Sunday, January 01, 2012

I didn't listen to the outfit known as Dinosaur Jr. for what must've been 15 years. Bought the first three LPs back in '88, loved 'em for the next few years; caught the post-Barlow lineup playing here in 1990 at the Old Greek Theatre and thought they absolutely blew; noticed the concept of the "band" known as Dinosaur Jr. quickly loosen to the point of it being basically J. Mascis and whomever he felt like backing up his enormous ego and... gave up on them. In the meantime, I even - STUPIDLY, mind you - sold both You're Living... and Bug on LP, whilst keeping my copy of the first disc, since it was an original Homestead edition under the original "Dinosaur" moniker, and hey, that kinda thing's gonna be worth BIG bucks one day, correct? (Is it? I doubt it).
You're Living All Over Me was originally released in 1987 and made a huge splash, that much is obvious. The debut, from 1985, caused some ripples, but for many it's an uneven affair, merely a precursor of great things to come. I still have that LP sitting on the shelf in the spare room, though I haven't played it properly - as in all the way through - in over 20 years now. I could pull it out and give it a spin for the purposes of this entry, but frankly, I really don't feel like listening to the thing. That's not to say it doesn't have some mighty fine tracks: from memory, "Forget The Swan", "Repulsion" and "Severed Lips" were fantastic, and the uneven mixture of hardcore, goth and psychedelic metal, along with a roots-rock approach lifted heavily from Neil Young and Meat Puppets discs certainly had and has its charms... but we'll discuss the 2nd and 3rd LPs instead.
You know the Dinosaur Jr. story well, correct? Both Lou Barlow and J. Mascis had cut their teeth in the Massechussetts hardcore scene of the early '80s as young teens, playing in the hyperspeed HC demolition unit, Deep Wound. Strangely, as fate would have it, both Mascis and Barlow can lay claim to having helped to lay the groundwork for two rather disparate music scenes: Deep Wound's huge influence on the Earache diaspora of grindcore bands, and Dinosaur Jr.'s obvious heavyweight status amongst slacker-grunge rock & roll (or whatever you wish to call it w/ a straight face). Drummer "Murph", a fellow HC kid w/ a weakness for musicianly progsters such as Rush, Mahuvishnu, et al also spent time in All White Jury, a band of perhaps little renown outside of the fact that they once featured a guy who later went onto indie-rock fame. When HC had runs it course (listen to Sebadoh's "Gimme Indie Rock" for the story: here), the three teens, juiced up on the SST bands, Neil Young, Black Sabbath, Byrds and the Birthday Party (amongst others), went onto create a new brand of dynamic rock & roll which, for some, reinvigorated high-energy music as we know it throughout the late '80s.
Both You're Living... and Bug were originally released on SST, and has been the case w/ other notables, the label lost the catalogue due to their faulty/slack/useless accounting practices, and have since been reissued via the Merge imprint. These CD editions are the version I now own. I had the original SST version of the 2nd LP, though Bug was licensed locally to Au-go-go at the time (via Blast First), and that was the one I owned (unfortunately: Australian pressings, both the quality of the vinyl and the cover, were notoriously useless at the time). The Merge CDs present the albums in the respect they deserve: copious liner notes from Byron Coley, photos and ephemera, bonus video clips and a mastering job which does unerring justice to their monumental heaviness.
It's easy to see, with the benefit of years, where the band fit in the scheme of things: another missing link (not the missing link) between the original hardcore scene and what was depressingly known as "alternative rock" a decade later; one birthed from punk rock but whom, like their SST compadres, blended their hardcore sensibilities w/ distinctly pre-punk influences (much of it '70s hard rock/heavy metal, something which greatly distinguished these bands from the more overtly garage/Stooges-derived u/ground units of the '80s). But I can tell you this: hearing this records as a 16-year-old in 1988, they sounded like they arrived from another planet. No other SST band of note, barring Black Flag, were as "heavy", musically speaking, as Dinosaur Jr.; the band sounded like a Meat Puppets/Black Sabbath hybrid, but excuded a strange, couldn't-give-a-shit approach to their sound; and the photos of the band members - black & whites you'd see in fanzines - had them looking like hippie college dorks, only they were prone to wearing Discharge and Venom t-shirts (for some reason, those musically-challenged Geordies found a real niche in the HC scene of that part of the US). The band covering The Cure's "Just Like Heaven" fucked w/ everyone's heads (inc. mine!) just a little bit more, too. For a while there, I thought they were just about the best band on the planet, a band totally befitting the Black Flag/Meat Puppets/Minutemen/fIREHOSE/Sonic Youth circle of friends they'd found themselves ensconsed in. Jesus H. Christ on a popsicle stick, the label was firing on all engines at the time: anyone who thinks SST ran out of gas after Mugger and Carducci skipped town in '86 have obviously never had the pleasure of listening to a Slovenly/Pell Mell/Universal Congress Of/Tar Babies/Angst/ET-FUCKIN'-CETRA disc, but you've heard this rant before (and you will again, trust me).
The follow-up, 1988's Bug, may even be better. At the time it wasn't necessarily considered so. I think its predecessor was seen as such a groundbreaking effort - it even had the Limeys entranced by American rock music for a minute or two - that anything less would be seen as a disappointment. Bug was seen by many as more of the same - perhaps as good, but nothing new. It lacks the primitive charm of its predecessor - there's more overdubs, more studio time and more song craft here - though the material is equal to You're Living..., if not better. You wanna engage in splitting hairs? Me neither. The opener, "Freak Scene", became an "indie hit" at the time, and good as it is, it's not the best track on the disc. The band had sharpened their chops, and their ability to get anthemic, and the likes of "Let It Ride" and "Pond Song" made obvious pointers to where the band was heading (ie. - the semi-big time). The other great aspect of the band was their unashamedly experimental bent. Lou Barlow would take this full-throttle w/ his early Sebadoh/Sentridoh recordings (I give full props to Sebadoh's III here), and being smart-assed punkers also clued-in to the mind-frying sounds of Throbbing Gristle and Flipper, they could fuck w/ the punkers and indie-rockers w/ tracks like "Keep The Glove" on Bug (total guitar-noise destruction) and the 2nd LP's closer, "Poledo", a track I thought was a dud for the first three-dozen listens before its ghostly, no-fi solo/stoner vibe grabbed me (it merely sounds like a lo-fi genericus maximus Lou Barlow track now, but back then no one knew his eclectic/esoteric capabilities).
Barlow and Murph quit (or were kicked out), Mascis kept the name going and released a bunch of records I've actually never heard (except the singles, which were radio staples back in the day). I saw Mascis play at the Cherry Bar(!) back in 2000 or 2001 when he did an impromptu show as "The Three Stooges" w/ Mike Watt on bass and his touring drummer (J. Mascis & The Fog were touring at the time) on skins, playing nothing but tracks from the Stooges' first two LPs w/ Watt handling the bass and vocals. It was smokin', totally renewed my respect for the guy and allowed me to chew Watt's ears off for at least 10 minutes before the show (his response to me: Jesus, you seem to know more about my music than I do!).
The original line-up of the band has been back together again and has released two very highly regarded LPs in the meantime: 2007's Beyond and 2009's Farm. I have heard neither, nor have I seen their shows when they've recently played these shores, although friends and people whose opinions I actually respect rate the reformed Dinosaur Jr. very highly. In time, when I get time, I will pay them a visit, that's a promise. The Merge CD reissues of the first three albums, along w/ the chapter on the band in Michael Azzerad's Our Band Could Be Your Life, really did plant a seed in my mind regarding just how good, and just how unique the original Dinosaur Jr. was. Like any great outfit, they were beset by tensions, egos and infighting, and the drama played out on their best records. The musical sphere they helped birth - the post-hardcore world of punk in-jokes, 'Sabbath riffs, wah pedals, long hair and beaded necklaces - also birthed a lot of second-rate music you would never bother listening to (though at the time you very well may have!), though Mascis, Barlow and Murph, three essential elements to the group sound, were, for a few records, streets ahead of the pack. Good shit is timeless.


