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The Manufactured Transcendence of Dinosaur Jr.’s “You’re Living All Over Me”

December 5, 2012

Transcendent.  There are moments in life that you know have the potential to become transcendent if only a few small details fall into place.  You have a ticket to attend the Presidential Inauguration.  You’re playing for a state championship in front of thousands of fans.  You’re attending a U2 concert. (Just kidding.)  Then there are moments that carry no expectations of becoming transcendent, but do so through sheer randomness, your own good fortune.  That Tuesday night in May when you witnessed a no-hitter in person. [1] That exhibition at the MoMA that you didn’t know was there and absolutely blew your mind.

Until recently, I thought that all transcendent experiences, while varying in degree, ultimately fell into one of those two categories.  However, there is a third category I recently discovered which has the potential (though probably not the likelihood given my semi-laziness) to change my life.[2]  I’m calling this category “manufactured transcendence,” and it is best illustrated by my recent experience with Dinosaur Jr., specifically the 25th anniversary of their second album, You’re Living All Over Me.

By way of background, allow me to share the entirety of what I knew about Dinosaur Jr. before, say, 2 years ago: the song “Feel the Pain”, their cover of the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven”, and the fact that they were a late 80’s or early 90’s alternative rock band from Seattle.[3]  But like I’d done for countless bands over the past few years, I decided to dive right in.  Started with a little research (J Mascis and Lou Barlow – hey, I’ve heard of them!) and a copy of their “best of” compilation CD, Ear-Bleeding Country.  The sound was intriguing if unremarkable – J’s grungy drawl, guitar solo after guitar solo – a pre-Nirvana sound not unlike the Pixies.  I mostly let it go until casually picking up a copy of the band’s breakthrough 3rd album Bug on vinyl some time later.  With Bug I became just a little more hooked, but then came the “big” announcement that put me over the top – Dinosaur Jr. would be celebrating the 25th anniversary of You’re Living All Over Me with a NYC performance in early December 2012 (“complete with special guests!”).  Immediately I purchased my tickets; now it was time to get to work.  Because as I would eventually learn, I was about to dedicate a fair amount of time and effort into manufacturing a transcendent experience from an above-average band that put out a very-good-but-not-great record 25 years ago, and was assembling a who’s who of obscure alternative rock friends to celebrate it.

As far as I’m concerned, this show (and others like it) is the reason that God[4] created the 33-1/3 series.  In his entry into the series, Nick Attfield nails everything that a 33-1/3 book should be, covering all things Dinosaur Jr. in a brisk 50 pages.  We learn about J, Lou, and Murph; their Massachusetts (not Seattle) upbringing and how it shaped their music; the interpersonal relationships that molded, and eventually destroyed, the band; and JUST HOW LOUD they are.  Attfield then spends about 70 pages through a tour of what he hears when listening to You’re Living All Over Me, breaking down nearly every song in a brilliant, non-linear, thought-provoking manner.  The process of listening to the album over and over while simultaneously reading an analysis of every aspect of it – lyrics, instrumentation, tone and feel – this is bliss for a music fan like myself.  This is how I would like to experience every great album I’ve ever enjoyed.  Suddenly, YLAOM had become one of my all-time favorite albums, and Dinosaur Jr. an influential rock band that I couldn’t wait to see live.

Saturday night, December 1, Terminal 5, NYC, the show.  I arrived early but the line outside T5 was already hundreds of people deep.  The show was completely sold out, and passers-by were asking for extra tickets.  Despite the cold, the excitement outside was electric.  Once inside I noticed so much of the crowd already with earplugs implanted, prepared for the blast that would come from J’s beloved Marshall stacks.  This was going to be f**king loud!! [A free live recording of this show in full is now available at NYCTaper]

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Marshall Stacks

I made my way to a good spot about 15 people back from the stage, just off to the left, directly in line to where J would stand virtually motionless all night, as was his way.  I made a friend – male, mid 30’s, flannel shirt[5] – who followed me to this spot.  He wanted to move closer to the stage, but I thought it was impossible and perhaps unnecessary.  Out comes the band, swallowed up by the stacks of speakers, their middle-agedness so apparent yet gone the instant they hit the opening note.  After one song it was off to play YLAOM in full, with the second of many special guests – Lee Ronaldo of Sonic Youth[6] – helping out on vocals for “Little Fury Things.”

Little Fury Things was special, as I expected, but it was the way that I appreciated the next two, lesser known, less catchy songs (“Kracked” and “Sludgefeast”), that I became aware of what a profound impact Attfield’s book was going to have on my complete immersion into the show.  Pardon the pun, but Dinosaur Jr. was now Living All Over Me.  One song later (“The Lung”) I was screaming with J, and once “Raisans” started it was all over.  I told my friend Mr. Flannel to follow me as I plowed forward into the frenzied crowd.  Next came “Tarpit”, then “In A Jar” … at this point I was one of the legions of fans slamming my body back and forth in reckless abandon, playing a mean air guitar while lunging towards the stage.  Another flannel man and I locked into air guitar together, jointly screamed at the stage on cue, after which he grabbed my arm up in triumphant celebration.  We had reached transcendence.

From that moment forward my place in this celebration was clear. It was both earnest and earned, as I never wavered in the genuine bliss of this show from J’s opening drawl through the epic conclusion more than two hours later.  Lou performed a solo version of “Poledo” on ukulele that had thousands of previously screaming hard rock fans awe-struck by its quiet power.  Frank Black threw a painting into the crowd and unleashed a version of “Tame” as good as at any Pixies show.  The parade of guests continued, with the crowd reaching a new level of ecstasy upon the arrival of the legendary Johnny Marr.  The show built in speed, power and sound with each song and guest, culminating in an intense performance by a screaming Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth.  Kim screamed, dropped to her knees, fell to the stage and screamed some more.  And with that, the show was done.  Deep breath … exhale.

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Lou Barlow performing “Poledo”

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Frank Black

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Johnny Marr and J Mascis

Kim Gordon

Kim Gordon

A show that needed no encore got one anyway, and it was equal in quality and tone to the preceding two hours.  A Stooges cover, Tommy Stinson of the Replacements on bass, Fred Armisen (really?) on drums, and finally “Freak Scene” to take us out.  J was about to close the show with the final verse, which by now I knew and loved:

Sometimes I don’t thrill you
Sometimes I think I’ll kill you
Just don’t let me f**k up will you …

but as he sang the final line, “’cause when I need a friend …” he let the crowd finish “it’s still you.”  Three little words, over a thousand people singing and completing a single thought, everyone in the room perfectly in sync in the moment.  A moment where an unlikely tribute to a good record from an above average band became a night for the ages.  A moment of manufactured transcendence.


[1] This happened to me on May 14, 1996.  On a random Tuesday night a friend invited me to the see the Yankees vs. the Seattle Mariners courtesy of some free tickets he received.  Doc Gooden walked 7 batters but also threw the first (but not only) no-hitter that I’ve ever seen in person.

[2] That would make this discovery in and of itself a transcendent moment, which, honestly, is a little too meta for my tastes.

[3] That fact? Not true.

[4] Actually, the good people at Bloomsbury Publishing.

[5] If you were there and you think I just described you, well, I probably did. I just described approximately 90% of the audience.  Including myself.

[6] Think that’s obscure? The first special guest was Suzanne Thorpe of Mercury Rev guesting on flute.  If you’ve heard of her there’s a good chance you were also in Mercury Rev.

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