Facing Extinction: The Long and Winding Road of Dinosaur Jr.

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Article by James Cassara

Along with The Pixies, Dinosaur Jr. may be the two most enduring bands to emerge from the late 1980’s alternative rock scene; other groups might have initially made a larger splash but none have withstood the test of time. At a time when keyboards came to dominance, Dinosaur Jr. is also singlehandedly responsible for bringing the guitar back to the forefront of rock and roll, injecting their songs with immense levels of pure six string joy. Originally more a band in the usual sense-and a hard core punk one at that-Dinosaur Jr. later became a vehicle for J Mascis’ (born Joseph D. Mascis) and his more grunge oriented leanings. In many ways, and much like his counterparts in Pearl Jam and Husker Du, Mascis was a second generation disciple of Neil Young, embracing Young’s ethos even while retaining a degree of his own punk roots. As a result Dinosaur Jr.’s 1990’s albums, while in their own way engaging, are not as ground-breaking as their earlier efforts. That may be one reason that the band, whose popularity soared in the wake of Nirvana’s success, never rose above relative cult status.

Mascis formed Dinosaur Jr. in Amherst, Massachusetts following the 1982 breakup of his hardcore punk band Deep Wound. After joining up with high-school classmate Lou Barlow (bass), Mascis initially played drums alongside a rotating cast of local guitarists. Shortly afterward the pair was joined by drummer Emmett Patrick Murphy, better known as “Murph”, and Mascis switched over to guitar in addition to lead vocal duties. In 1885 the trio released its debut album, Dinosaur, on the Homestead label. The record, coupled with the band’s abrasively loud concerts and ferocious stage presence, soon developed a small but dedicated following. Unfortunately another band, consisting of former members of Jefferson Airplane and Country Joe & the Fish, owned the rights to the name Dinosaur: Under threat of a lawsuit the trio changed their name to Dinosaur Jr.

In 1987 the newly christened band, now signed to the indie label SST, released You’re Living All Over Me. The album became an underground sensation, with more established groups such as Sonic Youth and Black Flag championing Mascis’ wild, feedback-drenched guitar. Early in 1988 they released the seminal single “Freak Scene,” a song that captured the feeling and tone of the emerging American post-punk underground. “Freak Scene” became a college radio hit, and it led the way for their acclaimed 1988 album, Bug. Although the band’s popularity continued to grow, tensions were developing between Mascis and Barlow over who was the group’s leader. In 1989 Mascis told the press that Dinosaur Jr. were breaking up; however the following day he “re-formed” Dinosaur Jr., without Barlow, setting off a lengthy lawsuit and an out of court settlement. For the next couple of years Dinosaur Jr. relied on a rotating array of guest bassists, including the Screaming Trees’ Van Connor. In 1989, the group had an underground hit with its non-LP cover of the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” which helped keep them in the public mind. The following year, they signed with Sire Records, but remained silent as Mascis turned his attention towards producing acts like Buffalo Tom and collaborating with Sonic Youth and Velvet Monkeys. When the band did reemerge, with 1991’s Green Mind– essentially a solo Mascis effort-the critical and commercial response to the “new” Dinosaur Jr. was tepid. Mascis recruited bassist Mike Johnson, formerly of the band Snake Pit, and spent the remainder of the year touring as an opener for Nirvana, whose fortunes now far overshadowed Dinosaur’s.

Alternative rock had become an industry unto itself, but Dinosaur Jr. was slow to capitalize on the movement. Rather than “striking while the iron was hot” they released an EP (Whatever’s Cool With Me) and retreated back into the studio.  After several fits and starts they finally, in early 1993, released the aptly titled Where You Been. Benefitting from the commercial breakthrough of alternative rock it became the first Dinosaur Jr. album to chart while generating the modern rock hit “Start Choppin”.  That summer, the group played on the third Lollapalooza tour but the internal issues that troubled them remained. Murphy unceremoniously left the band to join The Lemonheads, while Mascis quickly recorded Without a Sound.  The album received lukewarm reviews but, thanks to the MTV and modern rock hit “Feel the Pain” was a modest hit. In the fall of 1995, Mascis launched his first solo acoustic tour, which was captured on his first official solo album, Martin & Me, released in the spring of 1996. For the most part Dinosaur Jr. was no more, although Mascis smartly retained ownership of the name.

Yet Mascis kept busy contributing several more pop styled songs to Alison Anders’ 1996 film Grace of My Heart (as well as appearing in it) and released Hand It Over, another largely solo album under the Dinosaur Jr. Imprint. . Released in 1997 it was hailed as Mascis’ best album in years, although it failed to generate a significant hit. By the late ’90s, Mascis decided to formerly dissolve Dinosaur Jr. and formally launch a solo career.  Under the name J. Mascis and the Fog (teaming with former minuteman bassist Mike Watt) 2000’s More Light was seen as an artistic triumph. However, the new group’s ensuing tour was cut short in June of 2001, when its tour bus was involved in a serious accident, resulting in Mascis cracking two vertebrae.  During his lengthy recovery Mascis oversaw the release of a pair of Dinosaur Jr. collections, 2000’s live-in-the-studio BBC Sessions and 2001’s Ear-Bleeding Country: The Best Of.

Having fully recovered by 2005 Mascis oversaw the re-release of the entire Dinosaur Jr. catalog-all with bonus tracks and rarities- and announced that the original band would be reuniting for a short tour. A year later Rhino released J Mascis Live at CBGB’s, a recording of an acoustic gig from 1993, to coincide with the Sire reissues.  The reunited band began a worldwide tour and announced plans to work on material for a new album, which surfaced in 2007 in the form of Beyond. Much to everyone’s surprise (no one more so than Mascis) the reunion stuck, and the original lineup of Dinosaur Jr. eventually released Farm in 2009 and I Bet on Sky in 2012. While the members continued to pursue solo projects, including Mascis’ 2014 Tied To A Star and Barlow’s  Brace The Wave in 2015 Dinosaur Jr. seem here to stay.

Which brings us to the present: With the just released Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not (to be reviewed in next month’s Rapid River) and a full length tour Dinosaur Jr. are lumbering into Asheville, an extraordinary coupe for a midsized city. Kudos to The Orange Peel for bringing in a band whose fortunes have ebbed and flowed but remain an important and vital piece of rock and roll history. For those who never saw the band in the 1980’s heyday this marks a rare opportunity, and one not to be missed. Those that have had the thrill of witnessing the band up close know full well you can never have enough Dinosaur!

If you go: The one and only Dinosaur Jr., with opening band Cloud Nothings, at The Orange Peel on Sunday, September 11. Doors open at 8 for this 9pm non-seated general admission show. Tickets are $20 in advance and $22 day of. 

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