As I was reminded after reading the Aaron Cooper-Kendon Luscher I (Don’t) Hate That post on Bearded Gentlemen Music, there aren’t too many bands as polarizing as The Cure.
Well, there’s Oasis. I happen to like Oasis very much, but I can understand how people can be turned off by the Noel-Liam bullshit and their unbridled cockiness. I dismiss the complaints lodged by Oasis-hating Baby Boomers who see them as a.) third-class Beatles imitators or b.) having Beatles-level pretensions. The Gallagher Brothers have openly acknowledged their admiration for The Fab Four, and whenever an old fart tries to tell me they’re trying to imitate The Beatles, I respond coolly, calmly and confidently: “Show me the harmonies.”
It’s harder to nail down why some people abhor The Cure. I’m sure there are a few insecure male assholes who don’t like guys wearing make-up, but that demographic doesn’t seem to be too vocal about it. There are people who can’t stand the sound of Robert Smith’s voice, but that’s a matter of personal taste. Robert Plant is considered one of the greatest lead vocalists in rock history, but I can only stomach him for about five seconds. The two most common charges brought against The Cure are:
- They’re too goddamned depressing.
- They’re too goddamned emotional.
They’re too goddamned depressing. It’s true that their earlier “gothic rock” albums were rather gloomy affairs, but you have to consider the world their generation inherited: “NO FUTURE!” Whaddya want, Tony Orlando and Dawn? Those early 80s albums were released during a period of massive unemployment and Margaret Thatcher. That’s enough to depress anyone with a brain. Robert Smith and The Cure chose to explore the phenomena of fragile relationships and existential isolation in the context of a world that forever seems on the brink of self-destruction. That’s not depressing—that’s reality. According to WHO, there are 300 million people who suffer from depression, and Robert Smith happens to be one of them. Depression, like most mental health issues, remains a dirty little secret that makes it all the more difficult to control; hearing someone acknowledge that reality in song forms the all-important message, “You are not alone.” If The Cure sounds depressing to you, you may want to get an emotional intelligence checkup and ask the doctor to run some tests on your empathy levels. I suspect that part of what drives this criticism is the expectation among too large a swathe of the human race that music is something that should cheer you up and make you feel good. Truth: Life is wonderful. Truth: Life sucks. Wait! The ghost of Frank Sinatra just dropped in to leave us a message: “You can’t have one without the other.” Get over it.
They’re too goddamned emotional. Yes, occasionally Robert Smith lapses into the “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” excess that made T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound hate Shelley with a passion. Sometimes his lyrics feel emotionally indulgent and fail to empathetically connect with the listener. Robert Smith is an introverted, emotional-intuitive kind of guy, so you’re going to get some excessive bleeding from time to time. What I find most impressive about his work is that he is a man who openly shares his emotions, something little boys growing up in masculine societies like the USA and UK are programmed to avoid. The world is in deep doo-doo right now because the dominant players are men whose only recognizable emotion is anger and their M. O. in response to a problem is a defensive denial of any trace of vulnerability so that no one can call them “soft.” Personally, I think a lot of men are confused about the hard-soft thing, believing “hard” is always good and “soft” is always bad. Let me simplify things. Hard cock = good. Hard soul = bad. Soft cock = bad, but I still love you and don’t worry, you’ll get another turn at the plate. Soft soul = beautiful.
Robert Smith had been openly encouraging displays of male vulnerability from the get-go, starting with “Boys Don’t Cry” way back in 1979. Ten years later he was feeling vulnerable again because he was about to turn thirty and believed that all the great rock masterpieces were written before the composers exited their twenties. Though his hypothesis pretty much holds up (depending on how you define a masterpiece), I still thought his dread of turning thirty was a silly, culturally-induced overreaction until I read a quote of his published on Don’t Forget the Songs 365: “The essence of this album is the disgust concerning the loss of the ability to feel profound feelings when you grow older. That’s the disintegration I mean. I’m concerned about it, just as about everybody else I know of my age.” While I personally know several exceptions to that hypothesis, I do know a lot of people (especially those in business) who should be called out for this tendency in strong, Vonnegutian language: “You’ve crawled up your own asshole and died!” Burdened with greed, debts, responsibilities and the nine-to-five, people tend to get serious, and when people get serious, their emotional range tends to shrink to include only reactive anger, frustration and exhaustion.
The approach of what he considered old age triggered Smith’s depression, which in turn gave his writing a sense of urgency peppered with pessimism. He felt very strongly that if he was going to write his magnum opus before the clock ran out he needed to move away from the pop orientation that marked most of the singles as well as the previous album (Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me) and play to his strengths instead. “Write about your experience, write about what you know,” says the archetypal English professor at the start of Creative Writing 101, and Robert Smith experienced the world through the dual lenses of emotional sensitivity and depression.
The result was Disintegration. Most critics (and Smith, to some degree) viewed the sonic flip-flop as a return to the sound of that goth classic, Pornography. Er . . . no. Pornography is an aggressive, in-your-face experience that never lets up; Disintegration is more reflective, more sonically diverse and frequently quite beautiful. As is often the case when attempting to establish atmosphere, the chords are relatively simple throughout, lightly enhanced through slight variants and different voicings. Though there will always be a tendency for some people to interpret Cure music through a unifocal lens of dour and morose, the songs on Disintegration feature a wide range of profound human emotions, and to appreciate that aspect of Disintegration, I would urge listeners to rid themselves of the belief that feelings have to be “either/or.” Haven’t you ever been happy and sad at the same time? Or excited and scared? Why do we cry when the movie has a happy ending? Disintegration is best appreciated when you can hold the notion of simultaneous opposing emotions.
