Dinosaur Jr.’s You’re Living All Over Me from Continuum’s 33 1/3 Series
It’s the easiest thing in the world, beginning a rock record.
All you have to do is give a signal. Pretty much anything will do, but how about this: take a loop out of your riff – from bass or drums or guitar chords – let it play alone a few times, then bring the other instruments in all at once. If I can think of a hundred examples, you can think of a thousand. One instrument calls for many. It’s primeval, or something like that, music as marks-set-go, a kind of greasy fetish that activates the body of the listener. Hair flicks back; hair flicks forward. Those about to rock, rock.
This kind of beginning is so ingrained that even most “alternative” music, elsewhere so iconoclastic, shirks a genuine alternative. Which isn’t to say that it hasn’t led to some cool variants. Sonic Youth’s Goo begins with a mystical sound-cloud from which the instruments gradually emerge; Mudhoney’s Superfuzz Bigmuff, surely a template for Nirvana’s Nevermind, comes running at you with something pointy. And the hammered guitar riff that opens Freak Scene – and Bug – is the most famous set of chords that Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis will ever write.
But some punk and hardcore records do it differently. With as brief a signal as possible, these hit you with everything at once, a stroke of the play button that smashes your head straight on the punk rock. It’s a part, I guess, of the anti-schlock statement, two fingers up to the average listener. Minor Threat’s Out of Step, Dead Kennedys’ Bedtime for Democracy and In God We Trust, Inc., Misfits’ Static Age and Walk Among Us, Black Flag’s Loose Nut, Bad Brains’ Bad Brains, Ramones’ Ramones: downloading song by song and listening to things out of order risks losing the raw power of these iconic beginnings.
And Dinosaur Jr.’s You’re Living All Over Me is one of them. A split-second drumfill – Murph, the drummer, trips over his next step, falls down the stairs – and then straight in, the screw-loosening throb of Lou’s bass rig and the full blaze of J’s guitar, all sliders up, all dials dimed. It is frighteningly direct: in the time it takes you to blink, the band has shown its entire hand, thrown down all its trump cards in one go. And this is even before Lou has started screaming his lungs up, at first something indistinct, but on bringing your ears closer to the speaker:
What is it?
Who is it?
Where is it?
Slackers? It’s an opening that is as intense as it is hard-hitting – a gigantic sanatorium scream for three teenagers. And in this sense, if it leans on punk in its abruptness and abrasiveness, then it is equally magnetic for metal: Slayer’s Reign in Blood begins with a gorgeous pitch-perfect scream, more angel than devil; Death’s charming Scream Bloody Gore starts with a spectacular act of expectoration; Metallica’s Kill ’Em All with a sort of choked yelp that sounds like James Hetfield caught his leg on the coffee table.
* * *
But if a scream means abandon, the loss of control, then that’s not quite right either. Because, if anything, the beginning of YLAOM shows remarkable restraint, with gripping rhythmic playing and searching harmony that, like Lou’s screamed questions, demand closure. And funnily enough, it is J’s wah pedal that, in spite of all the unhinging work it does for the sound, keeps the lid firmly on – it needs to be rocked steady, after all, under his right foot, in strict time to Murph’s beat, heel toe toe, heel toe toe.
So there is a kind of signal here, after all: that the massive momentum of this introduction (because it is an introduction, it turns out) will be undercut – that it will disappear suddenly in a whine of feedback, evaporated by Murph’s hammering on the snare, and will open out, not into metal thrash—
—but into a little song about a rabbit.
Rabbit falls away from me
Guess I’ll crawl
Rabbit always smashes me
Again I’ll crawl
Tried to think what’s over me
It makes me crawl
Then she runs away from me
Faster than I crawl
What is this anyway, Alice in Wonderland? It’s a surprise, the complete opposite of the intro’s scream, a kind of alternative nursery rhyme, perhaps – except, of course, that it isn’t even that sophisticated, not so much rhyming “crawl” as flatly repeating it, and sung over a ringing guitar that closely follows the main tune. The bedroom floor of J’s childhood was according to Michael Azerrad “covered with stuffed animals and records,” and you can well believe it, listening to this. The song is named, too, Little Fury Things, the middle word of which J pronounces “furry” – adding, irritated, and with confusing obscurity, that “bad spelling is no excuse for bad pronunciation.”
