Tag Archives: Alex Chilton

Alex Chilton – Like Flies on Sherbert – Classic Music Review

The original title was Like Flies on Shit. Most of the recordings were made on flaky equipment by musicians in varying degrees of drunkenness. Vocals are mumbled, lyrics often unintelligible. On some songs it feels like Alex Chilton asked himself, “What are the most abrasive and obnoxious noises I can come up with?” and then made absolutely sure he captured those annoying sounds on tape. The producer filled in as guitarist because Alex thought he was a terrible guitar player. All the tracks contain multiple fuck-ups like missed cues, false starts, accidental noises and background chatter. The name of the frozen confection that replaced the word “shit” in the title is misspelled, but the title still evokes an image of something totally disgusting. And though the final mix took a year to complete, Like Flies on Sherbert was universally condemned on release for its poor sound quality, terrible balance and utter lack of professionalism.

Goddamn, I love the fuck out of this record.

Alex Chilton had hoped to turn his success as lead singer of The Box Tops into a more satisfying and successful career as songwriter and creative force behind Big Star, but ran into a series of obstacles from the get-go. The first was that despite a series of chart-toppers with The Box Tops, his name was curiously unfamiliar to the listening audience. My Big Star fan father explained it this way: “The Box Tops were a white soul pop band who weren’t taken all that seriously, so there wasn’t a lot of background chatter about them in comparison to the heavies of the era. People knew Jagger, Daltrey and Robert Plant. I didn’t know who Alex Chilton was until I discovered Big Star. And even then I couldn’t believe that was the same guy on ‘The Letter’ and ‘Cry Like a Baby.'” That delightfully gruff voice, a product of sore throat and plenty of Camels, gave way to a mid-to-high range voice with greater emotive capability.

The second problem Chilton ran into is that his melodic rock—the precursor of power pop—was yesterday’s news. “Rock had gotten a lot heavier, and Big Star sounded like something out of the mid-sixties,” dad commented. “If they’d released some of those songs in ’66, people would still be singing them today.” The failure of Big Star to catch on—certainly aggravated by indifferent promotion and distribution by Stax and Columbia—led to an unstable lineup and uncertain direction. Their last release—attributed to Big Star only for marketing purposes—was pretty much an Alex Chilton solo effort. Like all the Big Star releases, Third/Sister Lovers was critically acclaimed and commercially ignored. “I was and I think I still am the only Big Star fan I know,” claims my dear father, extraordinarily proud of his early discovery of a band that became quite influential over the years.

Commercial failure, over-the-top substance abuse and tenuous mental health resulted in the darker songs that pop up about halfway through Third/Sister Lovers. Those songs revealed a depth and complexity missing from his previous work, and one could have easily imagined Alex moving in a more contemplative direction in the future, accompanied by piano and strings rather than guitar and drums. Instead, we have Like Flies on Sherbert, which AllMusic critic Stephen Erlewine called “a front-runner for the worst album ever made.”

Other critics jump through hoops trying to connect the darker songs on Third/Sister Lovers to what they perceive as its disastrous follow-up. The narrative goes something like this—failure led to substance abuse, depression and mental instability, and Alex Chilton brought all that into the studio, providing irrefutable, recorded evidence that he was well on his way to self-destruction. The man was suffering and he chose to dump all his psychic shit into our unsuspecting ears.

But was he really suffering on Like Flies on Sherbert?

I don’t buy that explanation for a second. First, it sounds like Alex had a helluva good time! Like Flies on Sherbert is loaded with humor, sometimes black, sometimes Pythonesque, often beautifully accidental. The “mistakes” are a hoot because everyone knows they’re mistakes and none of them detract from the feel of the music. “So, you fucked up. Who gives a shit? Welcome to the human race.” In several cases, the mistakes improve the song, a paradox that challenges our sacred beliefs regarding professionalism. “Then why should any musician bother to get the song right?” you ask. “Exactly!” I reply. Like Flies on Sherbert is not so much a musical experience as an experience that demands an attitudinal adjustment on the part of the listener.

The attitudinal adjustment you need to appreciate Like Flies on Sherbert sprang from an attitude shift on the part of one Alex Chilton. That shift began with blown expectations, a common feature of all journeys that turn out to be worth the trip. Alex’s original plan for the album—an intimate recording session with producer Jim Dickinson and “one or two other people”—was blasted to bits when he showed up to find Dickinson had brought his entire band. Alex’s reaction to it all was the classic response of the improviser—say “YES!”

I thought . . . “hmmm, well, this isn’t what I had in mind really!” . . . but I didn’t say anything. I just thought we should try it an’ see how it goes.