So let’s get on with it! Please note that I’m reviewing the original vinyl release that does not include the bonus tracks on the Elektra CD issued in the United States (“Last Dance” and “Homesick”).
“Plainsong” serves as the overture to Disintegration, establishing the overall mood and tone of the work. Following a rising chorus of cascading wind chimes, a cymbal crash snaps you out of your brief reverie and you immediately find yourself enveloped in the circumambient sound of grand synthesizer and deep, reverberating bass that form the memorable central motif. Though the sheet music will tell you that “Plainsong” is structured around standard pop chords (C, F, G, Am and Dm) played in 4/4 time, the rhythm is anything but metronomic due to a composition that mingles three distinct rhythmic variations: Simon Gallup’s expanding whole-note bass part to establish the foundation; Roger O’Donnell’s use of frequent dotted notes and ties to force the melody beyond the measure; and Boris Williams’ syncopated drum attack that moves on and off the expected beat. The combination of all that rhythmic tension creates leading notes and beats that make for a subtly thrilling musical experience, dramatic without going overboard and surprisingly uplifting. After several measures of that glorious sound, a guitar solo is introduced to the mix, adding a fourth rhythmic pattern featuring bends and miniature slides. Your initial impression is “detuned guitar run through a flanger and a tonal-shifting pedal,” but nope . . . a reliable thread on Gearslutz identifies the instrument as a Fender Bass VI played high up on the fretboard using the fifth and sixth strings. As noted in the thread, this approach gives the solo a unique timbre that I would describe as magical and melancholy, words that also describe the overall feel of the piece. If you still have a hard time believing it’s a bass, watch last year’s live performance at the Sydney Opera House.
The 6-string bass solo begins as a counterpoint to the main melody produced by the synth, but eventually and oh so smoothly introduces fragments of the main melody into the mix while the synthesizer takes a short break. This is the cue for Robert Smith to enter with the lead vocal at the 2:40 mark and your first impulse might be to reach for the volume knob so you can actually hear him. Leave the knob alone. “But I can’t understand what he’s saying!” you protest. LEAVE THE FUCKING KNOB ALONE AND TAKE IN THE FULL EXPERIENCE. The synthesizer now takes center stage with that powerful, alluring motif while the human voice is reduced to a series of faint echoes, slightly distorted snippets of human fragility. You hear fragments of words and partial phrases—“dark,” “rain” “wind,” “end of the world,” “cold,”—and get the impression that the voice is struggling to make itself heard through the distorted meteorology of a storm. As the six-string bass leads us into the fade, shimmery sounds blend with synthesizer and bass to gently guide the music to a tear-inspiring crescendo.
Okay, NOW you can look at the lyrics:
I think it’s dark and it looks like it’s rain, you said
And the wind is blowing like it’s the end of the world, you said
And it’s so cold, it’s like the cold if you were dead
And you smiled for a second
I think I’m old and I’m feeling pain, you said
And it’s all running out like it’s the end of the world, you said
And it’s so cold, it’s like the cold if you were dead
And you smiled for a second
Sometimes you make me feel
Like I’m living at the edge of the world
Like I’m living at the edge of the world
It’s just the way I smile, you said
Well, there you have it—you really didn’t need to read all that, did you? The message was pretty much in the music. The lyrics do illuminate the tendency of Brits to engage in black humor, which would have been difficult to replicate musically within the context of an essentially beautiful composition. The mystery for most people is why Smith’s companion smiles when it’s all dark and dreary. Lucky for you, I have relevant experience in the matter. This is the picture my father selected for the post he wrote about me a few years back:
What am I wearing? Every piece of winter clothing I owned over three layers of whatever I had in the suitcase. What’s that white stuff? Snow! What’s that on my puss? A smile! Yes, I’m smiling, but beneath that smile is a latent murderess plotting the best way to croak my parents for convincing me to accompany them on a winter trip to the frozen tundra of the Midwest so my father could go to a fucking football game! In addition to feeling my sensitive skin crack in a million places due to the relentless cold, I’m feeling rage, resentment and . . . revenge! Then why was I smiling? Because it’s exciting to experience things I don’t normally experience, and feeling snow crunch under my feet was weird and wonderful for this California girl! I hated and loved every minute at the same time! I repeat: feelings are not “either/or.” Human beings are capable of experiencing multiple, contradictory emotions in the same moment, and that capability allows me to feel the range of emotions expressed in “Plainsong,” where the music inspires melancholy, fragility, appreciation (of the sheer beauty), curiosity, and somehow . . . validation . . . for being human . . . for being vulnerable . . . for being full of contradictions.
The song that followed “Plainsong” had to be somewhat more upbeat while not straying too far beyond the established mood, and “Pictures of You,” featuring a solid rock beat integrating the chimes, shimmery synth and the now-familiar phenomenon of a six-string bass guitar, certainly fits the bill by retaining textural continuity. The deviations from “Plainsong” are equally important, particularly the presence of an additional guitar and a generally assertive, passionate vocal from Robert Smith. The structure of the song is built around a drone in the key of A, established largely in the six verses that employ an A major/D major chord pattern. Six verses with the same chord pattern might seem like a recipe for dullsville, but Smith takes advantage of the melodic freedom inherent in the drone to vary the melody as well as the length of the verses. While the song has no chorus, there is a bridge after verse five where the pattern shifts to E major-D major to highlight the ever-present sense of “if only” in a Robert Smith composition. Robert! Remember the immortal words of Piaf! Je ne regrette RIEN! And though the seventh verse seems pretty much repeats the baseline melody, the chord pattern shifts to include a B minor chord in the second position and an A major voicing with C# at the root. This balance of stability (the drone) and variation (subtle changes) results in a song that flows so beautifully that when it’s over it hardly feels like you spent seven minutes and twenty-eight seconds of your life listening to it.
