The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Tome On The Range

Talk Amongst Yourselves: Dinosaur Jr By Dinosaur Jr
Julian Marszalek , February 15th, 2014 03:45

Julian Marszalek dives in to J Mascis and co's new tome of conflicting oral histories, finding the band that famously doesn't care that much for talking in a surprisingly forthcoming mood, and old tensions still very much alive

Preparing the groundwork for what would become Heroes, David Bowie and Brian Eno found themselves thrown into a state of excitement following a phone call from Tony Visconti. The producer informed the pair of his latest purchase – a harmoniser – an effect, he claimed, "…that could alter the fabric of time." I mention this in passing as talking to Dinosaur Jr's head honcho and mainstay J Mascis has pretty much the same effect but not necessarily in such a good way. This writer briefly encountered Mascis backstage at the 2005 Reading Festival. Somewhat blown away by that afternoon's visceral and characteristically pummeling performance, I approached the guitarist to congratulate him on a fine performance. Our eyes met momentarily before his eyes dropped to gaze at his shoes whilst shuffling awkwardly from foot to foot.

After what seemed liked an eternity – and it was probably only a matter of seconds - Mascis nodded his head almost imperceptibly before muttering something that sounded like, "Uh… thanks…" but given the din surrounding us he might well have been telling me to bugger off. He then fixed me with a stare that said far more than anything that came out of his mouth and the message was received and understood: "Please leave me alone."

But, as band confident and Sub Pop VP Megan Jasper points out, this is hardly surprising: "The band didn't really do a whole lot of talking to the audience (or to each other) so all of the communication really happened through the music… J, Murph and Lou all had to pay attention to each other and communicate on some level, even if only through the music." And that, really, is the story of Dinosaur Jr as presented in this lavish, oral history of a band whose music spoke and continues to speak far louder than they ever did.

Housed in a clamshell box and packed with rare and unseen photographs and contributions from former members and associates including Mike Johnson, George Berz, Jens Jurgensen, Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and fellow six-string volume dealer Bob Mould as well as the principle players themselves, Dinosaur Jr by Dinosaur Jr is a book teeming with tension that frequently explodes into cathartic rages. On more than occasion the phrase, "I totally lost it!" appears as festering anxiety and a lack of talking things through descends into screaming matches, threats and unresolved issues.

Yet here are singer-guitarist J Mascis, bassist Lou Barlow and drummer Murph being as talkative and open about their past in a way that hasn't really been hinted at elsewhere. Delving into the band's origins as hardcore punk band Deep Wound and influences such as The Birthday Party, Joy Division, Discharge and British Oi! music, the book reveals their metamorphosis into purveyors of "ear-bleeding country" thanks to an increasingly wider sonic palette that saw the band drawing from ever-growing sources of material. Of course, their gradual rise is a story we've heard thousands of times before – getting ripped off (here by unscrupulous car mechanics as much as by the industry), starvation and a pressure cooker environment on the road exacerbated by a chronic lack of money and a growing dislike of each other – but it's one that's told with the incredulous shaking of heads and rolling of eyes that only comes from experience. If Travis Bickle had been in a rock band and not the Vietnam war, this is what he'd sound like.

There's also humour here; as a relatively straight band – pot is the intoxicant of choice for all with the exception of Mascis – the band recall being hassled by West German authorities as the real culprits got away right under their noses. Recalls Lou Barlow: "We got totally strip searched by the West German cops. The funny thing was that as we were being searched a van with The Gun Club drove by, with Blixa Bargeld in there waving at us. It was like, ‘They're the guys with all the drugs, you assholes!'"

Even so – and possibly due to the passage of time or a refusal to fully confront their past – neither Mascis, Barlow or Murph can quite agree on why and how Barlow was jettisoned from the band. Mascis maintains that Barlow didn't want to contribute to the band anymore while Barlow puts it down to "Mascis couldn't stand the way I talk." Elsewhere, Murph is of the opinion that Mascis folded the band and then re-formed it without telling the bassist. Not so, according to Mascis who reposts acidly by saying, "A lot of what Murph recalls about kicking Lou out seems like a fantasy that he's decided is real over the years." Whatever the precise truth of the matter is, it's these little touches that make for an engaging and often chortlesome read that gives an insight into the dysfunction at the heart of Dinosaur Jr.

The post-split years of Green Mind, Where You Been, Without A Sound and Hand It Over are given less weight but the band's final reunion – and one that also takes in the reformation of proto-punk reprobates The Stooges – makes for something resembling a happy ending. To these ears, the music that Dinosaur Jr have been making since 2005 is every bit as good – if not better in places – than the records their reputation's been forged on and as Mascis admits, this was a task uppermost in their minds: "When Mission Of Burma reunited they were better than when I'd seen them in the past and they gave us inspiration that Dinosaur could be worthwhile getting together."

Of course, music is as much about context as it is chord sequences and lyrics, so while their sheer visceral impact may not be as surprising as once it was, their music in no less thrilling whilst displaying a sophistication that was absent in the 80s. But some things never change and one suspects that the book is probably a method of communicating amongst themselves as much as it is telling their story to a wider world. As Mascis acknowledges, "Things are easier between us, we never really communicated and still don't really, but we don't fight."

You can feel those tensions simmering even now…

Dinosaur Jr by Dinosaur Jr is out now, published by Rocket 88 (dinosaurjrbook.com)

If you love our features, news and reviews, please support what we do with a one-off or regular donation. Year-on-year, our corporate advertising is down by around 90% - a figure that threatens to sink The Quietus. Hit this link to find out more and keep on Black Sky Thinking.