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
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 . . .
I’m not much of a celebrity hound, so I don’t often cry when I hear the news of a celebrity’s passing. I may take some time to reflect on their contributions to human culture, which in turn may move me to tears, but I hardly ever cry when I first hear the news. The process of taking your average human being and transforming them into a celebrity is an act of distortion, and if there’s one quality I prize above all in relationships, it’s authenticity. I don’t know how to relate to a distortion.
Oddly enough, I do cry when I hear of the deaths of innocent people I’ve never met, so this isn’t “I have to know you to give a shit about you.” I can relate to people who aren’t distorted through the prism of fame; it’s harder to see the real person behind any celebrity, given the filters of publicity and hype.
The one time I did cry from the get-go on hearing the sad news was when I learned of Joe Strummer’s death in December 2002. I was in LAX waiting for the home-for-the-holidays flight when I overheard a conversation between two fellow travelers sitting behind me. I spun around and interrupted them with, “What did you say about Joe Strummer?” and one of them replied, “He died. It was on the news this morning.” The shock caused me to spin violently away from them and burst into tears. I remember people looking at me with concern or annoyance, their misshapen faces contorted through a cascade of tears. The crying jag continued through the boarding process and throughout the flight. I looked so perfectly pathetic that the airline attendants offered me free booze, without bothering to check my ID (I’d only just turned twenty-one).
I’ve reflected on my reaction from time to time, especially when other famous musical artists have passed into the great beyond. When I learned of the deaths of Bowie and Prince, I was very upset but didn’t shed any tears until I listened to their music and appreciated the extent of the loss. The fundamental difference is that Bowie and Prince seemed “larger than life,” while Joe Strummer always felt real and accessible to me. If I had run into Joe Strummer in a bar somewhere, I can imagine plopping my ass on the stool next to his and immediately engaging in delightful conversation on a wide range of subjects while we smoked up a storm. This was a man who studiously avoided the ridiculous trappings of stardom and who voluntarily took a cut in his royalties to fulfill his vision of Sandinista! He wrote and sung about things that mattered to me and validated my self-image as a common citizen of the world who cares about that world and the people in it. He poked fun at pretense, challenged unthinking authority and stood up for those left behind by unfeeling bureaucracies and politicians. Joe Strummer was the living validation of some of my most cherished values.
But more than anything else, it was the spirit of the man that made him so very, very special. From a technical perspective, he was never a great singer, but he more than made up for his vocal deficiencies with an undeniable élan that could charm even the most dogmatic musicologist. His openness to a variety of musical traditions always manifested itself in genuine enthusiasm for the music and the culture that produced it. While most of us live our lives defensively and protectively, Joe Strummer lived his life like a great improv comedian, saying “Yes!” to every offer.
What upset me the most about his passing was it happened way, way too soon. David Bowie left behind a solid body of work that will live for centuries. Joe Strummer still had a lot of gas in the tank when he died, and I ache to think about the music I’ll never hear, and the fresh, restorative perspectives he always provided.
Streetcore is proof positive that Joe Strummer still had it and then some.
Due to a combination of disputes with Sony and what he described as his own laziness, Joe Strummer had been essentially out of the music business for ten years when The Mescaleros produced their first album. Rock Art and the X-Ray Style feels at first like an extension of late-period Clash with longer songs and reggae sensibilities, but the arrangements are much more complex and layered, displaying the multi-instrumental talents of the band. The marvelous closer, “Willesden to Cricklewood,” demonstrated that Joe’s lyrical talents had not atrophied during his absence. The second album, Global a Go-Go, corrects the faults of that massive sprawl known as Sandinista! by giving us a thoroughly enjoyable guided tour through the world music scene.