George-Warren, Holly (2014-03-20). A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man (p. 215). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

I think what happened next is that Alex began to reconnect with his teenage self. In the period leading up to the recording sessions, he had been taking in the emerging punk scene in New York and was trying to introduce punk to the hometown crowd in Memphis. Although Like Flies on Sherbert does not embrace the model of three-chord rock played at lightning speed, the attitude is pure fuck-it-all punk—and Young Alex was a guy with attitude. His thirteen-year-old girlfriend described him thusly: “He was funny and good-looking. He had a swagger and held a Camel like no other.” Young Alex was James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, smirking, smoking, setting off firecrackers—a part of himself that he’d revealed in late-period Big Star shows but very rarely on record. Shedding the expectations that had followed him since the days of The Box Tops, Alex reconnected with his rock essence, with his inner James Dean . . . though the consummate professional musician still had his doubts:

We started recordin’ an’ I thought, ‘Man, these guys don’t know the songs . . .’ an’ I was trying to teach them, and they’d go, ‘Yeah, we know the songs,’ and then just go and play the first thing they thought of. So we were rollin’ the tape and we were doin’ all this outrageous soundin’ stuff. . . . An’ I thought ‘Man that must sound terrible.’ But when I went in and heard what we’d been doin’, man, it was just this incredible soundin’ stuff.

George-Warren, Holly (2014-03-20). A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man (p. 215). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The second reason I think critics have gone too far to dismiss Like Flies on Sherbert as evidence of instability comes from Alex’s own testimony:

“My life was on the skids, and Like Flies on Sherbert was a summation of that period,” he later reflected. “I like that record a lot. It’s crazy but it’s a positive statement about a period in my life that wasn’t positive.”

George-Warren, Holly (2014-03-20). A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man (p. 239). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The history of the artist in every branch of art is riddled with fragile sanity, drugs and alcohol, as if an artist is a person doomed to exist in a purgatory where one door leads to creation and the other to self-destruction. After all, an artist is a person who chooses to differentiate him or herself from the status quo, and the status quo always informs our definition of sanity. It’s no wonder that “mental instability” is a common thread in art—we wouldn’t have art if artists were always “mentally stable.” Therefore, it’s not at all surprising that Alex Chilton would do some of his best work while suffering and searching for the thing inside that he needed to express. It sounds to me like the recording sessions to Like Flies on Sherbert were actually a healing experience for him, a temporary respite from the downs and a reconnection with the reason he wanted to play rock ‘n’ roll in the first place:

Good rock & roll started from the rockabilly singers of the fifties. It has always been wild and out of control, and you had a real chaotic sense, and the punk thing has brought that back pretty strongly. To me, it’s just good rock & roll. Rock & roll is supposed to be out of control, and it’s crazy and it’s supposed to drive you crazy.

George-Warren, Holly (2014-03-20). A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man (p. 223). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

And if there’s one album that epitomizes wild, out-of-control chaos, it’s Like Flies on Sherbert. 

*****

There are three different versions of Like Flies on Sherbert. My dad has the Aura version (British), so that’s what you’re going to get. Though I don’t target music consumers on this blog, let me give you a heads-up: you can get the vinyl version on Amazon for about two hundred bucks.

Thank my lucky stars for a father with a great vinyl collection!

The Aura version opens with “Boogie Shoes,” a B-side from K. C. and the Sunshine Band. Like all of K. C.’s offerings, the original is slick, sexless and thoroughly overproduced. Alex Chilton’s version is messy, hot as yours truly on a Saturday night and as for production, well . . . Alex misses his cue and starts his vocal too early, the bass player takes a few measures to get in sync with the drummer and the fills feature an electric guitar with treble knobs on both guitar and amp set to the max, in shocking contrast to the bass-heavy bottom. I guarantee that when you listen to the album on headphones the first time, you will yank them off your head when the guitar comes in. Jim Dickinson turns into an absolute madman on the piano, taking over the groove and driving the forward movement. About two-thirds of the way through the song, the electric guitar overloads one channel, destroying everything in its wake for a few seconds. Somehow the band manages to pull itself out of the precipice to put together a pretty hot guitar duet, leading to the rather anticlimactic ending with Alex mumbling his way half-heartedly through the closing line. As a statement to Big Star fans expecting lovely harmonies, professional production and further development of Alex Chilton’s songwriting skills, “Boogie Shoes” is one stiff middle finger; as a statement of returning to the essence of rock ‘n’ roll and its inherent amateurism, it is a goddamn masterpiece—an absolutely gorgeous, sloppy mess of opener.

