoken, hard-working and courteous to a fault. “I guess we have a reputation as real mean guys,” says McNeilly, a married father of two – Elsa, 2-1/2, and 1-year-old Owen who looks about 16 of his 35 years. Relaxing after the show with his trademark Budweiser and shot of bourbon, the also happily married Yow, 34, a short, long-haired elf with a dementedly literary sense of humor, glad-hands the band’s devoted fans. He cheerily signs the T-shirt of a bloodied but unbowed mosh-pit survivor (“My cock is here ,” he writes). “These idiots came all the way from Atlanta!” he exclaims proudly, pointing to three grinning, sweat-covered devotees. “Anybody stupid enough to do that, I got to put them on the guest list!”
Over by the stage, underneath the bingo board, guitarist Denison surveys the empty hall as he lugs a speaker cabinet toward the tour van. “You know what they say: ‘If it’ll play in Peoria, it’ll play anywhere,'” he says, laughing. “Well, we played in Peoria, and it wasn’t a bad thing.”
As part of the Lollapalooza tour, which runs from July 4 to Aug. 18, the Jesus Lizard will see a lot more of America than Peoria, although that’s nothing new for them. Since forming back in 1989, the band has earned a reputation as the hardest-working indie noise-rock deviants in showbiz because of its wall-shattering live performances and constant touring. Yow claims that, indeed, the band’s live shows offer wholesome entertainment for the entire family.
“Somebody’s mother was standing by the soundboard,” Yow says, “and Liz, the woman that sells our T-shirts, went over to her and asked her who forced her to come to the show. ‘My son,’ she said, ‘he’s up onstage.’ And the mother said to Liz, ‘I didn’t really like those first two bands, but these guys have a lot of energy.’ And right after she said that I unzipped my pants and did the testicle thing, and Liz saw her angling to get a better look.”
Beyond any displays of frontal nudity, it’s the combination of grisly humor and a bulldozing yet complex sonic attack that, according to Denison, draws in fans ranging from “an older crowd that’s been with us for a while to younger kids turned on by Beavis and Butt-head” and places the Jesus Lizard as an odds-on favorite with Lollapalooza denizens. The Jesus Lizard have perfected their sound –— an aggressive mixture of crunching punk noise, arty rhythmic experimentation and boogie-fried hard rock overlaid with Yow’s atonal caterwaul – — which never gets stuck in any stylistic rut.
“There are bands we all seem to like – — Gang of Four, the Birthday Party, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles,” Denison says, “but we don’t consciously go after anything.”
Over the course of four LPs (1990’s Head, followed by Goat in 1991, Liar in ’92 and Down in ’94), two EPs and numerous singles on the prestigious punk indie label Touch and Go — including a 1993 split single with Nirvana –— the Jesus Lizard have become one of the most popular indie bands this side of Fugazi, typically selling in the high five figures (last year the band also released a one-off live album, Show, on the Warner Bros. subsidiary Giant). Yow attributes the band’s increasing popularity to the tension between his inspired lunacy and the crack musicianship of his band mates.
“They all know what they’re doing and do it pretty well,” Yow says, “and I don’t know what I’m doing, but I do it very well.”
Two days later, The Jesus Lizard are sitting around a favorite Mexican restaurant not far from Yow’s apartment on a tree-lined residential Chicago street in a primarily Latino neighborhood. Michael Bolton’s version of “When a Man Loves a Woman” drones in the background as the band takes on the Lollapalooza lineup amid burritos and the second pitcher of margaritas. “We did a tour with Sonic Youth, and we’re pretty good friends, I’d say,” says perennial nice guy McNeilly. And what do the Jesus Lizard think about Pavement? “I think they have great record-cover art,” says Yow, still sporting a shiner from his stage stunts two days earlier. “I think all their record covers look cool as shit, and I mean that totally honestly.”
What about Beck? “Jeff Beck?” Yow asks innocently, sipping on a Budweiser.
“He’s kind of like the bard for the youth,” Denison says between bites of shrimp fajita. “Just because I don’t like someone’s music doesn’t mean I have to make them my enemy.”
“I don’t know anything about Beck,” says Yow, shrugging his shoulders.
“He’s on that Jon Spencer Blues Explosion album you love so much,” Denison counters.
“Well, I guess I know a lot more about him than I thought,” Yow drawls sarcastically, rolling his eyes.
