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Monday, March 27, 2006

Die even harder with a vengeance IV

Welcome to the working week, folks.  The first full week of spring, and my last week in the Bermuda Research Triangle.  Over the weekend, Janet and Jamie came to visit, and we drove down to Wilmington—more precisely, to Wrightsville Beach—for some sightseeing.  It was extravagant, but you know, Janet needed a break, and so did I, for our various reasons.  So we file it under “extravagant but obviously necessary.” And Jamie (as you probably know) loves to travel, loves to stay in hotels, and loves to go to aquariums and beachfront arcades.  Why, he even managed to enjoy himself at the arboretum, which was lovely despite the 50-degree weather.  And when we got back to Durham yesterday afternoon, he pronounced my apartment complex “cool.” Then he dug into some fine North Carolina barbecue.

But because I have only four full days remaining on my fellowship, and because last Friday turned out to be Manuscript Day (I received my page proofs for What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?, which were promptly followed by Phase One of the copyedited version of Rhetorical Occasions), I’m going to be all about the mss. for the next two days at least.  So I’m going to reprise yet another Ancient Post from ‘way, ‘way back in May 2004.  I figure Friday’s post on Neil Young deserves a followup that is also, somehow, a flashback, so here’s my almost-two-year-old musings on the Replacements.

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May 20, 2004

For my trip down to Norfolk / Virginia Beach last weekend, I borrowed / stole one of my son Nick’s CD cases—partly because I didn’t have time to go through my own CDs and pick music for the trip, and partly because I thought it would be a good time to catch up on what the kids are listening to these days, with their long hair and their electrical instruments.  (Nick turned 18 last month.) I know the rudiments—I’m familiar with the Vines and the White Stripes and Interpol, and I’m aware that the second anti-Strokes backlash is so over—but I just don’t have the time to keep up with lesser lights like And You Will Know Us from the Trail of Dead or British Sea Power, unless I have a few hours to myself in a car (or kind of to myself, while Jamie occupies the back seat with his own CD player full of the Beatles, the Pretenders, and Robert Palmer—I take all the credit for introducing him to the melodic and inventive Palmer of “Clues” and “The Ballad of Johnny and Mary").

Actually, it turns out that both these bands—Trail of Dead and British Sea Power—are quite good, despite their fondness for these humorously ponderous names.  I listened to the Trail of Dead through much of central Pennsylvania, then after jumping around through the happy pop of the New Pornographers and deciding that the Doves were ultimately too boring to follow, I switched to a couple of things Nick files under something like “ancient alternative” (I’m kidding—Nick doesn’t file anything under anything), namely, The Smiths’ The Queen is Dead and The Replacements’ Tim, neither of which I’d heard in its entirety in over a decade.  (I’m fascinated, by the way, at the continuity, or what’s passing for continuity, between good alt.rock bands 20-25 years ago and good rock bands now.  Thanks to this intergenerational alliance, it is possible for me to say to Nick, “if you like this you should also buy X’s Wild Gift,” or “you might want to pick up the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa” or “some people I trust really liked Sonic Youth, but I never cared one way or another” and for him to say to me, “British Sea Power sounds like one of your old bands,” by which he surely means “one of your old bands that did not suck.")

So, then, TimTim reminded me of a long-term, long-distance Replacements conversation I had through the 1980s and early 1990s with my friend and former bandmate Larry Gallagher, whom I’ve plugged here once or twice.  I’m more than familiar with “Hold My Life,” “Kiss Me on the Bus,” “Bastards of Young,” and so forth, so listening to them was like going to 80s Nostalgia Nite.  But I’ve always thought that Tim was an every-other-song record:  incendiary, brilliant stuff followed by self-parodic dreck followed by a gorgeous riff followed by stupid adolescent sneering, and so on.  I hadn’t listened to “I’ll Buy” or “Lay it Down Clown” or “Dose of Thunder” for twelve years or so, as a result.

That’s not to say that I listened to those songs on this weekend’s trip and realized for the first time their hidden charms.  Quite the contrary.  I was right the first time: they have no hidden charms.  Westerberg, in my humble opinion, always needed a sympathetic editor, someone to tell him that you can only open a song with a flourish and an ear-splitting scream once per record, and that it worked on “Bastards of Young” but not on the tuneless “Thunder.” Or to tell him that the premise of “Waitress in the Sky” makes him sound like an asshole (or at least like a drunken rock star complaining that the flight attendant won’t serve him champagne, and who doesn’t know that flight attendants, unlike waitresses, are actually trained in CPR) and that the melody is a note-for-note ripoff of the verses of the Harold Dorman song “Mountain of Love” (sent to # 9 on the charts by Johnny Rivers in 1964).  Westerberg’s occasional ripoffs were a problem for me at the time, fussy listener that I am, because I never knew what to make of a guy who titles a record Let it Be on which the catchy pop highlight, “I Will Dare,” is an uptempo version of the chorus of the Beatles’ “I’m Only Sleeping.” I mean, when I first heard this, I thought either he’s an ignoramus or a charming rogue, or some irritating mixture of the two. 