The lyrics take on greater importance than they did in “Plainsong,” with Robert Smith’s photograph-inspired reverie traversing the vital moments in a cherished relationship now lost. The first verse establishes both the power and danger of photographic memories:
I’ve been looking so long at these pictures of you
That I almost believe that they’re real
I’ve been living so long with my pictures of you
That I almost believe that the pictures
Are all I can feel
As alluring and comforting as an old picture might be, a photograph cannot possibly be “real” because human beings change; relationships often founder when one or both parties hang on to a picture of the other that exists only in a glorified past. The next four verses all begin with the word “remembering,” and it is only natural that most enduring images of a relationship are moments of shared vulnerability when the mask falls and the pain of inauthenticity bursts from within:
Remembering you running soft through the night
You were bigger and brighter and whiter than snow
And screamed at the make-believe
Screamed at the sky
And you finally found all your courage
To let it all go
Robert’s “if only” regret has to do with his inability to find the right words to connect with his companion in that moment of vulnerability. While I think his desire to help is admirable, self-blame isn’t likely to help matters much. In the end, I think Smith realizes that his pictures were the obstacle—his picture of himself as a wannabe savior and his picture of her as a person who needed what he had to offer:
There was nothing in the world
That I ever wanted more
Than to feel you deep in my heart
There was nothing in the world
That I ever wanted more
Than to never feel the breaking apart
All my pictures of you
Yes, “all my pictures of you” proved to be the problem.
“Closedown” continues the instrumental pattern of synth-bass-six-string bass and the musical pattern of a drone in the key of A, with B minor supplying the complement instead of D major. What’s different is the urgency of the rhythm section, with Boris Williams and Simon Gallup multiplying the beats to provide tension-filled contrast to the longer notes from the synth. The urgency expressed in the music is reflected in Smith’s limited lyrics, with the opening line “I’m running out of time” reminding the listener that the motivation behind Disintegration was his fear of getting old and cynical (or, “Out of step and closing down,” as he puts it in the second line). “Closedown” feels like the explanatory soliloquy you find in many a Shakespeare play—the extended aside that reveals the character’s true motives. As such, it serves as an essential piece of the composition.
I’m not so sure I’d use the word “essential” to describe “Lovesong,” though. The only virtue of the song that I can identify is that it puts those people who define The Cure as dark and depressing in somewhat of a bind, but other than the satisfaction of that “nyah, nyah” moment, it’s pretty much a garden-variety love song designed to appeal to the sentimental masses. The music is “wimpy 1980’s disco,” best served when the dancers need a break from the fake intensity of “Stayin’ Alive.” In the interest of fully disclosing any biases, my favorite love song is the Foo Fighters’ “Everlong,” the very opposite of the wet noodle sound of “Lovesong.”
Whether the song is an anti-tribute to Smith’s “druggy past” (not so much of a past, since it was reported he was using psychedelics during the development of Disintegration) or memories of a recurring nightmare (somewhat more likely), Robert Smith’s performance on “Lullaby” confirms his thespian ability to enter the soul of a character—in this case, a little boy who draws enormous pleasure from the fantasy of being eaten by an enormous spider. This isn’t as far-fetched a fantasy as it seems: a quick thumb-through of the endings to the tales peddled by the Brothers Grimm will tell you that many “bedtime stories” were designed to scare the shit out of kids so they would be more likely to obey their sadistic parents. From Wikipedia:
The Grimms’ legacy contains legends, novellas, and folk stories, the vast majority of which were not intended as children’s tales. Von Armin was deeply concerned about the content of some of the tales, such as those that showed children being eaten, and suggested that they be removed. Instead, the brothers added an introduction with cautionary advice that parents steer children toward age-appropriate stories. Despite von Armin’s unease, none of the tales were eliminated from the collection, in the brothers’ belief that all the tales were of value and reflected inherent cultural qualities. Furthermore, the stories were didactic in nature at a time when discipline relied on fear, according to scholar Linda Dégh, who explains that tales such as “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Hansel and Gretel” were written as “warning tales” for children.
It could have been worse, I guess—several of the originals were sanitized for publication. The original “Snow White” features the Queen ordering a lackey to kill the kid and bring home her lungs and liver so she could feast on them; “The Goose Girl” describes a “servant being stripped naked and pushed into a barrel studded with sharp nails pointing inwards and then rolled down the street.” Smith seems to be more of a Grimm purist than a Disney re-inventor, and the delight he expresses when the spider’s “arms are all around me and his tongue in my eyes,” captures the thrill that many people experience during a great horror flick. What really excites the kid is he can tune in tomorrow, same time, same place and watch it all over again!
And I know that in the morning I will wake up
In the shivering cold
And the Spiderman is always hungry
I guess when FDR said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” half the country replied, “But we like to be scared!” Talk about holding contradictory feelings! “Lullaby” not only reaffirms that theme but does so with tongue-in-cheek playfulness. Most of the music follows another two-chord pattern (C# to A) with a shift to F# minor to A major in the coda, but the guitar plays the A7 chord, adding a touch of laid-back blues to caution the listener not to take the song too seriously.
