Boy with the thorn in his side

This past week I watched an adorable little video of a 10 year old interviewing J Mascis. Dino Jr. were the first real rock band (I don’t count U2) I went to see and they were absolutely, totally spectacular. The wee boy in the video says “Sometimes I feel like your songs are hugging me”. I’ve always felt that way too.


In posting it, however, Gawker suggested that Mascis is “one of music’s worst interview subjects” . Thinking back, I was reminded that the first interview I ever did was with J Mascis, back in around 1999 or 2000. And, truth be told, it was not the worst. It was actually a lot of fun. After a bit of digging, I found it. Maybe he was more friendly because I talked to him about the Smiths. Who knows. I had totally forgotten about this conversation – and I’m glad to have been reminded. I’ve left the not-so-well-written intro just as it was.

J Mascis on Morrissey

The post punk era – mostly seen as bereft of political ideas and motivated primarily by a desire to either sell records or make self-indulgent art – is also the era of the Smiths. Providing an interesting antidote to almost all other British music of the time, the Smiths provide an interesting response to the post-punk era. Instead of being overtly political and anti-government, there is, I feel, a tremendously individualized resistance detailed in Morrissey’s lyrics. It is subtle sometimes, other times more overt, but always insisting on positioning himself on the margins – refusing to fit in and blindly accept traditional views, morals, and ideas.

Perhaps that’s why hardcore punk guitar hero J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr is such a big fan. I always thought that J Mascis’s covers of songs originally performed by the Smiths were somewhat out of keeping with his normal punky fare. In addition, I’ve been interested in how people come to the Smiths and Morrissey and why they enjoy the music and lyrics so much. A multi-faceted and constantly evolving individual, Morrissey seems to open himself up to all sorts of fans – each one believing that Morrissey speaks to them individually. As a result, his public positioning as well as his lyrics are constantly interpreted and re-interpreted. I thought it might be an idea to ask J Mascis where he stood.

The release of Dinosaur on Homestead in 1985 nearly coincides with the realease of The Queen is Dead in 1986. I enjoy both of these albums, but they are obviously very different. What kind of music were you listening to back when you started performing? Were you at all interested in the Smiths at that time? What has been your acquaintance with their music?

I first saw Morrissey on The Cutting Edge TV show on MTV. He seemed quite annoying, like he wanted to be punched. I wasn’t inspired to pick up any of [his] at the time. Then, a friend in college went to see the Smiths–he was a heavy anglophile. He said they were great. I nodded in disinterest. I first got interested in their music when “Girlfriend in a Coma” came out. I thought it was really funny and I liked that it was short. I had heard “How Soon is Now” and I really started liking that song. I also liked the other video that popped up at the time – “Stop Me (if you think you’ve heard this one before)”. My interest gradually became more and more til’ I realised the genius of Morrissey. I was listening to the Birthday Party, Wipers, New Order, and Dream Syndicate at the time Dino started up. When I started doing publicity for Where You Been in England I got all their albums on 10″ at the Warner office. I guess they had just bought the Smiths catalogue from Geoff Travis. That’s when I first heard The Queen is Dead.

Writers often list Sonic Youth and Neil Young (sometimes even Led Zeppelin) as influences for Dinosaur jr . Would you say that you have been influenced by the Smiths?

I’m not sure how influenced by the Smiths I have been. I don’t play like Johnny Marr or sing like Morrissey, but I love them.

Having recorded covers like “Just Like Heaven” and “Show Me the Way,” was there any particular reason why you chose to cover “The Boy With the Thorn In His Side”?

I guess I was really getting into the Smiths at the time not realising that everyone already loved them. You know you get into a band and it seems like you discover it and no one else has ever really been into it like you were. I’m playing in England and every American band does a Smiths cover as if the English will be really impressed that you know this cool English band, but they’re just bored. “Oh no not another American saying ‘I’m cool, I dig yer people, I get it, English right?'” I didn’t realize it was boring and uncool til’ later so I still had a genuine enthusiasm while playing it. Americans still love to cover the Smiths – it’s just not as tiresome over here. We weren’t beat over the head with Morrissey in this country. He still seems cool.

What is your favourite Smiths/Morrissey song? If you were to make a mixed tape with Smiths/Morrissey songs, what songs would you put on it?

It’s hard to pick a favorite song – it changes. Maybe “Panic.” I like “Last night I dreamt somebody loved me,” “Ask,” and “Some girls are bigger than others.”

As an American hardcore/punk/grunge/indie pop figure (sorry to categorize), your version of a Smiths song raises questions about the influence of the Smiths in the US, and their influence on other musicians. What do you think the impact of the Smiths/Morrissey has been within the states? Can you think of any unlikely bands/musicians that have been influenced by their music?

People I know seemed to start liking the Smiths after they broke up. They were a little too much for people at first – you had to ease yer way into them. Like, Henry Rollins would talk about wanting to beat up Morrissey and Robert Smith. The English camp takes a little getting used to after being a testosterone filled hardcore kid. Still a lot of my friends think the Smiths are too wimpy, but those who love them really love them. I thought it was funny when Choke from Slapshot really got into the Smiths and Slapshot started covering “How Soon is Now”. He was the “hard” in “hardcore” – they didn’t come much harder. Suddenly it was OK in Boston for hardcore kids to love the wimpy Smiths as well as loving hockey.

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