Editor’s Note: This kicks off a new series where the Popdose staff reflects on memorable concerts they’ve witnessed. They’re not reviews, per se, but in places may exhibit review-like symptoms.
Some gigs are doomed from the beginning. This one was a failure waiting to happen. First, it was to take place in Worcester, Mass., a town I love for its working-class mentality and music scene that cherishes rock, blues, and jazz. Caught between the major concert towns of Boston to the east and Northampton to the west, Worcester has hungry music fansâ€”lots of themâ€”and a fistful of colleges to fuel the scene. But it just can’t get the top acts to make Wormtown (as the locals call it) a regular tour stop, yet the ones who do find the townsfolk quite appreciative. Covering the city’s concert beat for several years for a local arts-n-entertainment rag has turned out to be one of the most personally rewarding periods of my music-writing career.
Dinosaur Jr. formed out there in western Mass. in 1984, predating college mates and rivals the Pixies by a couple years. They were local heroes. To the fans, at least. Club connections I knew ripped on band leader J. Mascis for being overbearing, demanding, and pompous, irritating them by showing up to sold-out shows (not his own) with large groups of friends and throwing temper tantrums when they couldn’t get in. My assignment was to interview him for an article previewing his upcoming gig at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI, or “whup-ee” as the enrolled like to call it) and he was a flaming dickass to me, answering most of my questions with one or two words and/or a grunt thrown in. He speaks like he sings, by the way, in a half-moaned, half-spoken cadence that recalls Emo Phillips on downers.
Point is, if you’ve ever tried to write a 750-word profile of someone you just realize is not actually worth the idolatry and gave you roughly 14 words’ worth of something to say…well, let’s just say it was a tough assignment. I give Mascis a mulligan; if he does that to me again, he’s on my black list. Enough other people have called him “cool enough” that I’m willing to believe he was having an off day.
But the great thing about writing club previews is that you-plus-one is always on the guest list. DinoJr continues to make great, loud, raucous pop, with occasional gems like “Feel The Pain,” “Freak Scene,” and “I’m Insane,” a little Mellotron-driven ditty from the band’s then-current album Hand It Over.
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Two other groups were to play that night: Piebald, which I didn’t see and can’t say they showed up. Wharton Tiers Ensemble I vaguely remember, but have no idea what they sounded like. “Rakshak (Twilight of the Computer Age),” a surfy free MP3 from the group’s website, shows them to be pretty kick-ass.
Then came the headline act. I shall pause here to say that Riley Commons at WPI is a dining hall. With low acoustic tile ceilings. Dinosaur Jr. seemed to have brought their full outdoor PA setup, in order to do medical experiments on the 150 or so kids who showed up. The noise was so loud you literally could not make out what was being played, it all ran together in one solid “BLUGHA-BLUGHA-BLURGHHHHHHH!!!!” most of the time. I mean, you could see J. Mascis subtly rocking out and moving his head to what one would assume was the beat but man, you only could hear a wall of “BLURRRRGH.” And an occasional cymbal cut through. It was so loud, it was literally nauseating. Before that night I was unaware I had a clavicle, let alone what it felt like buzzing at its particular resonant frequency.
My “plus one” on the guest list was my buddy Jack, who lived downstairs from me at the time in my apartment building. This guy loves it loud. He gots a Van Halen tattoo on his arm, I kid you not. He couldn’t hear anything, either. The situation was really, really funny to him, it was so loud. He just looked at me and shook his head with a huge grin, like Nigel Tufnel the first time he discovered “eleven” on his amp.
After trying out many corners of the dining hall, four or five songs into the gig, we finally found a place where we could make out what song was being playedâ€”a remote corner in the way back of the room next to the propped-open door where the smokers were taking their breaks.
On the way home, my ears started ringing, which happened from time to time after shows. Except after the Dinosaur Jr. gig, the ringing didn’t stop for several days, leading me to believe I’d done some irreversible damage by not wearing ear protection. In fact, a couple years later I was having an argument with my wife Kate about something I heard her say (which turned out to be mis-heard) and she said “You ought to get your ears checked!” And dammit, to be a pain in her assâ€”and because I was worried she was rightâ€”I ended up going to a audiologist to get a damage report. Good news was, my hearing was typicalâ€”or better thanâ€”the average guy my age, whether or not he had attended that Dinosaur Jr. show.
The music, on the whole, was decent. Worth the drive, I guess. It took a few years before I could listen to the group’s CDs, and then a few more before I could appreciate them again, considering the ordeal.
Your takeaway lesson, dear Popdose reader? Wear earplugs at rock shows. I’ve worn Hearos ever since DinoJr. At first, people mocked me but nowadays, so many more people are wearing them that I don’t stick out in a crowd. Fringe benefit: If the show sucks, you hear less of it.