The Third Coming of the Jesus Lizard | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

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The Third Coming of the Jesus Lizard

On the eve of their latest return home, the band talk about why they chose Chicago—and how they became its most beautiful noise-rock monsters.

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Jesus Lizard front man David Yow during a show at the Vic on October 8, 1994 - BOBBY TALAMINE
  • Bobby Talamine
  • Jesus Lizard front man David Yow during a show at the Vic on October 8, 1994

The Jesus Lizard are back . . . again.

Chicago's great 90s noise-rock agitators made their first return to the stage in 2009, ten years after splitting up. Their original label, Touch and Go, accompanied that reunion with Inch—a Record Store Day exclusive that repackaged remastered versions of all nine Jesus Lizard seven-inches it had released. Later that year Touch and Go reissued its Jesus Lizard albums: Down, Liar, Goat, Head, and the EP Pure.

Resuscitated, the band played lots of festivals, including two incarnations of All Tomorrow's Parties (in the UK and upstate New York) and Primavera Sound (in Spain). They also came back to their hometown for an explosive set at Pitchfork, then again on a pinpoint club tour. During the first of their two November shows at Metro, front man David Yow fell crowd surfing and bruised his ribs, while during the second he still insisted on heaving himself (briefly) into the audience. His lack of restraint onstage will never go out of style.

The Jesus Lizard signed off again with one final Metro blowout on New Year's Eve 2009. Despite the whiff of mercenary motive suggested by the reissue campaign, I never felt a creeping dread that maybe they were in it for the wrong reasons. The whole thing was an enthusiastic celebration of the Jesus Lizard's legacy: Yow, guitarist Duane Denison, bassist David Wm. Sims, and drummer Mac McNeilly reveled in knocking the dust off classics such as "7 vs. 8," "Nub," "Puss," and "Fly on the Wall."

The members of the Jesus Lizard were close, so the band's breakup in 1999 wasn't a fractious shitstorm. Rather they seemed resigned, even content, as though they knew that everything had run its course. (McNeilly left in 1996, replaced for the final few years by Jim Kimball of the Denison/Kimball Trio and then Brendan Murphy of the Wesley Willis Fiasco.)

The Jesus Lizard Book, which came out in 2014, thoroughly documents not just the group's original run from 1987 to 1999 but also those first reunion years. As was the case with so many 90s noise-rock acts, the Jesus Lizard formed under the influence of noise-rock engineer par excellence Steve Albini, who'd go on to work on many of their recordings (his late-80s band with Sims, unfortunately called Rapeman, was based in Chicago). The book includes an album-by-album breakdown that concludes with the Jesus Lizard's polarizing jump to Capitol for Shot and Blue in the late 90s, as well as ode after ode from friends and peers to the band's incredible, combustible presence on record and onstage. Not to mention all the crackling photos of Yow sloshing atop crowds, shirtless and deranged.

Three-fourths of the Jesus Lizard came here from Austin, where they'd started the band in '87 as a recording project with a drum machine—Sims and Yow played in Scratch Acid with Rapeman drummer Rey Washam, and Denison was in Cargo Cult with Randy Turner of the Big Boys. But because the Jesus Lizard had moved to Chicago by the time they added McNeilly and became a live band, they're even more special to us. With each passing decade they further crystallize into a cherished relic of a bygone era, one that continues to exert an enormous pull on the Chicago rock community.

Several important developments coincided here in the 90s: the rise of the Wicker Park scene had people speculating that Chicago would be the "next Seattle" in the alternative-rock sweepstakes, the emergence of the subgenre christened "postrock" provoked nose-thumbing from fans who didn't think rock was quite finished yet, and the confluence of the city's experimental jazz scene with its heady rock culture resulted in plenty of side projects and detours down unfamiliar rabbit holes. The Jesus Lizard thrived through it all. "Being into the Jesus Lizard was the hallmark of pretty much every decent musician I encountered in the 1990s," Albini says in The Jesus Lizard Book.

Today Yow lives in Los Angeles, Sims in New York, Denison in Nashville, and McNeilly in Evanston. But to honor the fertile era when they lived in Chicago together, I asked them to reflect on their time here. Much of the Jesus Lizard's story has been told elsewhere—there is an entire book about them, after all—so I wanted to pose questions they hadn't answered a hundred times. How did they interact with the city in between tours? How did they see the local music scene evolve alongside their band? And how often did they post up at the Rainbo Club?