I was introduced to Let it Be shortly after its release by one Andy Bienen, whom I met in graduate school at the University of Virginia and recognized immediately as (a) a fellow resident of northeastern Queens, (b) a dark and brilliant wit, and (c) a charming rogue.  (Andy has since gone on to co-write the screenplay for Boys Don’t Cry, and thus to be thanked by Hilary Swank at the Oscars, which is something I can’t say about anyone else with whom I went to graduate school.) For most of the 1980s, the Replacements were one of the few bands that people cared about in both the circles I ran in—the post-punk scene in Charlottesville and DC, and the grad-school hothouse at the University of Virginia.  You could say that they had crossover appeal—between these two minuscule 20something constituencies, that is.  And for Larry Gallagher, Tim was It, as he told me in a couple of letters as he made his way from freelance writing / music in New York to freelance writing / music in San Francisco.  The Replacements’ followup, Pleased to Meet Me, he said, was terrific—but listening to it and trying to love it completely was like pretending you’re crazy when you know you’re not, whereas Tim was the real thing.

This kind of exchange, as many of you know very well, turned out to be part of the standard critical line on the Replacements: their Classic Period consisted of the years between Let it Be and Pleased to Meet Me, and all the fans who called them Mats (you know who you are) discussed among themselves which of the three was truly their best effort.  But we all agreed at the time, as Larry put it, that the Replacements were the present of rock and roll.

Some years later, in 1992 or 1993, I wrote to Larry to say that I’d been listening to the Replacements’ 1989 record, Don’t Tell a Soul (technically not their last—that would be All Shook Down—but effectively their last), and that I was surprised to find how much I liked it, especially given its word-of-mouth rep as a slickly produced, sellout version of Replacements pop.  There wasn’t anything incendiary and brilliant on it, true enough, and three songs stuck out as retreads:  “Anywhere’s Better than Here” (flourish, scream, yadda yadda yadda), “I Won’t” (plodding) and “Rock and Roll Ghost” (also known, by me, as “Here Comes a Regular—Again").  But the other songs were fresh (the entire first side—remember “sides?”—as well as “Asking Me Lies” and “I’ll Be You"); Westerberg had a better melodic sense than ever; and the lyrics were as catchy-clever as always ("take me to your followers”; “a rebel without a clue”—which later became a device by which you could distinguish genuinely clever lyricists like Westerberg, who toss off these things at the end of lines, from smug hacks like Tom Petty, who blow them up into concept albums) without going the Declan McManus route (that is, moving from early-Elvis Costello gems like “I know you’ve got me and I’m in a grip-like vise” or “I’ll do anything to confuse the enemy” to Serious Songwriter material like “Indoor Fireworks").  All in all, it sounded to me like more mature and less drunken Replacements, and for reasonably sober people over the age of 25, I thought this might be a good thing.

Larry wrote back and said this:

In the formulaic quality of the later Replacements stuff I hear the sound of someone “achin’ to be,” to borrow a phrase.  It’s a Groucho kind of irony, and one that reminds me of one of my favorite Mad magazine cartoons that I saw in a Don Martin anthology a million years ago.  It’s called “The Rejection Slip” or something like that.  It’s about this guy who has the world’s largest collection of rejection slips and is writing to Mad magazine requesting theirs so that he can complete his set and put it on the shelf.  He accompanies the request with some little drawing of himself and his set of rejection slips.  The editors of Mad reply that they loved his letter and would like to publish his drawings.  He writes back to them that he’s not really interested in contributing, and would merely like to have a slip.  Again he accompanies the letter with some funny picture of himself with his head sticking through a mailbox, awaiting a reply.  This exchange continues back and forth a few more times, with greater and greater accolades from the editors, until the guy finally decides to burn his collection and submits ten drawings for publication, which of course gain him the official, impersonal rejection slip that he had been looking for all along.  It’s kind of like that with Westerberg.  He’s saying, “I’m a bum, see?” and we’re saying, “You’re an artist.” Until he gives up and says, “Okay, I’m an artist” at which point we tell him he’s a bum.  Can’t blame the guy for feeling had.

I remember this (obviously, I kept the letter) for a reason, namely, it seems to me exactly right.  In fact, I can no longer think of Westerberg without thinking of Don Martin.  (And earlier in the letter Larry had even agreed me with about Tim, saying that “‘Dose of Thunder’ and ‘Lay it Down Clown’ are so utterly turgid that I forget they are on the album.") But there’s another reason, as well.  I don’t think the difference between Classic Period Replacements and Late Replacements is the difference between alt.rockers being true to themselves and alt.rockers falling all over themselves to try and cross over.  You can’t tell me that the guy who wrote “I Will Dare,” “Swingin’ Party,” and “Alex Chilton” doesn’t have pop instincts in his bones.  It’s just a shame that 1980s radio was such a vast wasteland, dominated by crap like “We Built This City” and “Everybody Have Fun Tonight,” that’s all (which, by the bye, is a fine example of what Janet and I call Paradox Songs, like Orleans’ undanceable 1970s hit “Dance with Me,” insofar as there is no possible way for a person to have fun while listening to “Everybody Have Fun Tonight").  A decade later, post-Nirvana, it’s much likelier that the Replacements would’ve had the couple of smash hits they deserved, but that could only happen in the parallel universe in which Nirvana helps pave the way for the Replacements.  (And let’s not even get into the question of whether hardcore Replacements fans—let alone Westerberg himself—could bear the thought of the Replacements being rich and famous.)

Instead, I think the difference between Tim and Don’t Tell a Soul is the difference between a spotty, erratic, annoying but occasionally amazing pop-music bum / artist and a saner, more competent, more assured but less inspired or inspiring pop-music bum / artist.  And I think this is a significant—and psychologically revealing—kind of difference.  As if you’d rather date Tim but would feel better, all around, marrying Don’t Tell a Soul.  So, dear readers, which do you prefer?  And (for you over-40 types, like me) has your preference changed over the decades, one way or the other?

Posted by Michael on 03/27 at 10:53 AM
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