[Editor's note: Thirty-Three and a Third (33 1/3) is a series of books written about music albums featuring one author per album. Published by Continuum Books, the series title refers to the speed (33 1/3 revolutions per minute) of an LP album.]
The problem with writing this 33 1/3 Dinosaur Jr. book was neatly summed up by a show of theirs that I went to the other night. It was at London's Alexandra Palace; actually the Flaming Lips were headlining, and Wayne Coyne came out front before their set and did a 10-minute preamble thing, humorously drawing the crowd's attention to various nuances of the health-and-safety code and regularly punctuated by a shrill "Motherfuckers!" (meant affectionately). Dinosaur, by contrast, shuffled on, tore full-blast through their set, and shuffled off again, all within about 35 minutes. J Mascis made a kind of "whoo" noise into his mike before they began, and Lou Barlow said "this is the last song" before they played the last song. But that was about as far as it got in terms of patter.
Expending 3,0000 words on people who, whether in concert, in interview, or on record, often choose to say not very much about very little, didn't promise to be a straightforward task. More concerning still, writing about music is always a slippery business, and, anyway, the particular record in focus, the band's second — You're Living All Over Me (1987) — grew out of a dingy corner of '80s American alternative that thrived on its impression of DIY immediacy, on being just what it was and nothing more, on the take-it-or-leave-it stance: In other words, on a cultural as well as an individual footing, it seemed as resistant to reflection and criticism and 30,000 words as the hardcore punk that it grew out of.
But, actually, this stance turned out to be an absorbing subject in itself; and what's more, it soon turned out to be a cover hiding things far more engaging. With not much coaxing at all, the three band members and their friends revealed a wealth of information that revised or fascinatingly nuanced the stuff they've said in the past about this record, its people, and its scene. With a little bit more coaxing, the band even agreed to write forewords for the book, and, reading them back, these are poignant texts that set the tone perfectly: For all its abrasiveness, the main affect of this record, I think, is that it is a bit sad, and this is an impression that comes equally out of the band members' recollections of their relations to one another as it does out of the lonely lyrics of the songs, which I ended up examining in some detail. So, unloquacious as Dinosaur are, there are things about them that can be caught quite effectively by writing after all: For one, the concept of a "Hang," a precarious state of friendship attributed to the band by Jon Fetler, an insider since the early days, became something toward which I could aim the book's structure.
And the end product? I didn't want it to be an all-out fan book, completely shy of criticizing the band or record, or a kind of rose-tinted nostalgia vehicle that presents them as the best things that ever happened. That doesn't seem very critically productive to me. Nor did I want it to be a distancing, elevating historical account like a civil war battle or something ("Mascis insulted Barlow; Barlow, outraged, responded with a false bassnote"). Instead, it's something far more incongruous: at base, a band and record history that, as if on first-name terms, swerves sharply into criticism at certain points, and then eventually into interpretation — how I read the songs on this record in terms of music and lyrics, inflected by what the band told me in interview. Serious issues do come up throughout — not least J and Lou's in-fighting and a re-treatment of the band's infamous break-up after their third record — but these, justifiably to my mind, get clothed by goofier stop-start stuff, strings of exaggerated adjectives, and broken paragraphs that lurch suddenly into silence. Which was weird, but, for this particular band and these particular songs, didn't seem like a mismatched outcome at all.
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Nick Attfield is a Lecturer in Music at Worcester College, University of Oxford, UK. He has published journal articles and book chapters on German music and politics over the past hundred years and on late 19th-century French opera; American alternative rock of the '80s and '90s is an equally strong, if somewhat tangential, interest.
Books mentioned in this post