Streetcore was to be the next release, and the band had gone pretty far in the recording process when Joe passed away. While Joe never got a crack at the final mix (about which there was some grumbling from fandom) and some of the tracks are first-take vocals, band members Martin Slattery and Scott Shields did a superb job with the mixing and the mastering. Their work on Streetcore succeeds on many levels, but most importantly, Slattery and Shields’ production allows Joe Strummer’s irrepressible, undying spirit to shine through. Joe’s vocals sound as strong and confident as they did on London Calling, and the inclusion of two Joe-and-acoustic-guitar songs give Streetcore an unusual sense of intimacy, as if you’re hanging out with Joe in the living room while he plays some tunes he picked up on his travels. While the general consensus describes Streetcore as Joe Strummer’s return to his rock ‘n’ roll roots, the diverse influences that formed Joe Strummer’s approach to music still remain, giving the rock-oriented pieces greater richness. There’s also more than a touch of American country-western music, appropriate for a record where Joe continued to explore his combined wonder and exasperation with the United States.
Streetcore opens delightfully with “Coma Girl,” a melodic-harmonic rocker with deftly-executed rhythmic changes and gorgeous energy. The opening of the song is absolutely thrilling, with Joe’s voice soaring with total commitment over the spare accompaniment of a rough electric guitar providing a tension-building rhythm. Whenever I hear Joe sing those opening lines, I want to scream out, “Oh, man, have I missed the fuck out of you!” The bass enters subtly on the third line, but interestingly enough, avoids duplication of the main rhythm while foreshadowing a brief shift to a reggae beat in the transition lines (“And the rain came in from the wide blue yonder/Through all the stages I wandered”). All this is a build-up to the driving chorus, with its catchy tune and energizing harmonies. This pattern will repeat itself throughout the song, leading to the let-it-the-fuck-out closing choruses. While the pattern has enough variety to keep the listener interested, Joe varies both phrasing and melody throughout the song to give it added spice.
The lyrics are based on Joe’s frequent visits to the Glastonbury Festival, and the song has become something of a festival anthem since Bruce Springsteen opened his set with “Coma Girl” in tribute to Joe back in 2009. However, the lyrics could easily be applied to the vibes at any American outdoor music festival or a Dead concert (“I was crawling through a festival way out west/I was thinking about love and the acid test”). Here in the “wide blue yonder” Joe encounters the Coma Girl, “Mona Lisa on the motorcycle gang,” an alluring and mysterious figure completely fixated on excitement in the present tense. Nothin’ like a babe on a motorcycle to send guys and discriminating gals into a coma! The last verse establishes her presence as the woman in charge (fuck yeah!) while cleverly synthesizing a series of symbolic images from rock rebel culture:
As the 19th hour was falling upon Desolation Row
Some outlaw band had the last drop on the go
‘Let’s siphon up some gas let’s get this show on the road’
Said the Coma Girl to the excitement gang
Into action everybody sprang
The oil drums were beating out doo-lang, doo-lang
Joe Strummer was the embodiment of the rebellious spirit that drives great rock ‘n’ roll, and “Coma Girl” is a great rock song because it captures that ethos so beautifully.
Way back on Sandinista! Joe tried his hand at preachin’ to the masses with “The Sound of Sinners,” with mixed results. He does much, much better with the more melodic pattern and hot groove of “Get Down Moses,” a mesmerizing, ass-shaking experience. Part anti-drug message and part biting commentary about the modern irrelevance and ineffectiveness of ol’ time religion, Joe is in superb voice and the band is in top form. I just love listening to this arrangement with its diverse instrumentation providing unexpected splashes of color over tight percussion and heart-melting bass. And I really love the line, “Sayin’ the truth crystallizes it like jewels in the rock, in the rock,” something we all have to remember in these horrible days of alternative facts and orange-haired frothing at the mouth.
