Shaggy Dinosaur Jr. guitar wizard J Mascis is a notoriously flaky and reticent interview subject, so maybe that explains why he’s kept a deeply fascinating life episode to himself for the past couple of decades. But in a recent interview, Mascis mentions offhandedly that Kurt Cobain once extended Mascis an invitation to join Nirvana. Let’s all think about that for a second.
Mascis let this little nugget slip while he was talking to Spin’s David Bevan, who has a big new feature on Dinosaur Jr. According to Mascis, Cobain met Mascis in 1989 and casually mentioned that he should be in the band: “Nirvana was playing Maxwell’s and after the show I was talking to Kurt and Thurston Moore. Kurt said, ‘You should join my band.’ I think he was sick of the guy Jason [Everman] who was in the band at the time, and thought I should play guitar. I didn’t think much about it. Later, there was also talk of playing drums on a single [1990’s ‘Sliver’] they were doing, but it ended up being [Mudhoney drummer] Dan Peters.”
Now, it probably bears mentioning that this Mascis wasn’t about to drop everything and throw in with Nirvana. Dinosaur Jr. were near their peak in 1989, and they were way more popular and important than Nirvana. It’s tough to imagine Mascis walking away from his own star vehicle and helping out this scrappy bunch of kids. That was the year that Mascis kicked Lou Barlow out of Dinosaur, so he might not have been too happy with that band’s direction, and he’s a pretty impulsive dude. So maybe, if he was in the right mood, he would’ve just said what the hell and signed on.
Now: Can you imagine Nevermind-era Nirvana as a four-piece? What would “Smells Like Teen Spirit” have sounded like if it has a triumphant fuzzbomb of a Mascis solo somewhere on it? Or if Mascis had been the one playing that iconic riff? Would their sound have grown too murky and chaotic to break through on a popular level? If Cobain had spent enough time around the mellow and taciturn Mascis, one of his heroes, is it possible that he could’ve felt less suicidal? The brain reels.
This is a total Marvel Comics What If? scenario, and it reminds me a bit of the question of the 2003 NBA draft. The Pistons, picking second, settled on untested Serbian center Darko Milicic, widely regarded as a historic bust even though he’s still in the league and playing OK. In picking Darko, they passed over future stars Carmelo Anthony, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh. A year later, the Pistons won the NBA Championship, relying on defense and scrappy underdog chemistry to overcome the all-star juggernaut Lakers, but Darko barely played that year. If the Pistons had picked one of the obviously better players later in the draft, would they have still won the title? Could they have repeated the next year? Or would the presence of a young star on a tough veteran team fuck the chemistry all up? If Mascis had joined Nirvana, he would’ve gotten the band a ton of attention, added one legend to the lineup, and automatically jumped out as the most talented musician in the band. But would his presence have helped Nevermind or hurt it? After all, it’s not like Nevermind needed a ton of help.
In that same story, Mascis mentions a weird but similarly intriguing possibility. Built To Spill’s Dough Martsch almost recruited Mascis to play drums on his band’s classic 1997 album Perfect From Now On, and he scrapped the idea when he decided he’d be better off getting someone who he could boss around more easily. This is obviously goofy as fuck. Mascis and Martsch have similar guitar styles, and it’s easy to imagine them meshing beautifully on Perfect From Now On, turning an already-great fuzz tapestry into something that hit even dizzier heights. And Martsch wanted him to play drums? Mascis is a fine drummer and all, but, I mean, come on.
Anyway, let’s talk about this. Mascis in Nirvana. Or Mascis in Built To Spill. How would the universe be different now? Go!