Dinosaur Jr - or at least their music - and I shared one of those indelible adolescent moments.
I was 16, listening to their tune What Else Is New, off Where You Been? - objectively speaking, a pretty sappy song, from their somewhat artistically suspicious major-label period. To the sound of J Mascis’s cracking voice, I realized, vividly, that I prefer my heroes flawed, and vulnerable, and that a song means more when the person singing it comes off as human, rather than as some unknowable platonic god.
Which, to me, today, seems unforgivably obvious (hey, I was 16…), but I think still represents a huge - maybe the hugest - divide in rock&roll.
At the time my musical taste was more or less dictated by the programming of Lollapalooza (which could’ve been much worse, in retrospect - at least it meant I got to see Pavement, Sonic Youth, Beck, and The Jesuses Lizard & Mary Chain), and most of the bands I loved had frontmen who portrayed themselves as weird, or tortured, but were either not recognizably human, or playing a role to the point that they were closer to being archetypes than people: e.g., Trent Reznor, Perry Farrell, Eddie Vedder, Les Claypool.
People connect with Trent, and Perry, and Eddie, because the emotions in their songs are painted in big, broad strokes, as virtually all of the most successful rock bands have. From Jagger, to Plant, to Bono, to god knows what may lay beyond, the lesson seems to be, if you want to sell a bajillion records and someday own an island, be larger than life. You may display “humanity” in your songs in order to make the audience feel the illusion of connecting with you, but only in ways that don’t risk appearing, y’know, human.
Really, that’s the definition of the Rock Star - a person who you cannot be, living a life you can only imagine. Guys like Farrell & Vedder learned how to subvert that ideal by displaying their wounds front & center, but that’s just a trick - they still elevate themselves onto pedestals, and are no more real than characters in a film…they are “Perry Farrell” and “Eddie Vedder,” rock&roll action figures onstage.
So, that day, 15 years ago, J, and his somewhat suspicious sappy song, opened the door for me into the music I now love - that which values the intimate over the universal, the idiosyncratic over the obvious, and the divisive over the unanimous. J could never be Vedder, and doesn’t even exist in the same universe as Robert Plant - he’s a shy, weird-looking dude, who happens to be monstrously talented, and you believe that the problems he’s singing about in his songs are real. Hell, What Else Is New? is a tune about being blown off by the girl you love, and begging her to reconsider, knowing all the while that she won’t, because she doesn’t respect you. Try to imagine Plant singing that.
After that I carried a soft spot for Dino with me all through life, even as I disappeared down the jamband rabbit hole for 5 or so years and stopped listening to almost all music that involved, like, distorted guitars. I didn’t really discuss it with anyone - no one in my peer group at the time would’ve understood - and even regarded it as a bit of a guilty pleasure myself, but I don’t think more than a few months ever went by without a Dino album finding its way into my CD player…which makes them, now, one the 2 or 3 bands I’ve been listening to the longest.
In the grand tradition of jamband hippies, my appreciation of musical context was at the time was pretty limited - having discovered Dino through the Lollapalooza/120 Minutes alternative-within-the-mainstream axis, I went a long time thinking of them as a second-tier 90’s band, who’d seen their moment of success, but who not many people were likely to love as much as I did.
It was only a few years ago, when they reunited in their original lineup, that I reexamined the understanding of the band that I’d formed a decade or so before. Their early albums being reissued, and the buzz on their reunion -particularly due to Lou Barlow’s being involved - made me stop & realize: these guys aren’t an also-ran 90’s act. They’re one of the most important bands of the 80’s, who somehow survived long enough after they made the major-label jump to reach my 16-year old 1994 ears, and retained enough of their identity in the process to facilitate a significant turning point in my life. Self-effacing though J can appear, that says a lot about what a great goddamn band they are.
As excited as the general rock&roll world was for their reunion, the assumption, at the time, was that they were just the latest in the cash-in victory-lap parade - for J & Lou to bury the hatchet after all these years was amazing, but suspicious, especially considering neither of them had much of a career left at that point (and who knows what the hell Murph was up to). But they made a bold, if perhaps necessary, decision on those first tours that I feel laid the groundwork for their surprisingly successful comeback: they only played material from their first three albums, when Lou had been in the band.
With that, maybe unintentionally, Dinosaur Jr was redefined not as J’s one-man vanity project, as it became towards the end, but as a BAND, with three members, whose story had ended with Lou’s departure (which was exactly how it was portrayed to Lou at the time, in fact). A few of the post-Lou major-label tunes worked their way back into the repertoire eventually - and thank God, as I obviously love a lot of those songs - but, by setting the clock back 15 years before trying to move forward, they set the stage for what would be one of the best second acts in rock history.
Nowadays, with two great new albums under their belt, Dino have pulled off something that is often thought to be impossible: as a reunited band of middle-aged men, they have meaningfully reconnected with the music they made in their early 20’s, and have managed to continue their career in a graceful way, mindful of but not constrained by the long influence they’ve had on rock&roll. Not bad for a couple of dudes who spent a decade shit-talking each other in the press.
And, needless to say, after 3 years back on the road, in what is obviously a healthier & happier environment than they ever were the first time around, they have grown into an absolutely fearsome live band, visibly psyched by their new lease on life and their chance to do things right this time. Most reunited bands of their era have circled the drain for a few tours and then quietly disappeared again (*cough*Pixies*cough*) - Dino are ALIVE, and getting better every time I see them.
And yes, they are still loud as all balls, and that is never gonna change - J is way too deaf to turn back now, and Lou has followed him gleefully into the outer limits of extreme volume, where he’s obviously quite comfortable as well. But, the louder they are, the better they get.
The best show I ever expect to see them play was as the hand-picked openers for My Bloody Valentine’s debut US reunion show at All Tomorrow’s Parties a year or two back. Through MBV’s seismically loud PA, Dino - a band I’ve been listening to for over 15 fucking years - suddenly made sense to me in a whole new way, and then, as suddenly, My Bloody Valentine did as well…Kevin Shields, for all his many innovations and deserved respect, clearly took Dino as the starting point for his music, and, after a display of rock&roll I’ve rarely seen equaled, you were left with the impression that he was as honored to have them open for him as any band in the world would be to do so.
15 years later, a band who writes 4-chord rock songs can still change the way I think about rock&roll. And that’s why, having last seen them less than two months ago, I’m still totally fired up to see them again tonight.
Dinosaur Jr play tonight at the Bowery Ballroom, tomorrow at the Music Hall of Williamsburg and Monday at Brooklyn Bowl. The shows are sold out, but you should find your way into one…the Bowl at least will probably be an easy ticket if you put the effort in. (which you should)