We get a nice shift with “The Long Shadow,” a song Joe originally wrote for Johnny Cash, whose work he deeply admired. Joe extended a Southern California vacation to hang out with Johnny during the recording of American IV: The Man Comes Around simply because he loved hanging out with The Man in Black. The unforeseen meeting of these two greats did result in the Cash-Strummer duet of “Redemption Song,” but we’ll get to that in a minute. In truth, “The Long Shadow” is a tribute song where Joe emulates Johnny’s singing style with obvious gusto (and a faux-Western drawl). I find it hard to imagine Johnny Cash actually covering the song, especially with lines that are so Strummer-ish like “And I hear punks talk of anarchy.” Even so, I enjoy listening to Joe adopt the primitive style of country-western singers and strummers, and as was true with everything he did, he put his whole heart and soul into the effort. The song’s epitaph is a fascinating admission of a man who spent a good deal of his life exploring the music of diverse cultures, and expresses something I’ve recently come to appreciate about myself:
Somewhere in my soul
There’s always rock and roll
When I’ve been away from rock for a while, it’s the emotional equivalent of nicotine withdrawal on a transatlantic flight: I simply have to have it and have it NOW! In Joe Strummer’s case, I think he was self-aware enough to know that his voice and orientation towards life was best manifested in the driving rhythms, nasty guitars and the inherent fuck-the-authorites character of rock ‘n’ roll. When it came to rock ‘n’ roll, Joe Strummer was The Natural.
This is vividly demonstrated on the next track, “Arms Aloft,” the most exciting rock ‘n’ roll number in the Strummer repertoire since “Clampdown.” This explosive number starts in an entirely disarming manner with a static beat leading to the first verse, where Joe sings over a guitar playing a pattern of selected high octave notes from the simple F-C chord pattern. The relative quiet reflects the mood of the lyrics, where Joe is singing to a friend going through one of those “life’s fucked me in the ass without lube” moments and can use a little empathy from a fellow traveler:
Sometimes there’s no star shining
Scouting the edge of the universe
Sometimes you can’t see a horizon
Between the ocean and the earth
The guitar then shifts to a fuller but still subdued version of the F-C pattern, joined by a solid bottom of bass and drum. After two rounds, Joe re-enters with a slight sneer in his voice to indicate that he ain’t buying this poor-me shit—“And just when you were thinking about slinking . . . ” and the guitar pattern collapses into a perfectly out-of-nowhere, delightfully devilish F#5 on the concluding word, “. . . down.” Now Joe is ready to drive this baby home with “I’m gonna pull you up! I’m gonna pull you ’round!” Then WHAM! We get full, deep thrust in an explosion of driving rock ‘n’ roll with Joe’s voice squeezed through a filter to emphasize the shift. The words that burst out of the sonic sieve are a timeless reminder to everyone that when things are going bad, we all have the tendency to shade everything in a negative tint and behave as if we’re acting out our parts in a disaster movie with no hope of rescue. “Fuck that!” responds Mr. Strummer:
May I remind you of that scene
The spirit is our gasoline
May I remind you of that scene
We were arms aloft in Aberdeen
May I remind you of that scene
Let a million mirror balls beam
May I remind you of that scene
Shit, man, I’m ready for the post-fuck cigarette after the first verse and chorus! Fortunately, I have a very large appetite for orgasmic experiences, and “Arms Aloft” is the fuck buddy who never quits. Driven by an exceptionally strong bass pattern, the second verse is dedicated to us common people who have to work for our daily bread. Save us from our self-pity, Joe!
And you say living ain’t nothing but hassles
In a Manila envelope frame
And driving coal all-night to Newcastle
It’s getting to be a repetitive strain
And just when thought you were going down the drain
May I remind you of that scene
The spirit is our gasoline
After a fabulous instrumental bridge of sliding, twisting, cascading guitar effects, the band dials it down just a smidge to clear the way for Joe to step up and remind us, “I’m gonna pull you up, I’m gonna pull you out!” and “Arms Aloft” shifts into a hard-driving fade until the band collapses from sheer exhaustion, having left it all on the bedsheets and then some. My favorite line in the fade is “We got all this and Bird and Diz,” referring to the legendary Bebop heroes who pushed musical boundaries to the limit with virtually no hope of commercial success. It would have been a hell of a lot easier for Parker and Gillespie to forget about expanding musical boundaries, get a steady gig with a big band and play the dance music people wanted to hear. Why didn’t they do that? Because the spirit was their gasoline, just as it was for Joe Strummer.
