Register Wednesday | October 18 | 2017

The Weirdness Flows Between Us

The Life and Times of Dinosaur Jr.

"It's gonna be a good year for J Mascis," Dave said before firing a bottle rocket from the window of the Demon Dodge (aka my station wagon). It was New Year's Eve 1994 and we were careening around the back roads of rural Ohio, half drunk and fully adolescent. The bottle rocket connected with the back window of our friend Kip's pickup, creating an explosion of orange sparks.

The stereo was playing a Dinosaur Jr mix tape that Dave had made for me, one that he insisted on listening to whenever we were in the Demon Dodge. I permitted this only grudgingly, as any band I introduced to Dave was received with derision. I once tried to play Velvet Underground for him-he said their music was shit and hated them for years. It's the kind of argument that has gone on for as long as we've known each other.

One thing we could always agree on, however, was Dinosaur Jr. The band evolved out of the hardcore punk group Deep Wound, which was formed in the mid-to-early eighties by J Mascis (guitars/vocals) and Lou Barlow (bass/vocals), two kids living out in the wilds of Western Massachusetts. Mascis, the son of a dentist, grew up in the relative opulence of Amherst while Barlow spent his early years in blue-collar Westfield. Mascis appeared mellow and disinterested, Barlow was a roiling sea of neuroses, and a dude from Connecticut named Murph-a bit more freewheeling than the both of them but a solid, capable, and dynamic drummer nonetheless-rounded out the lineup.

Within a few years, Dinosaur Jr changed the rules of the American underground music scene. Their first European tour inspired the emergence of shoegaze bands like My Bloody Valentine and Ride, who produced swells of sound around bittersweet melodies. Essentially, Dinosaur Jr added guitar solos to hardcore punk, creating music that has often been called "ear-bleeding country." At its best, Dinosaur Jr built walls of sound in which it could tuck things away from the listener before finally revealing them with aggressive, sprawling extemporization. Mascis's suburban malaise gave a voice to the kids who-and I'm paraphrasing Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon here-inhabited a world their parents created and one that they could never hope to afford.

The social aspects of the band were not unlike the rough and surprising aspects of the music. In the book Our Band Could Be Your Life, Murph described Mascis as such: "If he saw somebody socially having fun or doing something that he wasn't able to do, he would probably try to put a damper on you and bum you out or say something negative to the other person so they would see you in a more negative light." It's petty stuff, straight out of high school-picture Mean Girls, starring Lou Barlow in Lindsay Lohan's role and J Mascis as the Plastics. Gerard Cosloy, who released their first record on the Homestead Records label, could be Tina Fey.

If the personal turmoil between J Mascis and Lou Barlow speaks to anything, it's to that oft-blurry line between knowing when someone hates you and when they're just giving you a hard time. Their conflict was a classic one: Lou's working-class angst versus Mascis's suburban ambivalence. It's no wonder they had a lot of raw feelings towards each other.

To be honest, I didn't even know there was any such thing as working-class angst until some girl who lived near to where I grew up told me I was full of it. I don't invoke the term lightly, but it exists for a reason. When you're trying to fit in with the kids who have everything they could ever want and it still isn't enough to make them care, at times it can be difficult to suppress your anger.

Friendships, however aggressive, can really bring out the best in two people. You can find everything you need to know about the relationship between Mascis and Barlow in the opening song on Bug, "Freak Scene." "Seen enough to eye you, / But I seen too much try you ... The weirdness flows between us, / Anyone can tell to see us" is the lyrical equivalent of hitting someone over the head with a frying pan.

It's like Dave and me fucking with each other just to provoke a reaction. The limits to our friendship were discovered when I started making out with a girl he had a major crush on and he popped me in the nose. It's unfortunate when you realize that you're no longer certain of your friend's capabilities. But we recovered-just as Barlow and Mascis did. They describe it thusly: "So fucked you can't believe it, / If there's a way I wish we'd see it, / How it could work, just can't conceive it, / What a mess. It's best to leave it" and followed that up with an ear-splitting solo that obscures all thought. Then: "Sometimes I don't thrill you, / Sometimes I think I'll kill you, / Just don't let me fuck up will you, / 'Cause when I need a friend it's still you".

Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices observed that Dinosaur Jr. covered up their sentimentality by "burying strong melodies inside of [a] total sonic attack." You can hear it in Lou's first contribution (a foreshadowing of his Sebadoh efforts), "Poledo," when his plaintive melodies are completely obscured by screeching fuzz. Barlow admits to writing the song in order to meet a girl-which he did, and then married her.

I never found out if J Mascis really did have a good year back in '94. But if the recent Dinosaur Jr reunion tour has proven anything, it's that no matter the mess, we can all recover. The three of them have managed to take a song like "In a Jar," which is presumably about peeling off scabs and keeping them in a jar, and build it around an eruption of guitar noise that is as joyful as it is triumphant. The lyrics are strange and melancholy, but the heart of the song is pure. So when the tension finally breaks into screaming guitar licks supported by the greatest goddamn rhythm section one could ever hope for, I still get a chill. It's like watching a bottle rocket explode against your buddy's windshield-it just shouldn't make you feel as good as it does.

Frank Smith has written about music since sometime in the mid-nineties, when he fired off an angry letter to his local independent weekly. Since then, he's written record reviews and essays for the likes of Newsweek, The Dayton Voice (now defunct), the L Magazine, the Black Table, Tiny Mix Tapes and UGO.com, where he contributed to their Bands on Demand database. Robert Pollard from Guided by Voices once bounced an unopened can of beer off his head.