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Dinosaur Jr., An Oral History by Dinosaur Jr.

Book Club

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bookclub thumb squareEach month, our Aux.Out. Book Club reads and discusses either a canonical piece of music writing or something fresh off the presses. This month, we crammed into the touring van alongside J Mascis, Lou Barlow, and Murph for the brand-new, limited-edition oral history Dinosaur Jr., as told by Dinosaur Jr. As our own Steven Arroyo perfectly puts it, “The band’s dynamic for making music is mirrored by how they tell their own story.” In other words, if you hop in this van with us, be sure to buckle up–especially when Murph is driving. Read on to see the Book Club’s reaction to Dinosaur Jr.

Book Club Members:
— Matt Melis, Senior Editor
— Paula Mejia, Staff Writer
— Steven Arroyo, Staff Writer

Recent Book Club Reviews:
Mo’ Meta Blues by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
31 Songs by Nick Hornby
Signifying Rappers by David Foster Wallace and Mark Costello

For Next Month:
Just Kids by Patti Smith

Three Amigos?

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Matt Melis (MM): This oral history is primarily the story of three very socially awkward guys, who, if not for their shared love of music, really had no business being friends or in each other’s lives. And their chaotic history goes all the way back to high school. That’s a long time to be stuck with two other people you really don’t get along with at all.

Steven Arroyo (SA): Their dynamic is so perfect for an oral history. The fact that there are three of them, not two or four… There is no Dinosaur Jr. without that exact amount of dissonance between their personalities.

I also think about how the band continued for a long time without Lou Barlow and Murph. Given that J Mascis was the unequivocal mastermind behind the music—composing all the parts in his head—and it’s such a guitar-led band, you would think that Lou and Murph would’ve just gone on to be remembered as the originals—that Dinosaur Jr. would become synonymous with Mascis, but it didn’t at all. When they reunited, it had to be those three.

Paula Mejia (PM): Like Steven, I was impressed by how fluid this oral history was, even though their personalities are so corrosive with each other’s. Murph was maybe the stabilizer, but not really. There were some brutally funny moments in this book that were hysterical but also kind of tragic at the same time.

I hadn’t really thought about it before, but every time I think of Dinosaur Jr. I think of J Mascis, Lou Barlow, and Murph, and I wonder why. Why it’s not like, say, Nirvana, who had a wealth of members before it was Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic, and Kurt Cobain. Maybe it’s because Lou kept doing things with Sebadoh, which gained some prominence, and they eventually realized that their weird, strangely beautiful dynamic was what made the whole package work.

MM: And J finally comes around to recognizing that beauty in the end.

It was an uncomfortable read, too. J behaves harshly towards Lou and Murph at times, and yet those two maintain such reverence for his talent and defer to him on all band matters. It’s not uncommon for a band to have a leader whose vision steers things, but you can also see how it would be possible to snap. Why Lou would have to branch out and do Sebadoh because he couldn’t bring his songs to J anymore. Why Murph, who, as Paula mentioned, acted as mediator but was really just internalizing everything, finally lost it in the infamous “You should be anally raped, J” blowup.

But it’s a strange dynamic. They were in awe of J but also intimidated by him. But fast-forward to the present, and that same reverence and awe seems to now be coming from a totally healthy place. And even J admits that he needs Lou and Murph. Maybe he’s a misanthropic type, but he doesn’t want to be out there alone in the woods, as he puts it. Somehow, all the dysfunction sort of works between these three.

PM: I wonder how much of that is just the fact that, as cliché as it sounds, they’ve all gotten older and wiser. Throughout the book, at least in the beginning, I felt that J would get defensive about the things he said – the way he knew exactly what to say to get under Lou or Murph’s skin. And at the end, his admission of needing the other two really hit me by surprise. Like, “Wow, I can’t believe he admitted that.”

I think you’re on point about them being both in awe of and scared of J. When you’re a teenager or in your early twenties, you’re insecure as shit.

MM: It’s no better at 30 by the way.

PM: Great. I thought I had some security to look forward to.