The Jesus Lizard, Dead Rider
Sat 12/9, 9 PM, Metro, 3730 N. Clark, sold out, 18+


The Jesus Lizard today: David Wm. Sims, Duane Denison, David Yow, and Mac McNeilly - JOSHUA BLACK WILKINS
  • Joshua Black Wilkins
  • The Jesus Lizard today: David Wm. Sims, Duane Denison, David Yow, and Mac McNeilly

DUANE DENISON I was very excited and a bit apprehensive about moving to Chicago. It was a pretty big jump from Austin, and the sheer scale of the city was daunting. But for me the move was a now-or-never thing—and of course I don't regret it. I was in a band called Cargo Cult that had an album on Touch and Go, so I had already met [label head] Corey [Rusk]. And then there was David Yow and David Sims. It was in my favor to make the move.

MAC MCNEILLY I met David Yow and David Sims when my Atlanta band 86 played Austin. Scratch Acid had just broken up or were in the process of breaking up. Yow and I traded numbers and said, "Maybe one day we could do something together."

A few years went by—we didn't keep in touch or anything—and out of the blue he called to ask about playing drums with the Jesus Lizard. They planned to ditch the drum machine. They had made an EP but wanted to be a full-on band and travel and go to Europe. I'm like, "Uh, hell yeah, that sounds great."

DAVID WM. SIMS There was a culture shock. The climate, the food, the architecture. I'd only ever lived in Austin and Atlanta and had been outside the south for the first time three years earlier with Scratch Acid. Austin is an easy town to be well-liked in.

Opposed to David Yow, who was an air force brat and moved a ton, I'd never moved much—so it was daunting to uproot myself. I did immediately step into the whole Touch and Go scene, which was a good place to land.

DAVID YOW I was more excited just to get out of Austin, because I think I'd been there 13 years and it had become the kind of place where everybody had fucked everybody else. As far as I knew, I was moving up there to be Rey Washam's drum tech for the band that he and David were in with Steve Albini.

MCNEILLY At the time I was playing bass in Phantom 309 with Gary Held and John Forbes. That was fun, but I'm not a bass player. I was going up to Chicago to see if it was the right fit, but I didn't get the impression [the Jesus Lizard] were auditioning a bunch of drummers.

DENISON We moved into Humboldt Park, where all four of us lived in a three-bedroom place at 2722 W. Potomac. It was near Division and California, right on the edge of the park. David Sims and I stayed in that same building for ten years.

SIMS I lived in Chicago for 12 years and was in that apartment the entire time, except for that first year. We moved there in 1989. I liked the neighborhood. Not as cool as Wicker Park, but it was close and a lot cheaper.

MCNEILLY The building itself was this beautiful old graystone. When I drove up the first time, I came with my drums. I parked my Volks­wagen van outside, and it got broken into immediately. I was like, "Are you serious?"

Once [the rest of the Jesus Lizard] figured out, "OK, you're in the band," I left my drums and drove back to Atlanta and grabbed some clothes. It was that easy. I ended up buying a '72 Chevy Malibu for $200 from a guy across the street. I was the last one to move in, so I got the couch in the living room. I didn't mind.

SIMS Because of the arrangement of the one-way streets, we had to drive down Evergreen one block north of Potomac to make the block back down to ours. Evergreen was a wide-open crack market.

DENISON It was a drive-through drug zone with competing gangs. Bodies would show up in the lagoon across the street. We'd go on tour and come back and count the burned-out shells of cars that had been stolen and torched for fun. I walked through a shootout one day in the park. It was the wild west. Our neighbors were all decent, but the gangs were out of hand.

MCNEILLY After a while it came back that somebody in the neighborhood said, "We didn't know what to think at first, but pretty quick we figured you guys were just musicians and weren't going to bother anybody." We never got messed with.

YOW It was a little sketchy. I know of some bad things that happened to friends and acquaintances, but I was never unfortunate enough to experience any of that.

SIMS There was a point when activists in the neighborhood marched and raised hell that the police weren't doing more about it. It was on the news and got some press. They did get it cleaned up to where you could drive down that block and not have kids running out and yelling at you to buy crack.

