Classic Music Review: Tim by The Replacements

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Well, well, well . . .

I’d always felt there was something special about Tim, but I couldn’t quite put it into words until I read Bob Mehr’s biography, Trouble Boys: The True Story of The Replacements. In the chapter that details the creation and production of Tim, I found my long-sought answer:

Westerberg wrote several of the songs “a week before the album was recorded,” giving it a loose improvisational quality, including the LP opener, “Hold My Life.” “Yeah, because that one doesn’t have any lyrics,” laughed Westerberg. “That’s the perfect example: there’s no damn words to it. We were going for a feeling, and the [hook] line ‘Hold my life, ’cause I just might lose it’ was all I needed to say.”

Mehr, Bob (2016-03-01). Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements (p. 179). Da Capo Books. Kindle Edition.

As a lifelong aficionado, student and very occasional participant in the world of improv theatre, this explanation resonated with me on many levels. My curiosity about improv sprung from a pattern I had noticed: I laughed ten times harder when watching actors make shit up as they go than when I watched a scripted comedy sketch or a canned monologue. After undergoing some training in improv, I learned that the essential quality of improv is to quiet the censor in the mind—that stupid little angel on your shoulder that’s always warning you to NOT. The real insight you get from improv training is learning where that censor comes from: your desire to protect the image you want to present to the world. The censor is part inner snob and part your personal collection of social taboos inherited from parents and teachers. “I would never hang out in a biker bar because of my intellectual and aesthetic superiority,” or “I would never eat at McDonald’s because I only eat organic, unprocessed food” or “I would never fuck a member of the same sex” are examples of the NOTS that arise from the person we want everyone to believe us to be. Inside, we may have a serious leather or motorcycle fetish, would kill for a Big Mac and would love nothing more than to crawl all over the delectable body of a person of the same gender. But that’s not what we want the world to believe, and we refuse to believe the world could possibly accept the unrepressed version of ourselves. So we repress, reject and crawl back into our rather uncomfortable but protective shells.

This censor is absolute death to an improv scene. Imagine that you’re in the audience waiting for the improv troupe to start the next bit. One of the actors initiates an “offer” to another actor to kick things off. Watch what happens when Actor 2 responds from the desperate need to protect the projected image:

ACTOR 1: (offering) Hey! I don’t know how you feel about dating a woman, but I know this great biker bar just outside of town. We can have a few drinks and have a little dinner—there’s a McDonald’s right next door (laughs)!

ACTOR 2 (responding from ego): Are you nuts? A biker bar? McDonalds? I wouldn’t be caught dead in either place! No! No! A thousand times no!

Actor 2 has just killed the scene. There’s nowhere to go now. The energy in the theatre dissipates in the awkward, oppressive, judgmental silence. Actor 1 stutters and stammers in a vain attempt to rescue the situation.

Now imagine saying “Yes.”

ACTOR 1: (offering) Hey! I don’t know how you feel about dating a woman, but I know this great biker bar just outside of town. We can have a few drinks and have a little dinner—there’s a McDonald’s right next door (laughs).

ACTOR 2 (saying yes): Omigod! The smell of leather! The roar of a Harley! Testosterone vs. estrogen! Bikers, booze and Mickey D’s? It doesn’t get any better than that! Let’s go! (jumps on other actor, showers her with kisses and rubs her crotch over her partner’s leg).

Now we can get to the biker bar and all the comedic possibilities in that utterly charming milieu.

When you say “yes,” you open yourself up to possibilities. When you quiet the sensor, you can say what’s in your heart and dripping from your libido. While the intellect still has to be there when you do improv, its role is more facilitative, less restraining. With mind, heart and body in sync, you can create those all-too-rare and beautiful moments where you feel completely and utterly alive.

That’s what I hear on Tim.

