First, consider this tale: long ago there was a rock band that didn't want to sound like a rock band, but they loved distorted electric guitars. So they experimented and tested the limitations of their guitars and made new sounds, but still ended up sounding pretty much like rock 'n' roll. So then their "children" -- who were not so in love with the distorted electric guitar -- realized you don't need distortion to make dangerous and exciting music. And so these "children" were able to experiment further and further, exploring farther and farther into the deep sound pits and virtual rhythmicons where lie the echoes and mutations of the SOUL.
Okay, now think about this: It's an over-simplification to see evolution in music and art as being directly related to choice of instrument. Truly, innovation comes from new feelings and ideas. Artists give birth to these new feelings and ideas using whatever means are available and necessary, and that's how new music comes to be. Music is not about the instruments; it's about the emotions the artist must vomit up, lest they destroy his or her insides. The instrument is a compass and a medium, of course, but in the end, it’s the feelings and ideas that incite the music; the music is the signifier, and the ideas and feelings are the signified.
Lou Barlow and/or J Mascis (to varying degrees at various times) had "the feeling,” and they tried to adjust their internal knobs (on the carpet, in front of a huge polished wood radio set) to bring that static-y tune into the dens of their minds. Once they had located the feeling and felt they could recreate it, they did so using all available and necessary means. In the early 1980s, the electric guitar was available, and loud distortion was necessary to garner an audience.
Now the question is: Are Dinosaur Jr highly-evolved, post-modern, experimental artists, or do they represent canned hard rock with distorted guitar for the archives? As someone who has listened to a lot of the latter, in the process developing a highly-tuned ear for the subtleties within that milieu, I would argue the former. Either way, Dinosaur Jr are an interesting, unfolding story, beginning with J Mascis and Lou Barlow's dramatic split and respective quest for artistic self-discovery, which for Barlow led to Sebadoh and The Folk Implosion, and for Mascis led to some beautiful hit singles like “Start Choppin,” “Feel the Pain,” and eventually the Hindu devotional "J and Friends Sing And Chant For Amma" in 2005. Lou Barlow saw his departure from Dinosaur Jr as something of a liberation, as expressed in the Sebadoh song "Freed Pig." Simply put, after Mascis and Barlow split-up at the end of the 1980s they each went on to create some of the most original, genre-defining music of the 1990s completely independent of one another. It reminds one of the Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel geneses.
With Dinosaur Jr, we are looking at a stepping stone between one contemporary, relatively-popular musical era and the next -- from liberation to evolution. Don't be distracted by the fact that the Live in the Middle East DVD sounds at times like the kind of grunge rock that fell out of fashion a few years ago. These guys are more evolved than that; the key is they are using the available and necessary means of the time: hard rock with distorted guitar. You see, late-'80s Dinosaur Jr were not mere rock or punk but 'alternative rock' or post-punk (or maybe even new wave on the first album). And J Mascis and Lou Barlow are not mere rockers, but "indie heroes," as dubbed by Rolling Stone.
Besides, back then everyone really liked hard rock with distorted guitar. It mightily and effectively rumbles and pounds, but because distorted guitar is so big and all-consuming, it has a hard time painting those gently nuanced maps to a more evolved future. But you get the feeling their ideas were more original and inventive than the other hard rockers, and they therefore transcended the genres in certain ways. That's precisely why it is still necessary to discuss Dinosaur Jr, whereas I've pretty much said everything I wanted to say about, for instance, Stone Temple Pilots.
Live in the Middle East opens with “Gargoyle” and J Mascis' guitar fantasia, which moves between blues and melodic-minor scales to create a dissonant, wailing, yet somehow satisfying solo, making me think of Mike McCready's similarly fashioned solos on Pearl Jam's Ten. Thankfully, they've retained their dignity and integrity, and I'm not hearing a slick techno beat to make the music more relevant to someone else's vision of urban sophistication. R.E.M. started to do that for a song or two on Up, and it seemed hokey, like they wanted to "believe in life after love," as Cher said. Instead, on Live From the Middle East J-Lou delivers the style that spearheaded the defining grunge of a generation: hard drumming, hard distorted guitar/bass pounding rhythmically while a sensitive long-hair croons and wails, lamenting his own oppression while mercilessly punishing his guitar strings.
Live in the Middle East showcases a return to classics like "Little Fury Things" and "Freak Scene," with bass and drums demonstrating remarkable syncopation. Barlow and Murph (Emmett Patrick Murphy) are fantastically tight. Barlow strums the bass like an acoustic guitar with wide flourishes and strokes played quickly and furiously. Meanwhile, people are moshing to their version of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven”! Oh, it's a fucking romp of a DVD with stacks and stacks of Marshall amplifiers lining the stage, people holding up plastic beer cups and whoooting. It looks like drunk, stoned, happy people who seem to know each other and think progressively and vote democratically. This is one divergent arm of a socio-artistic movement, another arm of which follows kids going to raves and dreaming of blow-pops. But you know, I was at that Dinosaur Jr party 13 years ago, and it was comfortable and there was coffee and the girls were beautiful.
I love how no one can agree on this DVD's title. Pricegrabber.com and Overstock.com both call it Live from the Middle East (like the Mighty, Mighty Bosstones album), J Mascis' website calls it Live at the Middle East, and on the DVD we see the words Live in the Middle East. All are equally funny. Furthermore, Amazon.com tells me that Live in the Middle East was "filmed at New York's legendary Irving Plaza in December 2005," while NME.com claims that the DVD "was filmed at Boston's Middle East club." I sort of hoped it would open with J Mascis and Lou Barlow braving a sandstorm on camels with turbans and sultans and cobras deeeeep in the Arabian desert. It does not. It does, however, feature enlightening and interesting interviews with J Mascis, Lou Barlow, Kim Gordon, Steve Albini, and even Matt Dillon, along with remarkably good live versions of all the hits filmed at Boston's Middle East club and/or New York's legendary Irving Plaza in December 2005 and at other shows along the 2005 tour.
Live in the Middle East becomes officially available May 29. And with the recent release of Beyond (the band's eighth studio album and first to feature the original J Mascis/Lou Barlow/Murph line-up since 1988) and an upcoming world tour, should we expect more of the same-old same-old from Dinosaur Jr? Probably not. Dinosaur Jr were innovative as hell in their day. I'm optimistic.