It's difficult to imagine a group that more perfectly represents the zeitgeist of the post-hardcore/pre-grunge slacker underground of '80s noise-rock than Dinosaur Jr. A shut-in, a smartass and a drummer colluded to make the loudest, most viscerally assaultive music possible.
Informed by Neil Young's melodic sense, John Bonham's attack and the sound a large guitar amplifier makes when you really make it work, Dinosaur Jr. made brutal music that was emotional but oblique. The band transformed displacement and rejection into walls of sound; only from Dinosaur Jr. could you have heard a five-a-half-minute explosion of feedback, distortion, wild drumming and panicked screams in which the only lyric was "Why don't you like me?"
Yet, at the time, Dinosaur didn't seem all that unusual in their sonic approach, as there was an entire raft of bands that were unwittingly vying for the title of "The Loudest Band Ever." Sonic Youth, Soundgarden, Das Damen and many other bands routinely elicited bloody ears from their audiences, but each band did it differently. Sonic Youth was artfully dissonant, Soundgar-den was pummeling and Das Damen made psychedelic pop out of sheets of noise. But Dinosaur saw the shut-in (guitarist J Mascis) turn into an onstage monster, brutalizing his Fender Jaguar, the amps it played through and the slack-jawed audience bearing witness … all while singing songs about girls.
The history is oft-retold. Mascis played drums in a messy, loud hardcore band called Deep Wound that also featured a guitarist named Lou Barlow. Hitting the creative dead end of the genre, Mascis switched to guitar, Barlow switched to bass, Emmett Murphy (aka Murph) was enlisted to play drums and Dinosaur was formed. Deep Wound's volume was retained, but bulldozer-strong moments of noise were interrupted by song structures that emphasized an odd, major-key melancholy and vaguely classic-rock stylings. The still-formative band released a self-titled album on the much-respected Homestead label (also home to Sonic Youth, Big Black, Live Skull and others) in 1985 that, though rough around the edges, got them enough attention to warrant a tour with Sonic Youth.
The roadwork, during which Dinosaur just got louder and louder, also helped to crystallize the band's efforts to combine songcraft with noise, the results of which made their next album their most critically acclaimed. You're Living All Over Me was released on SST in 1987, thanks to Sonic Youth, who had also left Homestead to be labelmates with Black Flag, Hüsker Dü, the Meat Puppets and pretty much every other major underground band of the day. The band's tours became increasingly fraught with tension, as Mascis sought to further narrow the band's sound and Barlow bristled. By the time Bug was released in 1988 complete with the addition of "Jr." to the band's name, a college-radio hit in the form of "Freak Scene" and an exquisite (if self-flagellating) power ballad in the form of "The Post" the two were openly hostile (or as openly hostile as the legendarily reticent Mascis could be), resulting in the dissolution of the band … followed the next day by its "reformation," sans Barlow.
Mascis would continue for nearly a decade as "Dinosaur Jr.," recording much of the "band's" output on his own and utilizing Murph and bassist Mike Johnson on tour. Mascis formally retired the Dinosaur Jr. moniker in 1997 to focus on making records as J Mascis + The Fog, recruiting Mike Watt as bassist. Barlow laid the template for lo-fi indie rock with Sebadoh, which began while he was still in Dinosaur as wobbly home-taping projects (see "Poledo" on You're Living All Over Me) and soon grew into a fully formed pop band. A cripplingly prolific recording artist, Barlow also recorded as Sentridoh (lo-fi acoustic pop) and was half of The Folk Implosion (hi-fi acoustic pop). He released his first proper solo album earlier this year, Emoh.
