Saturday, April 26, 2008

Trash City

Everybody who knows me (a hello to both of you!) has some inkling of an idea that I was at one time obsessed with the Replacements (a band from a long time ago, like, you know, from a time before the internet, yes, there was apparently a time like that, go ask your grand parents). Recently, Rhino Records remastered their first three albums and an e.p. for release.

They are:

Sorry Ma Forgot to Take Out the Trash (1981)
Replacements Stink e.p. (1982)
Hootenanny (1983)
Let It Be (1984)

Each CD has a bunch of extra tracks and stuff to make it a sweet deal. Frankly, I was shocked that there was so much press about these re-releases since Replacements music seem very disconnected with what is going on in terms of hipster music these days. Even snooty folks like Pitchforkmedia chimed in. Billboard even tracked down the main songwriter of the band and the bass guitarist, the former notoriously reclusive, and the latter, well, he now works for Axl Rose. They are both vaguely irritable people who always seem even more irritable in interviews, especially when asked about what they did when they were in the Replacements, which happens to be like 40 years or ago or something. But the new interviews of singer and bassist were personable. Although I was horrified at the prospect that the Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson might reunite to make some dumbass attempt to recreate the Replacements (I guess taking a cue from the Pixies, Mission of Burma, Dinosaur Jr, and a gajillion other bands from that era who have decided it's time to exhume their legacies and force them into the present), it was nice to see Westerberg not quite so curmudgeonly, as he often is.

A lot of ink has been spilled on the Replacements. With the recent spate of reissues, I've read dozens of articles about the band. Almost all of them have the standard issue narrative about them, and they use a combination of the same words. You know: legendary, shambolic, influential, unpredictable, Midwestern, young, alcoholics, played goofy covers, swapped instruments, frequently never finished their live shows, kids with no future, beautiful losers, assholes, heart-wrenching songs, crazy motherfuckers, blah blah. You know the basic deal. The story has become so set in stone that it's hard to write anything new about them that might mean anything. So I was mildly surprised to find a coupla things that were kinda insightful. Both are worth a read. The better one, a reverential review of the four reissues, really nails some of the absurd contradictions of this band. The author writes (speaking of Let It Be, considered by many to be their best record) that the Replacements:

never separated high and low culture, who celebrated pure junk and reluctantly bared their soul... Let It Be is nothing if it’s not a coming of age album, perched precisely between adolescence and adulthood. There’s just enough angst and tastelessness to have the album speak to teenagers of all generations and just enough complicated emotion to make this music resonate with listeners long past those awkward years, whether they grew up with this album or not.

Writing of the unbelievable rush of the sequence of the first two songs on Let It Be, he adds:

Unlike so many teenage post-punk records, this doesn’t dwell on the pain, it ramps up the jokes and, better still, it offers a sense of endless possibilities, especially on the opening pair of “I Will Dare” and “Favorite Thing,” two songs where it feels as if the world opened up because of these songs. And that sense of thrilling adventure isn’t just due to Westerberg, it’s due to the ‘Mats as a band, who have never sounded as ferocious and determined as they do here... here they were fully alive as a band, living gloriously in the moment, a fleeting moment when anything and everything seems possible and that moment still bursts to life whenever Let It Be is played.

The other review, a little more jargony, but less reverential (and in a good way) is here.

Anyway, in honor of the four reissues, I thought I would excerpt a chapter from this book that I keep threatening to publish about my journey through the dregs of American underground(ish) music of the '80s/'90s/'00s. This is an excerpt from CHAPTER 8 (entitled: "I Could Be Wrong, I Could Be Right"). It is about the greatest band in the history of rock'n'roll. Enjoy.

CHAPTER 8 (excerpt)

Probably among all the bands I am writing about here, the hardest to write about is the Replacements. This is partly because I had a strange emotional attachment to them, but that’s only a minor part of it. More relevant, perhaps, is that the band itself represented many contradictory impulses, none of which were/are fully formed. To describe the band properly would be to write a paragraph composed of non sequiturs, each sentence omitting a key word. On the surface, the Replacements were this vaguely alternative ‘80s band singing power pop with a punk edge; throw in a few emotional slow songs about loss and loneliness and few clever turns and twists of word and there you have it, the Replacements. But the Replacements were much more than that. Most important, among all the major 'alternative' bands of the ‘80s, the Replacements were probably the one which stood furthest from the idea of “art.”

Other bands of that era (the Cure, R.E.M., Sonic Youth, Big Black, Husker Du, the Smiths, Cocteau Twins, Ministry, Foetus, Love & Rockets, the Church, New Order, Talking Heads, Dead Kennedys, Mojo Nixon, the Jesus & Mary Chain, the Minutemen, the Meat Puppets, the Pixies, Dead Can Dance, Swans, etc. etc. etc.) had something to do with the idea (however facile in reality it was) that there was some "art" to it, even often in the most artless way. “Art,” not only in the sense of avant garde or innovation or conversely as part of a tradition of art, but also in the sense of “cool” and “hip.” All of those bands had dollops of self-consciousness, sometimes ironic.

