The Jesus Lizard’s David Yow: Memoir

Whether pulling cookie dough out of his pants as the leader of Austin punks Scratch Acid in the ’80s or getting arrested for indecent exposure onstage at Lollapalooza as singer for Chicago noise-rockers the Jesus Lizard in the ’90s, David Yow was one of the greatest frontmen to wield a microphone. He still is. Yow is back as part of L.A. trio Qui, whose new album, Love’s Miracle (Ipecac), is a complex tangle of punk and metal. Largely absent from music for eight years, Yow is snarling, growling and stage-diving again.

I learned about being a frontman while coming up punk rock in central Texas, going to see local bands like the Butthole Surfers, the Big Boys and the Dicks. They were all really fun to watch; it was kind of a spectacle. I remember the night that Gary Floyd, the singer of the Dicks, was dressed as a nurse, and he’d stuffed a bunch of liver in his underwear. He kept pulling it out and smearing it all over his enormous belly. It was hideously beautiful; he was a huge Divine fan and was inspired by all that weird, flamboyant John Waters shit like Female Trouble. Gibby Haynes from the Butthole Surfers would put clothespins in his hair, light cymbals on fire and sing through a roll of toilet paper. The first time I ever saw the Butthole Surfers, they’d Xeroxed the top and bottom of a cockroach onto the front and back of a small piece of paper. They had thousands of these pieces of paper, like cockroach-sized confetti. I was pretty influenced by those folks, and their attitudes were refreshing. Alcohol had a lot to do with it. LSD had something to do with it; everybody did LSD.

I started out as a bass player in a punk-rock band in Austin called Toxic Shock. But I wasn’t then, and am not now, a good bass player. I played bass in my next band, Scratch Acid, too. We rudely kicked the singer out of the band without telling him, so David Wm. Sims replaced me on bass and I started singing. I was more suited to being the frontman. Scratch Acid lasted from ’82 to ’87, then David and I recorded six or seven songs with guitarist Duane Denison as the Jesus Lizard. When David moved to Chicago to join Rapeman, we moved with him. Eventually, after Rapeman broke up, the Jesus Lizard became a real band, adding Mac McNeilly on drums.

There’s a video on YouTube taken from a Jesus Lizard show in Dallas in 1994, showing me getting hit on the head with a beer bottle. I didn’t have to go to the hospital that particular night, but there were a handful of times that I was hospitalized. I used to get a kick out of that, thinking, “Jeez, I’m just a singer in a dumb rock band and I get put in the hospital for it?” That always impressed me. It’s better than not getting hospitalized, I guess.

I have an X-ray of my head from a 1992 injury in Zurich, Switzerland, which I think was the most expensive injury of my career. I jumped off the stage, and the crowd just kind of parted. I guess the people preferred to get out of the way rather than catch me. I don’t know why; I only weigh about 80 pounds. Apparently, I laid there for a minute and they picked me up and put me back on the stage. The guys in the band kept playing because they’d seen stuff like this happen before, but then David stopped when he realized I was lying on my back with my eyes open, not moving and the puddle of blood under my head was getting bigger and bigger. By the time the ambulance got there, I wasn’t coherent, but I was speaking German: “Nichts ist los, nichts ist los,” which means “Nothing’s wrong.” I also supposedly told the medic who was wheeling me out that he had a really nice mustache.

In Albuquerque in 1997, this kid grabbed my hand when I was onstage. He didn’t mean to hurt me, but I ended up doing half a flip off the stage and landed on my tailbone. I tried to get up, but my right leg wouldn’t work. So I pushed myself to the side of the room and eventually the guys stopped playing. I couldn’t stand up, so I went to the hospital and they took X-rays. The Butthole Surfers have a song called “I Saw An X-Ray Of A Girl Passing Gas.” I always thought that was kind of a dumb song title, but they took an X-ray of my pelvis and the doctor said he couldn’t see what he needed to because it was obscured by a fart cloud. That got us all a laugh. I ended up having a pinched nerve, and we had to cancel the remaining dates on the tour.

