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22nd Favorite: Tim, by The Replacements

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Tim. The Replacements.
1985, Sire Records. Producer: Tommy Ramone.
CD, 1995.

IN A NUTSHELL: Tim, by The Replacements, is raucous, funny, sad, and sloppy. But most of all, it’s full of amazing songs. Songwriter/singer Paul Westerberg’s lyrics are some of the best around, and his gruff delivery lends weight to them. Guitarist Bob Stinson plays a million riffs and terrifically odd solos, and his bassist brother Tommy plays bouncy lines with drummer Chris Mars. It’s a collection of songs that are both fun and heartfelt, rock music done right.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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This is the 79th album I’ve written about (not counting the 12 or so extras I did in the middle) over the past 100 years, and if you’ve been aware of this blog for a while, and you’re a somewhat normal human, you’ve read 1 or 2 of those posts in detail and then kind of skimmed or skipped all the others.

At least that’s what I’m counting on, since I tend to repeat all the same themes and stories in all of these posts. Instead of writing thousands of words, it would have been easier (and faster!) over 79 records to simply say at the beginning of each post, “I grew up in a small town in the 70s, used to drink too much, was nerdy and played bass in a band and liked MTV,” and then just start talking about the record.

So forgive me if I guide us all, once again, to small-town life in early 70s America. It’s one of only 5 topics I know. But anyway … in the 70s, in my little Pennsylvania town, people didn’t really talk much about what would nowadays be thought of as important things. The grown-up men I knew talked about cars and hunting, the grown-up women talked about soap operas and grocery prices, the kids talked about TV and school and sports. Any other topics were “serious,” and so had very limited space available to them in the common scope of interpersonal discourse. You could discuss health at the doctor’s office and religion at church, you could tackle sex and money and drugs and other emotional topics in oblique, humorous ways, but other than that, “important” topics were taboo. Thank goodness for MAD Magazine, or I’d have learned nothing about real life back then!

Open discussion of difficult topics was something you only saw, at times, on TV shows, like All In the Family or M-A-S-H; or even The Waltons. My first recollection of “real” topics being discussed openly was sometime in the 70s, when Phil Donahue started talking on TV about “controversial” topics. But my family, and most people I knew, thought this was just trashy, inappropriate TV, its viewers no better than rubberneckers slowing down at a rollover, and it had no impact on the conversations taking place around me, except for the people now calling Phil Donahue a “faggot.”

As a kid, I took my conversational cues from the adults around me, learning what types of “serious” questions to avoid. So I never asked my folks why they thought my classmate, the painfully shy M., often had bruises or a black eye in elementary school. I knew the answer myself, and didn’t have to ask. When a friend in 5th grade described an incident of inappropriate sexual touching he’d observed between the weird kid, J., and J.’s dad, I chuckled along through my discomfort, knowing better than to tell an adult and make them uncomfortable too. When older teens tried to sexually assault my little friend after a Pop Warner football practice, I, like everyone else in the carpool, just talked about Happy Days on the ride home, and never said one word to any parents. There were clearly events happening around me that I understood weren’t right, but whose impropriety I understood ran too deep, and touched too many too-sensitive nerves, to bother the grown-ups around me for confirmation.

The within-family improprieties were the most confusing, submerged so far below the norms of everyday life that there was not even a way to tangentially discuss them. While I could have brought up that post-practice attack on my friend by saying, “some older kids were really mean to R.,” entirely avoiding the brief sexual aspect of the incident, there was no way to say, “a bunch of people saw J. and his dad grab each other’s weenies a bunch of times” without venturing into a dark cavern of indiscernible conversational paths leading who-knows-where, but each likely to put most of the blame on me for bringing it up. The typical message back then was “each family does their own thing, and it’s nobody else’s business,” and if kids were showing up to school with black eyes, or crapping in their pants in class once a week because they refused to go to the lavatory, well, so be it. It was nobody’s business but the family’s.

The good news is that this reluctance to address many formerly taboo topics, including child abuse, appears to have lifted over time. In my life, TV in the 70s and 80s was a big change agent for this openness. Shows like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street were indirect, while others, like Webster and Diff’rent Strokes, and a shocking-for-its-time (1985) ABC’s After School Special titled “Don’t Touch,” were very direct. By the time I was a teenager and into my 20s, the anything-goes attitudes about child-rearing, and the community silence that held them in place, felt like a thing of the past. And statistics seem to bear out that this openness may have played a role in improving the lives of children.

Of course more improvements must be made, and all threatened children still need to be protected. But the fact is that efforts to improve the lives of American children begun in the late 60s and 70s did have a positive impact on human lives. Children and families are getting help. For the children who don’t get help, many turn to the arts, and always have. British Victorian-era writer Rudyard Kipling was a survivor of abuse at the hands of his caretaker and said in his autobiography that (to paraphrase) the lies abused kids must make up to survive become the seeds of creativity.