That such a result was achieved by a bunch of high school dropouts with serious alcohol and substance abuse issues shouldn’t surprise you. The Replacements turned off many of the censors in their brains for various reasons, ranging from horrific abuse as children to the stultifying conformist norms of their culture of origin. Alcohol, drugs and music were part of the way they dealt with a society that rejected and traumatized them. They also had an extraordinarily gifted songwriter in Paul Westerberg who trusted his unfinished thoughts, repressed emotions and soul-level frustration with a life that seemed to offer nothing beyond getting yourself poured into a mold. Granted, Westerberg’s approach was a long way from pure improv, but the tight time frame between creation and recording on Tim meant that he had very little time and opportunity to edit his work, essentially disabling the critic in his brain that might have told him, “You can’t say this” or “This is really silly” or “That doesn’t make any sense.” That’s why many of the songs on Tim have such immediacy and impact: most reflect the uncensored thoughts and feelings of a man with exceptional intuition and insight into the nature of social and interpersonal dynamics. His songwriting approach produced a profound connection to many in the listening audience who, like him, felt lost and alienated in a society filled with apparently helpless automatons feeding on materialism and lulled to sleep by television and booze:

With Let It Be, people were paying ever closer attention to Paul Westerberg’s words. “It was a mixed blessing when I started to attract fanatics who would read something into a song that maybe wasn’t there, or maybe someone who would read exactly what’s there,” he admitted. Still, Westerberg never took the power of his songs, his ability to connect with listeners, for granted. “People always come up and say, ‘You wrote this just for me,’” he noted. “And I say, ‘Yeah, I did. I don’t know you, but I knew you were out there.’”

Mehr, Bob (2016-03-01). Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements (p. 155). Da Capo Books. Kindle Edition.

I think the tight time frame also energized the band’s performance. Songs have a definite trajectory over time, from curiosity to peak interest to familiarity to oh-my fucking-god-if-I-hear-that-song-again-I’m-going-to-strangle-myself. On Tim, we hear The Replacements at the peak of the trajectory, excited about all this great new material.

The peak is on full display in “Hold My Life,” where the band starts off in high gear, energetic but tight, pounding out those sustained power chords and letting Chris Mars and Tommy Stimson drive this sucker like there’s no tomorrow. “Hold My Life” is one of the great anthems of youthful alienation, featuring stumbling, fragmented lyrics that foreshadowed the nonsense lyrics of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The combination of fragmented phrases and the tight, forceful backing from the band creates an exceptional urgency, much like you would feel in response to a cry for help:

Well, well, well I, found it’s [my life]
Down on all fives
Let me crawl
If I want, I could dye (die) . . . oh . . . my hair
Time for decisions to be made
Crack up in the sun, lose it in the shade
Razzle, dazzle, drazzle, drone, time for this one to come home
Razzle, dazzle, drazzle, die, time for this one to come alive
And hold my life until I’m ready to use it
Hold my life because I just might lose it
Because I just might lose it

The vocal hesitation on “dye (die)” was a brilliant bit of phrasing: by pausing after the word, Westerberg allows the listener to assume he’s expressing suicidal thoughts, then pulls back from the precipice with an elongated “oh . . . my hair,” making a powerful comment on the instinctual tendency to repress socially unacceptable feelings. Even more fascinating is the use of the phrase, “Razzle, dazzle, drazzle, drone, time for this one to come home,” a reference to the Tooter Turtle cartoon of the early 1960’s. Many kids in the television era absorbed life lessons from after-school and early Saturday morning cartoons, and depending on the quality of parenting, those life lessons may have been all the guidance they ever received. Tooter Turtle was semi-educational: essentially a kid (Tooter) does dumb things and learns a lesson. Here’s the basic plot structure of a Tooter Turtle episode:

Tooter . . . calls on his friend Mr. Wizard the Lizard . . . Mr. Wizard has the magic to change Tooter’s life to some other destiny, usually sending him back in time and to various locales. As Tooter is doing his destiny, Mr. Wizard narrates about it. When Tooter’s trip finally became a catastrophe, Tooter would request help with a cry of “Help me Mr. Wizard, I don’t want to be X any more!” where X was whatever destiny Tooter had entered. Mr. Wizard would then rescue Tooter with the incantation, “Twizzle, Twazzle, Twozzle, Twome; time for this one to come home.” Then, Mr. Wizard would always give Tooter the same advice: “Be just what you is, not what you is not. Folks what do this has the happiest lot.” (Wikipedia).

