By 1984, the basements of America still swelled with angst and teemed with dizzying congregations of sweaty, shirtless teenage boys, bobbing and thrashing to anarchic sheets of white noise and speed. Hardcore punk had slowly homogenized into a monotonous formula, employing similar conformity it so maliciously denounced. Out of this desperation, a Massachusetts trio by the name of Dinosaur Jr formed; J Mascis, Lou Barlow and Murph.
Guest blogger Sam Miller recently interviewed J Mascis and discussed the band’s breakthrough album and early success.
While maintaining hardcore’s ferocious edge, colossal pop hooks provided a much needed melodic ingredient. “Ear bleeding country, that was the concept for the band,” J Mascis explained, “It didn’t quite adhere to that, but it was a starting point.”
Dinosaur’s self-titled debut album failed to make much of an impact. An indecipherable blend of tripped out acid folk, shimmering psychedelia and sugar coated speed metal, punk rockers found themselves scratching their heads in utter bewilderment. “We were playing and trying to figure out our sound,” Mascis recalls, “We’d get gigs and always get banned because we were too loud. Pissed off a lot of bartenders.”
Things changed with You’re Living All Over Me. A radical departure from their debut, the band’s sound evolved into a contained fury of blaring guitar fuzz and luscious melodies. “We wrote a bunch of songs, and they all sounded different. It was the first time we felt we were onto something.” It was clear Dinosaur Jr had touched upon an eccentric and beautiful musical formula.
You’re Living All Over Me is thoroughly remarkable, from the opening notes of “Little Fury Things.” Murph’s drums scatter, followed by an explosive sonic assault, a burst of electric ecstasy. J’s wah-wah deliriously shrieks, while Lou roars a cryptic inquiry. “Who is it, Where is it, What is it?” A source of considerable puzzlement, I ask J what this could possibly be referring to. “I don’t remember,” he replies, much to my disappointment. As the intensity dies down, more un-orthodox lyrical territory is crossed. . . Rabbits.
The sheer versatility of You’re Living All Over Me accounts for a large portion of its greatness. Nowhere is this more prevalent than the majestic “Sludgefeast,” which alternates between fluid thrash pop and avant-drone freak-outs.” J’s words of yearning and desire sound strangled and tortured, pushing the dismal chaos to an almost disturbing level:
“I’m waiting, please come back,
Got the guts now, to meet your eye
Those guts are killing, but I can’t stop now
Got to connect with you girl, before I forget how.”
“The Lung” closes side one, a winding, tense, (almost) instrumental, perhaps the closest the band has come to representing the extended soundscapes of their live shows. The tempo dives and plunges, alternating speeds without warning. It consists of one ever-repeated lyric:
“Nowhere to collapse the lung
Breathes a doubt in everyone.”
The songwriting that appears on side two deals almost exclusively with painful themes- lost love, unfulfilled expectations, and a vast array of scathing disappointments. “Raisans” tells the somewhat tragic story of an un-fruitful attempt to draw attention from a girl, set to a Ramones-esque backdrop: “The lights exploded, she stood burning in front of me, she ripped my heart out and gave it to me.” At the bridge, the guitar drops out, leaving the bass and drums still clanking away. A phantasmal voice appears, crying out in anguish. “You’re Killing Me! You’re Killing Me!” he shouts. The effect is simply terrifying. (It turns out, the voice was from a recording Lou made while volunteering at senior citizens facility, as nurses hoisted the man into the bathtub.)
“Tarpit” sounds a lot like the sequel to “Sludgefeast,” a dragging, heavy tempo blanketed with sprawling heaps of guitar gunk, as J whines about bubbling emotion. The mysterious voice reappears, and song is gradually overtaken by a wash of tape effects, distortion, and noise. A couple moments of Metal Machine Music, and it unexpectedly cuts off. In these moments, you remember what silence sounds like.
Lou’s very own moment of glory comes with the album’s closer and centerpiece, “Poledo.” In stark contrast to everything on the record, “Poledo “is made up of tranquil ukulele folk and incendiary sound collages. He quietly strums the four string, letting loose a string of confessional metaphors, delicate, yet foreboding:
“I don’t see
I don’t feel
Like every little moron
I think nothing is real.”
The man’s soul is exposed, and no effort is made to conceal his inner torture. “The basic motivation for that song,” Lou explains, “was like this is my ‘please come and get me’ to a girl.’” (He would eventually find this girl, a college disc jockey named Kathleen Bilus who believed “Poledo” to be the answer to her dreams. They are married to this day.) Like “Tarpit,” the song morphs into complete weirdness, this time swallowed by a demented sound collage. Jesus, Jesus Christ, a voice continuously drawls. Out of fear, Lou was reluctant to reveal the bizarre home recorded song. “He never showed it to me,” J recalls, “he just said, “I want to put this on the record.” The song and album end with an endless, droning note.
Something funny happened to Dinosaur Jr when You’re Living All Over Me hit the racks in December of 1987 - success. After years of grueling touring, practice, and incessant lambasting from punk community, the band’s brilliance was finally acknowledged. “It was when everything came together,” J recalls, “we got on SST, that was our goal, and we finally got some sort of sound we were looking for”
The triumph was not to be enjoyed though, as mountainous tension threatened to tear the band apart. J’s dominance and control increased, only feeding into Lou’s immense insecurity. “Well, you know theres always two sides to every story,” J sighs, “He didn’t really want to be in the band anymore, but he didn’t want to be the one to quit. He wouldn’t contribute anything.”
The three were barely speaking to each other, leaving “things bubbling under the surface,” as Sonic Youth’s Lee Renaldo put it. This volatile situation fueled the album, providing an undeniable savage intensity. “It definitely added something,” J admits,“I never thought you had to be best friends with the guys you’re in a band with. We just had a common goal, to make good music.”
You’re Living All Over Me is more than a rock and roll record. It’s a place, a time, but most importantly, a state of mind. “We definitely weren’t happy campers at that point,” J remembers, “you’re just kind of writing songs when you’re depressed. It’s not like if you’re happy you’re going to write a song. You’d probably be doing something else.”
Loneliness dwells in us all, but some entirely live it, everyday fraught with the numbing harrows of isolation and melancholy. For these troubled souls, You’re Living All Over Me struck a deeply personal chord. I, for one can distinctly remember lying on the floor with “Sludgefeast” blaring, sobbing uncontrollably. The record oozes with despair and longing, the cauldron of raging testosterone and musical ferocity. It applies to a special breed, one comprised of losers, loners, outcasts, outsiders, kids who fail gym, nerds, kids who get stuffed in lockers, the depressed, the disaffected, the disenchanted, the restless, the friendless, the shunned, and the forgotten. It’s therapy, and has the power to heal. I explain this to J, rambling about the passion, intensity, and beauty of the seminal masterwork he created.
“I mean yeah, it’s definitely the best one,” he murmurs.
Dinosaur Jr is currently touring behind their latest album, I Bet On Sky (2012). They were also recently announced as part of the 2013 Coachella lineup. For tour dates, discography and more, check them out at: http://www.dinosaurjr.com/home/
Sam Miller is a 16-year old writer living in Connecticut. He is a member of the editorial board of Kid Spirit magazine, a New York City based non-profit. Sam likes music very much.