The 4th of July—American Independence Day—is the only time of year I like to join the throng. Here in Florida rain nearly always threatens, but it rarely stops anyone from walking downtown to convene on the grassy areas by the bay. I love the whole spectacle: the girls and boys running in circles with sparklers, the dads holding their little girls, the moms catching a break relaxing, the young boys and girls sneaking off for a kiss (some day it will be boys and boys and girls and girls), the revelers out on boats. I allow myself to feel a part of this; it is my job (my pleasure and my privilege) to observe.
July 4th is also a time for burgers, beer and America’s folk music, rock ‘n’ roll. Whatever listening patterns I’ve been in get interrupted for at least a day and I put on some sides from my favorite rock ‘n’ roll band, The Replacements.
I wrote an open letter to Paul Westerberg, Tommy Stinson and Chris Mars encouraging, cajoling, daring them to reunite, but it’s not necessary to post it now because as every Mats fan knows, they (minus Mars, who’s apparently left it behind for good) will be performing again later this year, for the first time since ’91. Instead I’m going to write about one of their albums, Tim.
I’ll skip the superlatives. You can assume I think it’s the greatest thing since baloney. Instead (and because I lack the chops to write about Arvo Pärt) I’m going to attempt to say something small but cogent about the songs on this album.
When we start we’re already in the middle of it, hanging on for dear life. Someone* in the film Color Me Obsessed describes rock ‘n’ roll as taking a piss while leaning over the edge of a cliff (ladies, bear with me for a second). Do you let go, or do you hang on? To do rock ‘n’ roll really well you have to do both. At the same time. Hold My Life expresses this in sound and says it in lyric. It’s a wire vibrating with tension. What an opener. The band has already let go and placed its quivering heart in your hands. Hold onto it, they ask.
I’ll Buy continues the reckless abandon tempered by double entendres. The spirit of Chuck Berry cruises through this song invoking cars, consumer culture and duplicity. Westerberg’s cry, “I’ll buy!” is at once an exuberant expression of earnest desire and cheeky gullibility. The drama is played out in Anytown, USA. My favorite line: “If you want a good joke, why split? You go broke right here.”
Kiss Me on the Bus is either an endearing expression of teenage passion or a somewhat off-putting portrait of teenage male horniness. Maybe the line between the two is a little bit blurry sometimes. I’m reminded of a song (or at least a title), Dance Along the Edge, by Concrete Blonde. This is what Westerberg & Co are in the middle of doing when Tim opens. The bus is already rolling and you don’t want to miss it.
First the lightning now the thunder. I’ve heard somewhere that Dose of Thunder was inspired by Johnny Thunders. If so the song is so much bigger than its inspiration. It should be played at sporting events from sea to shining sea. If this isn’t an arena anthem rocker, I don’t know what is.
With Waitress in the Sky the Mats take a step back and give us another view of America in terms of politically correct labeling. In 1985, when Tim was released, the era of political correctness was just starting up. It was also a time when flight attendants were still stewardesses and were still perceived to be among the elite of the servant class (Jasper Johns said that artists were, but that’s another subject). For me this song solidifies the band’s street cred; I happen to be working class. Americans don’t like to discuss class, but one of the things I love about The Replacements is that so many of their songs take on the theme. Their songs send out this message: you’re nothing special if you’re a CEO, but you’re nothing special if you’re a garbage man either. Get over yourself. We all have a place in this society.
Swingin Party is a favorite of many fans, me included. Here Westerberg exposes the we’re in this together theme in all its nakedness, and with this vocal performance reveals a vulnerability comparable to Hank Williams. The first verse goes:
Bring your own lampshade somewhere there’s a party
Here it’s never-ending can’t remember when it started
Pass around the lampshade there’ll be plenty enough room in jail.
The light of truth is too bright; the sun is too much life and too much life kills. We know this. We’re all in this together. And at the end we meet the same fate. Can’t we just dim the light for a moment, for one another? Go easy on me, help me, and I’ll help you. Put on some music. Have a beer. Try one of these.
If being wrong’s a crime I’m serving forever
if being strong’s your kind then I need help here with this feather
If being afraid is a crime we hang side by side
At the swingin party down the line
Now we’re getting intimate. Those who can’t handle it or don’t have a taste for it have left long ago. Good. We’re friends here. We know each other. And now we have Bastards of Young, one of the great rock ‘n’ roll anthems, theme song for many. If my life had a soundtrack, this would be one of the main themes. Some of us weren’t born into the lap of coziness. It’s not only a matter of poverty; it’s being born into houses of abuse or fucked-up situations. There’s more than one kind of orphan. And we orphans have to go out into the world and make our own family. That’s what this song is about. It’s our rallying cry.
When you’re young and living on your own and you’ve got no mommy and daddy to back you up you learn to be tough, or make a good show of it. Lay it Down Clown opens with the image of a switchblade. It’s got cutting vocals and a piano reminiscent of Jerry Lee Lewis and the seedier side of rock ‘n’ roll. But the song really exists to showcase the lead guitar. That thing slashes back and forth mercilessly for two and a half minutes.
Once upon a time car radios had dials. You turned them and the band moved from left to right, tuning in and out of stations. You learned about new music from the radio and word of mouth and read about bands in magazines. When Tim came out CD’s had only been on the market for a couple of years. But it was no easy trick for an indie band to get a song on the radio. Their best shot came from college and independent stations with small bandwidths on the far end of the dial. These were the stations I listened to most, but I never heard The Replacements on one. In Left of the Dial the band travels across state lines, from gig to gig, trying to catch a fragment of song off the mainstream radio dial. This is a theme (the theme of the outsider, the invisible artist) that they will explore on subsequent albums, especially Don’t Tell A Soul.
The last two songs are portraits. Even though her physical appearance is not described, I see the young woman in Little Mascara clearly in my mind. She’s small with pale skin, black hair and prominent makeup. Before having her baby she was a club girl, and those fashion habits die hard. She still dyes her hair and some days she wears a ring on every finger. Maybe the bum who left her played in a band. Maybe he drank too much. We don’t know. But her image—sitting in a crappy apartment, baby dangling from her lap, mascara running down her streaming cheeks—is captured forever in this song.
Why would any band close an album with a song like Here Comes A Regular, a real sad story told in the first person about an alcoholic? Who knows what kind of success The Replacements were after, but it’s clear they wanted to be true to themselves. The album opener contains this line: “Time for decisions to be made” and Here Comes A Regular, for me, captures the precise moment just before the alcoholic realizes he can’t go on the way he’s been. Something’s got to change. There are countless stories, many contradicting others, of the various states of alcohol abuse among the members of The Replacements, about who failed to support who in the band, but it seems certain that Bob Stinson had it bad. Tim would be his last gig with The Replacements. The decision to give him the boot has divided fans to this day. But a rock band is like a family. Only when you’re in it do you really know what’s going on. Here Comes A Regular (along with a few songs on subsequent albums) is the closest any of us who weren’t in the band will ever get to understanding anything about what went on.
It may not have been a recipe for success in the short term but the Mats found a formula that’s lasting. Since I don’t have to post my plea that they reunite anymore, I have another request instead, this one just for Paul. Please, can we have an authoritative Collected Lyrics of Paul Westerberg? I’ve got a spot for it on my bookshelf, right next to Pass Thru Fire: The Collected Lyrics of Lou Reed.
* I forget who. Get the movie and find out.