Pig State Recon said...

I appreciate your take here, I really do - even more that the Huskers, it was THESE guys who created the longhair alt rock template of the late 80's/90's.

But to my ears, J. Mascis' gtr playing always sounded like flying fingers signifying nothing: real loud and distorted all, but totally lacking the bite/invention of Ginn, Baiza, or even Kirkwood. And that's to say nothing of the man's soft, mush-mouthed vocals! The combo was absolutely vampiric: I get exhusted just THINKING about revisiting these records. Though, I find even "good" Neil Young records mildly irritating at the best of times; maybe I'm just not the target audience?

Dave said...

I wouldn't put Mascis up there in the league of Ginn/Baiza/Kirkwood for guitar reinvention either, but damn, he DID have some really good licks, and on both of these discs he does let them fly occassionally. It annoys me when lazy critics talk about Mascis making the "guitar hero" popular in underground music circles again: he'd spent the previous five years taking lessons from the REAL guitar heroes. But I don't mean to take anything away from him or the band: for me, they hold up really well. And by the way, get blogging! What happened, you over it?

Pig State Recon said...

BTW I must've seen that same Barlow-less tour you did, in LA with my girlfriend at the time - girls always did like these guys. I was unaware that it wasn't the original band, and since I didn't like em in the first place the gig did nothing to change my feelings about em. Openers JACK BREWER BAND and CLAWHAMMER were where it was at!

Coincidentally, I was just now trying somewhat in vain to get an "end of year" post together. Wouldn't hold my breath, these blog things just don't come so easy anymore - we'll see if I ever finish it.

Pig State Recon said...

OK: so on the basis of your post I traded in a Ronnie Lane dbl-CD thing I don't ever listen to and picked up a used copy of the You're Living CD today in trade. I have now listened to it at least 4 times back to front. And I suppose I was a bit hasty with my earlier criticisms.

Yes I still blame J. Mascis for creating the sub Neil Young energy-sapping voice template aped by everyone from PAVEMENT's Stephen Malkmus to Scientological BECK . . . but a really good record this is, indeed. J's gtr is a big mess but it sounds really nice atop that loose but totally cruisin' rhythm section of Murph and Lou, and as you say the songs are tasty. And the production is confounding in the best way possible. Yes I will be keeping this disc.