“Fascination Street” is Robert Smith’s ironic ode to Bourbon Street. “I was getting ready to go there and I thought: what the fuck do I think I’m going to find? It’s about the incredulity that I could still be fooled into looking for a perfect moment” (Songfacts). Well, if your idea of a perfect evening is watching drunken broads display their tits on balconies and drinking Jello shooters, Bourbon Street is a plausible possibility, but Robert Smith doesn’t seem like that kind of guy. What he does manage to do with assistance from his mates is create an edgy, heart-throbbing soundscape held together by one of the most memorable bass parts on record. While the synths and guitars add the colorful decor, Simon Gallup’s bass captures the delightfully naughty motivations of the gawkers and barhoppers as they stroll down the street where anything goes. Smith does an equally commendable job of identifying the dynamics that drive this burst of carpe diem, a desire to let the puritanic world go to hell while also making sure you’re suitably dressed for the occasion:
Yeah I like you in that
Like I like you to scream
But if you open your mouth
Then I can’t be responsible
For quite what goes in
Or to care what comes out
So just pull on your hair
Just pull on your pout
And let’s move to the beat
Like we know that it’s over
If you slip going under
Slip over my shoulder
So just pull on your face
Just pull on your feet
And let’s hit opening time
Down on Fascination Street
Confirming the suspicions of long-time readers of this blog, yes, “Fascination Street” appears frequently on my fuck playlists.
My nominee for best intro on Disintegration goes to the oft-ignored “Prayers for Rain.” The song opens with a bagpipe-like drone that gradually builds to a supporting volume for the one, then two guitars playing a treble-heavy arpeggio in Am, Bm and D with random splashes of synth and piano in deep background. At about the thirty-three second mark you hear a sound building in the distance then WHAM! your ears are filled with stereophonic bass and synth at maximum volume. What follows is a consistent repetition of the chord pattern spiced with synth strings and six-string bass that will continue with appropriate enhancements throughout Robert Smith’s vocal. The lyrics describe one shitty relationship:
You shatter me your grip on me a hold on me
So dull it kills
You stifle me
Infectious sense of
Hopelessness and prayers for rain
This is a classic case of a black hole affair where one party gets sucked into the other’s depression. Some depressives can be quite manipulative with their poor-me-I’m-a-victim stories, making the partner feel somehow responsible for their problem. As Smith notes, the impact on the partner is devastating (“I suffocate/I breathe in dirt”) and potentially toxic. You can find plenty of good and bad advice on the Internet on how to cope with your loved one’s depression, and it was wise of Smith not to go there. “Prayers for Rain” focuses on the real-life experience involving the collateral damage suffered by the partner, and Smith does an excellent job through the lyrics and his semi-narrated vocal to draw attention to that particular dynamic.
As the next track opens with the sound of falling rain followed by a burst of thunder, we can reasonably assume that prayers were answered and that there is some sort of connection between “Prayers for Rain” and “The Same Deep Water As You.” Robert Smith told Oor Magazine that the song “is about the expectations people have of you and how you can never live up to those expectations.” Barbara Ellen of NME came to pretty much the same conclusion: “‘The Same Deep Water'” is about somebody admitting that he is not up to ‘her’ depth of emotion and loyalty.” Those interpretations are confirmed in the opening verse, but the dominant metaphors involve the complex metaphor of water (life, death, journey, cleansing) as well as the confusion frequently triggered by unspoken feelings:
Kiss me goodbye, pushing out before I sleep
Can’t you see I try?
But swimming the same deep water as you is hard
‘The shallow drowned lose less than we,’ you breathe
The strangest twist upon your lips
And we shall be together
And we shall be together
The narrator is like the boatman pushing out to sea, alone; sleep is defined as an act of separation. Though he tries to imbue himself with her appreciation of “deep love,” it doesn’t seem that they’re on the same page. The “shallow drowned” line is a reminder of the risk and reward of a deeper love; it’s as if she is admonishing the narrator to try harder. He can’t fathom (sorry, that’s a horrible pun) her message, largely because it’s communicated in metaphors and facial expressions. It seems like she has some sort of arcane knowledge he struggles to divine, but it’s more likely that these two are not the kinds of partners who can communicate volumes with a fleeting glance. The repetition of the line “And we shall be together” feels like his insistence that their differences can be glossed over—after all, didn’t they just have great sex? He returns to that “proof” of intimacy in the closing verse:
I will kiss you, I will kiss you
I will kiss you forever on nights like this
I will kiss you, I will kiss you
And we shall be together
This is one relationship in serious trouble. Even the greatest fuck in the world won’t save it.
The agony of the song lies in the hard-learned lesson that you can be in a relationship and still feel terribly alone. The narrator can pretend all he wants, but his inability to interpret the meaning of “the strangest twist upon your lips,” combined with her inability or unwillingness to communicate in ways he can understand form a separation that guarantees they will eventually drift apart. And that’s what’s so painful—so close, yet so far; so pleasurable, so disappointing. The music is beautifully supportive of this agonizing dynamic, a slow dirge drenched in distance-creating reverb. “The Same Water As You” may be the longest song on Disintegration, but it is a tightly-crafted composition with palpable mood and poetically economical lyrics.