And what about the female element? “Sinéad – — well, we’ve opened for her a lot, in a different sense of the word,” Yow says, deadpan.
“Courtney and Sinéad –— what’s going to happen?” Denison says, wondering aloud. “It should be interesting to see if Sinéad is going to be the dominator. You know Courtney’s not going to take the back seat to anybody, being the grieving widow she is.”
After a while, it becomes clear that the band seems downright nonchalant about the whole Lollapalooza thing, despite the fact that it’s being pegged as this year’s surprise breakout act à la Henry Rollins. “Had any of us ever gone to Lollapalooza before?” Denison asks his band mates. Sims fesses up sheepishly: “I had to once. I was going out with somebody who was playing.” It was Maureen Herman of Babes in Toyland.
In addition to Lollapalooza, the Jesus Lizard have bolted for the warmer confines of a major label. They won’t say which, but according to industry sources, Capitol is the lucky winner. Just don’t bring up that age-old question of selling out or the typically calm Denison and Yow start squirming in their chairs. “Blow me,” Yow casually intones to those who question his integrity, raising his hand to order another Bud. “We’re still the same guys, we’re still going to write the songs we like no matter what label it’s on. But if we sell 2 million records, then we’ll all be junkies and won’t care.”
“I refuse to be put in a defensive or apologetic stance,” snaps Denison, putting himself into a defensive, apologetic stance. “I get so tired of this attitude that somehow if you’re on an indie label, it’s better than being on a major. People can say whatever they want, but, ultimately, you’ll just have to hear the record. Besides, a lot of the early punk bands were all on major labels. When the Sex Pistols first came out and got all that money without putting out a record, everybody was like, Take their money! Stick it to them!’ If a band did that today, people would be going, That’s not very cool, man, that’s not very PC “Fuck em all.”
After yet another pitcher of margaritas is ordered, the conversation shifts to a less-controversial topic: the inspiration for Yow’s grisly, often surreal true-crime lyrics, which would make Bob Dole shit his pinstriped slacks. Take, for example, the inspiration behind “Rope,” from Liar, the band’s masterpiece of slashing mayhem.
“A friend loaned me a book called Autoerotic Fatalities,” Yow says. “It had this story about a guy who was at his girlfriend’s house with her parents. She and her parents went out shopping, and when they got back, he wasn’t in the house. They found him in the back yard. He had dug a hole, sprayed a bunch of water in it, got himself all naked and muddy, and hung himself from a tree And I think he had put a carrot up his ass, but I changed it to a trowel because I thought that would be funnier.”
“What a carrot’s not very funny?” says the quietly intense Sims, who for the majority of the conversation remains detached from the proceedings. “Yeah, it’s funny, but a trowel is like zap!” Yow retorts, making a stabbing motion with his fork. “I always envisioned the handle being in,” Sims says, sipping his margarita, “with the blade poking out like a tail.” Yow pauses and smiles, savoring the image before murmuring his assent.
Fans often confuse the bizarro first-person characters that populate Jesus Lizard lyrics with Yow himself. “They expect me to be a nut, and I don’t mind that,” he says. Too often they expect me to get naked and do the Tight and Shiny,’ which I don’t normally do.” Well, what about the other night in Peoria? “Yeah,” says Yow, stammering. That was just a treat for the local kids because we’d never played Peoria, and we probably never will again.”
“You know what?” Yow asks, leaning over earnestly. “Don’t put any of that in the article because my folks are going to be so thrilled that we’re in Rolling Stone, and I can’t face ’em.” He trails off, then sits up straight and mutters, “Ah, it doesn’t matter anymore.”
Indeed, Yow has been taking off his clothes and screaming about bloody murder since the early ’80s, when, as part of the renowned Austin, Texas, punk-rock scene, he and Sims formed the legendary noise-rock group Scratch Acid, influencing bands from Big Black to Nirvana. “We were living the Austin punk-rock lifestyle sell everything you own to buy beer, scam, get everything for free,” Yow says. “It was a pre-Slacker slacker kind of setup.” Following Scratch Acid’s breakup a few years later, Yow and Sims chased the noise-rock muse to Chicago; Denison, another émigré from Austin, followed soon after. After the Jesus Lizard’s debut 1989 EP, which featured a drum machine, Atlanta native McNeilly was recruited as skinsman, and the band as we know it today was born.
