Sure, we’re inoculated against awful mainstream rock reunions — the Fleetwood Macs, the Mötley Crües, the Eagles’ sponsorship of Hell Freezing Over. But now, thanks to the success of Frank Black & Company (aka The Pixies Sell Out), the proverbial floodgates of nostalgia have burst forth with rekindled bands you actually liked.
Big Star has a new album on the way. Former Hüsker Dü members Bob Mould and Grant Hart performed two songs together at a Minneapolis benefit last year, and Paul Westerberg tried to reform the Replacements for the same gig. The original dB’s are recording and label-hunting. Gang of Four has emerged just to make its innumerable imitators look ridiculous. And, of course, Dinosaur Jr. is on the road already.
Yes, Mr. Trebek, I’ll take “Good Idea at the Time” for $200.
“I missed all of it,” says drummer Emmett Jefferson “Patrick” Murphy III (call him Murph — everyone else does). “I missed everything. I did a lot of side projects. I went on to do, like, the Lemonheads gig in ’97. But nothing was ever as powerful or had the chemistry that Dinosaur had.”
Optimum word: “had.” The surprisingly fruitful Pixies resurgence aside, gala reunions demand maximum-strength skepticism. Like a high school reunion, there’s a reason you haven’t seen these people in ten, fifteen, even twenty years. While it’s entirely possible that the Homecoming Queen is still hot, recently divorced, and ready to nostalgically swoon when reminded of your awkward charm, doesn’t that honestly sound more like a John Cusack movie than, say, your life? For what once was so full of promise is so very, very likely to end in a cheap hotel wallpapered with disappointment and regret. You don’t have to be Thomas Wolfe to know that you can’t go home again.
And yet the original members of Dinosaur Jr. — Murph, bassist Lou Barlow, and indie rock’s first guitar hero, J Mascis — are home, stirring it up on the rebound back where it all started: Amherst, Massachusetts. The ongoing journey of redemption began when Merge Records reissued the group’s first three albums — Dinosaur (1985), You’re Living All Over Me (’87), and Bug (’88) — earlier this year.
“Seeing Dinosaur Jr. was one of the most life-affirming musical experiences one could have,” says Superchunk frontman and Merge co-owner Mac McCaughan. “Both live and on record, it just seemed like perfect music. When it was suggested that those three albums were ready for reissue and that J had the rights and everything, there wasn’t really a question as to whether Merge would be interested or not. They’re just total classics.”
McCaughan isn’t — and wasn’t — alone. In a spasmodic twist of post-Clapton wit, Spin once proclaimed Mascis as God (on its cover, no less), and more recently listed You’re Living All Over Me as rock’s 31st greatest album of the last twenty years (which, for, you know, God isn’t actually all that great a ranking).
Unfortunately, influential guitar gymnastics are not the band’s only legacy. Enduring tales of group friction and dysfunction — verbal icepicks squarely aimed at the fontanels of fellow bandmembers — are the stuff of indie legend, related with excruciating detail in Michael Azerrad’s moving-toward-seminal book Our Band Could Be Your Life and more bluntly encapsulated by Barlow’s famous quote: “J’s a real prime, stinking red asshole.”
“It’s accurate,” Murph says of Azerrad’s recounting. “Some of it feels a little removed, but otherwise it’s pretty accurate, I guess.” Furthermore, assholes and their personality issues aside, Dinosaur Jr. was and is J Mascis’ band. The perennial longhair wrote, arranged, and sang (in a voice too often compared to Neil Young) the vast majority of the band’s songs, and added the once-unimaginable, now-legendary guitar leads. And indeed, he probably spearheaded the rancor as well. When the band signed with famed indie SST, Mascis ratified a contract insuring that he, and only he, would receive royalty payments. And following Bug, he gave Barlow the boot with Murph as a middleman.
Unfazed, Murph lasted another five years (even enjoying a few fluke radio hits with “Start Choppin'” and “Feel the Pain”), but eventually Mascis killed the whole damn thing to begin anew as J Mascis and the Fog. Lou, meanwhile, birthed Sebadoh, the Folk Implosion, and an endless string of like-minded side projects, pausing periodically to take public shots at his former bandmate (Sebadoh III‘s “The Freed Pig” being the finest anti-Mascis barb in the canon.)
So what patched all this up, and more importantly, why? “It’s that old ‘Time heals old wounds,'” Murph says. “We’re just older now. When we were younger, the negative aspects of people’s personalities were more apparent, whereas now we can see more of the positive. And people have changed. People have more to offer, I guess. It’s just irrelevant. That was more like teen angst, when you’re young and you’re just trying to figure things out.”
Even so, the band’s fractured history has made for some awkward compromises — the setlist for the current tour is limited to those first three Merge-reissued albums “in fairness to Lou,” Murph says. “That would be a little weird, him trying to learn songs outside of that period.” But concentrating on the band’s most bountiful era only works to its benefit. Headlining club shows are selling out. Festival invitations (including the recent Lollapalooza weekend in Chicago) have been extended and accepted, and reviews of both the band’s reissues and live shows have once again thrust Dinosaur Jr. into the spotlight.
So maybe, just maybe, Thomas Wolfe was wrong. Maybe your life really is a John Cusack movie. And maybe Dinosaur Jr., like the Pixies, represents the exception to the reunion rule. But there’s still the nagging question of intention: Is this a money grab, or do Murph and the boys have something left to prove?
“Probably a little of both,” the drummer concludes. “You know, financially it’s good, but it’s more like it just came together and it’s, like, now or never. Like, you’ve got to seize the moment and it’s here. It just happened, and we seized it. And this is where we’re at.”