SA: That last “I need those two guys” quote from J was surprising. There’s so much obvious maturing by Lou and Murph over the course of this story, but J, to me, never really changed after age 15. And that one quote at the end was really the only time that he was able to admit that he had learned something about himself and opened up, whereas Lou and Murph are very articulate about how they’ve changed and grown through their hardships. With J, though, you could take so many quotes in the book and not really tell the difference between J now and J as a teenager. That’s just him.

MM: But you’re exactly right. That’s really the only time you see that change in J—verbally anyway. You see plenty of it from Lou and Murph, especially Lou. Lou, who admits he had a drinking problem, often comes across as a guy in a 12-step recovery program who is on that step where you apologize for everything terrible you’ve ever done to others. And you want to see J do that, too, but he’s not going to look at the past like that. But, finally, at the end, you see J toss a different, maybe more significant, brand of reverence in Lou and Murph’s direction. He admits he needs them.

On the Brink of Extinction

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SA: The breakups felt less eventful than I anticipated. There were the blowups, but they often came after the fact. It was strangely human, normal, and really pathetic how they first kicked Lou out of the band. And I guess we’ll never know exactly how it happened, because we get three completely different accounts here. But it seemed like J said, “We’re all gonna break up” and then just called Murph behind Lou’s back and said, “We’re just gonna kick him out.” That’s such a normal thing for young people to do, and that made it even more sad to me.

You always imagine breakups happening with one, big, definitive blowup. But it’s weird. They were often so brutally honest, but none of them could be straightforward about it. And Lou’s blowup had to come days later when he realized what was actually going on.

PM: It felt unsettling that it was so calm and deliberate, and there wasn’t a big blowup. In my mind, I kind of equated it to when your parents give you the silent treatment, and it’s way worse than if they’d just yell at you and get it over with. This just felt a lot more heavy that they’d do it that way. Maybe because I love Sebadoh and have a soft spot for Lou, I felt really bad for him. I know he had his infuriating qualities, but seeing everyone ganging up on him made me feel terrible for him.

MM: The cruelest moment of the book for me was when J called SST Records, and the label’s hold music was a Dinosaur Jr. song that Lou sings on. And J goes back to Lou and says, “I had to listen to your fucking song on hold, had to listen to your fucking voice.” And Lou says that it was at that moment he realized that J was completely disgusted with him, that there was something personal about him that J just hated.

J gets redeemed by the end of the book, but moments like this one—and how he allegedly later withheld money from Murph—make me see him as playing the role of villain in the Dinosaur Jr. story. Something beyond just an over-controlling, untactful frontman.

PM: Not fully a villain. I’m thinking of one of the band’s friends who comments throughout the book, and she mentioned how J would be so mean to her and her sister or just say something infuriating but that you couldn’t be too mad at him.

SA: I never really saw him as a villain. I just think you have to know what you’re getting yourself into when you’re signing up to be in a band with J Mascis. There’s no bullshit. And I think it was Lou who described a J takedown as a line that could “obliterate someone so succinctly.” I can picture him mumble something—just off the top of his head—and burn somebody so hard without even trying. And that’s just him, and he’s upfront about being that way as a person.

MM: You’re right, and there’s one scene that specifically makes me agree with you guys. J was doing a solo show in western Massachusetts for an autism benefit that Lou’s mom organized. Lou was there, along with Charlie Nakajima and Scott Helland, who were both in Deep Wound, J and Lou’s band before Dinosaur Jr. And Lou tells J to climb behind the skins for a one-song Deep Wound reunion, and, as a reader, I found myself nervous. Will J—the aloof musical genius—actually do this or just blow Lou off? And, of course, he takes part. So, here’s this guitar god laying down his axe to play drums, and it’s such a beautiful gesture and a connection back to that time when they were just kids. And it felt like this needed to happen for a Dinosaur Jr. reunion to ever be possible.

SA: Happy times, for sure. I really loved the picture of them playing together. It looked like they were in a high school auditorium, and it ended up being a very historical thing. That was absolutely the spark that led to Dinosaur Jr. getting back together, and that’s been going on for almost 10 years now. It was so simple. And if Lou doesn’t tell J to get back behind that kit for five minutes, the whole reunion may have never happened.

