Clubland: Lou Barlow returns to Main Street

  • Lou Barlow Rachel Enneking

Thursday, August 10, 2017

by Ken Maiuri

As one-third of Dinosaur Jr and the frontman of his own band, Sebadoh, Lou Barlow has traveled around the world. But when he was a 16-year-old in Westfield, MA, he sat at home with one question burning in his mind: “How am I going to get to Northampton?”

“It was the ultimate destination,” Barlow said during an interview last week on his Greenfield porch, his kids’ chalk drawings baking nearby on the sunny sidewalk.

Barlow will be back in Northampton for a solo set, sharing the bill with Beige — an unpredictable and highly entertaining ska/dub dance band led by his old friend Steve Westfield — at Pulaski Park on Friday at 5:30 p.m. The show is free and open to the public.

Barlow grew up in Jackson, Michigan. “It was like ‘Roger & Me’ territory. It was literally dying,” he said. “I think it decreased in population by half between 1977 and 1979. I was part of an exodus of families out of Michigan.”

He and his family moved to Westfield in 1979, and a car trip to Northampton left him agog. “We’d come from the midwest so we’d never seen anything quite like it. It made such a huge impression on me. It was like, ‘Wow, this place is amazing.’ ”

Barlow was obsessed with finding new-wave singles and LPs at the time, so Northampton’s import-filled Main St. Records immediately became a place he had to get to — by any way possible.

“It was kind of frustrating because there wasn’t a direct bus from Westfield to Northampton,” he said. “I could get to Springfield easily enough, and [then] you could take a Peter Pan to Northampton, but even that was convoluted.”

The day the Meat Puppets released their first EP, a dedicated 16-year-old Barlow rode his bike all the way from Westfield to Northampton to buy a copy. And another time, with no bike available, he walked all 17 miles to get to the beckoning record store. (Well, almost. “Some weird guy picked me up halfway there,” Barlow said with a laugh.)

“Even until recent times, the way I speak about the Valley, I talk about it like it’s a city. Because I felt like there was so much available to me. I told my wife that. When she finally came here for the first time — she grew up in the Twin Cities — she was like, ‘This is farmland, what are you talking about?’ I think I realized that in a really visceral way when I moved back here from living in Los Angeles for over 17 years. ‘Oh yeah. It’s a little rural out here.’ In a good way.”

Barlow first met Steve Westfield in the early ’80s. “I used to see him and the guys from [local punk band] The Vandals walking around town and I was always like, ‘God, they look like The Clash! They dress like The Clash!’”

Westfield was in a number of groups, but the one that broke through was the wild “fun core” punk band Pajama Slave Dancers.

“They were very interactive; you’d go to a show and be assaulted by the band,” Barlow said.

“I’ve played dozens of shows with [Steve]. When Sebadoh kind of got big, he played shows with us through Europe and the midwest [with his next group, Steve Westfield and the Slow Band], and always totally throwing a wrench into the shows, in a great way, in a really funny way… just really on the edge of bone-shattering chaos, at any moment, and for real.”

Westfield was also involved in a WMUA radio program called Dadavision that inspired a high-school-aged Barlow to write and record his own songs.

“I made music to submit it to this show, basically. I wanted to be a part of that. And Steve was a huge part of it, and Dana [Gentes]…that show was so amazing. It was like a real local Dr. Demento. And they had this Dadavision Top 10 every week, all local — probably stuff they themselves generated, but I had no idea. I was like, ‘What is this?’ ” 

The show was a big influence on Barlow. “That’s where I came up with my own little recording persona and started submitting these really short crazy songs that I did on cassette in my attic in Westfield.”

Freeform radio in the ’70s and early ’80s played a large part in building Barlow’s love of diverse music — and even foreshadowed his future career. Before he started the band Deep Wound with J Mascis and Charlie Nakajima, he heard them hosting Mascis’ radio program “The Brainwash Show” on WMUA, which aired on Sundays right after the polka block.

Barlow said his obsession with radio dates back to his young days in Michigan. “I had a little AM radio and a map of the United States, and I would sit and slowly go through the dial and listen to every station long enough to find out where it was from, and then pinpoint it.”

These days Barlow is too busy with family and career to hear much radio (except for one big exception: Phil D.’s Greenfield station WIZZ AM 1520, his current fascination), or do much else. He’s looking forward to playing and seeing friends and catching up with Westfield at the show on Friday — and he expects some kind of unpredictable chaos to ensue.

“Steve will make me do something, I don’t know what. We’ll do something that will be totally shambolic,” Barlow said in a voice that sounded blissfully helpless, the future out of his hands, ready to ride whatever wave comes his way.