That was true when the band formed in 1988. It was true when I spoke to it circa the release of "Down," the last of four albums for Chicago's Touch and Go before an unlikely jump to Capitol Records. (It remains one of the weirdest quirks of the alternative era that for a time, the Jesus Lizard was brought to you by the same company that nurtured Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.) And it still was true last summer, when the reunited group took the stage at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park.
Sure, Yow, a famously intense frontman second only to Iggy Pop and the late Lux Interior of the Cramps, had mellowed a bit as he prepared to celebrate his 49th birthday. But he still spent an inordinate amount of time atop the arms of the crowd, alternately sounding like a crazed preacher speaking in tongues and a hostage screaming through the duct tape plastered over his mouth. Meanwhile, Denison churned out spare but indelible riffs and overwhelming waves of feedback, and Sims and McNeilly evoked the legendary Led Zeppelin rhythm section of John Paul Jones and John Bonham sitting in with James Brown's Famous Flames after an all-night bacchanal of speed and whiskey.
Yow and Sims first played together in Austin's pioneering noise-rock band Scratch Acid. When that group ended, they began to work with Denison. Their first recording as the Jesus Lizard, the 1989 EP "Pure," was done with a drum machine, but the results didn't measure up to what producer Steve Albini did with a similar format in Big Black. Now, they all maintain that the band really started when McNeilly came on board in 1990. And for the next eight years, it provided a live experience like no other.
Though I always was less fond of the Jesus Lizard's recordings than its stage shows throughout that first incarnation--a fact that Yow has never let me forget--in the band's absence, those records started to sound a whole lot better, especially "Goat" (1991) and "Liar" (1992). It wasn't like I hated the band on album before; it just was that nothing compared to the power of the group onstage.
Now, with a slightly less antic and more composed Yow than the hellion of yesteryear, the sophistication of the band's arrangements, the subtle but pervasive melodic charms amid the chaotic swirl of its songwriting and even the disturbing role-playing of many of Yow's vocal performances are easier to focus on and enjoy. (Plus, it doesn't hurt that there are less bodily fluids flying around and fewer combat boots connecting with fans' heads in concert now.)
"Standing at the edge of the just having to be an accountant abyss, I realized I could do this for years and years and be perfectly happy," Sims said in '94. It didn't quite work out that way. After two discs for Capitol, "Shot" (1996) and "Blue" (1998), the band was dropped because of lackluster sales. McNeilly quit after "Blue," and the other guys now say it should have ended then, though the group limped on until splitting after one last show in Sweden in March 1999.
Now, the Jesus Lizard is back. And the first question has to be: Why?
"We were all broke," Denison said with a laugh last summer when the group appeared on "Sound Opinions," the radio show I co-host with Greg Kot of the Tribune. "No, it really seems like there are no reasons not to. Touch and Go remastered and reissued the back catalog with bonus goodies, and I think what initiated [the reunion] was we were asked to be on All Tomorrow's Parties last year when Mike Patton was curating. We couldn't get it together in time [for that], but at least we started talking about it, and that's what got the ball rolling again."
As for the future, could there be another Jesus Lizard album in the works?
"There are no plans, but you never know," Denison said.
"As Bananarama says, 'Never say never," Yow added. (Actually, that was Romeo Void, Sims corrected him.)
"There's a part of me that says we did it; let's avoid the cliché of the band that gets back and does something" half-hearted, Denison concluded. "But there's part of me that says as long as you're not forcing it and you're making something honest, why not?"
In other words: Stay tuned. And, meanwhile, be thankful we've got one of the best bands of its era and one of the finest rock groups Chicago ever produced back onstage where it belongs.