It is, Mascis admits, "a weird story": band splinters as it reaches its creative apogee, only to reform and improve decades later. But Dinosaur Jr.'s beginnings were also fairly benign. In 1984, the saturnine, then-stallion-haired, 17-year-old dentist's son answered a flyer he saw posted at Main Street Records in nearby Northampton, Mass.; some likeminded kids in the area were looking to start a punk band. Deep Wound, the resulting hardcore outfit, found Mascis, a thunderous drummer, combining for the first time with Barlow, a shy, sensitive, Midwestern transplant living 30 miles away in working-class Westfield. Despite some regional success, and an appearance on a compilation, Bands That Could Be God, assembled by manager (and future Matador Records co-founder) Gerard Cosloy, the group dissolved within a year. In its wake, a foursome called Mogo formed, though it was quickly abandoned by Mascis, who started Dinosaur on the side without telling guitarist Charlie Nakajima. The resulting lineup boasted a chemistry that's remained explosive nearly three decades later: Barlow on bass, Murph on drums, and Mascis up front on guitar.
Frustrated with his new instrument’s physical limitations, Mascis immediately began experimenting with various effects pedals and combinations of amps, arriving at an idiosyncratic and volcanic sound: punk made peace with the guitar solo, and his plaintiveness became another means to bludgeon. "When he was younger," says Megan Jasper, a close friend and now vice president at Sub Pop Records, "J had some anger, like any punk rock kid. Usually, though, when a young person is angry, they tend to be really loud. And J wasn't. He was only loud when he played music."
And Dinosaur Jr. were notoriously loud. Through three formative records in three years, a road apprenticeship with Sonic Youth, and a place on the label of their decidedly modest dreams, SST, the trio became a titan of the American underground and Mascis an unlikely guitar hero. "He had this style of playing," says Built to Spill frontman Doug Martsch, "like he didn't really know how to play guitar. I know now that that's not true at all, but it didn't seem like any other guitar playing I had ever heard before. It was wilder. It was freer."
"Placing violence in beautiful music is something I learned from their records," says indie-folk luminary Will Oldham. "Dinosaur's music has a concern and a fatalism, but an unyielding energy to it, as well. It's like they're hitting you with one fist and correcting you with the other hand, alternately. That's a good kind of love, I think." After hearing the band's first two albums, Oldham sent Mascis a copy of his personal fanzine in the mail. In return, he received a one page, hand-written letter from Mascis. "It was all of these almost rudely sarcastic compliments," Oldham remembers. "Just taking a piss, which was fine, but why send the letter? You can't help but think that this guy is nice enough to take the time to write this letter. And even though he's trying to be funny and mean, obviously, he has a desire to connect."
Soloing is Mascis’ lifeblood. "That's how I like to express myself," he says. "Everything is just the build-up to the guitar solo." He means this quite literally. Mascis rarely communicated with his bandmates verbally, exerting total, silent control over the songwriting process and the trio's direction. By the time the band had completed 1988's Bug, Barlow and Mascis had stopped speaking to each other entirely, years of passive aggression (and what Mascis calls "mental warfare") spurring an increasingly talkative and reactive Barlow to finally crack.
During a show in December of 1989, he sabotaged a set by milking feedback during a song that didn't call for it, taunting his bandmates all the while. It was Mascis who eventually responded, taking a swing with his guitar, and as Murph started to leave the stage, Barlow jumped up on the drum riser, in triumph, ecstatic for having finally provoked a response. Mascis asked Murphy to break the news that the band was breaking up, but a new bassist had already been hired and an Australian tour already booked. Barlow heard that news by way of MTV.