Paul Westerberg might have seen Tooter in reruns; it’s more likely he heard about it on the MST3K episode The Cave Dwellers, given the Minneapolis connection. Whatever the source, inserting this incantation underscores the classic young adult realization that there is no magic solution to alienation, no Mr. Wizard to pull your ass out of the fire, and no tried-and-true homilies that can help you make sense of a crazy world that seems to have no place for you.

“Hold My Life” also sets the musical tone for the album. Produced by Tommy Ramone (Erdelyi), the sonic quality of Tim is Ramones-ish and decidedly low-fi. Some band members were unhappy with the mix, a debate covered comprehensively in Trouble Boys. In general, I rather like the roughness of the mix, as its simplicity and directness draw more attention to the songs themselves. I do wish the bass had been turned up a couple of notches louder, for I love strong bass (and Tommy Stimson’s work throughout the album clearly deserved more volume). Even so, the energy of the band and the sheer quality of the songs combine to overcome any deficiencies.

We keep on rocking with “I’ll Buy,” a dramatic monologue of the debt-ridden American male finally waking up to the insanity of obsessive consumerism due to the relentless pressure of his constantly growing pile of unpaid bills. I love Paul Westerberg’s vocal on this piece, especially when he jacks it up to almost manic passive aggression in the chorus:

Anything you want, dear, is FINE, FINE, FINE, FINE, FINE!
Everything you say, dear, I’ll BUY, BUY, BUY, BUY, BUY!

He also nails it on the third verse, energized by both the laughable absurdity of materialism and the blistering guitar solo preceding it:

We never get passed the dice dear, goddammit, I’m gonna roll!
People that pick your nose clean, so what we owe, owe, owe
Give my regards to Broadway, tell ’em I don’t really care
If you want a good joke, why split? You’ll go broke right here.

The Replacements dial it down at tad with “Kiss Me on the Bus,” a lower-key rocker about the strange chill that overcomes human beings when riding on public transportation. As a lifelong rider of buses and trains, I’ve always wondered why people get so cold, protective and flat-out fucking rude when riding public transit. You see, I have the horrible habit of entering places (rooms, buildings, buses, trains) and smiling at the people I meet. I can’t help it! I like being with people! I’m happy to see them! This presents a serious problem for me in France, where people frown upon smiling in the context of transactional interactions, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to stop smiling out of respect for an obsolete cultural norm.

My toothy protests against human incivility are generally ignored, and I have silently repeated the “ok, don’t say hi, then” from “Kiss Me on the Bus” a million times over the course of my life. My response is usually to get grumpy and say “Fuck these assholes” and open a book. Paul Westerberg’s response is a bit more imaginative: he fantasizes about making out with the hot chick who just climbed onboard. What I love about his burst of imagination is how he makes the whole thing seem a perfectly normal, human activity while labeling the tendency to avoid contact as “adult” (i. e., programmed anal behavior):

If you knew how I felt now
You wouldn’t act so adult now
Hurry, hurry, here comes my stop
On the bus, watch our reflection
On the bus, I can’t stand no rejection
C’mon, let’s make a scene
Oh, baby, don’t be so mean
They’re all watchin’ us
Kiss me on the bus
Kiss me on the bus

Now, I wouldn’t say that erotic fantasies have never crossed my mind on buses and trains, but mine go a step further and involve getting off the bus because I don’t want creepy crawly germs making contact with my clitoris and sliding into my precious vagina. Hey! I use my vagina a lot and it has to be in tip-top shape 24-7!

