Start Choppin’: Dinosaur Jr.’s Where You Been at 30
Looking back on the band’s best album from their Sire years
Dinosaur were a strange beast when first unearthed. They sounded like all the “underground” acts who roamed the land before punk, haphazardly combined and then set aflame: Big Star and the Stooges, the Flamin’ Groovies and Crazy Horse.
As a doleful whiner of a singer – one who could also make his guitar scream in a fluid gamut from enamored to agonized – J Mascis bristled at the Neil Young comparisons. Keeping his plaintive, zero-effort voice lodged up in his nose and throat, it mystified him when people missed the connection to the most famous singer in that style, Mick Jagger. But that miffed correction was about as much as you’d get out of Mascis on a given day. Legendarily laconic, Buddhic to the point of indifference, he was the archetypal rock ‘n’ roll stoner, despite never having done a drug in his life.
Hippie punks were a rare find in 1985, but somehow Mascis dug up two: bedroom weirdo and future lo-fi king Lou Barlow on lumbering bass, and a man called Murph on thunderous drums. The least confusing thing about Dinosaur was their name; that was how you knew they knew they were an anachronism. They had no trouble matching their punk peers for sheer sonic intensity – more often, they exceeded them. (“[J] was very serious about being excrutiatingly loud,” Barlow told Michael Azzerad). But they also loved extended solos, folk textures, hints of Americana (“ear-bleeding country” was how they’d conceived the band, but if they shot for that they landed somewhere far afield), all things that bewildered hardcore hardcore fans. But by 1993’s Where You Been, that strange amalgam had become the zeitgeist: it was alternative rock, fully formed.
They were suburban kids in their 20s riding an unexpected wave of support from scene luminaries (Sonic Youth, SST Records), but Azzerad’s classic Our Band Could Be Your Life extensively documents how quickly they got one another’s nerves. The other two chafed against Mascis’ taciturn ways and apparent apathy, but only Barlow had the ambitions to lure him away. Soon his solo project Sebadoh was in full swing, writing tighter and playing looser than Dinosaur (demoted to Jr after receiving a cease-and-desist letter from Dinosaurs, a mid-‘80s conglomerate of your least favorite members from your favorite hippie bands). The first album following Barlow’s departure, Green Mind, was performed almost entirely by Mascis himself. And while his songs seeped lovelier than ever from the cracks between coruscating guitars, it sounded thin, the burden of the new load apparent.
Enter Mike Johnson, effortlessly cool where Barlow was endlessly neurotic. The match was a happy one. “It’s the first time we’ve felt like a band in six years,” Mascis told 120 Minutes. “It makes [it] better having all the people there contributing something.” The difference between Barlow and Johnson is the difference between You’re Living All Over Me and Where You Been, the two fiercest contenders for the band’s best. The rawness is what makes YLAOM work – the unbelievable scraping force of guitar squall against the eardrum in delicious tension with the songs’ cracked-open vulnerability. But their sound was so cacophonous, it was endemic on the listener to pick out the songs, to suffer through (or thrill to) the distortion they were buried beneath. On Where You Been, you’re supposed to hear the songs – now the still-unbelievable scorch of the guitar is what fights its way out. The rest of it just sounds like a million bucks.
As one of many ‘80s indie acts picked up by major labels, this was likely literal. But as with all Dinosaur Jr. albums, every one of them produced by one Joseph Donald Mascis, the sound was carefully plotted out. Mascis told Azzerad that he played with such force because he’d been a drummer first, and “was trying to get the same feeling out of the guitar as playing drums”. But from album one, he also appreciated the modesty of the acoustic strum. When the fulsome beauty of “What Else Is New” suddenly devolves into a wintery mix of acoustics, strings and tympani, it’s almost like a joke, written out on a card to which the subsequent “On the Way” immediately sets fire. But it’s as sincere as it is lovely: impossibly so. It echoes Mascis’ hero Jagger’s more downbeat songs on Goats Head Soup – save for the fact that it’s so much better.
Mascis’ songs had always been about struggling with communication; listening to those songs over the years eventually gave Barlow the window into his old partner’s mind that would prepare him to enjoy their eventual reunion. On Where You Been, Mascis expands his lyrical palette to match his musical one, the raw emotion more explicit, the sweetness unabashed. “I would not sing to you; it’s not a thing I do”, he ostensibly jokes on the gorgeously morose “Not the Same”, where for the first time he leans fully into his falsetto and finds nicer sounds than his larynx had ever allowed. “And you say it’s not your deal – it’s mine to feel.” There’s a teary-eyed maturity in all these lyrics that feels like an almost intentional counterbalance to the more cryptic, guarded confessionals of before.
Details of Mascis’ personal life are, characteristically, available only in small spurts – though he was just a few years out from meeting Luisa, the Berlin-born love of his life. Most of the songs on Where You Been clearly refer to a deteriorating romantic relationship, but the opener, “Out There”, has been said to refer to Mascis’ father, who was seriously ailing at the time. I favor this theory – speaking as someone who just lost someone close, it’s one of the most heart-rending, clear-eyed songs ever written about death. “I know your name/I know the people out there feel the same/I know you’re gone/I hope you got some friends to come along.” On the second verse it complicates into the confusion of grief (“I feel OK/Sure, I know that’s not what people say”), and the strange regrets and fears that accompany the fonder parts of reminiscing (“Maybe you weren’t on my side all along”).
VIDEO: Dinosaur Jr. “Start Choppin'”
The band’s biggest hit, “Start Choppin”, is the first unambiguously upbeat song in the Dinosaur Jr canon, and the only one that could unironically be called “funky”. Its irresistible opening riff lends the title more than enough meaning before the lyric reveals itself as a resigned breakup song, fatigued acceptance the closest thing to hope the album has to offer. It hit #3 on the Modern Rock Tracks chart, earning the band a level of MTV exposure comparable to success stories they’d catalyzed, like Nirvana and Pavement. They played Lollapalooza, a widely accepted contemporary marker of success Mascis couldn’t have had less interest in. They would go on to record two additional albums (without Murph, Mascis taking over drums), but their limelight moment was long gone.
When I called my dad, who’s about Mascis’ age, to tell him that I was doing a piece on this record, it sent him into a rare fit of nostalgic ebullience. Within minutes, he was playing the album through the phone; I could hear him nodding his head and strangling an air guitar right along with me, which is what the music compels. “It reminds me of that Lemonheads time,” he said fondly, citing the It’s a Shame About Ray band Murph ended up in. The comparison may seem random to alt-rock aficionados, but in fact it’s apt – beautiful, melodic songs mangled by a chorus of overamplified guitars.
“You’re not gonna get me through this, are you?” Mascis sings on one of many Where You Been cuts that feel in the moment like the best thing he ever made. But the noise his band epitomized still gets people through to this day.
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