Next up is “My Rival,” our first Alex Chilton original. The buzz around this song focuses on its “darkness,” to which I respond, “Is there a music critic in the house with a fucking sense of humor?” Alex Chilton takes on the ever-present cave man mentality of insecure American men raised on the silly belief that women are property that other men can steal from you. Alex—who had recently been cast aside by a girl for a drummer, no less—fits nicely into the role of the cuckolded loser who blames his loss of pussy on his rival, the evil shadowy figure who “has muscles and is a deceitful person,” and “stole my girl away.” Feeling safe enough to dish out the trash talk when alone in his bed, he takes his bitterness to the logical conclusion:

And I haven’t got nothing
And I’m dropping off to sleep
And I had rather be a killer
I’m gonna shore my confidence up

My rival I’m gonna stab him on arrival
Shoot him dead, my rival

Exposing one’s worst thoughts through verbalization is a fairly effective way to show you how silly you are, so my take on the song is Alex is telling himself, “What the fuck were you thinking, man?”

The “arrangement” for “My Rival” is really no arrangement at all—it sounds like you’ve stepped into the garage and the band is about to take a shot at this new song they wrote. You hear Alex on distorted guitar playing the intro riff, but no one else in the band is quite ready, so you get some test runs on the Mini Moog before bass and drums step in—probably after looking at each other with the “Am I supposed to come in now?” face common in jam sessions. It takes a few bars for the drummer to take control of the rhythm, but once he does, the song settles into a dark and sexy groove. Meanwhile, Jim Dickinson is “just turning knobs” on the Mini Moog, adding a patina of general weirdness to the mix. “My Rival” doesn’t end so much as it collapses, with no one stopping at the same time and Alex commenting, “Sounds pretty hot.” I echo that sentiment—for all it’s sloppiness, “My Rival” is a great rock ‘n’ roll song—sexy, quirky and definitely anti-establishment. And as for Alex’s madness and its influence on Like Flies on Sherbert, lo and behold, there was a method after all:

At the same time Alex focused on playing distorted guitar, looking for new ways to attack the instrument. “Alex was at a juncture,” Sid Selvidge recalled. “He’d had a real bad experience with the Big Star stuff and was trying to distance himself from his acceptable past, I felt, because what he would do at the Procape would chase people off. They didn’t understand it. His whole concept was, If I were a thirteen-year-old right now, and I were just learning my instrument, how would I play guitar? People don’t realize what an accomplished guitar player Alex is, his versatility. He’s a consummate guitarist. So from that level of sophistication, he was trying to play without knowing all that he knows. He was trying to play note for note what somebody who doesn’t play the guitar would play like. That’s a pretty convoluted concept, but that was his idea. And it fits perfectly into rock & roll. This was popular music to him— from where he came at it and got his hits in the first place.”

George-Warren, Holly (2014-03-20). A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man (p. 188). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Keeping it as hot as my girlfriend in a studded leather bra, “Hey! Little Child” comes next, and though it takes about twenty seconds for the band to achieve the tightness this song requires, they do get there, grooving to the straightforward beat and nailing the repetition of the word “Hey!” that serves as the chorus. The beat drives the song, but the guitar fills are a delight, uncovering more melodic possibilities in the simple chord structure. The only oddity in the song is the use of a toy piano (or a horribly recorded real piano), but somehow it manages to lighten the overall sound without weakening it. The little child in the song is a Catholic teen girl in her school uniform, the ultimate symbol of superficially repressed but ready-to-rock sexuality. The stiff and steady beat reflects both her faux formality and the observer’s scarcely disguised desire to slip his stiff one in between her skirt, missionary style. With its disciplined simplicity and strong forward movement, “Hey! Little Child” is the most obvious evidence of Alex Chilton’s time in the New York punk scene.

By contrast, “Hook or Crook” has the breeziness of early Stones records with a touch of country, featuring a series of hot guitar licks to remind the listening audience, that yes, Alex Chilton knew how to play. Easily the most mistake-free song on the album, “Hook or Crook” turns out to be the least interesting track. “Bring back the fuck-ups!” I shout with brimming impatience, and the band responds with a cover version of The Bell Notes’ 1959 hit, “I’ve Had It.” Jim Dickinson takes the lead vocal on this one, making a game attempt to try to find the right key during the intro. He finally sort of gets there, delivering a performance that falls somewhere between bad karaoke and last-drunk-at-the-party. Alex sings in the second-fiddle position to give the vocal some depth, throwing in a little falsetto here and there that’s also a little off. The piano tends to stray from the percussion role from time to time with block chords that bear little or no relation to the theme. The ending is executed with no precision whatsoever, and I’m as happy as a slut with hard ones in all three available orifices.