Lead guitarist Bob Stinson was going through a rough patch during the recording of Tim, showing up haphazardly and not contributing all that much when he made it to the studio. The Replacements came up with a couple of hard rockers to help facilitate his participation; the first is “Dose of Thunder,” a 70’s style rocker that feels a bit too boilerplate. It’s followed by “Waitress in the Sky,” with its Johnny Rivers melody (“Mountain of Love”). Designed to be an expression of empathetic support for the assholes his flight attendant sister had to deal with in flight, Paul Westerberg plays his role with suitable mean-spiritedness, capturing the casual dehumanization when undeserving and self-entitled losers imbue themselves with the power of that lame phrase, “the customer is always right.”

No, they’re not. Customers can be fucking assholes. Especially American customers, who transform the power of the customers into the god-given right to abuse people trying to serve them.

While the influence of Alex Chilton and Big Star is obvious throughout Tim, I doubt if any Mats fans expected that ‘Ol Blue Eyes would leave his mark on a Replacements’ album. The melody of “Swingin’ Party” is certainly reminiscent of mid-60’s Sinatra, particularly his duet with daughter Nancy, “Somethin’ Stupid.” As Westerberg said in Trouble Boys, “If you steal from everything . . . nobody can put a finger on you.” What raises the song above the level of amateur plagiarism are the lyrics, where Westerberg sings of the dynamic of experiencing fear and turning to alcohol for comfort—a problem that frequently plagued the stage-fright stricken band:

If bein’ wrong’s a crime, I’m serving forever
If bein’ strong’s your kind, then I need help here with this feather
If bein’ afraid is a crime, we hang side by side
At the swingin’ party down the line

The guitars here are sweeter, drenched in a combination of reverb and tremolo that creates a suitable, lounge-like background. Paul Westerberg’s vocal is one of his most beautiful, expressing the fragility that leads to drink and the guilt that accompanies the boozing.

Side Two reconnects us with seriously bad-ass rock with a message in “Bastards of Young.” Goddamn, this is one powerful piece of music! Memorable guitar riffs, punchy, sharp-cut power chords, one hell of a set of bass runs from Tommy Stinson and a commanding vocal from Paul Westerberg all come together in one of the strongest pieces in The Replacements’ catalog. The song captures the dynamic between parents and children in post-Vietnam America, a relationship distorted by a combination of a collapsing American dream and the ascendancy of economic needs over human needs:

God, what a mess, on the ladder of success
Where you take one step and miss the whole first rung
Dreams unfulfilled, graduate unskilled
It beats pickin’ cotton and waitin’ to be forgotten
Wait on the sons of no one, bastards of young
Wait on the sons of no one, bastards of young
The daughters and the sons

The second verse describes a world where the value of children is reduced to the tax advantages (“Income tax deduction, what a hell of a function”). The incredibly powerful final verse expresses the tragic result of detached parenting—in a world where the notion of having a child based on unconditional parental love and commitment has become passé, the child cannot help but feel abandoned, unwanted, desperate for attention and thoroughly confused:

The ones who love us best are the ones we’ll lay to rest
And visit their graves on holidays at best
The ones who love us least are the ones we’ll die to please
If it’s any consolation, I don’t begin to understand them

“Bastards of Young” is a brilliant piece of work, a song of dignified outrage expressed in the genre best equipped to deal with outrage: kick-ass rock ‘n’ roll.