David Yow and Mac McNeilly at the Vic in 1994 - BOBBY TALAMINE
  • Bobby Talamine
  • David Yow and Mac McNeilly at the Vic in 1994

DENISON We got along surprisingly well, considering we were on top of each other all the time, those first five years especially. We had a landlord named John Conroy, who was a writer and wrote a book called Belfast Diary. I don't think he knew what to make of us at first. We started showing up in the press, and being a writer, that impressed him. We laughed about the way the ad for the apartment had been worded: "Area popular with writers and artists."

MCNEILLY It was like, no one else would dare live here, but if you're an artist and don't have any money, you might consider moving here. Comes with a built-in set of risks!

JOHN CONROY My wife and I bought that three-flat in 1988 and moved in shortly thereafter. We were strangers to the business of being a landlord, and we were trying to find tenants who didn't mind living in a neighborhood that a lot of people thought was pretty rough but we thought had a lot of character.

There was an active drug market, with one corner staffed at most hours of the day and night. Pistols came out for celebration on New Year's Eve and the Fourth of July. One of our neighbors, thinking that a man in his house was an intruder, used a machete to slice into the stranger's ear. Two other neighbors kept roosters, and you could hear them crowing occasionally—not something I had experienced in any other neighborhood. One of those men, who also collected for the neighborhood bolita, became a friend of ours. After I told him I was going to be gone for a few weeks, he became concerned, and he came over and offered my wife a small gun (I believe he called it "woman sized," or words to that effect).

SIMS If I ever get to a point where I'm someone's landlord, I'll model myself after John Conroy. Super nice and attentive when things needed attention and left you alone when they didn't. He raised the rent on the apartment five dollars a month every year. When we moved in it was $625 a month, and when I left 11 years later it was $675 a month. He made a calculation that it was better to have that steady income rather than to constantly be vetting and looking for new tenants every year.

YOW The worst thing we did was get drunk as shit every day. Duane eventually moved into the basement, which was directly below. We all lived there until I moved in with my future wife and Mac with his.

CONROY It says a lot about them that they took to the neighborhood quite easily. I didn't know anything about the band when they moved in. When I finally saw them perform, I was amazed that such even-keeled, polite, quiet, and respectful people could be so wild onstage. My wife and I have owned the building for almost 30 years. We've had a lot of tenants come and go. Those guys are by far our favorites. [Editor's note: John Conroy was a Reader staffer from 1978 till 2007—he famously broke the Jon Burge police torture story—and is now a senior investigator at Northwestern's Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center.]

DENISON There was a little Polish place on the corner of Division and California called Mary's Best Pierogi, but honestly, I'd drive the mile or so east to Wicker Park. I loved the comic-book store Quimby's, and around the corner was Leo's Lunchroom. I'd go to the Empty Bottle regularly on Tuesday nights, when Ken Vandermark's groups would rehearse or do workshops. I'd nurse a beer and listen to those guys run through their sets.

MCNEILLY I used to walk everywhere. We practiced for a while—god, we practiced all over—in Steve Albini's basement at California and Irving Park. I'd walk from our place in Humboldt Park. I met a lot of interesting characters going up California.

SIMS I lived there for years without a car, so I would walk to the bus that would go down Division—or sometimes just walk to that el line through Wicker Park. Probably the closest things that I did frequent in the neighborhood were the Rainbo, there on Damen and Division, the Gold Star, Reckless Records, and when it opened, the Empty Bottle.

YOW We went to Dreamerz a lot. It was a club on Milwaukee where the venue part was upstairs. There was this wonderful girl named Michelle—her last name escapes me—who dated Pete Conway from Rifle Sport and Flour, but she also dated Steve Albini. There was this bachelor party at Dreamerz for a friend of Steve's, and Steve doesn't drink but that night he said he'd match everybody drink for drink. He got shit-faced and was downstairs leaning over the bar talking to Michelle, going "I alllways loooved you. I alllways loooved you the most." And then I think he ended up passing out in his own vomit on the sidewalk.

STEVE ALBINI David Yow and I used to hang out a lot, shooting pool or just being assholes. A favorite haunt of our circle was a dive bar under the Kennedy Expressway called Marie's Riptide Lounge, whose geriatric namesake matriarch was prone to ball-breaking on a scale we all admired.