Throughout the years, the animosity between Mascis and Barlow has been legendary, with Barlow frequently firing verbal salvos that made it quite clear he was pretty bitter about being booted from a band he no longer wanted to be in. So when the two played onstage together for a brief, unrehearsed Deep Wound "reunion" at a benefit organized by Barlow's mom for the autism center she works at (the benefit featured Sebadoh and Mascis), old-school alt-rock tongues started wagging. Could a Dinosaur Jr. reunion be in the works? At the time, it wasn't, but with the release of Emoh and the reissue of the first three, long out-of-print Dinosaur/Dinosaur Jr. records on the same label … at about the same time the pieces of the puzzle started to fall into place. The original lineup performed on The Late Late Show on March 15, followed the next day by a sweaty and claustrophobic performance at L.A. club Spaceland.
"Me and Murph struggled not to pass out, it was so hot," laughs Barlow. He's calling from the road in England in the midst of a solo tour in support of Emoh. It's a month or so after those first shows and a few weeks before a trio of U.K. dates and a full-blown reunion tour of the United States that kicks off in Orlando on July 7.
"Considering we hadn't played for so long," Barlow continues, "I thought we would have all been more nervous. `But` J was really at ease and he played great and sang great. Murph made it through the show, I made it through the show … so I guess that means it was pretty good."
Mascis, of course, is a little more reserved: "It was nice because I hadn't really seen those guys in a while."
He's speaking from his home and, in typical Mascis fashion, he's somewhat hesitant to speak more than necessary, especially when it comes to expounding on his excitement level for the upcoming tour. "I don't really know … I guess I'll just wait and see," he mumbles.
It's impossible to discuss the "reunion" which, for the record, will solely consist of these shows and not a new Dinosaur Jr. record without addressing the venom that passed between Barlow and Mascis. Considering that most of the verbal vitriol flowed from Barlow's lips, it's not surprising that he's the most repentant.
"We're totally different people," he says. "I feel really happy that I can step into the situation and help someone that I professed to hate, and spent all this time directing negative energy at. It's really pretty satisfying to be a positive force for once."
Mascis, again with the understatement: "Lou's grown up a little bit."
When I mention this to Barlow, he laughs in agreement. "`This reunion` is remarkable because it highlights how retarded you are at that age. I don't even think I was a human being when I was 22."
So, people change, but the sound of Dinosaur Jr. at least as far as this original lineup is concerned has not. The reissued CDs correct the miserable fidelity of earlier digital editions "We got 'em to sound better … and they're a lot louder," says Mascis and just the simple fact that these seminal albums can be found in stores means a lot. And yes, the reunion shows will only feature tunes from Dinosaur's first three albums. ("I'll play 'Feel the Pain' if they play 'Brand New Love,'" laughs Barlow.) More importantly, by all accounts the group's live performance, with Mascis' overdriven guitar leading the charge, is surprisingly effective for three guys who haven't worked together in 15 years.
"Murph and I practiced for two days with each other," says Barlow, "and then J came out and we practiced for two days with him, played the TV show and then practiced one more day before `the Spaceland show`. It was funny, I can't say that I don't feel we rehearsed enough before we played. We all felt pretty strongly that it was all in place. This stuff has burned into our brains and J has been playing these songs pretty much nonstop, so they're still fresh for him and Murph is in fine form."
Though certainly aware of the impact the trio's work had on shaping "alternative music," you'd be hard-pressed to get Barlow or Mascis to admit to any pressure when it comes to the reunion.
"My only pressure is making sure I know my bass lines, and once I start playing with Murph, they all come back to me. Playing bass in a rock band is a hundred times easier than standing up and playing acoustic by myself. For me, J is carrying the largest weight on his shoulders; he's the keeper of the Dinosaur name, he's the architect of the songs, he's the lead singer, the lead guitarist. He's got the most on the line here."
Does Mascis agree? Are the expectations of thousands of aging alt-rockers, music critics and tour promoters keeping him up at night? Does he fear for his musical legacy? Is he worried this could all go horribly wrong?
"Um," he mutters. "Not really."
Dinosaur Jr., Elf Power, bloom
7 pm, Wednesday July 7
House of Blues