“Lay It Down Clown” is a relative comedown. The second “Let’s Help Bob” number refers to R.E.M.’s lead guitarist Peter Buck, an inside joke if there ever was one. Fortunately, it’s only a barely-over-two-minute distraction leading to the far superior “Left of the Dial,” a track recorded months before in a demo session guided by Alex Chilton. Bob Mehr called this song “Westerberg’s finest and most heartfelt anthem,” and while I wouldn’t go that far, it’s a gorgeous piece with more than a little kick to it due to strong syncopation and semi-stop time passages followed by all-out bash. “Left of the Dial” is a somewhat oblique love song for singer-guitarist Lynn Blakey, whom Paul met at a shared gig in San Francisco’s I-Beam (a place in the Haight that closed only a couple of years before I got my fake I. D. and could crash the clubs). What makes the song more than another insiders-only story is its depiction of the long-distance, never-quite consummated relationship, a relationship reduced to fleeting appearances of her band on the radio (left of the dial, where alternative and public radio tend to reside):

Pretty girl keep growin’ up, playin’ make-up, wearin’ guitar
Growin’ old in a bar, ya grow old in a bar
Headed out to San Francisco, definitely not L.A.
Didn’t mention your name, didn’t mention your name
And if I don’t see ya, in a long, long while
I’ll try to find you
Left of the dial

Many of us have fond memories of “the one who got away” due to life circumstances, and Westerberg captures those sweet feelings while firmly placing the relationship in the out-of-the-mainstream culture.

Mehr is a bit off-base when he describes “Little Mascara” as “a new kind of Westerberg number: a fictionalized character study.” I think “I Will Dare” is a damned fine character study, strengthened by the first-person dramatic monologue format. What I like about “Little Mascara” is the empathetic but penetrating description of the single female parent, caught between the need to care for the kids, the need to earn money to feed them and the long shot dream of a better life:

For the moon you keep shootin’
Throw your rope up in the air
For the kids you stay together
You nap ’em and you slap ’em in a highchair
All you ever wanted was someone to take care of ya
All you’re ever losin’ is a little mascara

There’s an interesting contrast between the high intensity of the band and the comparative gentleness of Paul’s vocal that hits me differently depending on my mood. I’d love to hear an acoustic-only version.

“Here Comes a Regular” closes the album, largely because it’s impossible to follow a song like this one. The song is as simple as simple can get, dominated by a three-chord pattern that every wannabe guitarist stumbles on during the first year of play: just put your pinkie on the third fret of the E string and leave it there while you play C, G, and F. What gives the song incredible power is a combination of rich lyrics and Paul Westerberg’s forlorn vocal, recorded in relative isolation, surrounded by dividers, in “near-total darkness.”

The song can be best appreciated by comparing it to the theme songs of one of the most popular television programs of the era, “Cheers.”

Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.
Wouldn’t you like to get away?

Where everybody knows your name,
And they’re always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see,
Our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
Your name.

Suitably superficial for the television audience, the song idealizes the neighborhood bar as a place where you can take a break from your troubles and connect with people who care about you and share a similar set of challenges. Not a hint about the potential downsides of alcohol as an escape hatch or the surface-gliding conversations that fill the evening.

Paul Westerberg, who lived in a Midwestern culture where the neighborhood bar is the default choice when you’re looking for something to do, presents a darker but more true-to-life picture where the drinking hole is a Sartrean trap—a place where “hell is other people” and the experience is one of existential nausea:

Well a person can work up a mean mean thirst
After a hard day of nothin’ much at all
Summer’s passed, it’s too late to cut the grass
There ain’t much to rake anyway in the fall
And sometimes I just ain’t in the mood
To take my place in back with the loudmouths
You’re like a picture on the fridge that’s never stocked with food
I used to live at home, now I stay at the house
And everybody wants to be special here
They call your name out loud and clear
Here comes a regular
Call out your name
Here comes a regular
Am I the only one here today?