PM: The book does have a happy ending. They had such intense personalities and histories that just didn’t seem reconcilable, so the fact that they found a way to still forge on and create together is pretty amazing to me.

DIY

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SA: I forgot how young they were—already doing huge shows.

MM: The first huge shows were with Sonic Youth, right? 500 people. The guys were still probably college age.

SA: They were like 20 or something, but even before that. It’s crazy to think that they didn’t even have their driver’s licenses yet, and they were already a very, very, very good, you could even say important, band.

PM: I love that one interview (an insert from a fanzine) where they’re so young, but their answers are one-liners and so perfect. Then it’s like, “I’m 16 years old,” but it’s crazy how succinct their responses were and how on top of the music industry they were, even being that young.

But, yeah, I think the DIY ethos they started out with is so emblematic to punk bands now, too. That certainly contributed to their rise. I can’t imagine them getting popular in any other capacity.

MM: There’s always something romantic (and disturbing) about that lifestyle: the shitty van and living conditions, or showing up to a venue, even when you’ve gotten popular, and playing to a crowd of two or nobody at all. Or finding a full crowd that hates your guts. The element of paying dues always appeals to me.

Even going back to Deep Wound’s breakup. They needed a new band, so Murph comes in on drums. J, the drum virtuoso, picks up a guitar, with no training or lessons, and becomes a guitar god seemingly overnight. And Lou, a guitarist, bumps over to bass. It has that small-scene feel, where you’re just pulling from any resource you have to make this makeshift band somehow work.

PM: I don’t think you can ever deny that J is just a musical prodigy in every capacity.

MM: Lou and Murph certainly couldn’t. That reverence bordered on nauseating at times. It was sweet (and genuine), but come on, guys. The guy dicked you over a handful of times, too.

SA: But even all the peripheral characters had at least one quote where they were like, “Yeah, but J is an absolute genius.” Even though they might despise certain parts of his character.

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MM: And not just the band’s non-industry friends either. You have people like Bob Mould and Thurston Moore in here—some of the biggest names of the DIY underground movement—also in awe of J. I love that story where Lou, I think, notices that Thurston Moore is at a Dino show and recording the band, but then he realizes Moore is only recording J’s leads.

So, I guess you’re right, Paula. There’s no denying that he’s a prodigy. But for so much of this book, he’s just not a prodigy I feel I can root for. I guess that’s what I ideally wanted.

PM: I got that same sense. Going back to the villain thing, I was very frustrated at times because sometimes he would say something that was just so awful and aggressive or just mean, but then he’d redeem himself in the next few pages by doing something awesome. And then it would go right back to another infuriating comment.

MM: That’s true. He’s much better at making amends via his actions. We talked about the Deep Wound gesture, where he climbed behind the drum kit, no questions asked. He went to see Sebadoh shows, even after Lou had called him out on the Murph money issue and berated him in public. Even when they were broken up and you thought these three would never speak again, J basically gets Murph a gig with the Lemonheads. So, there are these moments where you see that J cares about them, but it just wasn’t healthy for the three to be around each other then.

PM: This book really reinforces that obvious idea that being in a band is just really hard. You think it’s going to be fun with your friends, and then it seems all the little things—a van breaking down, a scuffle, a lousy show—get in the way. This book dispels with that lore of being in a rock band, which I appreciate.

SA: It also shows that it can be an infinitely harder thing when a band clearly has a very special chemistry, musically. Yeah, there are the types of bands where people get into it for the fun. And then there are bands, like Dinosaur Jr., where three people who hate each other click in a special way when they make music and need each other to reach their full potential.

MM: So, they were essentially bound to this dysfunctional family for the sake of making music, the lone area in which they were incredibly functional together.

The Lore of Dinosaur

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SA: I think “lore” definitely feels like an inappropriate word. After having read this and comparing it to retrospectives of other legendary bands, you just felt for these totally normal, super, super, super flawed dudes, who just happen to be immensely talented and have great chemistry together as musicians. They are Dinosaur Jr.—one of my favorite bands—but lore doesn’t feel right after reading this.