And I’m even happier (if that’s possible—three at once would be an awesome experience!) with “Rock Hard,” a song that Alex re-jiggered during the mixing process. Even with the rewrites and overdubs, the feel remains loose and underproduced, and Alex sings this song like his penis is ready to explode. The lyrics essentially riff on the multiple connotations of the phrase “rock hard,” forming what is in essence a sexual meditation:

Rock hard
Everybody
Rock Hard
Have a party
Get down
Way down
Way on down
Rock Hard

Rock Hard
Ripples
Rock Hard
Nipples

Alex does attend to the penis later in the song, thrillingly connecting a rock hard member to BDSM tendencies (fuck yeah!):

Rock Hard
Honey bee
Nice and mean
Is really sweet
It’s gettin’ hard
Like a shot
Rock Hard

The low-fi Duane Eddy-like riff is pure classic rock, and Alex’s solos (one repeating a single, twangy note) stick to the beautiful basics. I would have liked the piano to sound a bit more Fats Domino, but as it is, “Rock Hard” is one seriously hot number.

We now get three cover songs in a row, each from different genres. “Girl After Girl” is a fairly faithful rendition (vocally speaking) of Troy Shondell’s (real name Gary Wayne Shelton) hit that earned him the completely deserved status of a one-hit wonder. The song is bloody awful, and because Troy Shondell, re-named after early 60’s matinee idol Troy Donahue, tried with all his might to sound like Elvis, we get an Elvis impersonator’s version of an Elvis impersonator. After asking “What song is this?” Alex dives with great intensity into what proves to be a false start. When the band gets going, they manage to pull off a decent reproduction of bad surf music. It’s okay, but probably the weakest track on the album.

In the mid 1960’s, “Waltz Across Texas” was a big hit for Ernest Tubb, the Texas Troubadour. The contrast between Tubb’s strong, confident vocal and Alex’s sloshy mess couldn’t be greater. It’s like you walked into the worst honky-tonk bar in the world at 1 a. m. and, because it’s a slow night, the bartender-owner decided to let the busboy pull out his gee-tar and play for the two or three drunks propped up against the bar. Unfortunately, the bus boy can’t sing worth shit and has the habit of spitting out the word “Texas” like he’s spitting out bloody teeth. Alex finally goes fucking mad towards the end, clearly identifying the piece as satire.

The best of the three in this clump of covers is “Alligator Man,” where Alex delivers his vocal in his natural voice with genuine enthusiasm over the thumps, labored guitar and general uncertainty of his fellow band members. The song was sort of a novelty hit for Jimmy C. Newman, a guy who spent his career wobbling between country and cajun. Alex plays and sings with gusto, clearly carrying the band, who really don’t sound all that sure about this cajun stuff.

The title track closes the album, a perfect end to our journey into chaos, a song both grand and ridiculous, a performance so dysfunctional yet so perfect. The grandiosity of the piece comes from the synthesized theme, the big booming drums resembling timpani and the introduction of choral voices as the song builds to the finale. The ridiculous dysfunction comes from the fact that the synthesizer sounds like crap and the choral voices are the voices of rank amateurs. The lyrics are almost completely unintelligible, with “It’s . . . so fine” serving as the only clearly understandable line in a word salad consisting of German and perhaps another language (or English in a generic imitation of a foreign accent). The progression of the song is defined by the character of Alex Chilton’s voice, which moves from Beach Boy-quality falsetto to the screams of the first guy out the door when the inmates take over the asylum. I can’t give you a musical or technical explanation as to why this song works, I have no idea why I get happy when it comes up and I am completely unable to identify the part of my personality that causes me to sing along to a song whose words I CAN’T FUCKING UNDERSTAND . . . but to me, “Like Flies on Sherbert” is a hoot, a grand send-up of the pomposity of album closers that present themselves as serious, meaningful reflections on life but are as empty as the vacuum of space.

And once again, it sounds like Alex is having the time of his life, shedding years of frustration and a whole slew of expectations. Various accounts from those in the studio during the Sherbert sessions describe Alex Chilton as moody, prone to extremes and an absolute prick at times. The booze, coke and crystal meth probably didn’t do much to foster a sunny disposition, and there is little doubt that he was a man in need of professional assistance. Still, there are many moments on Like Flies on Sherbert when he sounds as happy as a teenage punk scoping out the chicks with a cigarette dangling from his lips, fully wired to the energy source that drives rock ‘n’ roll—the sweet spirit of defiance, the glorious rejection of taboos, the lightness of the freed soul.

And that’s the Alex Chilton I choose to remember.

The Replacements – Tim – Classic Music Review

51pq2a17fdl

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 . . .

%d bloggers like this: