ear-bleeding country

Confessions of a Dinosaur Jr. Guy

What it means to be a fan lies somewhere in the fraught dynamic between these three men.

Photo: Gie Knaeps/Getty Images
Photo: Gie Knaeps/Getty Images

All across gentrified Brooklyn rages what I like to call the Battle of the Dad Bands. At day-care drop-off and the playground, at birthday parties and piano recitals, guys with graying hair and sad paunches strut around in T-shirts emblazoned with the hip indie bands of yesteryear. There goes Mr. Yo La Tengo, I think to myself. Oh, check out Mr. Bright Eyes over here. The competition never breaks out into true warfare; the participants merely eye each other warily and every so often tilt a jaw upward and mutter, “Nice shirt, man.” It’s like the male version of Amy Poehler’s character in Mean Girls — “I’m not a regular mom,” she says. “I’m a cool mom” — the point being to signal that, though they are no longer young in years, they have at least retained some of their youthful spirit. While actual young people these days have adopted the giants of the 1990s, wearing vintage Nirvana and Red Hot Chili Peppers gear, “cool” dads prefer more esoteric fare: Mr. Faith No More. A rare sighting of Mr. Jawbreaker. And then there’s me, Mr. Dinosaur Jr.

Dinosaur Jr. are hardly an obscure band, of course. At the height of their fame in the mid-’90s, they were billed as one of the next big things after Nirvana. They came nowhere near that level of megastardom, but they were featured fairly regularly on MTV and were one of the brighter luminaries in the firmament of alternative bands that stretched over that era. After their heyday, the original lineup of J Mascis, Lou Barlow, and Murph reunited in the mid-aughts and began releasing a steady clip of albums that, if not quite as great as their seminal work, were still pretty good and extremely listenable, ensuring an equally steady cycle of age-appropriate tours for Gen X–ers and ancient millennials who may have outgrown the indie-rock scene but still liked to see a show every now and then.

These concerts are also occasions to observe the rich pageantry of a Dinosaur Jr. crowd: plaid-shirt guys, hardcore guys, nerd guys. (Some girls, too!) The band itself is made up of three distinct types: Mascis, the visionary guitarist and front man, cool to the point of coldness, with a glazed stare, owlish frames, and sheets of feathery white hair; Barlow the wallflower, playing bass from behind his own bushy curtain of hair as if trying to hide himself onstage; and Murph the drummer, popular, hard-partying, bald as an egg. What it means to be a Dinosaur Jr. guy — who in many ways is representative of a broader category of male — lies somewhere in the fraught dynamic among these three men. Their relationship is the subject of a new documentary, Freakscene, that had a one-night theatrical release earlier this summer before quietly slipping onto streaming services.

Freakscene, directed by Mascis’s brother-in-law Philipp Reichenheim, is really a love story: Boy meets boy. Boy falls in love with boy, who is too aloof to love him back. Boys form a band. Aloof boy dumps other boy in the cruelest, most devastating manner possible. Boys, now middle-aged men, reunite and tour the world and make a lot of money. The story of Mascis kicking Barlow out of Dinosaur Jr. was once the centerpiece of the group’s mythology as well as the narrative spine of Michael Azerrad’s chapter on Dinosaur Jr. in his famous history of indie rock, Our Band Could Be Your Life. In Freakscene, Reichenheim fills out the before and after of this cataclysmic event, starting with a teenage Mascis in the early 1980s responding to a flyer Barlow had put up at a record store in western Massachusetts seeking a drummer who was into the Circle Jerks, Black Flag, and Minor Threat.

Barlow was instantly smitten. Mascis had already decided to “drop out of society,” as he puts it, and he looked the part, mixing eggs into his dark shoulder-length hair to get a mangy texture. The documentary’s wealth of archival footage shows a skinny young Mascis in oversize aviators, hippie beads, and tight T-shirts, a rejection of both Reagan’s conservatism and glam rock. “From the very beginning, he looked crazy and great,” Barlow says. “His anti-everything attitude — he wore it really well.” Mascis did not hold the same high opinion of his counterpart. “I can see Lou getting beat up in high school a lot,” he told Azerrad (whose account is not as flattering to all involved as the documentary is). But while Barlow was less obviously a rock star, his shy-guy aesthetic would later gain purchase in indie circles: spectacles, normie hair, a gaze so earnest it could make you wince. “Old-man clothes,” Barlow says of his vintage sweaters. “I always liked old-man clothes.”