The guitar that dominates the opening of “Disintegration” and remains present throughout the song features a tone that eerily sounds like the ghost of Duane Eddy, and it’s fascinating to hear how that sound survived the decades and works perfectly in the band least likely to revive “Rebel Rouser.” Critical musing aside, the guitar is part of a fast-moving soundscape revolving around the unchanging chord pattern of C, D, Em, Em7 (the key is E minor). Repetitive chord patterns tend to be the stuff of “talkin’ blues” songs; here they provide Robert Smith a platform for his “scream against everything falling apart, and my right to quit with it when I want to.” (Oom interview) He describes his relationship with the music business, with his mates and with his fan base using the same language he uses in songs about relationships, but “Disintegration” is more-oriented towards “this is what I want/don’t want” than “what do we want/don’t want”:
But I never said I would stay to the end
So I leave you with babies and hoping for frequency
Screaming like this in the hope of the secrecy
Screaming me over and over and over
I leave you with photographs, pictures of trickery
Stains on the carpet and stains on the scenery
Songs about happiness murmured in dreams
When we both of us knew how the ending would be . . .
And now that I know that I’m breaking to pieces
I’ll pull out my heart and I’ll feed it to anyone
I’m crying for sympathy, crocodile’s cry
For the love of the crowd
And the three cheers from everyone
What’s curious about this title track is that it contradicts his own definition of “disintegration” in the context of the album: “the disgust concerning the loss of the ability to feel profound feelings when you grow older.” This is about his disintegration, and it’s a chosen disintegration—an act of rebellion against the bullshit, the lack of privacy and the enormous strain to meet other people’s expectations. Though there are many songs where rock stars bitch about their horrible lives in luxury suites and the cruel strain of obtaining pussy on demand, Robert Smith’s rant is far more personal and emotionally authentic. At the end of the song, I want to cry out, “Good for you! Free at last!” And because he uses the language of interpersonal relationships to describe his predicament, his fuck-all solution reminds listeners that we all have “the right to quit with it” (a bad relationship) when we want to.
The vinyl album closer begins with the sound of grandma’s church organ playing a few introductory measures before Boris kicks grandma the hell out of the studio with the pounding of his toms (don’t worry, grandma’s okay and she’ll come back for the coda). The music that responds to his cue features a simple descending guitar riff with a hummable melody, helping to balance the intensity of the drums and creating space for Robert Smith’s closing reflections. I don’t think I’ve heard too many closing tracks that summarize an album’s themes as well as “Untitled,” so I will quote in full:
In the eyes of the ghost again
Down on my knees
And my hands in the air again
Pushing my face in the memory of you again
But I never know if it’s real
Never know how I wanted to feel
Never quite said what I wanted to say to you
Never quite managed the words to explain to you
Never quite knew how to make them believable
And now the time has gone
Another time undone
Hopelessly fighting the devil
Feeling the monster
Climb deeper inside of me
Feeling him gnawing my heart away
I’ll never lose this pain
Never dream of you again
The sense of unstable identity. Our complex relationship with memories. The sheer difficulty of emotional communication. The cruel passing of time. The demons inside. The pain of loss. These are all part and parcel of being human, including—no, especially—the endless contradictions. “Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.” Blake’s argument from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell could easily be applied to the essential meaning of Disintegration.
Life is heaven, life is hell, get over it and enjoy the ride.
Rarely in the annals of music history has an album cover said so much.
If I were to record this review in a podcast, I’d try to make my voice sound like Edward R. Murrow when delivering that opening sally, but I’ve never been able to chain smoke and my voice is just too damned girly.
Oh, well. Just try to imagine Murrow intoning that line as if he were opening one of his broadcasts from the scene of The Blitz: “This . . . is London.” Feel the weightiness of that voice of utter authority and you’ll begin to grasp the significance I am attempting to attach to The Replacements’ album cover.
By the way, do you know what the “R” stands for? Roscoe. I love that name. It has a unique ring to it. I’ve never met a Roscoe. Does anyone name their kid Roscoe anymore? Sort of rhymes with Costco. I never liked going to Costco. It was always too cold inside.
Uh, oh. I’ve been cooped up in the house too long. Let’s hit the reset button.
Rarely in the annals of music history has an album cover said so much.
To appreciate the importance of the cover, think of Paul Westerberg as the anti-Joe DiMaggio. When the Yankee Clipper was asked why he consistently played so hard, he replied, “There is always some kid who may be seeing me for the first time. I owe him my best.” DiMag was the ultimate professional, giving it his all even when his body howled in protest, even when he would have rather skipped the doubleheader and stayed in his New York hotel residence bonking Marilyn Monroe.
Compare that to the orientation of Mr. Westerberg, as captured in Bob Mehr’s Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements. Shortly after a particularly disastrous Replacements performance, Russ Rieger, the head honcho of their management company, paid Westerberg a visit:
The next day, at the band’s hotel, Rieger got into a heated discussion with Westerberg, telling him, “This car-crash mentality is something you have to move away from. You write these amazing songs. Why are you sabotaging your own songs?”
Rieger’s platonic ideal of a performer was Bruce Springsteen: someone who wrung emotion out of every lyric, put himself on the line with each show, and gave 100 percent night after night. That’s what he wanted out of the Replacements.
“I’m not giving you 100 percent night after night,” replied Westerberg.
It had become his refrain, practically a mantra, during Pleased to Meet Me. When Westerberg said it to Jim Dickinson (producer), it was a question of trust; as he acted it out with the record company, it was a matter of insecurity. But as he spit out the words again to Rieger, it went far deeper. “I can’t mean it every night,” admitted Westerberg, meeting Rieger’s eyes. “I just can’t fuckin’ mean it every night.”
Westerberg viewed performing, as he did everything, in stark black-and-white terms. He could live with drunken insouciance or bored incompetence, so long as it was real. What he couldn’t do was fake it. And he wasn’t willing to put himself on the line emotionally. “For him there was no middle ground,” said Rieger. “That’s part of the reason people gravitated to him as an artist. It was all or nothing.”
