Went to see Dinosaur Jr. last night. They’re touring with the full original lineup, including Lou Barlow, whose bitter split with J. Mascis constituted one of indie rock’s best-known melodramas back in the 90s. (It’s compellingly chronicled in Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life.) Now almost 20 years on (!), after various kinds of solo careers and other projects, they are back together, tempted, I assume, by reunion cash & attention.
I think I over-invested, emotionally, in the band back in the day, such that I now find it difficult just to enjoy them in an uncomplicated way. They were pretty much my favorite band around the time of the first two albums. I loved Dinosaur, the first one, and was involved in bringing them to play to my college. When You’re Living All Over Me came out I felt vindicated in my belief that they were pretty unique — some kind of strange amalgam of Neil Young, Black Sabbath, the Cure, Meat Puppets? –and I enjoyed seeing them get the recognition they deserved. I saw J. Mascis as a post-punk Neil Young; deeply soulful, albeit semi-autistic seeming; completely inarticulate in person, but able to channel deep, weird emotions and let them out in the form of music that was at once overwhelmingly loud and somehow melodic, pretty, even sweet. I still think songs like “In a Jar,” “Little Fury Things,” “Repulsion,” et al. are amazing and unmatched.
I was actually one of what couldn’t have been more than a few dozen people in the audience to witness the onstage fight Azerrad describes between J. and Lou in Naugatuck, CT in 1988 at a weird little strip-mall disco kind of place. They smashed their guitars together, screamed at each other and stormed off the stage. If I recall correctly, they came back in a couple minutes and did a sloppy Minor Threat cover as an encore. (My friend Dan and I, who worshiped the band, were completely freaked out.) Barlow said to Azerrad that the fight made him “psychotically happy… I felt he’d finally proven to me that he had feelings. He would never react to anything at all, ever”(372).
Maybe I just took the spurned Lou’s side in the divorce, but I ended up feeling that Mascis in fact contained no soulful depths, that he was, as far as I could see, a narcissistic & emotionally manipulative guy primarily into guitar and skiing/snowboarding equipment. One of the songs they played last night, the one that goes, “I feel the pain of everyone, and then I feel nothing,” over and over, kind of sums it up. On the one hand, this vivid, sometimes excruciating emotionality, conveyed through waves of sculpted guitar noise; on the other, a passive-aggressive affectless and lack of real engagement or meaning.
Few of the songs are ultimately about much of anything other than emotional frozenness or inability to feel/connect, and I guess that stance seems less interesting or powerful than it once did to me. Also, a 21 year old who experiences those feelings and expresses them musically is maybe inherently a lot more sympathetic than the same person who seems unchanged 20 years on. There’s probably a kind of nostalgia/revulsion dynamic going on too where I associate them so strongly with myself at age 20. I’ll freely admit that my reaction now is very likely a result of over-projecting into their music originally and having always wanted it to be be/mean more than it really was.
Also, J. Mascis now has this slightly pudgy, freaky-grandpa look which kind of kills the mystique he used to convey:
I’m slightly amazed that there’s actually a market for Dinosaur Jr. sneakers.
Lou, on the other hand, doesn’t look too different from the way he did in 1988, and it was fun to see him perform. His psychedelic ballad “Forget the Swan” was a surprising highlight of the night.
All that said, it was cool to hear all those great songs from the first two albums; I just felt kind of ambivalent about the whole thing.