One night at the Riptide, Marie showed David a joke involving him sliding pennies across the bar, with a different pun as a punch line for each one—something like, "You smell something? I was wondering where that scent came from," and "What's sweet as an apple? There's a pear," and so on. The puns stretched thinner and thinner. Eventually David slid the fifth penny across the bar, and Marie asked, "You see any pussy? No! And you ain't going to for five goddamn cents!" David liked that joke.

MCNEILLY We'd go to Czar Bar, Empty Bottle, Lounge Ax, just looking for bands to hang out with. In the early days I remember there was a whole lot of going out and drinking. That was the sport, the context. Many a night was spent at the Rainbo Club.

SIMS I used to jokingly refer to the Rainbo as my second living room. I haven't really re-created that experience since. But I could literally go there any night of the week and run into people I knew. The people in Pegboy, Tortoise, Eleventh Dream Day. Drag City people. Probably the people in Material Issue. There was also the appeal of getting home from tour and not having to go out. Going on tour is like going out for six weeks at a time.

DENISON Rainbo on a Friday night in 1992 I'd probably see John Herndon, Casey Rice, Dan Koretzky, Doug McCombs, Stacy Sargent. Don't forget Rick Rizzo, John Haggerty once in a while. I had a birthday party there probably in '92 where I drank like 15 greyhounds. I got home somehow—and on the floor.

After the Jesus Lizard broke up, I was in Nashville working with Hank III, and we came up. Then later [my band] Tomahawk played the Metro and Vic. After a Tomahawk show, I said to a couple of guys, "Let's go to the Rainbo in Wicker Park." [Tomahawk drummer] John Stanier was from New York, and Rainbo was like the Max Fish of Chicago. Similar kind of art, boho-guy kind of vibe. Some people I recognized seemed to be doing the same old things. Guys who were womanizers then still were, and it's like, dude, you're getting older and older and these girls are looking younger and younger.

YOW It's funny, I didn't go to the Rainbo nearly as much as my pals. Early on, before we lived together, I lived in Uptown near Clark and Wilson and worked near the Exit. I'd go to the Exit all the time. I worked Sunday night, so I'd get off and go straight there. I called it church.

SIMS It didn't take much for us to get away from needing day jobs. We toured all the time and lived out of a van anyway. I really only had what you'd call a day job that first year. I worked at a record distributor in Des Plaines called Kaleidoscope.

It went belly-up while I was there. I was one of the last two or three employees. Everything of value that I learned about the music industry, I learned while riding Kaleidoscope down the drain. Why some people get paid, why some people don't. Why some people make money, why some people ship off their records to a distributor and never see their records again or any money from them.

DENISON There was a local chain called Foodworks that was good about rehiring me when I came back from tour. It was a combination health food store and grocery—and they sold beer and wine. I worked at the one at Diversey and Sheffield. It was a real cast of characters who worked there—everyone was into something, whether art or theater or music. I also used to give guitar lessons out of the apartment. I put up flyers at places like Quimby's and Leo's. In those days you put up flyers.

MCNEILLY I helped stuff records into sleeves over at Touch and Go when I first got to Chicago. Most of that time was spent hanging out with John Brannon [of Negative Approach] and watching old video clips of Alice Cooper.

David Yow at the Vic in 1994 - BOBBY TALAMINE
  • Bobby Talamine
  • David Yow at the Vic in 1994

DENISON It seemed like a lot of the people who were part of the Touch and Go crowd used to go to [a restaurant called] Bangkok Bangkok, and the owner seemed to like them. So they presented the idea of putting on a show. It was Slint, the Jesus Lizard, and King Kong [in July 1989]. The owner seemed disappointed that no one was dancing. I think he was baffled by the oddness of the music, the way people looked, and that no one was treating it like it was a wedding.

SIMS There was a place called Edge of the Looking Glass that we played early on. It was more of a performance space. We also played on the roof of where Martin Atkins lived. We probably played with Tar and Pegboy a fair amount. Those two stick in my mind because they were around at the very beginning of the Jesus Lizard but also into the mid- and late 90s.

MCNEILLY Those early shows were a little more experimental sounding. I think Steve Albini thought it was some kind of weird art-rock at first.