That first verse is only Westerberg’s voice and guitar; the second verse introduces a simple synth pattern that reinforces the overall sadness. This verse explores the desperate search for validation and its temporary fix in the comfort of a familiar face (“Everybody wants to be someone’s here/Someone’s gonna show up, never fear”). The verse ends with an uncomfortable piece of self-discovery (“Am I the only one who feels ashamed?”) and fades into a brief, restrained piano interlude that allows us to wipe our tears before the darker, chorus-free third verse:

Kneeling alongside old Sad Eyes
He says opportunity knocks once then the door slams shut
All I know is I’m sick of everything that my money can buy
The fool who wastes his life, God rest his guts
First the lights, then the collar goes up, and the wind begins to blow
Turn your back on a pay-you-back last call
First the glass, and the leaves that last, then comes the snow
Ain’t much to rake anyway in the fall

The return to the march of the seasons intensifies the picture of a man caught in a cycle from which there is no escape. His choices are limited to the bar and the fruitless action of raking the leaves, which he dismisses as another useless exercise devoid of meaning. Ironically, the choice not to tend to the leaves is an indication that he still possesses free will, but at this point the man is paralyzed by his failure to find meaning in anything. Having rejected materialism (“I’m sick of everything that my money can buy”), he now finds himself face-to-face with a society unable to offer him nothing more than material comfort. In this sense, his life is on hold due to the perceived lack of choice, bringing us full circle to the same predicament depicted in “Hold My Life.”

Well, well, well, anyone could tell, pass it off, a lucky shot
Ooh, they do hate ’em, someday soon, face ‘em
Time for decisions to be made
Crack up in the sun, lose it in the shade
Razzle, dazzle, drazzle, drone, time for this one to come home
Razzle, dazzle, drazzle, die, time for this one to come alive

I mentioned that the last verse of “Here Come the Regulars” has no chorus. This was an inspired artistic decision in defiance of the dogma that says you need to reinforce “the hook.” Had Paul Westerberg ended the song with a chorus, he would have trivialized the experience to the nth degree, depersonalizing the regular into little more than a stereotype. The story fades exactly when it needs to fade—with the lights out, the collar up and the cold wind blowing.

The Replacements came up with the name Tim during a drunken and/or substance-inspired ad-lib session where conversations wind up following paths more like doodles than highways. “What do we call the new album?” “How about Fred? George? Ethelbert?” The result certainly resonated with their nihilistic sense of humor and refusal to take themselves seriously. The title is therefore curiously ironic, for by approaching Tim in semi-improvisational fashion and filling the album with some of the most insightful songs of the era, they made Tim a masterpiece that deserves to be taken seriously.

Well, well, well . . .

4 responses

  1. You’ve now reviewed parts 1 and 2 of what I consider to be the Replacements’ trio of great albums. The high points on this one don’t quite reach the high points of Let It Be (how could they?), but it is more coherent. Too bad about “Dose Of Thunder” and “Lay It Down Clown.” I always wondered what they were thinking when they included those songs. It makes sense that they were trying to appease Bob Stinson. It sounds like that Replacements book is full of good info. I hadn’t heard of it. I should order a copy.

    By the way, I don’t think Paul could’ve gotten the “Razzle dazzle” thing from MST3K. According to the Internet, the “Cave Dwellers” episode did not air until 1991. But The Replacements and MST3K do share a unique brand of irreverence that is a product of their time and place. Having grown up in the Upper Midwest (and I’m still living here), it’s something I can relate to.

    Usually I am less picky about how albums sound than you are, but this is an exception. I think the sound of Tim is dull and thuddy and detracts from the impact of the music. Eighties bands often had a hard time getting a good sound. The golden age of record production was the seventies, while the eighties was all about chasing fads, whether it was big, booming drums, a messy “punk” sound, or an overly clean sound. It sounds like they never figured out what they wanted when they recorded Tim. But I think they got the production right on the next album, Pleased To Meet Me.

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    1. I don’t know how I missed the math on MST3K . . . perhaps because there’s so much fake news coming out of the U. S!

      Pleased to Meet Me is on my list—probably late spring/early summer.

      Like

  2. Matheus Bezerra de Lima | Reply

    Besides Sinatra, what if you think about my new suggestion to review the Getz/Gilberto album? It would be great also as review Sinatra! Getz/Gilberto is a masterpiece!

    Like

    1. After the election and vacation to recover from the election!

      Like

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