Mehr, Bob. Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements. Boston, MA: DaCapo Press, 2016.
Mehr describes the cover as “A Faustian handshake between a scruffy rock-and-roller, played by Westerberg, and a bejeweled record company executive.” Given his fuck-the-fans orientation, it is doubtful that Westerberg designed the cover to serve as a heads-up to the fan base, a la “Hey, I’ve sold out to the establishment, but I’m still me.” It is more likely that the cover depicts Westerberg looking at his reflection in the mirror and facing the reality of his situation. Later in the chapter covering Pleased to Meet Me, producer Jim Dickinson recalled that “When we started, ‘art’ was a word he wouldn’t let me use . . . By the end of the session, he was calling himself an ‘artist.’” Westerberg had always resisted such an elitist label, but by the end of the sessions he admitted, ” . . . I’ve come to grips with the fact that I’m an artist. For years I pretended I wasn’t. I pretended I was a punk, I pretended I was a rocker, and a drunk, and a hoodlum. I’m not a hoodlum. I’m a fucking artist. And now I can deal with that.”
“That” is the simple truth that nearly every artist in history has at one time or another sold out to the (usually) men with the money. Imhotep was bankrolled by the pharaoh Djoser; Michelangelo by Pope Julius II; Shakespeare was bound the 3rd Earl of Southhampton. In today’s world, painters sell out to gallery owners, authors to publishing houses and musicians to media companies. Westerberg needed to face that reality without embracing it and learn to live with the tension.
While you do hear a few sops to commercial considerations on Pleased to Meet Me, most of those were added by Dickinson post-production. With dogmatic hard rocker Bob Stinson out of the band, Westerberg felt more comfortable expanding his songwriting playing field with touches of soul, folk and (most noticeably) cocktail hour accompaniment. The remaining three-person lineup rocks as hard as they ever did, but though the album received its fair share of critical accolades, Pleased to Meet Me sold only slightly better than Tim (#131 on the Billboard charts compared to #189). The Replacements turned out to be one of the best bands to never have a Top 20 single or Top 20 album—pretty solid evidence that the sellout wasn’t much of a sellout.
The opening track manages to affirm their disdain for commercialism and their rejection of the DiMaggio Doctrine while confirming their ability to dish out nasty, bad-ass rock ‘n’ roll without Bob Stinson lending a hand. “I. O. U.” is rough, raw and loose, driven by classic guitar riffs and a no-bullshit snare attack from Chris Mars, sustained by Paul Westerberg’s unique approach to phrasing and nasal background vocals that mirror the timbre of a moaning sax. Westerberg’s tone lies somewhere between devil-may-care and fuck-it-all; his voice is filled with grit and power. You know that he’s on his game in the second line of the song when he elongates the completely unimportant word “right” in the phrase, “Step right up son” with gravelly delight. The inspiration for “I. O. U.” came from none other than Iggy Pop, who became Westerberg’s hero when he witnessed an interchange between Iggy and a fan asking for an autograph. “IOU NOTHING,” penned Iggy, which Westerberg thought “was the coolest thing in the world.” (Mehr) While fans may interpret that act as cold rather than cool, it helped Westerberg clarify the attitude of an artist towards admirers: if you don’t maintain a healthy distance, you run the risk of letting them define you and deflect you from your artistic trajectory.
Speaking of artists who weren’t particularly fan-friendly, Alex Chilton certainly had more than his fill of professional management demanding he shape himself into a pop idol during his years with The Box Tops, moving on to start a band that would be as widely acclaimed and as commercially unsuccessful as The Replacements. His three Big Star albums and the fabulous anti-masterpiece Like Flies on Sherbert didn’t do dick as far as the charts were concerned but turned out to be a source of inspiration for bands driving the alt-rock/indie movements in the ’80s and ’90s. Westerberg met him after yet another disastrous concert in New York; contrarian Chilton thought was The Replacements were great and said he’d love to record with them. Chilton did work with The Replacements on a few demos, but none of the recordings saw the light of day at the time. Anyway, Westerberg remained an admirer, deciding to transform a song he’d been working on with the curious title “George from Outer Space” into a tribute to the underappreciated Chilton.
“Alex Chilton” is alternative power pop at its best, an explosive, bouncy number with a delightful rhythmic kick in the chorus accentuated by sharp, reverberating hand claps. The quirky lyrics certainly jibe with the quirky subject of the tribute, at one point “Checkin’ his stash by the trash at St. Mark’s Place,” then “Runnin’ ’round the house, Mickey Mouse and the Tarot cards/Falling asleep with a flop pop video on.” But the most memorable and poignant lyrics are saved for the remarkable chorus, a wish for a different world in which the obscure Mr. Chilton is lifted out of oblivion and into the hearts of children everywhere:
Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes ’round
They sing “I’m in love. What’s that song? I’m in love with that song.”
The limited supporting harmonies are a nice touch, adding a bit of sweetness to balance the power chord attack without softening it. What takes the song to another level is the fade, where Westerberg repeats the line “I’m in love. What’s that song? I’m in love with that song” several times over a background of acoustic rhythm guitar and uncredited mandolin. It’s a “wow” moment guaranteed to get you out of your seat, shake your fanny and clap like there’s no tomorrow. The joy generated by that fade makes “Alex Chilton” a leading contender for that all-important song I’m going to play at full blast when this fucking coronavirus shit finally comes to an end.
