TV’s Most Surreal Music Performances – Dinosaur Jr. on ‘Late Night With David Letterman’
Sure, David Letterman was probably better known known back in the ’80s and early-’90s for booking unknown and sonically challenging bands than he is today. And in May 1992, several months into the post-‘Nevermind’ boom brought about by the breakthrough success of Nirvana at the end of the previous year, Dinosaur Jr. certainly were slowly but steadily rising in stature within the rock underground, thanks to (despite?) the major-label deal they inked for their latest album, ‘Green Mind,’ and the No. 22 spot on the Modern Rock Tracks chart that its first single, ‘The Wagon,’ managed to reach.
Still, that didn’t make J Mascis and his band’s first appearance on nationally broadcast late-night talk show any less bizarre. When frontman Mascis, bassist Mike Johnson and drummer Murph rolled into NBC studios for their appearance on the Peacock network’s ‘Late Night With David Letterman’ show — Letterman was still a year away from jumping ship from NBC and taking his leap down the dial to CBS to start the ‘Late Show With David Letterman’ — they took the stage accompanied by Letterman’s notorious band leader Paul Schaffer and his own backing outfit, a collective of pro musicians that stylistically couldn’t have been any more different than Dino and their laid-back slacker brand of rocking out.
Dinosaur Jr. were, of course, the featured musicians, and Mascis was front and center behind the mic, with his trademark trebly yelp identifiable to all who know it above the roar of guitars. But Mascis was also surrounded by Shaffer’s featured players, with Johnston — himself a relatively new addition to the Dino Jr. lineup, following the acrimonious departure of founding four-stringer Lou Barlow before the making of ‘Green Mind’ — switched over to guitar for the show for some reason, and Dinosaur drummer Murph, a skilled beat-keeper with a special penchant for pounding away on a full kit, was somehow relegated to standing behind a pair of simple floor toms while Shaffer’s own drummer had full reign on a house kit.
Several people have claimed that Schaffer sidekick guitarist Sid McGinnis’ own soloing early in ‘The Wagon’ performance to be an inferior attempt to match Mascis’ largely improvised playing, but that’s not a fair assessment at all. In fact, those familiar with ‘The Wagon’ would notice he pulls off a perfect note-for-note recreation of Mascis’ parts from the original, and it adds a level of depth missing from many Dinosaur Jr. live performances over the years; as good as Mascis is, he can’t play rhythm guitar and solo over top at the same time, so the addition of a second axer certainly enhances the overall effect.
Back then, rumor had it that Shaffer had it written into his contract that he could have his house band back any musical guests they wanted to play with, and the only way a visiting group could get out of such an on-air collaboration was to turn down their invitation to appear on the show in the first place. Such seemingly random collaborations that happened over the years were certainly hit and miss, but one wonders how many more acts didn’t even bother to appear because they wanted to play be themselves.
Either way, we’ll still always have this one-of-a-kind gig featuring Dinosaur Jr. and Shaffer’s own backing pros. No matter what you think of it, it’s certainly one for the ages.