And just because it is so simple and childish, it is sad. In fact, sadness, in just this peculiarly nostalgic sense, is the main thing about Little Fury Things, a kind of depressive languor hanging over it that makes it feel far slower than it actually is. On record, the vocal style, too, adds to the melancholy. Lee Ranaldo, the Sonic Youth guitarist, was living in the same New York apartment block as Wharton Tiers’ studio at the time, and he makes it downstairs to the basement to sing back-up here. To be honest, it’s not the most ostentatious cameo you’ll ever hear, since all Lee’s voice does is add a kind of mysterious backing fug to J’s; this is made all the more obvious in the middle section, when, for the first time, we hear the rough grain of J’s voice alone, in the staging of some sort of odd, possibly rabbit-related, sex encounter:
I stopped to call
Tried to feel it all
Stuck my hand in, pulled real hard
Got stretched in miles, not in yards
Then I read
’Bout all those who bleed
All over your lies
Sunlight brings the red cloud in your eyes
So it’s easy. Once we’ve exchanged rabbit for girl, the lyrics outline an old rock ’n’ roll story about sex and lies and blood, now told with neat rhyming couplets and snappy rhythms. In an unexpected glimpse of poetry, sunlight appears, figured by hippie tambourines shimmering off the big collisions of the song’s center, Lou’s whole-arm bass notes hitting hard against J’s chugging chords.
* * *
But how about a different hearing of the lyrics:
Grab, it falls away from me
Guess I’ll crawl
Grab, it always smashes me
Again I’ll crawl
And so on. This seems much better, partly because (in this version at least) what it loses in furriness it gains in proximity to what it sounds like J is actually singing. Also, for a record so wrapped up in its own hangdog depression, it’s the perfect opening line.
Pleased with myself, and basking in that peculiar smugness that results from thinking you have got a song’s lyrics down, I asked J if these were correct. I was disappointed. “Zuh,” he shrugged, or possibly “buh,” a non-committal noise of his own invention that gave its own signal: that I am not exactly the first person to ask this question. For one thing, it has been an internet favorite for some time, marked by all the curious over-the-top exasperation that typifies anonymous online forums. (“It’s ‘grab it,’ you fucking idiot,” and so on).
But long before the internet, when a video was made for this song in 1988, J’s friend Jon Fetler had pondered exactly the same thing. If you ever see it, he is the freaky hick guy licking the knife, in what he refers to as an attempt to interject some “goofy/edgy menace” – a “pivotal performance totally overlooked by the Oscar Academy” that year. In a scene later deleted, perhaps with good reason, he put the head of a live school rabbit into his mouth, an operation that posed obvious logistical difficulties, and made it worth first asking: “Hey J, is it ‘rabbit’ or ‘grab it’?”
“I dunno,” responds J, “rabbit?”
Think about it for a second: Jon put a live rabbit in his mouth, and still J found it funny to keep him guessing about what he is actually singing.
Ultimately, what the episode stresses is something important about the way J prefers to think about his lyrics. “I write [the lyrics] because you have to sing something,” he is quoted as saying once, and he tells me, with similar disdain, that the words to his songs are always a late addition, coming after the song’s chords and even its melody. “I don’t do poetry,” he states bluntly – his wife, walking past, chuckles for some reason – and so outlines an esthetic that became familiar with the shoegazers a few years later, words present but lost within a squall of raging guitar noise.
All the same, I wonder whether to take what he says at face value. In a sense, after all, the complete denial of any involvement with poetry (or spelling) is a poetic position in itself. And anyway, Little Fury Things clearly does have its own poetic pretensions – the sunlight and all that in the middle section for one thing, and then (if you buy the “grab, it” hearing of the lyrics) the unspecified “it,” always just out of reach, links up neatly with Lou’s screams in the introduction. “It was part of J’s vision of the tune,” says Lou, “‘You scream here’.”
But J clearly doesn’t have much time for any of this. In solidarity with nineties shoegazing once again, he prefers to revel in the general indecipherability of his lyrics, shifting focus to the “first R.E.M. album,” where “no-one knows [precisely] what the lyrics are, so they make up their own meaning.” The implication is that he would like this attitude to be transferred to his own songs: if “rabbit” is more meaningful to you than “grab, it…,” then that’s just fine, whatever’s cool with him (to borrow another of his favorite phrases).
So who is it, where is it, what is it? These are not questions that will get much response. Whatever: you can feel free to bounce the lyrics round your own synaptic networks as much as you like, and J will still take pleasure in holding on to a secret – he never has to reveal what these words mean to him, or how they might be inflected by his own experiences, or what “it” is, if anything. He is also free to confound by singing it differently every time, and does so. If it’s laziness, it’s also guardedness. You do the meaning so that J doesn’t have to.
Dinosaur Jr.‘s You’re Living All Over Me by Nick Attfield from Continuum Press
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