DENISON We played a bit with a few different bands, but not that much in Chicago. Pegboy or U.S. Maple or [John Forbes's band] Dirt—which later became Mount Shasta—or Tar. Eventually those bands developed their own things and played their own shows.

MIKE GREENLEES, DRUMMER IN TAR We had the same booking agent, and after we got on Touch and Go we went on tour together in 1992. I saw them play every night for a month—I'm talking every night. Neither band was interested in days off. Think about Yow. He's not spending one-half to three-quarters of a random show in the audience—that's every night for weeks on end. Think about trying to stay balanced while people are tossing you around, lifting you up, flipping you over, trying to pry the microphone out of your hand, pulling your hair, et cetera. And he's delivering all the vocals. Then after the show he's entertaining an endless stream of people backstage, while everybody else just kind of wants the evening to end. Off the stage, day to day on tour, they were funny as hell—David and Mac uproariously so, Duane with a really dry sense of humor—but were absolutely all business, especially David Sims.

MCNEILLY Killdozer was fun, because I liked Michael Gerald's voice. They had a cool dirge-y sound. We played with Laughing Hyenas once or twice. We played with Tar a few times, and those are good guys. We liked them a lot.

YOW We were good pals with the Didjits, with Pegboy. Killdozer wasn't a Chicago band, but Mike had moved to Chicago by that time. We were friends with Urge Overkill before they became assholes.

GREENLEES One night in Orlando at Beach Club, Yow needed a beer or something and afterwards gestured for the audience to carry him back to the stage. But there isn't a stage—the bands were set up on the floor in a corner of the room. So when they deposit him, it's a six-foot drop. Onto his head. He's not moving. He's out. Mac, David Sims, and Duane are almost not reacting. Like, "How long should we give him?" I'm sure they've been there before.

Eventually Sims walks over when it seems like he's not gonna get up. Yow struggles to his feet, goes down again. He's too dizzy to stand. Somebody brings him a beer. He drinks it, gets back up, and they finish the set. At another point the guitar mike went out. Yow strolls over and pours beer on it, explaining later, "I don't know, I thought it would be funny." Like, "Maybe beer will help."

SIMS Lounge Ax was great. There wasn't intrinsically anything about the space or the PA—it was the people who ran it. For bands used to driving from one college town to the next and from one dive bar to another, you get treated fairly brusquely or apathetically a lot. They created a welcoming vibe, without having much to offer in the way of great technical infrastructure. The ceiling was low. The backstage was a cramped little awful place. It was a small, narrow shotgun space—not ideal for acoustics.

JULIA ADAMS, CO-OWNER OF LOUNGE AX They were one of my favorite bands to ever play Lounge Ax. David Yow set the stage on fire during one show. That was fun. Thankfully we were able to quickly extinguish it! Donny Osmond came to see the Jesus Lizard once, which seemed weird. I remember when David made it all the way from the stage to the sound booth by body surfing. Singing the entire time.

DENISON It was smaller, so it had a sort of a classic CBGB vibe. It could just get swelteringly hot in there. Plus you could smoke back then too, so it could get a little claustrophobic. With the Metro you had this nice big room—more like a theater, so you get a bigger sound, bigger stage.

JOE SHANAHAN, OWNER OF METRO The Jesus Lizard played Metro regularly, and their shows in the early 90s were their most potent. The alchemy of their visceral live presence, local label (Touch and Go), and local agency (the Billions Corporation) made them can't-miss events. The band always chose the right openers—from Tar (December 15, 1990, and October 19, 1991) to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion for a sold-out show on October 30, 1992. Tickets were $8 to $10 for a night of messy, loud, and expertly played punk rock. No one ever left disappointed.

YOW Many times we played Lounge Ax, it was full enough that climbing across the people was like climbing across a moving floor. And Lounge Ax wasn't that big, so getting to the soundboard wasn't that much of an achievement.

MCNEILLY I think our fans through the 90s were very loyal, supportive, and fierce. The people that liked us really liked us, and I think the people that didn't like us really didn't like us. We might've been the ugly stepchild, in a way.

ALBINI On release of Head, the reviews were comical. Nobody got it. I presumed David would be at least a little bothered by this, but he was nonplussed. Their live shows were always packed and got bigger every lap around the circuit, and they had the respect of their peers. "Led Zeppelin got bad reviews," he said.

