One commonly-accepted aspect of punk rock was a devaluing of musical ability, and the ascendance of the idea that “anyone can do it”. The old rulebook – the one that said you had to know what you were doing before you did it – was deemed obsolete. And this attitude produced a lot of exciting new rock music, and (particularly in postpunk) some novel directions, as heretofore-unknown avenues were opened up and explored via the sheer bloody-mindedness and musical naivete´ of the artists.
This same attitude – a deep-seated suspicion of technical mastery as proxy for “soullessness or pretentiousness”, and a desire to “Kill Yr Idols” – inevitably also produced a lot of amateurish, mediocre, and just plain badly-played rock music. Even so, much of it is still charming or inventive in its way; but there’s a real joy to be had in watching and listening to a musician who has some native ability, and has put in the time and effort to master their craft.
Luckily, even in the punk and postpunk eras and beyond, there were musicians who through innate talent and sheer repetitive practice became the equals of their pre-punk-E.L.E. ancestors. Gigging night after night after night in dive bars across the country can beat the snotty punk out of you, and some bona fide old-style guitar heroes emerged.
But the media and musical landscapes had irrevocably changed; most just don’t pay the same reverence to such masters any more; and so many of these guys continue to play clubs, not arenas. They aren’t household names like their predecessors. Clapton, supposedly, was God; these guys look like they might be fixing your computer for you.
J Mascis came out of the 1980s Massachusetts hardcore scene, and is most famous for his ear-splitting power trio Dinosaur Jr. Even his main band’s name hints at their classic-rock leanings; originally called just “Dinosaur”, they were threatened with legal action by a similarly-named 60’s band; in response, they puckishly added the “Jr.”, and went right on destroying eardrums.
Mascis is an unabashed Neil Young acolyte, employing a similar combo of almost comically-limited vocal ability and knotty, unruly guitar (though he started out as a drummer, and still plays drums in pretty-terrific metal band Witch).
Mascis’ lyrics are simple, bordering on childlike; his rhyme schemes and melodies are often repetitive to the point of distraction; his voice is a cracked, mumbling drawl that sometimes slips into a surprising falsetto.
And when he lights up that fiery and jaggedly-eloquent (and yes, often very, very LOUD) guitar, none of that matters a whit. The perpetually-adolescent confusion and heartbreak of Mascis’ words are immediately dwarfed by an electrifying and expressive voice that speaks via six mangled and vibrating strings, and clearly communicates – in depth and beautiful color – those feelings of frustration and joy that he has little ability to explain in English.
In the fan video up top for “See You”, I love the way that his lead guitar squiggles up & frazzles out at :50 to make way for his vox: like it’s exasperated to be temporarily relegated to the backseat.
But he’s not always noisy; there’s usually an acoustic ditty or two per album, and he’s even recorded a couple albums that were totally acoustic – Martin + Me, a live album named for said acoustic guitar, and 2011’s studio effort Several Shades of Why.
(Fun fact: at 4:07, the keyboardist appears to be riffing on The Beastie Boys’ “So What’cha Want”):
Dinosaur Jr. – Goin’ Home
Playing bass with him below is Mike Watt, a formidable musician in his own right. The Green Mind version of this song has one of my favorite pivots in music, as the song suddenly shifts from hesitant and stutteringly uncertain in its first half, to soaring and exultant in the second. Unfortunately that pivot doesn’t come through quite as clearly in this live performance – it’s still pretty great though, and you can see them playing, which is nice.
J Mascis & The Fog – Blowin’ It / I Live For That Look (Live)
Dinosaur Jr. heavily influenced Doug Martsch of Boise’s Built to Spill, who similarly reaches back to Neil Young and also makes no secret of his love for classic rock. Martsch’s lyrics and rhyme schemes are more varied, and his singing somewhat less of an acquired taste, than Mascis’.
Built to Spill’s winding, off-kilter songs were inspirational to better-known bands like Modest Mouse and Death Cab For Cutie. Built to Spill also employs additional guitarists to whip up the kind of fretboard hurricane Mascis manages on his own (though BtS often use their guitars to construct a massive sonic edifice, while Dino sometimes sounds like they might be attempting to blow one down.*)
The next video depicts a band meeting a fellow “dinosaur” out-of-time, with real empathy and respect. Maybe one of you musician-types can explain what it is that they do in the bridge; it sounds like they go almost to a reggae-like rhythm (or maybe a chantey), slowing the song to half-speed; then it sounds like there should be harpsichords playing, before they go back to the epic guitar soloing:
Built to Spill – Conventional Wisdom
These aren’t loquacious guys – in fact, Mascis is an infamously laconic interview subject – generally preferring to let their guitars do the talking. “You Are” has the barest of lyrics. But at 1:27, fireworks bloom incandescent through night sky, wordlessly completing the song’s title with graceful shimmering arcs:
Built to Spill – You Are
Here’s BtS paying homage to their roots with a live Neil Young cover. I am not often one for noodling, and this song is LONG; but it could be twice as long, and I would not mind. Lovely warm tone on that guitar:
Built To Spill – Cortez the Killer
Both Dinosaur Jr. and Built to Spill are still working and touring bands; Dinosaur put out the well-regarded I Bet On Sky in 2012, their third album (all three are good-to-great) since reuniting the original lineup; and I saw Built to Spill live last year, though they have not released a record since 2009. If they come through your town, I recommend a very affordable night out, watching some masters at work. The fact that you’ll be able to stand close enough to see these excellent musicians as they play is just a bonus.
Make sure you bring earplugs, though. You’re old. You need to protect your hearing.
Feel free to hold forth in comments about: dinosaurs of the literal or metaphorical varieties; guitar heroes, or Guitar Hero; or anything else that strikes your fancy.