MM: Lore aside then, what did this oral history reveal that you didn’t already know about Dinosaur Jr.?

PM: I really appreciated how much time they spent on their upbringings and pre-Dinosaur Jr. times. I had already heard so much about the breakup, You’re Living All Over Me, and touring with Sonic Youth, but I loved seeing things like the flyers that they would make. My favorite thing in the book, hands down, was the flyer they had calling for a “bassist, guitarist, something.” Under “assets,” it lists “dedication, boredom, motivation, hatred, and ideas,” and that’s so perfect. It’s stuff like that that I don’t think you can get anywhere else. It’s humanizing to see. The whole book was a weird mixture of humanizing them and enhancing what we already know about the band.

SA: Did you guys happen to catch the one show poster where Nirvana is actually opening for them? And in the caption, Courtney Love still credits J’s dad for her relationship with Kurt Cobain.

PM: I just looked at that. That was great. They talk about meeting Courtney Love and are like, “Who is this girl?”

SA: That just blew my mind, and I just pictured J Mascis telling this story in such a nonchalant way and saying, “Oh, yeah. I guess Courtney Love still thinks my dad set her and Kurt Cobain up.” You can imagine him downplaying things like this.

MM: All the tour bills, leaflets, flyers, and pictures really, really were amazing. I was actually surprised they managed to save or locate all of this stuff. They did a lot of documenting for a band that was playing to literally nobody on some nights. It’s almost like they knew they’d be putting this book together one day.

Especially early on, this book had such a yearbook feel to it—but the good parts of a yearbook. There’s that actual yearbook picture of J frowning behind a drum kit after having been named “Most Optimistic,” and Lou has a caption beneath it that comments, “That must have been ironic.” Little moments like these distinguish this book from, say, the Dinosaur Jr. chapter in Michael Azerrad’s wonderful and comprehensive Our Band Could Be Your Life, which covers much of the same ground.

PM: They all seemed to have had a big hand in putting this together, but I’m glad they included Volume II [two early tour diaries kept by band friend Jon Fetler], which comes from the perspective of a friend but also an outsider. It added a perspective that this story needed. When talking about things like breakups, there are always multiple sides and then the truth. And I think this additional side gives things a holistic feel. Fetler uses extremely poetic language to describe often miserable touring situations. While at times he came across as a little irreverent when talking about women, or even the South, I think these diaries were constructive for piecing together the entire narrative.

MM: It was a creative piece of writing. I don’t know that I’d read Fetler’s diaries again, but he does offer some inside peeks and insights. I liked hearing about the band staying with Lou’s super religious aunt and uncle. And he seems to sense that Murph is going to explode long before Murph actually does.

SA: It’s good to hear the perspective that probably splits the difference between J, Lou, and Murph’s versions. Right now, I’m looking at the part where Murph falls asleep at the tour van wheel in the middle of Idaho. Here’s Murph’s quote on it from Jon’s diary: “I was just trying to feel the road, man.” And Jon prefaces it with “After drinking six beers and experimenting with extra-sensory driving techniques…”

MM: That’s a great line. And the kicker is they let Murph do all the driving again on their next tour in Europe.

PM: Jon had a lot of quotable lines. My favorite was when he writes, “Touring is hell. Elvis is still dead.”

Grades

book club approved

SA: I think it definitely served its purpose as oral histories go. Their dynamic for making music was sort of mirrored by their dynamic for telling the Dinosaur Jr. story. So, for that very reason, a solid B+.

PM: Of all the oral histories that I’ve read, I love the way that this one is laid out. With all the footnotes and the flyers, it’s going to be stunning. And the text is rich without being too heavy. I think it’ll be interesting for anyone with a burgeoning interest in DIY ethos, punk, or the history of music in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. I give it an A-.

MM: I’m not a fan of oral histories, but it was a treat to see these three characters thrown together. And, of course, I’m grateful that they’re still around making music and able to put a project like this book together. From me, a very satisfied B.

Dinosaur Jr. by Dinosaur Jr. is available for purchase here.

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