I realize I said this would be an occasional series and I just wrote about seeing Saint Etienne a few days ago, but I could not let this particularly anniversary go by: On September 29, 1989, I saw the Jesus Lizard for the first time. Oh mama!
Back then I was in grad school at Rutgers in New Brunswick, so I saw a lot of shows at the Court Tavern, a local dingy, super-low-ceilinged basement venue. Of all the good gigs I caught there (Mudhoney, Laughing Hyenas, Tiny Lights, the A-Bones, Beme Seed), none made as much of an impact.
According to the Touch & Go site, the Jesus Lizard played its first-ever show on July 1, 1989, in Chicago, so the band must have been on its first tour when I saw it. And maybe a band can only have that sense of unhinged mania on its first tour; later, you learn that it's probably a good idea not to get wasted—in every sense of the word—every night. The Lizard mixed a sense of threatening, quasi-psychopathic rage with a surprisingly disciplined reptilian crawl forward (the band wasn't big on BPMs). The explosive rhythm section of Mac McNeilly and David Sims plus the economical Duane Denison on guitar plus one of the best frontmen ever in David Yow: These guys were the perfect rock unit.
It's too bad that Yow is now remembered, if at all, as that guy who used to drop his pants during shows. And yes he did expose himself during "Tight ’n Shiny" at the Court, but it's not like he was just letting it all hang out, as it were: Like everything else the Lizard did, he went further by pulling and stretching and choking himself in a way that would have been painful if he hadn't seemed to be in some kind of trance. Some people speak in tongue, others become rock singers.
Another thing about Yow: He was a man, not an overgrown boy indulging in rock because it's a cool thing to do. He was around 29 in 1989 (he'd already been in Scratch Acid in Texas), and he had a kind of beat-up gravitas. When he got in your face at a show, it was scary because you felt that he was old enough to know better—he just didn't care to know better.
The next time I saw the Jesus Lizard was on April 28, 1990, at Maxwells, where it was opening for some new Seattle band called Nirvana. Nirvana didn't stand a chance following up the Lizard; I left after maybe four or five songs by Cobain & Co. In retrospect of course I regret not staying longer for Nirvana, a band I never saw again, but that night in 1990, nobody could play after the Jesus Lizard.
That particular bill illustrated a dichotomy very much of its time: grunge vs pigfuck. I preferred pigfuck, especially in its midwestern incarnation, which included the Lizard, Killdozer and pretty much the entire Amphetamine Reptile roster. I just loved that amorphous genre's violent misanthropy and its strong strain of elaborate artiness, for lack of a better word (best example: Killdozer); the music was a lot more fucked-up, aggressive, and complex—and a lot less predictable—than grunge, which relied way too much on tension-and-release dynamics that quickly became generic. Plus pigfuck didn't wallow in self-obsessed misery: Pigfuck was all about taking it out on others!
The Jesus Lizard released the Pure EP in 1989 but I'm going to forego historical purity and post tracks from its 1991 album Goat, the studio album that to me best captures the mix of genius precision and batshit abandon that characterized the band live, and one of the best albums of the 90s. Here's a sensational three-track consecutive sequence from it.
Jesus Lizard "Karpis"
Jesus Lizard "South Mouth"
Jesus Lizard "Lady Shoes"
1 day ago