“I Don’t Know” is a hard-driving update on the band’s current status featuring Westerberg on the calls and Tommy Stinson and Mars on the responses. Essentially, Westerberg poses a series of questions to which his bandmates usually respond with “I don’t know.” An amateur detective would put two and two together and conclude that the opening laughter combined with poorly-articulated responses indicates that the boys were probably shit-faced drunk at the time, a daily reality that Dickinson learned to work with. “They wouldn’t be drunk enough early on in the day to get anything. Then they’d be good and drunk, and it would be great. And then they’d be too drunk, and they’d get useless. (Mehr).” Though the background “singers” are as sloppy as a poorly aimed-ejaculation, Paul Westerberg is on full-throated fire, a condition most apparent when the voices of his bandmates disappear on the chorus:
One foot in the door, the other one in the gutter
The sweet smell that they adore, I think I’d rather smother
Though he’s describing the same deal-with-the-devil dynamic depicted on the cover, to hear him sing it lets you know how strongly he felt it. The feeling isn’t so much discomfort as “what-the-hell, it-is-what-it-is, this-far-and-no-further.”
Pleased to Meet Me was recorded in Ardent Studios in Memphis, and as a member of The Dixie Flyers, producer Jim Dickinson just had to infuse some of the tracks with Memphis Soul. “I Don’t Know” definitely needed something to ground the drunken exuberance and Dickinson made the right call when he brought in future Rock Hall of Famer Steve Douglas on baritone sax. Douglas spends most of the time in minimalist mode, strengthening the bottom, but when he finally gets his place in the sun (after the countdown pause in the middle and on the fade), his wild solos sync perfectly with the drunken exuberance of the band. Though not all of Dickinson’s enhancements worked out, hiring Steve Douglas was a masterstroke.
The kudos to Jim Dickinson keep on comin’ with his decision to bring it Edward “Prince Gabe” Kirby to play alto sax on “Nightclub Jitters.” Kirby was a Beale Street fixture for five decades who earned his nickname because someone told him he played trumpet like the angel Gabriel. I can’t comment on the comparison as I’ve never heard Gabriel’s licks or Prince Gabe on the trumpet, but even from listening to this too-small sample I can tell that Kirby was one hell of a sax player. As luck would have it, Kirby passed away a few weeks after the recording sessions, so I’m hoping he went to heaven and challenged Gabriel to a cutting contest. According to Mehr, Tommy Stinson heard that Prince Gabe had died “fucking a whore,” adding, in what were no doubt rapturous tones, “That’s the way we wanted to go out. If you gotta go, you wanna go out onstage or fucking.”
Well, yeah, unless you’re the girl trapped under a hundred-and-eighty pounds of dead weight. The Associated Press reported that Kirby died after he had “collapsed at home,” which sounds like journo-speak for dying in the middle of a glorious ejaculation. Let me check something . . . yep . . . Nelson Rockefeller died “of an apparent heart attack.” Now that is fake news.
Getting back to “Nightclub Jitters,” I love how the song immediately transports you to a dark and smoky joint that may have a neon sign out front advertising the place as a “cocktail lounge,” but the two or three burned-out letters tell you that it’s a dive bar way past its prime. Over in the far corner you see a worse-for-the-wear Westerberg at the upright piano, the slop from a glass of bourbon on the rocks barely glistening in the dim pink spotlight shining on the dust-encrusted piano top. Meanwhile, Tommy Stinson stares idly at the filthy vinyl floor, occasionally yawning as he plunks gently on his bass and Chris Mars plays no-effort rim shots while keeping his eyes on the faded Longines clock, its hands steadfastly refusing to fast-forward to quitting time, much to his chagrin. Westerberg’s vocal starts out as if someone had nudged him out of a snooze, and remains a low-volume, low-energy effort throughout. Just in case you’re misinterpreting my commentary as negative criticism, let me clarify: the apparent lack of anything closely resembling a pulse in The Replacements’ performance on “Nightclub Jitters” is just about the most perfect thing they ever did. This is how music creates atmosphere, and this is one atmosphere I want to experience! I wanna be the platinum blonde in that bar consuming Pall Malls and vodka martinis (vodka from the well, of course), blowing off the soldiers in town on a weekend pass and the lonely conventioneers so desperate for a roll in the hay that they’ll bang a platinum blonde way past her prime sitting in a place that’s way past its prime listening to musicians who sound like they’re way past their prime. At the end of the song, I’ll say to the band, “That was real nice, boys. Let me buy you a drink.” Then I’d take them to my shag-carpeted apartment and fuck them all, taking care to ensure that the three young’uns would survive the experience.
Well, that would be my plan until the end of the first bridge when Prince Gabe makes his entrance. Sexy, sinuous and sensitive wins out over lean and hungry every time. Note that this is a fantasy, not a confession: I was only five years old when Prince Gabe left in all his glory, so don’t try to pin his collapse on me.
Paul Westerberg would write several songs about suicide, but “The Ledge” was by far the most controversial. Its release as the lead single—a pretty questionable decision from any perspective—has been blamed for the weaker-than-anticipated sales of Pleased to Meet Me. Like Lennon after the “more popular than Jesus” brouhaha, Westerberg had to defend the song repeatedly in interviews; unlike The Beatles, The Replacements were not the most popular band in the history of the universe. The Beatles could afford the bad press because they had built up tons of goodwill; The Replacements couldn’t afford the controversy. Oddly enough, Westerberg’s defense was pretty solid—he wrote about suicide because it was happening and no one seemed to give a damn. Musically, it’s easily the tightest song on the album, featuring an exceptionally sensitive and emotionally expansive performance from Westerberg; lyrically, Westerberg does a marvelous job by having his suicidal narrator comment on the indifference that surrounds him while standing on the ledge (“Wind blows cold from the west/I smell coffee, I smell doughnuts for the press”) as opposed to reciting a long litany of grievances or delving into excessive self-pity. When he sings, “I’m the boy they can’t ignore/For the first time in my life, I’m sure,” he knows that all the attention he’s receiving now is as utterly impersonal as the lack of attention paid to him in his brief existence. So, fuck it—he jumps with a scream to his death, the reporters have their story, the cop did the best he could, viewers of the nightly news shake their heads and ask, “What’s for dessert?” Yes, “The Ledge” is an uncomfortable song indeed, but a damn fine piece of work from a guy who had attempted suicide but somehow managed to distance himself enough from the subject matter to write a believable, evocative story.