Before Dinosaur Jr., the two boys were part of a hardcore group called Deep Wound, which had some local success before flaming out. Mascis then switched from drums to guitar, and as high school gave way to college, he started writing the songs that would form their band’s early catalogue. Barlow was in awe. “J’s songwriting sense was just really sophisticated for how old he was,” he says, “and I was just trying to keep up with that.” Defining Mascis’s sound is difficult, a stew of various influences that is much more than its individual ingredients. The songs Mascis likes to cover — Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer,” the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven,” and Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You” — offer an approximation: melodic post-punk with a heavy dose of hard rock and a country twang. You could even say he erects enormous walls of guitar sounds, at the bottom of which dribbles his mumbling, whining voice. Bob Mould, one of several indie icons who appear in Freakscene, says, “We all just thought it was punk rock”; Mascis himself has called it “ear-bleeding country.”

Whatever it is, it is truly unique, and nothing has sounded like it before or since. One reason is that voice, which, by any traditional measure of how notes should sound coming out of a human larynx, is “bad.” (Of course it’s bad. When I was young, we wouldn’t have been caught dead listening to anyone whose voice was “good.” The badness was how you could tell it was real, that it wasn’t manufactured in some studio.) Another reason is that Mascis has dropped some of the sweetest guitar solos known to mankind, a lost art form that has never featured prominently in the indie canon anyway. And these are not the pointless fireworks of corporate metal but rather express a whole range of feeling: savage and tender, joyful and full of longing.

When Mascis asked Barlow if he wanted to start a band, it caught Barlow by surprise. “I thought he hated me,” he says. Murph joined, too, and they became a trio. (“Murph” is derived from his real name, Patrick Murphy, a quintessential adolescent nickname that somehow stuck his entire life.) Their manager and friend Jon Fetler says Murph was the “most charismatic kid in our high school,” a self-described “hippie punk” who liked to have fun and did not share Barlow’s unhealthy infatuation with Mascis. But he was also drawn into Mascis’s toxic orbit, and they all started hating each other right away.

Mascis is a bizarre figure, totally withdrawn and incapable of emoting. In every interview he gives to Reichenheim he appears to be catatonic, a gnomic guitar guru who can barely string ten words together and seemingly has a gaping hole where his inner life should be. The movie opens with Mascis drawling, “I’m bad at remembering what I felt like in the past. I can’t remember what that is.” He is driving across a snowbound landscape in Amherst, and it’s hard not to see something of a western-Massachusetts winter in Mascis himself: a dead planet, frozen and silent. His taciturnity is evident in his lyrics, which I’m quite sure mean nothing at all. He admits as much, saying, “I’m not like a poet or anything, I don’t sit around writing poems or lyrics. When there’s a specific need for a lyric then I’ll write it.” If Dinosaur Jr.’s early song titles had a proto-grunge vibe — “Tarpit,” “SludgeFeast,” “Severed Lips” — they were eventually replaced by vague nothings — “Take It Back,” “Over It,” “What Was That” — that are virtually interchangeable.

Mascis’s remoteness would have been enough to alienate Barlow and Murph, but he was also an authoritarian, writing nearly all the songs and getting his way on issues large and minuscule. Murph says their practice area had two drum sets, so Mascis could sit right next to him and dictate every tap of the snare. (“The guy’s a fucking Nazi,” Murph told Azerrad.) His guitar was so loud that his bandmates couldn’t even hear themselves play. He was also just plain mean with a special talent for wounding Barlow, who, to be fair, could be annoying in his neediness and awkwardness. Mascis’s main form of torture, which goes unmentioned in the more politically correct movie but is laid out in painful detail in Azerrad’s book, was to suggest that Barlow was gay, a once-ubiquitous barb that speaks worlds about the push-pull of attraction and revulsion that happens anytime boys get too close to one another. (Fetler makes the obvious point about their relationship: “It was almost romantic, I guess — it’s got that overtone.”) The only reason Barlow put up with it is that he was one of the first people to recognize that his tormentor was a rock savant, and so it was his fate to play Salieri to Mascis’s Mozart, worshipping and loathing him at the same time.