It’s music, baby! Live it the fuck up!
The contrast between “Arms Aloft” and “Ramshackle Day Parade” couldn’t be greater: one is a song of spirit rising from the ashes, the other a song of spirit crushed by the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. Over a gentle background of echoed piano and touches of synthesizer, Joe opens the song by depicting the cinematic innocence of America at the start of the new century:
Muffle the drums
The hope of a new century comes
Was it all the amphetamine presidents
And their busy wives
Or did Manhattan crumble
The day Marilyn died
All your life, dreamer of dreams
Somehow connected with the silver screen
Half closed eyes, you realize
Loving the life that is paradise
In the Technicolor fade
JFK and Marilyn were America’s fantasy couple, one the symbol of active masculinity (cloaking Addison’s disease and a degenerative back condition), the other the glamorous sex symbol par excellence (cloaking natural mousey brown hair and lifelong depression). The tendency towards naive fantasy that characterizes the American psyche was further fueled by the end of the Cold War and seemingly unstoppable economy: TV pundits talked constantly about “the new American century.” 9/11 destroyed not only the precious lives of three thousand people but the American fantasy of continuous progress and unbridled optimism. The parade of people walking home on the Brooklyn Bridge after the horror of that sunny day was the cruel opposite of the celebratory ticker tape parades of the past:
This is the ramshackle day parade
Of all those lost, unborn, and unmade
And whose heads got filled with a neon lava
And remain buried underneath this road
Taking the freight elevator
From the incinerator
The ironic line “Bring out the banners of Stalingrad” describes a Pyrrhic victory, and given the continuing decline of the United States in the years following 9/11—masked temporarily and only superficially by the Obama years—the image of a “victory” that causes you to sacrifice everything you stand for is entirely appropriate, given where America is today. “Ramshackle Day Parade” is a haunting and challenging song, brilliantly arranged and executed.
My friends (hah!) over at Pitchfork didn’t think much of Joe Strummer’s version of “Redemption Song,” claiming it “verges on comedy.” Oh, my goodness! I guess if you’ve only got fifteen minutes and a limit of 800 words to write a piece for the moronic music consumers who read your shit, you need to keep your snark skills sharp! Perhaps if Mr. Hartley Goldstein had eliminated the TWO OPENING PARAGRAPHS ABOUT HOW HARD IT IS TO BE A MUSIC CRITIC, he might have had some room to write more intelligently and perceptively about Mr. Strummer’s work. As it is, he only mentions half of the songs on the album and blames both Joe Strummer’s widow and Rick Rubin’s production for Joe’s poor showing on “Redemption Song.” To say I believe Mr. Goldstein misses the point would be the understatement of all understatements, so allow me to politely offer an alternative viewpoint to that lazy prick’s senseless meanderings.
No matter what Joe Strummer did in his career, no matter how many musical avenues he explored, and no matter how complex and rich his arrangements could be, all his songs are Everyman songs that anyone who learns a few simple chords can play. The two acoustic numbers on Streetcore allow us to hear Joe without The Clash or The Mescaleros filling in the spaces. All we get is Joe Strummer, armed only with his acoustic guitar and his gravelly, wandering voice. Does his performance on “Redemption Song” come close to any of Richard Thompson’s acoustic masterpieces? Fuck, no! What comes through is his spirit, his passion for human freedom and his deep respect for a great song. That’s good enough for me! Still, I wish they could have included the Cash-Strummer duet instead—the combination of Johnny’s sadly fading voice as he makes one of his last recordings and Joe Strummer’s respectful counterpoint is incredibly moving. Both would be gone within the space of two years, but when I hear that recording, it inspires me with the hope that I leave this mortal sphere singing, no matter how old and creaky I sound.
