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.
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:
Have a party
Way on down
Alex does attend to the penis later in the song, thrillingly connecting a rock hard member to BDSM tendencies (fuck yeah!):
Nice and mean
Is really sweet
It’s gettin’ hard
Like a shot
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.