My Dinosaur Jr. problem

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.

13 thoughts on “My Dinosaur Jr. problem”

  1. I saw the band a couple of times early on when they were still just “Dinosaur,” but my favorite memory of seeing the band was a show in I think 1991 when they had become “Dinosaur Jr” and were headlining what may have been a CMJ show at a largeish NYC venue (though not so large as say the Ritz). I arrived at the show stoned out of my mind and was intensely irked to realize that I had mis-timed things and had coincided not with Dinosaur’s entry but with the beginning of the opening band’s set. The opening act: My Bloody Valentine. I was absolutely transfixed by a set that may well have simply been “Loveless” start to finish but I am ashamed to say I attributed my intense experience to my altered state and only caught up with the album a decade later. In that context the Dinosaur set felt almost sentimentally familiar and intimate, if not quite so mindblowing: but I do recall an extraordinary vision of Lou Barlow’s head, as he stepped forward to holler into the mike, seeming to expand to fill the room.

    When I go deaf at age 50 I will attribute it to that night.

  2. I think they came back with “Sludgefeast.” That toss-off Minor Threat cover was a different show, I’m pretty sure.

    I, too, have recently experienced both Dinosaur Jr. and Ozma letdown. Those Wheelers sure had a lot of potential, though…

  3. I really do think they played “Minor Threat” — actually a friend just reminded me that I assert this in my Too Fun Too Huge review of the show. Seems unlikely I would’ve gotten it wrong just after the show, and I have this memory of that cover as seeming especially bizarre after the craziness that had just preceded it.

  4. from the Ivan Archives, a shocking eyewitness account–dateline Naugatuck, 12/12/87:

    “They came back after a couple minutes, though. Barlow apologized, saying that it was his fault and “a really harsh scene,” and they lit into “Mountain Man,” which Barlow screamed in similar style as “Does It Float.” His screaming was given an extra jolt of drama by the possibility that he might break down completely at any moment. They went through the rest of the set in fine form, and even came back for an encore with an inept rendition of “Minor Threat,” Mascis on drums, Barlow on guitar, and Murph and some guy singing.”

  5. I have been thinking about “Quicksand” a lot the past few days and it seems to me that the Dinosaur Jr. B-side cover of that Bowie classic represents some sort of culmination / turning point in the non-maturation process our blogger describes.

    Check out J’s revised lyrics, e.g. “I’m the twisted name on Uma’s eyes”:

  6. You’re probably right–it’s been a long time, and maybe it’s just that the final couple minutes of Sludgefeast would have been the perfect apocalyptic soundtrack to what I was sure was the end of my favorite band.

    The Minor Threat cover, on the other hand, whenever/wherever it was they played it, marked the beginning of the end of my Dinosaur worship. Like their lame showing on that indie rock Neil Young tribute album, it exposed for me their self-conscious lack of otherworldliness.

    Nevertheless, You’re Living All Over Me remains the most satisfying new record I ever had the pleasure of running to the record store for, and I’d still sell my soul to be the guy who wrote “Quest.”

  7. DIno is a very NE experience, no? Bopping around back roads, smoking a bowl and blaring “You’re Living…” on the way to some ski slopes at like 730am on a Saturday WILL always be a found memory …non the less, emotional stagnation is a false therapy-idol…shit cant any one wax nostalgic for teenage emotions in direct conflict/comparison to the emotional ‘adult’ they are now? I personally think that type of “depth” is easily wiped away when dumb fuck A has fight with mature-o girlfriend B…we will ALWAYS be emotionally relevant to the 16 yr old in us all…to deny it is fuckin stupid…

  8. Just made a (German) trackback to your Dinosaur Jr. article. I could feel with you. I saw them live in Hamburg at the end of the eigthies and when I saw current pictures of J. Mascis – weid! Anyway, I still like Dinosaur Jr.

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