Joe and the Mescaleros get back to ass-kicking rock with “All in a Day,” where the constant refrain of “Hey, hey!” presents the listener with the overwhelming urge to join in. It’s a great dance number with some nice breaks to let the listening audience throw in a few exuberant shouts. It’s followed by the majestic “Burnin’ Streets,” an update of “London’s Burning” a quarter of a century after the first Clash album hit the U. K. shelves. Joe is in particularly fine voice here, supported by a nicely flowing arrangement highlighting acoustic guitar and Mellotron. Not much had changed in twenty-five-or-so years, but the passage that surprised me highlights Joe Strummer’s lack of tolerance for guns in a civilized society:
Too many guns in this damn town
The supermarket, you gotta duck down
Baby flak jackets on the merry-go-round
I’m thinking, “Compared to the gun-crazy USA, what the fuck are you talking about?” I remain eternally grateful that the NRA hasn’t extended their satanic claws to England’s green and pleasant land, praise the fucking lord and don’t pass the fucking ammunition.
Joe Strummer spent part of his out-of-the-industry years as a BBC disk jockey in a programme appropriately titled London Calling. You can find recordings of his shows in the BBC archives or on YouTube, and I highly recommend them. I mean, can you imagine a better disk jockey than Joe Strummer? His natural curiosity and deep knowledge of world music made him a perfect fit for the job, and exposed a lot of people to music (including me) that I would never have heard anywhere else.”Midnight Jam” is essentially an extended instrumental with snippets from Joe’s programmes, riffing on the music he’s spinning. While that doesn’t sound like much, the combination of that unmistakable voice and solid backing makes for a compelling listening experience. My favorite “line” is “Since the last programme I’ve been around the world touring with a group—you name every jail in Germany, I’ve been there.” The line is both a reaffirmation of rebellion and a final nod to The Man in Black, who made some of his best recordings in prisons.
Streetcore ends with the third acoustic number, “Silver and Gold,” Joe’s cover of the Fats Domino-Bobby Charles song originally titled “Before I Grow Too Old.” The two original versions share a New Orleans feel, differing largely in the tempo—Bobby skips through the song at a decent clip while Fats takes it slow and easy. Reflecting his late fascination with voices from the American heartland, Joe turns the piece into a Western tune, replete with harmonica and Tymon Dogg on the fiddle. Obviously, the song’s lyrics take on more meaning because of his sudden death, but I think if had Joe lived to a ripe old age, this song would be remembered as an anthem to his commitment to live life a certain way: at breakneck speed, and if you break a few rules along the way, fuck it.
Oh, I do a lotta things, I know is wrong
Hope I’m forgiven before I’m gone
It’ll take a lotta prayers to save my soul
And I got to hurry up before I grow too old . . .
Heh, I’m gonna go out dancin’ every night
I’m gonna see all your city lights
I’m gonna do everything silver and gold
And I got to hurry up before I grow too old
Joe sings the song with almost boyish sincerity, and when you realize this is the last thing we’ll ever hear from Joe Strummer, it hits you with a combination of terrible sadness and irresolvable frustration that he died way, way before his time.
At a time when several Western countries are turning the clock backwards to pursue the discredited ideology of Nationalism that gave us decades of war, the life and work of Joe Strummer reminds us that there is an alternative to fear-driven self-destruction: the celebration of human diversity and inclusion. Through his endless curiosity about different cultures and the music of those cultures, Joe Strummer was the model world citizen, actively chipping away at the real and imagined borders that divide us. I am certain he would be absolutely astonished to return to the world of today and see that its inhabitants have responded to fear by splitting apart instead of coming together . . . and I’m equally certain he would respond forcefully with songs that expose the absurdity and validate the humanity. Streetcore is the final gift from a man who lived life to the fullest and had complete confidence that the human spirit could survive the worst tendencies of the human race.
The spirit, after all, is our gasoline.