Remember in the 1980s and 1990s when all the baby boomers’ favorite bands got back together and went on tour? This must be something that happens when rock musicians get close to turning forty. Peter Murphy’s old ass is hanging upside down like a bat singing “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” the Pixies are once again tromping le monde, and Gang of Four is re-recording its old songs. Are these bands going to keep doing this for the rest of their lives? Some of them, probably. We’re going to be old one day, and someone is going to have to play Vegas.
Dinosaur Jr. is the latest skeleton out of the closet. J Mascis, Old Man Shred. As a teenager, he switched from drums to guitar because he thought he’d have better luck evoking the thunder of John Bonham with a deafening guitar amp than with a drum set. Mascis didn’t have a flaming gong, but he wasn’t afraid find thunder in his reverb coils by dropping his amplifier on the ground with the volume cranked up.
Dinosaur’s interminably influential late-1980s recordings with SST — Dinosaur, You’re Living All Over Me, and Bug — have been remastered and re-released by Merge. I had You’re Living All Over Me on cassette in the early 1990s, when I was in high school. A few years later, when I had had enough of the loud-soft-loud formula and pretty much put rock aside for a while, I gave all my Dinosaur Jr. cassettes to my nephew, including my favorite at the time, an EP called Whatever’s Cool with Me.
Whatever’s Cool had a cheeky cover of the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven,” which shows up on the You’re Living All Over Me re-release with an accompanying video. The original release of You’re Living All Over Me had a cover of Peter Frampton’s “Show Me the Way.” Surely they didn’t think no one would notice the switch? The words “ain’t” and “babe,” not to mention the guitar wankfests, are still all over the rest of Dinosaur’s albums, after all.
And where is the gorgeous acoustic cover of David Bowie’s “Quicksand” from Whatever’s Cool? It’s much better than the Cure cover.
Obviously, I was a little skeptical taking on three Dinosaur Jr. albums at once after resigning the band to the attic ten years ago. They’ve mostly won me back, though. I can’t sit through the guitar solos anymore, but I’ve fallen hard for Mascis’s voice. He takes one-and-a-half bars to sing one bar, but he always resolves on time. In fact, his delayed cadence is very jazz-like; he gets just enough emotion out of a line and leaves us wanting a little more.
Mascis’s voice — laconic, as if he didn’t notice the band thrashing behind him — is already fully formed on the first album, Dinosaur, which was recorded quickly in a budget studio. “Repulsion” is a song in the classic Mascis style, and it could have been on any of his albums. The trademark lyrical misfires are there, too, especially on “Leper.” “Embarrassed to be alive, sit with my life open wide, your stare is forcing my face open, a leper crumblin’, never joking.” Funny. “I’m a leper!” No you’re not.
The random snippets of hardcore are on Dinosaur as well. Two-and-a-half minutes into “Does It Float?,” after some flangey folk picking, the band scorches through a hardcore rave up, screaming “Does it float?” Everything Dinosaur would ever do is here on this album, but it doesn’t coalesce. In fact, the last half of the album is forgettable. But it’s still more than an artifact.
On You’re Living All Over Me, everything comes together. Even when they do what originally turned me off ten years ago — stringing together a bunch of unrelated guitar riffs and calling it a song — it still works. On “Sludgefeast,” after a sixty-second metal riff-fest, Mascis strums and sings, “I’m waitin’, please come backplease wanna hang around.” He’s talking about a girl, but it charms me back to the song. Then after a wash of feedback, Mascis tacks another completely random sixty-second chunkacchunka metalfest to the end of the song, over which he shreds mercilessly. Why is it there? It works, though, because I’ve enjoyed everything up to that point, and because I’m anticipating everything to come.
The riffs are pretty damn good when Mascis leaves out the solos. If they had cut off “The Lung” after ninety seconds, they would have been the indie-rock Meters.
The opening track alone makes this album worth owning. The best vocal delivery in Dinosaur’s whole catalog is on “Little Fury Things”: “Sunlight brings the rage ’round in your eyes.” The way he sings it, and the way it’s surrounded by a song that is so undeniably Dinosaur, is unforgettable.
The album shows Dinosaur’s deftness at steering between the different sounds that would eventually influence so many bands: the shoegaze washes of white noise, the “television in the other room” random sounds, and the whisper-to-a-scream dynamics that would eventually destroy modern rock radio. On the first album, they swerved between these sounds, but You’re Living All Over Me is a smooth ride.
You’re Living All Over Me is significant for Lou Barlow’s declaration of independence. He was never meant to be in Dinosaur. His tracks on this album, especially “Poledo,” are completely different from the rest. On the back cover, we’re told that “Poledo” was “recorded on 2 crappy tape recorders by Lou and Lou alone in his room.” I played this track for a French friend of mine who thinks Lou Barlow is God. He had never heard it before, and he came away even more convinced of Barlow’s divinity. Folky mumbling, shimmering guitar/synth washes that Kevin Shields would sell his soul for, screaming, white noise, sound collages right off the Beatle’s “White Album.” This song is a universe, and it has nothing to do with Dinosaur. It might be an overwrought, melodramatic universe, but it’s unmistakably Barlow’s.
Bug, Dinosaur’s last album with Barlow, is even more cohesive than You’re Living All Over Me, but it doesn’t stand out quite as much. It’s more a preview of what Mascis would do after Barlow left and MTV started paying attention. It jumps around between styles less frequently, which unfortunately means that the songs — most of which are at least four-and-a-half-minutes long — drag on too long.
There are a few unforgettable tunes, however. “Freak Scene” is extremely catchy, and “Keep the Glove” has one of my favorite lines ever. Mascis, with his typical “whatever’s cool with me” shrug, describes a dirty glove he’s found in his back yard. Preparing himself for rejection from a girl he likes — a recurrent theme in his catalog — he leaves her the glove as a gift: “I found this thing out back; hope it makes up for all I lack. It’s all I could think of If you won’t take my hand, keep the glove.”
Barlow leaves a parting shot on this album, too. “Don’t” is nearly six minutes of the band thrashing while Barlow repeatedly screams, “Why? Why don’t you like me?” It’s as close to a punch line as Dinosaur ever got.
As good as these albums are, however, I don’t think I’ll be listening to them much more. They’re a reminder of where I’m coming from — a teenager recording thrash-y guitar rock on a four-track — not where I want to go. As much as Dinosaur’s music has going for it, the guitar business is a little much. The guitar intro from “Forget the Swan” is clearly a rip-off of “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love” by Van Halen. That’s unforgivable. It’s also unforgivable that I recognized it.
But that’s why I love Dinosaur Jr. They helped me catch a wave out of the soupy riptide of suburban classic rock by turning my attention from Frampton to Thurston. But I’m not forty yet. It’s too early to be buying reissues and paying thirty dollars to see bands that aren’t as good as they used to be when they played in dives for three dollars.