This isn’t strictly about his music, but he is a musician. In yet another flat spot in my job seeking, I found myself watching this You Tube of J. Mascis talking about his preference for Fender Jazzmaster guitars. J. is the lead singer and guitarist with Dinosaur Junior, an indie rock band from Amherst, Massachusetts in the mid-80s, if you didn’t know. It was actually the first time I think I’d seen him. I had some Dinosaur records back in the early nineties, but I never saw them live for some reason, nor on TV, probably just slaving at the studio, as usual. I mostly read about such bands in Forced Exposure, might have heard them on some radio show. Anyway he’s not like I’d imagined at all, either in appearance or character. From the songs I’d imagined this really hip dude and total babe magnet, kind of an Evan Dando but playing grandstanding guitar breaks in proto grunge. Maybe he was like that once. But J’s nothing like that these days, obviously. He’s this very quiet, modest guy who looks more like a nutty professor, wearing heavy framed glasses, jowly face with five o’clock shadow, his long lank hair now grey. The persona he adopts for his songs is exclusively an audio event and once you see Dinosaur live, completely changes the attitude. The disparity is all and only grows wider.
Dinosaur emerged at the time when slackers roamed the earth, and I’d imagined them posing as total losers and then coming on with these blistering sets. But once J starts to play those lead breaks, there’s nothing slack about the music. Maybe it was the fact that he favoured long hair at a time when hippies were already a fading memory, or that drawling vocal style. There’s nothing of that in his speech. It’s hard to imagine him hanging out with Sonic Youth, but they were influenced by him. He guests on their Ciccone Youth album. Anyway in conversation there is something endearing about his patient, somewhat resigned quality, his stoic dedication to his music. He is a real artist, regardless of what you might think of indie rock. I started thinking about parallels in painting and while that attitude is common enough, the big difference is that painting doesn’t have that youth orientation, that direct exposure or feedback from an audience. It’s supposed to address a wider demographic. That’s why it’s high culture. Dinosaur could build its reputation on little gigs, build a following from its peers and then surf that momentum. This sort of happens in painting, but only if you’re lucky enough to have dealers and curators in your circle at some point.
Time after time I’ve managed the first part, cautiously building tiny circles of supporting artists/colleagues but when none of us ever get further than a few shows on the periphery, that only we attend, it all falls apart as we drift away into other day jobs, remote locations, domestic duties. It’s a tenuous and temporary existence. It’s probably like that for zillions of rock bands as well but of course we almost never see or hear of the acts that fall by the wayside. Years later, the stars look back and pay homage, as Thurston Moore and Henry Rollins do here, but mostly the model is of persistence rewarded, a brand patiently forged through practice. Reflecting upon all of this as I trudged home, it seemed the best thing to take away from the comparison is the intuitive enjoyment of actually making the stuff. J and colleagues never had to think about art history or theory. They didn’t have problems to solve or slots to fill. They weren’t interested in having hit singles. The bottom line was what they enjoyed hearing and playing. They obviously had influences, learned from others, but let it take them somewhere else. If no-one had liked it I don’t think they would have altered it that much. They would have been content with limited opportunities, a smaller circle. In painting I think it’s easy to forget that basic enjoyment in at least some part of the making and that that really has to be foremost. That’s where the message is transmitted, conviction forged. Work at that enough and at some point you own that, in some small way.
If no-one gets it, that doesn’t mean it’s not there.