It was about an hour after dusk in the early summer of 1991, and I was sitting on a log in the half woods near my parents’ house with a guy I’d met in the front row at a Dinosaur Jr show. I had the names of my favorite bands scrawled in pen on the toe caps of my Converse high-tops (“Fugazi” on the left, “Dinosaur” on the right), and I studied them intently, trying to keep my teenage awkwardness under control. Two dorks alone in the dark, we avoided the obvious question by engaging in deep conversation: Was Dinosaur Jr better with or without Lou Barlow?
I’d hung out with this guy a few times, and every night was the same: as he rattled off Dinosaur Jr minutiae, I nodded attentively, hoping that’d charm him. He was one of only two boys who would actually talk to me. I was 16, but I still had braces and could easily pass for 12. I also knew more about Dinosaur (and all his other favorite bands) than he did, but I kept that to myself. If I intimidated him, he wouldn’t want to sit on area logs with me anymore. I decided to act docile and tried not to show my teeth when I laughed.
Maybe it was particular to the time and place–Minneapolis in the early 90s–but from what my girlfriends told me, lots of boys thought going to the woods with a girl and regaling her with an hour and a half of Dinosaur Jr trivia was a perfectly acceptable courtship ritual. If you liked him (or Dinosaur) enough, you could pretend it was a date. I withstood many hours of Dinologue during those awful teen years, and my memories of the band’s early albums–with their noisy, shimmery solos and arcs of warm feedback–are inextricably tied to memories of some dude who never liked me back. Actually there was a series of dudes–they only seem to blend into one because they all shared the same bell-shaped grunge hairstyle, unflagging devotion to J Mascis, and polite disinterest in me.
Dinosaur Jr’s first three full-lengths, Dinosaur (Homestead, 1985), You’re Living All Over Me (SST, 1987), and Bug (SST, 1988), have only been out of print for five years or so and have never been too hard to find on eBay. Nonetheless, on March 22 Merge Records reissued all of them. They’re the only albums with the band’s original lineup: guitarist and front man Mascis, one-named drummer Murph, and bassist Barlow, who quit (or was fired) in 1989. (The “Jr” got tacked on after the first disc, when the Dinosaurs, a Bay Area band full of Summer of Love vets, threatened to sue.) Barlow subsequently dedicated himself to the tape-hiss horn of plenty Sebadoh, which he’d started as a side project a couple years before, and Mascis and Murph soldiered on with a rotating cast of bassists. In 1990 Dinosaur signed with Sire, and the following year they issued the flawless Green Mind.
The band was rumored to have become a Mascis dictatorship–an impression confirmed in the reissues’ liner notes–and by the mid-90s Murph was gone too. Until Sire dropped Dinosaur in 1997, Mascis and a lineup of scabs rewarded a devoted fan base with consistently diminishing returns. Then Mascis became the Fog, a studio project that only turned into a proper band to tour. He receded into the distance, dwindling to a speck on the horizon–if you’d been able to make him out, you’d still have seen his long hair, his guitar, and his flying flannel, but he’d lost his spot on the main stage to other dudes, dudes with turntables, who were our new heroes.
In the late 80s, though, Dinosaur were magnets for the devotion of teenage weirdos, combining the huge, enthralling Marshall-stack overdrive that made Neil Young famous with the jacked-up amphetamine pulse of hardcore. Like their labelmates Husker Du, they connected punk’s mosh-pit machismo to its brooding, emotional side. Often the hiccuping pummel of the rhythm section would pause, as though Murph and Barlow were trying to fake us out, and then Mascis’s guitar would rumble to life, engorged and wonderfully too loud, every note gloriously destroyed by the city of effects pedals at his feet. Unlike early punk rockers, Dinosaur weren’t lashing out at the bloated, coked-up corpse of the 70s. They were just trying, as Mike Watt suggests in the new liner notes to You’re Living All Over Me, to be an east-coast version of acid-damaged country punks the Meat Puppets. Save for Mascis’s drawling whine, there isn’t much country in Dinosaur’s music, but it’s plenty damaged, borrowing the underground metal swagger of Venom, the sweet, cooing melodies of New Order, and the Stooges’ trick of demolishing an already redlined song with a guitar solo that busts in “Hey Kool-Aid!” style.