Perhaps because of his band’s expatriate status, Yow feels no particular affinity with the Jesus Lizards chosen hometown’s music scene. Nearly falling out of his chair, he is wideeyed at the thought that anyone might associate the Jesus Lizard with, say, Smashing Pumpkins. “I think it’s absurd how people have said we’re part of the ‘Chicago sound’,” Yow says, snarling. “What the fuck is the Chicago sound? There’s no such thing.”
“We sound like Buddy Guy,” says Sims dryly.
It’s no surprise Yow is used to unfamiliar territory, coming from a military family that would move every few years to settle in exotic locales ranging from England — where Yow “learned to smoke and first kissed a girl and felt any titties” — to Tripoli, Libya, a stay distinguished by “getting mugged by a couple of Arabs and getting into my first fight.” “It was in Sunday school,” Yow says. “I busted this kid’s head open. It was just luck — I wasn’t very close to him; I just threw a rock. It was probably about God or some debate about religion.”
Yow’s family eventually returned to the United States, settling in Texas, where his sister married a cop, and Yow quickly dropped out of college. “I was getting A’s in all my art classes but D’s and F’s in everything else,” Yow says. “My parents told me one more F and they were gonna quit paying for it. I got several more F’s, thank you, and then all of a sudden punk rock!”
The other Lizards followed parallel paths to their current position. Sims, 31, the quiet son of an American-history professor and a nurse, grew up in Austin but left home during high school to live on his own “so I wouldn’t have to sneak out to go to this punk club in Austin called Raul’s. I could hang out front and not pay to go in but still, you know, hang out, which looked pretty smart to me at the time.” Realizing the error of his youth, Sims became a certified public accountant this past May.
McNeilly experienced a more idyllic childhood, growing up in Atlanta, where, he says, “I was into sports until I got into pot.” His future career as a musician became clear to him at a sixth-grade talent show. “We did Cold Turkey” the Live Peace in Toronto version, not the studio one,” he says. “I played boxes with sticks from a dogwood tree outside. My fate was sealed after that.”
Denison experienced a similar epiphany growing up in Ann Arbor, Mich. where his father managed a locomotive brake-shoe plant. “My initial musical goals were pretty modest,” Denison says. “I wanted to be the guy who played piano at school assemblies while the announcements came over the PA and everyone sat Indian style. But I was never good enough.” After that, it was all downhill. “I was this straight-A student,” he adds, “and then in eighth grade I got a guitar, I started smoking cigs and getting high, and I think I fingered a girl, too.”
As the final pitcher of margaritas is polished off, the Jesus Lizard prepare to leave for a Lollapalooza press conference, which in the spirit of the cyber revolution is taking place on the Internet. As they make their way out, a group of young Latinos sitting at the next table notices the band. “Are those guys rock stars?” one asks his friend. Yow doesn’t notice this group of potential fans, however, and starts complaining about how any band can veto a publication from having press access at Lollapalooza –he’s particularly upset that Screw magazine might be censored –but quickly stops himself. “I have to be careful,” he says, “because according to the contract, we’re not allowed to make fun of Lollapalooza or Perry Farrell. Seriously.”
“It’s a summertime rock festival,” Denison says. “They’ve been having them forever — – like Monterey Pop or Altamont. As far as it being this countercultural extravaganza — yeah, we all know it isn’t. Everybody goes and has a good time, and they know what they’re in for. It’s nothing more, nothing less.”
The band makes its way to the online session, held across town at the digital-imaging company where Yow does freelance computer graphics. Sitting at a terminal surrounded by blaxploitation posters and a BLACK LOVE astrological chart, the band members slog their way through a slew of predictable queries: What are your musical influences? Do you know Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love?
“Do kids really do this all night?” Yow wonders aloud, letting out a ripping fart as he types: “Kurt’s dead, don’t know Courtney.” As the questions become more and more inane, Sims wanders off while Denison sits in the background. Another question appears on the screen: Do you feel you’re selling out playing Lollapalooza? “How many times are they going to ask that?” barks an exasperated Denison as Yow types, “Yes, we’re selling out!”
Yow begins taking his annoyance out on the questioners. “Have you ever been to Washington?” Yow asks one especially lame participant from cyberspace. “Well, how about washing tons of my sperm down your throat?” But the inane questions don’t quit. At one point, Yow looks up from the screen and addresses his band mates. “This guy wants to know if we have any advice for up-and-coming musicians,” he says incredulously. Denison shakes his head and says in a grumble, “If it can play in Peoria….”