Earlier that tour, David had broken his leg in Vancouver and had a cast on it. He could walk OK, so I borrowed his crutches. On our way home, we were at a truck stop getting gas and David and I were both hobbling into the store. We overheard these two redneck truck drivers talking to each other: “Looks like them boys got their asses kicked real good.”

Because we weren’t straight-up punk rock, we didn’t get much of the homophobic crowd in the early ’90s. I was very often surprised at the number of men in the audience who’d be yelling for me to take my clothes off. Well, blow me down.

People sometimes ask me about a particular stage move called the Tight And Shiny. An old friend of mine from Dallas named Marky Dangerous did what he called the Spoon Trick. At parties, he’d pull out one testicle and rest it on a spoon. He’d just stand there like nothing was going on. I always thought that was pretty funny. The first time the Jesus Lizard played a song we called “Metropolis,” which was an instrumental, I didn’t know what to do onstage. I thought I might go to the bar or sit down and smoke a cigarette. Instead, I put the microphone down to groin height, pulled my balls out and held them there sort of tight in front of the microphone and smoked a cigarette. After that, we changed the name of the song to “Tight And Shiny.”

I liked to be lubricated. I’d start drinking beer an hour and a half or two hours before the show, then have a shot of bourbon right before we went on. There were a handful of times when I had too many drinky-poos before a show. My bandmates would complain about that, and rightly so. I would usually appreciate it if they said, “You’re fucking up too much.” So I’d get back on course, straighten up and fly right.

We never had many problems with the clubs and venues we played. The only significant thing that happened was at a place called Rocky’s in Charlotte, N.C., while we were on tour with Helmet. The first clue that something was wrong was when we pulled up to the venue and the marquee said, “Tonight: MTV’s Helment.” We got a kick out of that. Our soundcheck was late, they never fed us, and when it came time to bring our rider back, they brought us a case of Miller Genuine Draft Light. We’d requested Budweiser, so they apologized and came back later with a whole bunch of Michelob Light. It was one fuck-up after another, so I got pissed off and started ragging on Rocky from the stage, saying, “If you have children, keep them away from this guy ’cause he likes to stick his dick in little kids.”

After the show, Mac and I went out to the van in the parking lot. These two big, lumpkin bouncer guys and this skinny old cop who looked like Don Knotts’ grandfather came up to the van and asked for the singer. I said, “I’m the singer.” He pulled me out of the van, punched me in the stomach and started yelling at me. Rocky started yelling at me, too, saying I disrespected his club. In essay style, I listed the things they’d done wrong that night. We escaped pretty unscathed. A few nights later, we were in New York and I met Joan Jett, who’d played at Rocky’s the night before we did. She agreed that the guy was an asshole, so we felt validated by that.

One of my favorite performances was when I joined Shellac for a set of Sex Pistols covers on Halloween night 1998 in Chicago. We were the Shellac Pistols. That was an absolute blast. It was almost like acting, because I was assuming the role of Johnny Rotten. I’d been practicing for months and did research to get the costume down: the same clothes Rotten was wearing at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco in 1978. Brothel creepers, leather pants, white button-up long-sleeved shirt, black leather vest and yellow-and-orange hair. We were going to do the whole Never Mind The Bollocks album, but there were a couple songs we didn’t do because Steve Albini couldn’t figure out the guitar parts. Which was funny, because they’re all pretty much the same song, just rearranged.

Before joining Qui late last year, I’d been away from the stage since 1999. I thought I would never do music full-time again, but it’s really fun. My bandmates, guitarist Matt Cronk and drummer Paul Christensen, taught me how to do vocal harmonies, which isn’t very easy for an old dog like myself to learn new tricks. I’ve never been known for traditional, accurate singing. I’m more than 16 years older than Matt and Paul, but we’re like the Three Stooges or the Three Blind Mice or whatever.

The worst thing a frontman can do is be Dullsville. Sometimes, you get the toe-tappers. On the other hand, there are people who try too hard. I remember one band from Tennessee called the Diarrhea Of Anne Frank. I was impressed with the name, but they were just trying so hard to be as wacky and offensive as they could—wearing diapers or whatever—that they just came off like dumb clowns. I think there has to be a fair degree of honesty in it. It’s got to come from inside you instead of coming from an idea you act out.