A band like Husker Du is a classic case. On the surface you have three working class kinda guys who look like shit and wear Midwestern clothes. But Husker Du was not about Joe Blow singin’ shit about shit. Husker Du was about the art of catharsis through noise, a strategy that related as much to the elitist bullshit of the Velvet Underground as anything, and fuck your flannel shirts. Which is why these days Bob Mould can hang around being LoudBomb or whatever DJ thing that he’s doing, ‘cause he was into "art."

The Replacements had nothing to do with art. They were artless bastards (of young). They were never a hip band nor were they ever cool—although for a short period, they were cool to like among some white college students. The band were also true iconoclasts, in the received tradition of punk, in that they opposed every and anything. Unlike most of the ‘80s alternative bands who bought into the false notion that somehow most of what they were creating was worthwhile as an opposing force to the status quo, the Replacements didn’t even bother with that whole issue, they just existed as opposition. If they played in front of punks, they would make fun of punks. If they played in front of hippies, they would make fun of hippies. They made fun of everybody, most of all their alternative peers. They had little respect for anybody, least of all themselves, which luckily for them, played brilliantly into the mythos they created for themselves: beautiful losers destined not to be beautiful but always to lose.

Their capacity to infuse brilliance into both (1) their raging loud motherfucking rock’n’punk side, as well as (2) their tenderest i-am-awfully-lonely-but-i-hate-people side was what I most loved about them. Their songs were a mess of blue, a confession of true, songs about the most normal of emotions of youth, filtered through the complete abandon of knowing that even as you are singing about being the loneliest most misunderstood soul, you will be misunderstood in the act itself. Their song “Unsatisfied” was so bizarre, the lyrics almost but not quite making sense until it drops you into this edgy state of ambiguity:

Look me in the eye and tell me
That I’m satisfied
Look me in the eye and tell me
That I’m satisfied.

I have no idea what that means. Is the singer telling the listener: "hey tell me if you're satisfied." or…is the singer telling the listener: "hey tell me if I'm satisfied." If the former, then it’s like a weird challenge, a challenge to the listener to tell it like it is, which sounds odd, like loneliness is a badge of fucking honor. And if the latter, then why is he doing that? What would cause him to ask someone to do that? It just seems like something that no one would ever do in real life. Why would you ever ask someone else to look you in the eye and see if the eyes said anything about being satisfied? Yet, it makes the hairs on your neck stand up. What the fuck. The song builds, builds, builds, builds through random snippets of lyrics (“liberty is a lie,” “tell me what’s wrong”) until the singer screams, shredding his throat into the simplest stupidest most adolescent articulation of all:

I’m so, I’m so, I’m so…unsatisfied.

And all through it, some weird shit guitar that sounds like a howling dog being stepped upon weaves its way through the song. Who’d have thought that you could encapsulate wanting-and-not-getting, and not-knowing-what-you-want-and-not-getting-it-anyway into the simplest form possible?

The music, the music, the music: but beyond the music, punk (or, really, rock’n’roll in general) was as much about attitude and image and lifestyle as it was about content. To me, the Replacements presented in many ways a perfect package: unknown to most, anti-art, loners, losers, skinny to the bone, knew about love and hate, tolerated by artsy alternative people into the Birthday Party or whatever. But like many bands or music of the period, I relished adopting them because nobody I knew liked them that much. People had heard a song or two but nothing registered that much. By the time, I got obsessed with them, I started to connect with random people here and there who were equally obsessed with them. None of these obsessives were my friends but they were when we shared beers at Duddley’s. I remember this guy, Tim, prematurely old, curly hair, every time I ran into him at Duddley’s he was dead fucking drunk to the world and rambling on about how he could swear on his grave that the best fucking album of all time was the Replacements’ Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash, their first (ratty punk) album released in 1981.