All of this emotional dysfunction found fruitful expression in the music. “On a musical level, we always got along,” says Mascis. “When we didn’t talk, we got along.” Their breakthrough album was 1987’s You’re Living All Over Me — a title that I had always assumed was about something profound but turns out to be Mascis griping about Barlow and Murph being in his space. (Similarly, I had always thought the songs of Barlow’s follow-up band, Sebadoh, were about him being dumped by a girl; they were actually about him being dumped by J.) These guys had only two ways of communicating: a wordless interplay that resulted in some of the most fantastic underground music of the late 1980s and petty bickering. “Playing rock music, that’s when men or boys communicate with each other, but they don’t,” says Kim Gordon, bringing a welcome non-male perspective to the film. “Dinosaur Jr. was a classic example of communicating but not communicating, being close to each other but not touching.”

How did Dinosaur Jr. manage to reunite after a scorched-earth breakup? “We’ve grown up,” said bassist Lou Barlow in the band’s new documentary Freakscene. “That’s pretty much the whole explanation right there.” Photo: Daniel Knighton/Getty Images

The band naturally fell to pieces. The beginning of the end was their tour van blowing a gasket in Mountain Home, Idaho, forcing them to hole up in a shabby hotel room for a week while they waited for spare parts. They spent their time eviscerating each other, with Mascis going after Barlow with more gusto than usual. “I kind of ripped his whole life apart,” he says. Barlow responded in all manner of weird ways, not speaking to anyone, being passive aggressive, writing his own songs for what would become Sebadoh. At one show he decided to play a single note over and over, much to the irritation of Mascis, and the two came to blows — not with their fists, but with their guitars, like some punk rock version of a jousting tournament. It was fitting; these instruments, after all, were the only ways they knew how to express themselves.

In the movie, Barlow says Mascis was right to kick him out of the band at that point. In Azerrad’s book, which came out well before the reunion, Barlow is still bitter, especially about how his ouster went down. (Murph and Mascis didn’t have the guts to tell him to his face that he was gone. Instead, they said the band was breaking up, when in fact they were planning a tour and had hired his replacement. Barlow found out the truth from a mutual friend and was understandably livid.) Murph was later kicked out, too, and Dinosaur Jr. was essentially the Mascis Show as the band rode the grunge-slash-alternative wave of the 1990s. Azerrad’s account ends with Barlow lamenting that Dinosaur Jr. didn’t beat Nirvana to the punch, but in retrospect can anyone say Nirvana’s path, which ended in such tragedy, was worth emulating?

Dinosaur Jr. lived to fight another day, regrouping just as other stalwarts of their era, like the Pixies, were doing the same. In the film, their newfound comity is attributed to the maturity that comes with age. “We’ve grown up; that’s pretty much the whole explanation right there,” Barlow says, laughing. They went on sold-out tours, playing to people like myself, who had been either too young or too far away to have caught their big bang on the indie scene. They were joined onstage by legends like Mould and Gordon and Henry Rollins and Kevin Shields, bolstering their claim to the pantheon of rock greats. Still, despite all the good and mellow feelings, it is strange to see Gordon and Rollins sing the lyrics to “Don’t,” a sadistic song in which Mascis forced Barlow to scream, over and over, “Why don’t you like me?”

Why are men like this? Why do they do these things to each other? And why can’t they just say what they feel? Listen again to Mascis’s solos, those lyricless universes of pure feeling, and you realize that the appeal of Dinosaur Jr. has always been this eruption of self-expression from a person who is otherwise severely repressed. His vocals are a feint, the superficial blather of everyday life; his true voice is that guitar, and what it conveys, above all, is loneliness, an inability to connect with other people in the normal ways. The first time I saw them live, I was grabbing a drink at the bar just as the set started, separated from my friends who are Dinosaur Jr. guys, too. When the opening chords of “Thumb” came over Mascis’s wall of amplifiers, it was as if time was melting, not because I felt young again but because it still sounded so true.

Confessions of a Dinosaur Jr. Guy