DENISON You're aware of your celebrity. You'd have to be pretty dull not to notice. At the same time, we didn't go out of our way to cultivate that. I worked my ass off playing in bands where I never got on anyone's guest list. Keep in mind I was well past 30 by the time the Jesus Lizard started having real success. I appreciated every bit of it.

YOW I remember when Down came out, I was sort of bummed because I thought it was our worst record. There are other punctuated memories. One time I got home from practice and I had figured out how I was going to sing "Seasick." I was really happy with it. I remember telling my wife about it and just throwing her around the bed, singing the song. Throwing each other around the bed—it was really fun.

MCNEILLY When we did Shot, there was this big backlash of corporate versus indie. People wanted to keep something for themselves and wanted variations of the same thing that they got that spark from. We weren't trying to jump to Capitol to be rock stars. We were just trying to take it to the next level and get an advance and do responsible things like buy houses. We weren't in our early 20s and were fortunate enough to get some of the ego out of the way.

DENISON The first half of the 90s was almost like Chicago versus Seattle as far as rock presence. Then it flipped in the mid-90s and the English bands took the title back with Oasis, Blur, and Pulp.

SIMS I think loud, in-your-face rock bands were not what people were looking for in the late 90s. It was looser and more improvisational and more about the flow and less about the impact.

DENISON During that time, with what started to be called "postrock," suddenly it seemed like everything but rock was popular. Everyone was an improviser with a capital I and into a Brazilian thing or an Afrobeat thing or an electronic thing. The Denison/Kimball Trio did some stuff with Ken Vandermark and Jim O'Rourke on a Sub Pop single. By the time the Jesus Lizard had run its course, I kind of felt like we were on the outside looking in.

MCNEILLY Thrill Jockey became more viable. You had Trans Am and Tortoise, of course. To a degree Slint cracked open a wedge that people could drift into. They had rock instrumentation, and I guess you'd call them a rock band, but they almost created their own genre.

DENISON I moved to Nashville in the spring of 1999. The band hadn't officially broken up, but we were going to. Ten years—it was a good run. There was nothing keeping me in Chicago. I wasn't married, I didn't have a family, I didn't own property. And I feared that I would keep doing the same things with the same people if I didn't leave. Nashville is a music town, and I can still get to other cities. I could sort of re­invent myself.

SIMS I moved to New York from Chicago in the early 2000s. It felt like it was time for a change. I first went there in 1985 with Scratch Acid, and at that point I'd never been out of the south. I was fascinated from the get-go. Around 1998 or '99, I started thinking, "Look, you've always wanted to live there." I decided to make the plunge. Now I'm in Chelsea in Manhattan. It's the people I miss the most about Chicago. And burritos at Tecalitlan and Father & Son Pizza.

YOW I moved to LA in 2001. I was married at the time and my wife was born in Anaheim, and she sort of had a hankering to end up back here. And that was fine with me. I'd lived in Chicagoland for 15 years, and that was longer than I'd lived anywhere, so I was ready to go. I had done a little bit of acting in Chicago, and I thought it'd be cool to end up doing more of it.

MCNEILLY My wife and I had two young kids, and I couldn't make that work with the band for any combination of reasons. I felt like I had to pick between the band and family, so I picked family. It was a difficult time.

Evanston was a good place for us to raise a family. You're close to Chicago but not in there fighting for parking spaces, and it's not as congested. It's a progressive, arts-driven community with a good ethnic and racial balance. That's what we wanted.

ALBINI I don't say this lightly: the Jesus Lizard were the best band of their generation. Personally, I can attest they were the best musicians, as a group, I've ever worked with. I feel profoundly privileged to have worked on their records. They had an unequal blend of precise musicianship and unhinged depravity. Their welding of the grotesque to the sublime was unique—and they were good friends.

Three Texans and a Georgia peach, they were fish out of water for a while in a frigid northern city, but they adapted by remaking the city's music scene in their image. Among other musicians they became a touchstone and an inspiration, a kind of ideal of the band they all wanted to be. They toured relentlessly, made records still hailed as masterpieces, and, for better or worse, never lacked the courage of their convictions.  v

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