So, Goldie rolls up to the Three Bears’ crib. Being a Nosy Parker, he immediately starts perusing the family’s record collection. He starts big — feeling brassy about blowin’ into the joint without a care — and puts on Bon Jovi. Fifteen minutes of pumping fists, flying-V split kicks, and air guitar pirouettes, and then the adrenaline runs its course.
As his breath and pulse regain footing, he realizes how worked his body feels yet how empty his mind has become. He returns to the stacks. The endorphins leave a buzz and visions of bloodied dresses in his head. What next? The Pixies, of course. "Debaser" rattles out of the speakers like a Gatling gun in a blaze of glory, yet Goldie remains still, seated, and silent. He is thinking about Surrealism, culture inside the box, the implications of outsider art infiltrating the mainstream. But when the chatter in his head overtakes Joey Santiago’s chattering guitar, he turns the stereo off again. He’s looking. Looking for the beat that is just right.
And then he finds it. It’s been there all along. Goldie slips Boo-Boo onto the platter, and it’s all there. Rollin’ with the homies. Sarcastic preaching. And girls. Girls, girls, girls. "How could I overlook this?" he wonders aloud, because the choice seems so obvious that it requires a smack to the head, yet so modest that it understandably went unnoticed for so long.
And that is pretty much the story of a little band named Big Dipper. For a short run between the mid-’80s and early ’90s, this quartet joined so many other rock bands in carving out a share of the pie by slugging out a few excellent records (the EP Boo-Boo in 1987, and the Craps and Heavens LPs in 1987 and 1988), scoring a major-label deal, then crumbling apart.
While this part of the story is also a significant part of the Dipper narrative, it tells far less about what the band meant than the familiar fiction above. Big Dipper was like many bands that made/make music — surprise — for fun, but was actually really damn good at it. Subsequently, Dipper found itself stuck in the middle of two types of poseur archetypes in rock: the jocktacular, chest-beating pose versus the self-inflated, self-important posture.
The trouble with this position, as so many musicians and music fans know all too well, is that it hardly meshes with an industry designed to, as Chris Rock would put it, "profit from pain." So, Big Dipper came and went, and their records quickly disappeared into collector obscurity.
Thankfully the twenty-first century’s hyper-consumer mania has also exhumed long-buried groups like Big Dipper. Merge Records and original guitarist Gary Waleik plunged into the vaults and reemerged with Supercluster, an anthology that collects the aforementioned out-of-print LPs and EP, along with tracks from the final, scrapped album, Very Loud Array, and outtakes, demos and other knickknacks. The collection, as WFMU DJ Tom Scharpling writes in his portion of the copious liner notes, "will hopefully prove that I wasn’t a lunatic for blathering on about how some Boston group with no records in print was actually one of the best bands ever." Thankfully neither Supercluster nor I endorses such a grandiose proposition. Instead the collection cleverly reminds us why modesty in music can make all the difference.
Big Dipper’s principle charm was in the familiarity of these four guys. Sure, they wrote songs about mythical creatures and UFOs, and had the northeastern decency to ask a former president, "What’s the skinny?" When they got serious, they still weren’t serious and instead took stabs at the younger bums who would "likely outlive us" while cribbing Cat Stevens. And, as mentioned above, they wrote tons of songs about girls. Aside from the idiosyncratic take behind some of the above subjects, the music was hardly revolutionary.
However, the group had undeniably relatable charm. Each song conjured vivid and specific images that could place any listener in the band’s shoes. "Man o’ War" starts out charging out the door, marching down the quiet, early-morning street with a coffee in hand before slowly stripping the boho urban ideal. "Lunar Module" posits the conversation between moon and sun, night and day, woman and … . You get the picture. And "Bells of Love" deserves to be every thirty-something’s post "September Gurls" comedown for its stark reminder, "No Saturdays."
All of these songs were less about poetry and the mechanics of songwriting, but rather about casual conversations over beers. That the majority of the songs were written with input from the entire band — rounded out by guitarist Bill Goffrier, bassist Steve Michener, drummer Jeff Oliphant — is reflected in such a communal tone.
Though many fans point to the band’s 1990 major-label record, Slam, as the critical downturn — an understandable opinion considering the departure of Michener and Oliphant, the subsequent revolving door of bassists and drummers, and the eventual break-up of the group in 1992 — the Very Loud Array material documents both the fate of the dearly departing band, as well as the tremendous strides they made. Though the warmth and camaraderie sounds severely drained, the recordings are ironically stronger. "Wake up the King," "The Beast" and the must-hear anthem "Nowhere to Put My Love" are urgent rockers for kids of any age. The group also turns effortlessly to "Restaurant Cloud" and shows a greater control of dynamics than ever before. For a band that was frequently criticized for being oblique, these fatalist recordings are truly the most unsettling. The title "Beginning of the End" says it all.
Fortunately, this collection places a proper bookend to this often overlooked band. The packaging is generous (three CDs and liners that feature Scharpling’s lucid essay, a band "interview" of every pre-Slam track on this collection, and a reflection piece by Waleik on the Very Loud Array recordings) and the price is extremely modest, especially by the industry’s collectors-edition standards. In other words, Supercluster makes available and accessible something that has always been absolutely essential. Finally: the soundtrack for when we all go out together.
The original line-up of Big Dipper has reunited for a brief tour and will be playing the following shows:
04.24 Hoboken, NJ: Maxwell’s
04.25 Brooklyn, NY: Southpaw
04.26 Cambridge, MA: Middle East