The two most jaw-droppingly badass moments in my mere dozen years or so of seeing rock shows both involved watching western-Massachusetts-dwelling musicians play live in Washington D.C. The first was a 1997 Sonic Youth show at the 9:30 club during their A Thousand Leaves tour: after a long, very sparse set, they came out and tore through a vicious version of “Death Valley ‘69”. It was such a sudden and gorgeous contrast, I still get the same thrill each time I hear that song.
The second was in October of 2000 at the Black Cat on the first lap of J Mascis and the Fog’s (Mike Watt of Minutemen and Firehose, and George Berz) More Light tour. I’d never seen J do a full-band cover, but during their encore, Mascis croaked “Arright, Mike Watt’s gonna do a song for ya” and they completely thrashed out the Stooges’ “T.V. Eye”. It was physically impossible not to bang my head, and I thought again of how the best of the old SST bands know how to carry on with a kind of wrecked joy.
That same kind of punk energy was repeated during the Fog’s second time through D.C. The bill was “J Mascis and the Fog with special guest Ron Asheton” and I had hopes of Asheton playing guitar with the Fog during the whole set, at the very least filling out some extra rhythm during J’s sometimes-naked-sounding solos, and ideally trading axe-feasts with him. I got more of the second half of the wish. Towards the end of the Fog’s set, Mike Watt called out Ron Asheton and drilled a canyon through the Stooges’ “Loose”, with Watt stabbing his middle finger forward in the brief pause between “I’ll stick it deep inside” and “cuz I’m loose, always”. They closed the set with three more Stooges songs, and still three more for the encore (the grand list was “Loose”, “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, “Real Cool Time”, “1969”, “T.V. Eye” again, “No Fun” and “Not Right”). Asheton spent probably half his time wild-fingering way up high on the neck, with Watt howling, and it was especially nice to see J step back and play almost exclusively chords during what’s probably the most fun and furious surprise I’ve ever seen live.
It’s a shame more people weren’t there to see it. For anyone who deeply cares about the kind of independent music produced by SST bands in the 1980s, to see two giants of that movement—Mike Watt and J Mascis—play with the sort of undersung godfather guitarist that Asheton is, and do seven straight Stooges songs . . . it’s a real treat. I can unabashedly say, without fear of cliche or overstatement, that I saw three legends forego banter, winking and ass-grabbing in favor of physically loud and raw music.
Though some might call the Asheton hook-up a kind of publicity stunt—granted, Dinosaur Jr.‘s albums’ “importance” have steadily declined since Where You Been and the Black Cat was noticeably emptier on the April night than the October—the kind of loose fun that all four of these guys seemed to have was just plain refreshing. They were distinctly tighter than their October show, which is to be expected, and they all even looked healthier, more calmly alert. Mascis slipped in and out of and back into solos, riffs, chords and vocals about as smoothly as I’ve seen him. Calibos, the band I’m in, was lucky enough to open for the Fog in October, and during soundcheck, I watched Berz, Watt and Mascis still trying to nail down how to coherently enter “I’m Not Fine”—but there wasn’t any rust like that in April.
The sense of playing music they enjoy was also evident in their set list. In October, they played I think seven of the 11 songs from More Light; in April they played four. In October, the Fog dragged out five or six Dinsoaur Jr. songs, but only three in April. Also this last time around, they played a three-cover medley in the middle of their set; I couldn’t understand what J was saying, but recognized the middle song as a quick fragment of Pavement’s “Range Life”. This adds up to the April show being about 50% Mascis written, 50% other—a glaring little Sportscenter-like statistic on a man often criticized as self-absorbed.
It’s easy to knock the October Fog for parading several greatest Dinosaur hits and hammering more than half of the new album down the audience’s throat, especially when it isn’t that good. And it’s easy to imagine someone scoffing at the material and line-up as a mere showcasing of indie rock and one of its forefathers—“Hey! It’s the J Mascis show! No, it’s the Mike Watt show! Now it’s the Ron Asheton show! Weren’t the Stooges great! Look! There’s even a Pavement song!”
But the thing is I love the Stooges, have monster respect and fan affection for Watt, and will probably always hold Mascis as my most necessary musical hero (and well, I used to like Pavement). I only had two beers, was not at the time crazy on the new album, had seen Mascis perform seven or eight times, and I was still very much impressed.
This is not to say there were no obstacles: the sound at Mascis shows is often like lightning-white mud; if you don’t know the songs (sometimes even when you do), it’s all a wash. And yes, J solos very often and sometimes for very long stretches, which even I’ll admit can get a little absurd at times. But I happened to be moved during his epic stroll at the end of “Ammaring” or, years ago, in a truly solo solo during “What else is new”. Besides, Coltrane used to run his saxophone for up to 45 minutes, all by himself, while the other musicians took a break. Let’s call it “searcher’s license”.
I also happen to agree with everyone else that the last three albums aren’t Bug, but it’s natural for most artists’ best work to come early on in their careers, and for them to never quite regain that edge and hunger. The only other thing I’ll say, as far as albums are concerned, is I don’t think Mascis, for all his growing reclusiveness, has ever done a bad album; More Light is in my mind his worst, but there’s a lot to like and I daresay learn from on it as well ason Hand It Over and Without a Sound.
As for the show, it’s best to know the songs, bring earplugs and watch four guys enjoy themselves, their music and the music of their heroes. Doubtfully cowering before rocker’s middle age, they pay homage to each other, the medium of music, and guess what else: putting on the kind of live show—fierce, relaxed, and historically aware—that not too many other bands can.