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.
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 . . .