I don’t know what they were thinking with “Never Mind,” but it sounds like they weren’t. Westerberg sounds drunker than usual, straining to hit the notes and failing to achieve any sense of coherence in his phrasing. Channeling the guitar through a Leslie speaker gives the song a mid-period Beatles or early-period Who touch, but can’t save what is essentially a poor performance. “Valentine” was a song pulled out of the reject pile at the last minute because Warner wanted another track to comply with the running time paradigms of the day, and the less-than-enthusiastic performance reflects that. “Shooting Dirty Pool” is just Westerberg bitching about a no-account promoter who bad-mouthed The ‘Mats on college radio after yet another crappy concert. File it under “Men Can Be So Silly” and move on.
I run into an inherent bias in evaluating “Red, Red Wine,” as I have been a wine snob since the age of twelve when my mother began what proved to be a lengthy and thorough oenological education, with close attention paid to the impact of a given terroir on the character of the finished product. When I hear Westerberg sing, “Gallo or Muscatel, either one would be just swell,” I think, “Disgusting!” And when I hear him categorize all red wine into a single bucket like there’s no difference between Gamay, Pinot and Grenache, I think, “The man’s an idiot.” In any case, the song doesn’t feel quite right to me—they seem to be rocking without a whole lot of underlying commitment and it comes through as “forced enthusiasm.” Given my resistance to this song, those of you who are less anal about wine are free to provide an alternative point of view.
I’m not referring to the weather when I tell you that I think Minneapolis is a pretty cool city, and one of the coolest things about it is the Skyway, now consisting of 9.5 miles of second-floor enclosed walkways that connect the commercial and entertainment highlights, from stores to hotels to sports venues. Ladies with delicate skin like mine can download a map of the Skyway system when preparing for a visit and work out how to avoid interactions with sub-zero temperatures or breath-sucking heat and humidity. For that reason alone, Minneapolis wins my vote as the most thoughtful and considerate city in the USA.
There’s your superficial tourist take; now we’ll hear from one of the natives.
When you’ve grown up in a certain place and have become thoroughly familiar with the sights, you tend to see patterns instead of details. In “Skyway,” Paul Westerberg positions himself on a one-way street below the Skyway, “the place where I’d catch my ride most every day.” His wait coincides with the schedule of a woman who uses the Skyway regularly to get to wherever she’s going, most likely to work. For him, the Skyway isn’t a glass-enclosed path of convenience but a symbol of separation—and given the human tendency to see “higher” as superior to “lower” in everything from architecture to hierarchy, the Skyway becomes a metaphor for caste differences. He draws small comfort from the fact that the Skyway isn’t the bourgeois refuge it seems to be (“It’s got bums when it’s cold like any other place”), but still clings to the fantasy of meeting the girl someday. Figuring that she would never lower herself to walk the streets, he decides to take the elevator up to the Skyway:
Oh, then one day, I saw you walkin’ down that little one-way
Where . . . the place I’d catch my ride most everyday
There wasn’t a damn thing I could do or say
Up in the skyway
The key to interpreting the song lies in what appears to be a throwaway line in the first verse. After he sees the girl walking high up in the Skyway, he turns his attention to his appearance: “In my stupid hat and gloves . . .” The cause behind the failure to connect isn’t about physical separation or even class in and of itself, but the separation caused by the shame of perceiving himself to be “less than.” That last verse serves as sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy of personal shaming.
The arrangement is one of blessed simplicity: acoustic guitar enhanced with echoing reverb and just a touch of vibraphone. Westerberg’s vocal is appropriately weary and tinted with heartache, completely free of any hints of sardonic compromise. Speaking of degrees of shame, Westerberg recorded this alone, early in the morning before his mates had recovered from the nightly bender, because he didn’t want them to see him as soft. I’ll just say he should be very proud of “Skyway” and omit the urge to comment (again) on male silliness.
Pleased to Meet Me should have ended with “Skyway,” but instead we get the producer-dominated “Can’t Hardly Wait.” This not-much-of-a-song had been around for a while, but The Replacements never found a satisfying arrangement. Jim Dickinson took over and added horns in all the wrong places and (gasp) strings to a song that simply couldn’t handle their weightiness. Westerberg hated the strings as much as I do, confirming my opinion of him as a man with excellent taste in music.
Having now reviewed three Replacements albums and listened to all the others, I can safely say there never was nor should there have ever been a perfect Replacements album. Perfection is the most pernicious lie of all, and the quest to achieve perfection is the ultimate fool’s errand. I think I like Let It Be and Tim a bit more than Pleased to Meet Me, but I always love listening to The Replacements because of the imperfections. The Replacements were fully committed to being real, and for the most part they managed to stay real despite enormous pressures to engage in pretense. They may not have done as well in the charts as they might have if they’d totally sold out, but they made a greater contribution to music by remaining true to their blessedly human flaws.