Dinosaur structured their tunes like miniature, wank-free classic-rock epics. “No Bones,” the second cut on Bug, begins as an instrumental dirge with the bass playing distorted chords against a skipping, waltzy beat, segues into a verse where Mascis sounds like the loneliest, most congested kid in all of Massachusetts, and from there jumps to a chorus overlaid with a track of strummy accoustic guitar. Then the song leaps up several notches in volume, kicking into a much faster verse with a different hook and melodic theme, followed by a bridge augmented by a colossal, toothy solo and then a hybrid of the chorus and the first verse that’s piled high with a second solo, an insulating wall of guitar scuzz, and another acoustic track. Finally the melody grows saturated and hazy, seeming to fold in on itself so that each phrase is shorter but denser, and the outro switches to half time, the croaky vocals suddenly self-assured. On the strength of songs like this, Mascis became not just a fanboy icon but an icon’s icon–Sonic Youth’s “Teenage Riot,” from the 1988 album Daydream Nation, is reputedly about his dominion over the guitar and the kids.
In their lyrics, Dinosaur don’t even toy with the bilious, nihilistic Reagan-era sloganeering of many of their progenitors and peers. Mascis’s singing is endearingly amateurish, his voice gentle, his diction thick and vague. He never adopts an obvious pose or persona, but his words don’t reveal the “real” him with any specificity either; maybe he’s being honest, but he’s not being particularly forthcoming. In short lines capped with simple rhymes, he often tells of a she who cannot be had, or sketches a blurry metaphor about the fucked-up mess that stands between him and her–listening to this stuff is like reading a teenager’s frustrated, lovelorn poetry, written for an audience of one. Even when Mascis is using his most hypnotized-sounding monotone, his voice cracks whenever he hits the word “girl”–as though the fairer sex were like kryptonite, blazing with a radiation that strangles him with desperation and desire. Barlow barely ever takes the mike, but his one star turn on Bug is a doozy. On “Don’t,” a blatty, wretched stomper, he howls with the self-consuming rage of 10,000 virginal high school seniors: “Why? / Why don’t you like me?” Those are the only lyrics, and he repeats them 44 times–it’s emo, basically, distilled to its essence.
There’s desire and hope in Dinosaur’s songs, along with zillion-watt apathy, stoner’s sangfroid, and a host of tepid, melancholy fuck-yous–the topic is almost always romance, but it’s often hard to tell whether the girl said yes or no (or yes and then no) or maybe never got asked a question in the first place. That was part of Dinosaur’s charm. They seemed like they’d spent puberty the same way a lot of their fans had: perched on the edge of the bed playing along with metal records on a shitty Ibanez, growing out their hair, smoking weed, and getting ignored by girls (or at least by the girls they wanted). They bastardized everything from folky pop to feral thrash to turgid classic rock, imbuing it all with three qualities sacred to the indie-rock fanboy: a guileless dork aesthetic, unrepentant virtuosity, and murky but emotionally fraught lyrics. Their albums nodded to the most tender and most righteous parts of your record collection, and the songs were open-ended enough that they could easily be about you and your ennui. In the late 80s Dinosaur fit comfortably in the niche that Nirvana would blow wide open when Teen Spirit went nuclear.
Considering how much indie rock has changed since then, do these three Dinosaur reissues belong anywhere now? They certainly seem irrelevant in the harsh light of the current post-post-post-punk world, with its skinny ties and dance-floor humpa-humpa and leg warmers and ironic beards–and I mean that as a sincere compliment. The snapshots scattered in the CDs’ beefed-up liner notes reveal three greasy-looking dudes who wouldn’t have made it past the door at a loft party in Brooklyn–they’ve got teenage trauma in their eyes and look like they’ve probably never seen a tit in real life. On the back cover of Dinosaur, Barlow seems like he’s on maybe week five of puberty, wearing a Christmas-gift sweater and the same haircut my aunt Pat had in 1982. Mascis is decked out in a velvet dinner jacket and gothy medallion, and his scraggly hair looks like he slept on it wet. Of the three, Murph’s the only one who’s half handsome, despite the giant zits.
These three lost-looking dorkboys made totally monstrous records, though: sprawling, excessive, adolescent, and whimsical, Dinosaur’s early albums were casually elaborate and masterfully sloppy. Unfortunately, the timing of the band’s long-rumored reunion–for their first gig together since 1989, Mascis, Murph, and Barlow are playing the Late Late Show on CBS on April 15, with appearances at a couple overseas festivals and a full stateside tour on the way–makes the reissues seem nefarious. Given the epic bad blood between Mascis and Barlow, their reconciliation is too convenient to look like anything but a cash-in. Why couldn’t they just ride off into the sunset, pursuing their increasingly marginal solo careers and leaving us to savor our memories of the great shit they did together back in the day? Now those early Dinosaur records will be tainted by more than my high school humiliations.
At least one beautiful thing might come of this. If Dinosaur’s midlife-crisis desperation repels enough of the kids who might’ve fallen in love with these reissues, it could save a generation of teen punk girls from hours of distortion-pedal discourse on awkward dates in the woods.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Brad Miller, Doug Coombe.