Like all great bands, progression for the Replacements was breathtaking. From Sorry Ma’s smart punk (punctuated by a lovely b-side “If Only You Were Lonely” that recalled Hank Williams Sr.) to the Stink e.p.’s raging jet engine hardcore punk (including the epic “Fuck School”) to Hootenanny (now, they were perfecting the hybrid of punk and pop with brilliance) to Let it Be (one of the best indie rock albums of all time), wherein every goddamn youthful feeling of alienation was eviscerated for all to see through a series of spectacular three-minute gems from the country-punk shuffle of “I Will Dare” to the frustrated shout of desperation that is “My Favorite Thing” to the transcendental “Answering Machine” in which spiraling guitar figures battled with the found sounds of operator voices looping to insanity and infinity as the singer screamed “I hate your answering machine.” In three short years, they moved from pedestrian punk to genius power pop, and they moved fast. Because there were never any lyrics printed on any Replacements albums, half the fun was figuring out what Paul Westerberg—their songwriter, singer, and principal architect—was saying. His genius was to figure out how to say that you hate people but you hate being lonely, the obvious conundrum of youthful angst. But the words had double, sometimes triple puns, embedded in them, making sense years later while you’re listening to a song on your iPod in the subway. His lyrics were clever but not in an Elvis Costello-way of clever in which contrivances overpowered elegance. Clever was secondary to the mood. It didn’t really matter if you didn’t really understand what he was saying anyway. It made sense anyway.

Tim, considered by many to be their best album, came out in 1985, followed by Pleased to Meet Me two years later. I was obsessed with that album because it was not simply an encapsulation of a month or a time in my life but also my life. To go through the album here would be tedious. The songs are brilliant, the sound woefully dated. The one moment of transcendence on the record is neither a lyric nor a melody but an exhilarating “Ooooh!” shouted as a prelude to a guitar solo a song called “Alex Chilton,” a weird half-assed tribute to another songwriter and musician who barely made it. What can I say? It was one of my favorite and personal albums of my youth, 33 minutes of me-as-manchild wrapped in chocolate melodies and loud guitars. And the power of the album grew for me as I dug deeper and discovered the detritus from Pleased to Meet Me: abandoned songs deemed not good enough for the album, amazing b-sides, alternate takes, the stuff of music obsessives. One song, “Can’t Hardly Wait” existed in this strange acoustic version, sounding like he had recorded it on a tiny cassette player in the middle of an airshaft with vocal echoes, with nothing but a snare drum punctuating his lonely voice over an improbably beautiful but ragged guitar. While the song on the actual album is one of hope to see a lover/friend after being on the road for a while, the airshaft version—best listened to in the deep of winter—is a strange almost joyous ode to self-destruction (“…climb to the top of this crummy water tower, I can’t hardly wait…”).

Another unused song, “Birthday Gal,” (or “Birthday Carol” as I thought for years) was a toss-off piece about the sadness young men see in young women who never see it in themselves, a thematic favorite of Westerberg that he would pursue again (“Achin’ To Be”) and again (“Merry Go Round”).

Westerberg once said somewhere that one of his favorite movies was The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. A trouble-maker, ground through the prison system in England, becomes a long-distance runner. His training culminates in the one big race. He runs. It's clear he's gonna win. Just before he crosses the finish line, he stops and lets someone else pass. That is the Replacements story encapsulated in a couple of sentences. We could be heroes. Just for one day. But only in our made up world of success and failure.

Of course, all of this is colored by retrospect. I listened to the Replacements a lot in my twenties, less so in my thirties. In fact, my music tastes significantly evolved (or devolved) from the Replacements, and on one level, I think I resented the fact that Paul Westerberg's solo music was so regressive, especially in a musical way. It all sounded like sub-par pre-1965 Dylan, with barely a chord outside of A, D, G, and E. While I was buying Aphex Twin CDs or whatever, Westerberg was increasingly doing music that was conservative (and I don't mean that politically), aimed at that yuppie-friendly Americana genre between Bonnie Raitt and Lucinda Williams. I resented it for a while, but it's cool now. I think I understand it better 'cause I'm older.

Unlike the Replacements, Westerberg's recent music is firmly in the past. In an interview a few years ago, Westerberg was clear about it:

Interviewer: Are you using an iPod to listen to your music nowadays?

Westerberg: No. No. I still like to pull out 45s and put them on the mono record player in the basement. I love the past and I love what it is. I feel I can learn more from what has come before than what is happening right now and what's happening tomorrow. I'll leave that to someone else who's young and energetic. Somebody gave me a blues compilation, a DVD from England, '62-'69. It's got Little Walker and Skip James and stuff and it's I really enjoy watching that kind of stuff. I enjoy watching the Rolling Stones from that era too. I'm not a modern guy.

Where the Replacements were once the future of music (circa 1983-84), Westerberg now sings like he's part of an imagined past of American music, a line dating back to Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie and (early) Dylan. Westerberg would no longer recognize the Dylan of 1966 saying "play fucking louder" to an antagonistic audience because he has left that behind with the Replacements. He's a bard playing hillbilly music (with a Keith Richards edge) from an anachronistic timeless Harry Smith-esque place that never existed. In that way, he's still doing what the Replacements were doing. Taking his audience to a make believe land that somewhere makes sense. And isn't that sometimes the best that "art" can do?

Can't Hardly Wait (airshaft) [mp3]