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The misfits
The legacy of three geeks from Northampton

Glance at the back cover of the Merge reissue of Dinosaur Jr., which was first released on punk ’zine editor Gerard Cosloy’s fledgling Homestead label in 1985, and you’ll see a trio of teenagers who’d be out of place in any era. Lou Barlow’s wearing one of those awful patterned sweaters your aunt gives you for Christmas. J Mascis is in goth black and has his hair done up like Nick Cave. Murph at least looks fairly normal. Inside — along with a thoughtful essay by one of the few critics to have seen the first band to feature Mascis (on drums) and Barlow (guitar), the hardcore foursome Deep Wound — are more photos of three alienated teens trying to find their way in a confusing underground filled with Black Flag’s sludgy aggression, Sonic Youth’s avant-noise, the Minutemen’s jazz-funk minimalism, and the Meat Puppets’ twisted bluegrass. You can hear bits of each, along with half a dozen other post-punk influences, in the disc’s 11 tracks. (The reissue includes the bonus live cut "Does It Float.") But 20 years later, the album still delivers the shock of the new. Nobody else sang and played guitar like Mascis, a virtuoso in the making with a shaky whine that would earn well-deserved comparisons with Neil Young, or projected the same I-don’t-care vulnerability it takes to start a song with "Embarrassed to be alive" ("The Leper"). And even on a Minutemen/Meat Puppety throw-away like "Cats in a Bowl," Barlow’s heavily strummed bass, played more like a guitar, defies convention.

Like other artists who formed the ’80s bedrock on which the foundation of the ’90s alternative nation would be built, Dinosaur weren’t breaking the rules so much as inventing them. In 1987, they’d join Black Flag et al. on SST. And all the pieces would fall into place on Bug, a post-hardcore masterpiece that marked the end of Barlow’s tenure, as he went off to make his own mark on the Amerindie underground with Sebadoh. The reissue of all three albums by the original Dino trio has brought the band back together for one long tour that brings them to Avalon on July 15.

Some credit the alt-rock explosion that Nirvana spearheaded in ’91 entirely to Nevermind. Kurt Cobain did have a special gift for channeling the diminished hopes and frustrated dreams of a generation into fractured poetry and barbed guitar chords. But by their own admission, Nirvana were standing on the shoulders of giants — not the trad-rock royalty of Beatles and Stones but an alternative universe of lesser-known groundbreakers. From this perspective, alt-rock was the product of a decade or more of underground ferment in cities and towns, basements and bedrooms, punk dives and art galleries across the country. A decade that included three geeks from Northampton who by 1988 looked like rock stars with their long hair, sunglasses, and leather jackets. You can see that in a video tacked onto the end of Bug. It’s for a song called "Freak Scene" — a "Smells like Teen Spirit" three years ahead of its time.

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Issue Date: July 1 - 7, 2005
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