A book recalls the loud legacy of Chicago’s Jesus Lizard

Written By By Selena Fragassi | For Sun-Times Media Posted: 03/24/2014, 08:26pm

If there is any recurring theme within the 176 pages of the newly released “The Jesus Lizard Book” (Akashic Books), it’s this: The Chicago-grown noise rockers will be remembered as one of the greatest live bands to ever grace — or very well desecrate — the stage. So famed recording engineer Steve Albini, musician JG Thirwell, writer Sasha Frere-Jones and a score of other notables went on to say in their contributions to the colorful collector’s item, which offers a wealth of band member mementos (both written and photographed) and a comprehensive log of countless shows as further evidence. The book will be discussed and celebrated at a special panel/band signing Thursday at Empty Bottle.

“We played what came out naturally,” says drummer Mac McNeilly, a potent musician who ascended from the Atlanta/Athens, Ga., scene of the late ’80s and met founding members David Yow, David Wm. Sims and Duane Denison while touring with his old band, 86, before packing up his belongings, moving to Chicago and living on the couch in the band’s first apartment in Humboldt Park. “There was a frustration that we weren’t hearing bands at the time doing what we wanted to do, which was something both heavy and unloaded but precise.” That juxtaposition of the very intense, deliberate musical background of Sims, Denison and McNeilly sparring against the unpredictable, chaotic, often fully naked beast Yow clearly worked.

Although the band would never go on to find the commercial success of peers and tour mates such as Sonic Youth, Nirvana and the Melvins (even after the questionable move of leaving imprint Touch & Go to sign with major player Capitol Records), the Jesus Lizard’s devout following and critical respect never waned. Not even after they broke up in 1999 after unsuccessfully trying to replace McNeilly, who had left to focus on his family.

“The personal chemistry of the band was never the same again, not even close,” says Sims in the book. A slew of reunion shows in 2009, including the Pitchfork Music Festival, would provide the longevity.

So does the book hint at anything greater to come from the Jesus Lizard?

“I don’t see anything coming up. The reunion in 2009 was purposely done for a limited amount of time so we didn’t lose the specialness,” affirms McNeilly.

Side projects and day jobs take up everyone’s time, too: Yow released a solo album last year and has moved into acting and producing gallery shows for his visual work; Denison has recorded and toured with Tomahawk and Empty Mansions and started a new group called the Unsemble; Sims is a New York-based accountant (which helped since he was the keeper of the band’s show log early on), and McNeilly teaches drumming to a lucky bunch of kids at two local Schools of Rock while dabbling in some new experimental, percussion-based projects (see Nature of the Drum at Hideout in April).

While the Jesus Lizard may never be again, McNeilly teases, “never say never.”

And until that day comes, “The Jesus Lizard Book” is a suitable accompaniment to relive the glory days. Although McNeilly admits, “I wasn’t sure we had enough material to produce [the book]” when Johnny Temple, publisher of Akashic Books and bassist of ’90s band Girls Against Boys approached them about the project in 2011, he now laughs that “the sad thing is we had to leave so much out.”

While it was a daunting project (just think of all the posters and photos that never lived in the digital space), Yow took ownership and the band worked in Google Docs to update and assemble the content. That also meant calling up their parents to grab some rare kid photos that live next to personal narratives in the front of the book before delving into a chronological account of the band’s history. From their first EP, 1989’s “Pure,” to standout record “Goat” and final album “Blue,” and the band’s first shows at Bangkok Bangkok (the restaurant) and Public Image Ltd drummer Martin Atkins’ Chicago rooftop in ’89 to their final show on New Year’s Eve 2009 at Chicago’s Metro, it’s all there.

“When you’re in the thick of it, you can’t get that much perspective,” says McNeilly. “But the pictures have sparked so many memories for us and brought back all the feelings of that time, and hopefully it does that for everyone else too.”

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