Bug is the third and final pearl in the string of albums released by the original formation of Dinosaur Jr. The music here shows the band moving into ever more orderly realms of composition and structure, even as anecdotal evidence suggests that they were coming apart at their physical seams.
After the release of Bug, Dinosaur changed their name to Dinosaur Jr, due to the protests of a band of San Francisco ballroom-era leftovers. This seemed incredibly stupid at the time, but now it is possible to see as both a remark (by the hippies) that the band was starting to become known, as well as one by the band that they didn’t give a fuck. It was in this time that people truly began to appreciate the power of the songs that had always lurked inside the band’s sonic cataclysm. Live shows of the period were incredible. They harnessed a very special kind of aggression like no one els,e and the emotional turmoil inside the band frequently erupted into something cathartic and Brobdingnagian. J had moved to New York City, and there was a new sense of disconnect within the band. Lou was doing his own recordings for Homestead, Murph was playing more aggressively than ever, and J was kinda doing his own thing. Without any songwriting input from Barlow, the material for Bug was scripted entirely by Mascis, and when it was time to record the stuff, J had very specific ideas about how everyone’s part should be played. If the band prior to this had been operating in at least a faux-democratic way, that pretense was now shucked. It was, it seemed, J’s band. And this knowledge (both within and without the group) loaded some of their live shows with a particularly furious edge.
There might be true havoc on stage, now and then, as J and Lou’s antipathy towards each other increased, but more often this negative gush was channeled into an orgy of magnificent meat music. The trio’s roar – one that had initially seemed impossible to contain or control — began to assume a comprehendible shape in front of an audience that was familiar with the material (from the records) and attuned to its details. Not all their live shows were perfect, but there were lots of great ones, and their first trip to Europe in late ’87, brought them before a group of people who were both delighted and mystified by their utterly American combination of explosions and mopery. The British press fawned over them (in their own tongue-in-ass fashion), but Dinosaur Jr’s true impact was on the audiences, who were absolutely ready for the stylistic shift into post-core non-ironic-rock that the band’s music suggested. Indeed, it is postulated that a whole generation of British “shoegazer” bands sprang up as a reaction to that first visit. Even if this is hyperbole, it is undeniable that Dinosaur Jr were offering a way out of the noise morass for certain group of misfits.
Their songs were complex in a way that seemed both simple and intuitive, their lyrics were sad and reflective without appearing obnoxiously introspective. These were graspable creative tenets, so it made sense that they would be aped. And aped they were. The band’s profile on the American scene was growing exponentially at the same time. This had been something in the making for a while, but their popularity was blown wide open by Bug, and its accompanying single, “Freak Scene” — a classic slab by any known yardstick.
Robert Pollard (of Guided By Voices) remembers, “I bought their first album when it came out and I couldn’t figure out what the fuck it was. I couldn’t tell if they were nerds or goth heads or what. I thought they looked cool, but I couldn’t figure out what time period they were about. That first album was mesmerizing, but it was so strange. The picture with the sun on the cover just confused me. The music was recorded real lo-fi, but they didn’t fit into anything that was going on. When you listened to it, you might think parts of it were from the late ‘60s or early ‘70s. I mean, what was it? Sort of a dark psych metal but with punk roots.
“The band’s whole approach reminded me of something our band was doing a little later, because they were burying strong melodies inside of this total sonic attack. There was almost something sinister underlying everything, but it was beautiful, too. There was always something hidden inside their songs. When I thought my lyrics were corny, we would use tape hiss to cover up the sentiments and fuck things up. It seemed like they were trying to fuck up their music by the craziness of their attack,
“And each of their albums just got better and better. They really are one of the few bands that, to this day, I get out all of their early catalogue and listen to them all in a row, all the way through. I still do that every so often. The amazing thing about their songs is that even though they were all sonically heavy, almost every one of them has the ability to give me a chill. The first songs on their albums were always great. Like ‘Forget the Swan.’ That may be my favorite. But they had so many great ones – ‘Little Fury Things, ‘Budge’ – they’re all great. I even like ‘Poledo’! (laughs) That one actually sounded more like the way we were doing things then. But my favorite album is definitely Bug. They were so solid musically by that time, and every song on it is good.
“It was also around that time that I saw them play in Cincinnati. I saw them with Murph and Lou one weekend at this club that had all the heavy bands right then, like Big Chief and Nirvana. They were really loud, and J was such a great guitar player — one of the best in the world. I just loved that band.”
As they rolled on, there was no lack of people who’d second Pollard’s sentiments. “Freak Scene” became one of the great college rock anthems of ’88. A beautiful blend of confusion, neo-folkie yearning and guitar belligerence, the songs still slays. But there’s so much great stuff on Bug. One of my personal faves is “Don’t,” which is like a perfect post-core version of a track from the Stooges’ Funhouse. Repeat-o sludge riffs up the wazoo, absolutely raunched guitar textures, and bellered vocals (which J, perversely, had Lou sing) that ask a perplexingly simple question, “Why don’t you like me?” What could be better?
Well, one thing that could have been better, one presumed, was morale inside the band. They didn’t last all that long after the completion of Bug and the tours to support it. Dinosaur Jr continued in name for a good while, and they released some great records. But there is something totally organic and beautiful about the first three albums. They represent a creative arc that begins with teenage hardcore sput and ends with the dream of guitar heroism. And its an arc that many followed, but one this trio defined. Once and for all. Over and out. Amen.
–Byron Coley Deerfield ma 2004