Dinosaur Jr. have always been a vehicle for J Mascis' grungy guitar style, ragged vocals, and inward-looking lyrics—a combination that owed as much to Neil Young as to the postpunk fury of such early Eighties alternative pioneers as Hüsker Dü. From early on, rock journalists tagged Mascis -- known for his lethargic, reserved demeanor and reclusive lifestyle — as a slacker. But Dinosaur Jr. laid the groundwork for many breakthrough alt-rock acts of the Nineties — from Nirvana on down.
After his hardcore band Deep Wound broke up in 1983, Mascis and bassist Lou Barlow formed Dinosaur Jr. in their hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts, a liberal enclave home to five colleges. At the time, Mascis played drums. When former All White Jury drummer Patrick "Murph" Murphy joined, Mascis moved to guitar. The band recorded one album for the East Coast independent label Homestead in 1985, before signing to the West Coast independent SST in 1987. Meanwhile, the attention the band received for its growing cult status got it into legal hot water with another group that called itself the Dinosaurs. When that group (consisting of former members of such Sixties bands as Jefferson Airplane and Country Joe and the Fish) sued, Mascis and company were forced to change the name; they chose to simply add "Jr."
Bug included the college radio hit "Freak Scene," which hit Number Seven on the U.K. Indie Singles chart. In 1989 the band scored another underground hit, and charted at Number Two on that same U.K. chart, with an unlikely cover of the Cure's "Just Like Heaven." Barlow departed and concentrated on his lo-fidelity band, Sebadoh (who later recorded on Sub Pop). Dinosaur Jr. went through a revolving-door period upon landing its Sire contract, with temporary members including the Screaming Trees' Van Connor and Gumball's Don Fleming; Mascis, meanwhile, also sat in on drums with other bands, including hometown buddies Gobblehoof.
On Dinosaur Jr.'s major label debut, Green Mind (Number 168, 1991), Mascis played nearly everything himself. The album was met with mixed reactions in underground circles, and the band found itself overshadowed on a subsequent tour by opening act Nirvana, then on the verge of a popular explosion. After new bassist Mike Johnson joined, the band put out an EP, Whatever's Cool With Me, and followed up with the full-length Where You Been (Number 50, 1993), which placed at Number 40 in the Village Voice's annual Pazz & Jop poll of U.S. music critics. In 1993 Dinosaur Jr. appeared on the summer's Lollapalooza Tour. Murphy left in 1994, so Mascis was back to playing almost every instrument himself on Without a Sound (Number 44, 1994).
The next year, Mascis began a solo career, releasing Martin + Me. He also contributed two Brian Wilsonesque songs to the 1996 Allison Anders film Grace of My Heart. In 1996 Mascis played drums and bass on Johnson's understated, brooding second solo album, Year of Mondays. That same year Dinosaur Jr. released Hand It Over, which found the band returning to its noisy guitar attack and getting production help from My Bloody Valentine mastermind Kevin Shields. Soon thereafter, the band split up. Mascis' new backing ensemble, the Fog, has included guitarist/bassist Ron Asheton of the Stooges and bassist Mike Watt of the Minutemen.
In 2005, Merge Records reissued Dinosaur Jr.'s first three SST albums, and Mascis formed the stoner-metal band Witch, which would go on to release two albums of their own. But the same year, in April, Mascis, Barlow, and Murphy appeared together on the Late Late Show, and Dinosaur Jr. began a reunion tour. Beyond — the original lineup's first album of new songs in two decades — came out in 2008 on Fat Possum Records, and debuted at Number 69 in Billboard. A year later, Farm followed on the Jagjaguwar label, and charted at Number 29, by far the highest position of Dinosaur Jr.'s nearly quarter-century-old recording career.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Chuck Eddy contributed to this article.
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