I’m thinking about this because The Replacements are a band of guys a bit older than me (and my age, in the case of bassist Tommy Stinson, who joined the band when he was 12!) who, as children, had lives that could have used some serious intervention; and who, when they didn’t get it, turned to rock and roll. I wish for their sake they’d have gotten help. But I’m glad they turned their pain into such amazing music! Their story is told brilliantly in Bob Mehr’s 2016 book Trouble Boys: The True Story of The Replacements. I’ve read it three times. It’s excellent.

One of the book’s chapters is titled “Jail, Death or Janitor,” which was lead Replacement Paul Westerberg’s answer for where the guys would’ve been if music hadn’t worked out. And they sing and play every song – whether it’s a rave-up rocker, a sweetly sad ballad, or a straight-up punk rock slap in the face – like their lives depend on it. That’s what I love about them. I’ve written before about how I got into them through the guitar player in my old band, The April Skies, and ever since the band got a hold of me, I’ve never lost any enthusiasm for them.

The endearing desperation that permeates their sound is heard right off the bat on Tim on the opener “Hold My Life.”

It’s a straight-ahead rocker, with a bouncing, catchy bass line from Tommy Stinson. Tommy’s brother Bob handles the guitar, which is somewhat buried in the mix. But as with most all Bob Stinson guitar, it’s always doing something interesting – little runs (like about 0:40), or hitting great chords (like behind the “Razzle-Dazzle” chorus), or playing vaguely Eastern-sounding solo (about 2:35). What carries most of the songs, however, are singer/songwriter Paul Westerberg’s lyrics and delivery. He’s an out-of-control guy in an out-of-control band, and here he’s asking for help – so he can keep up his self-destruction. In just a handful of lines his performance conveys a regret over life decisions, a reluctance to do anything about it and a disdain for anyone who’d tell him to do it differently.

Paul’s “F-you” attitude permeates all Replacements records, nearly every song, and that attitude led to one of the all-time great videos of an all-time great song: “Bastards of Young.”

The band came of age before the video-music revolution, and one reason they never reached the mass popularity of some of their peers, like R.E.M., was their reluctance to embrace the MTV era. The video’s realization of the band’s “F-you” ideals is great, but what makes it even better is that it allows the listener to really hear the words. It’s an anthem about growing up with little guidance or communication from parents, and the hollow legacy of misunderstanding it leaves. But it’s not a complaint, it’s full of pride. Plus it’s singalong-catchy as hell. Drummer Chris Mars pounds his kick drum through the chorus, Bob slashes throughout and plays a weird solo. The band played this song on their infamous 1986 Saturday Night Live appearance, which got the band “banned for life” when a drunken Westerberg shouted “Play it, fucker!” to Bob before his solo. (At 2:22 he also gives a hilarious stage-wink to Al Franken, who was apparently freaking out off-camera.)

Westerberg’s lyrics are nearly always thoughtful, always clever. He likes wordplay and uses it effectively to give depth to his songs. For example, “Swingin’ Party,” a term that means not only a fun gathering, but also an execution by hanging.

It’s a slow-tempo song, with a touch of 60s lounge style. Bob plays nice arpeggios, and Tommy throws in cool bass touches, particularly in the chorus. But again, Westerberg’s lyrics and voice make the song, as he appeals to a love interest by touching on their mutual apprehension. He’s got a way with words (“If being alone’s a crime/I’m serving forever/If being strong’s your kind/Then I need help here with this feather”) that belies his drunken-maniac personality, which probably has enhanced the “cult of Westerberg” that has built over the years. (By the way, this song was also covered by pop superstar Lorde a few years back.)

Another aspect of Westerberg’s lyrics that I appreciate is that you never feel like he’s bullshitting you – it always feels like he means what he sings. He’s not afraid to be vulnerable or goofy, but is always honest, and the directness in a song like my album favorite, maybe co-favorite, “Kiss Me On the Bus,” deepens one’s appreciation.

It’s a fun, bouncy number about wanting a little affection, and the descending three chords that come in right at 17 seconds are the sort of musical touch that draws me into a song. Mars’s drums drive it forward, and Tommy’s bass behind the chorus is great. The way the band builds to “Kiss me on the bus,” with a little guitar run (1:27), can give me chills. Bob plays a nice little Country-Western solo (1:47) then throws in cool chords as sleigh bells chime along. The song is a quick burst of pop perfection. (The band also played this song on SNL after changing clothes with each other.)

The band began their career as a full-on punk band, and that energy and excitement carries through all of their songs. On “Lay it Down Clown,” a song about a drug deal, I think, they enhance that punkiness with a piano (by Westerberg) and slide guitar. On “Dose of Thunder,” a clearly pro-drug piece, the punk takes on a classic-rock outtake feel, albeit with a terrific sloppy-noise guitar from Bob. The uber-catchy “I’ll Buy,” sort of a love song, is almost a punk/50s rock-n-roll number, and features Bob’s best guitar on the album. The frankly mean “Waitress In the Sky,” which was written as a mean joke for Paul’s sister, a stewardess, doesn’t sound punk but certainly retains its snotty attitude.

My favorite song on the album – or maybe co-favorite – is the salute to the radio stations who played all those punk songs; and all the DIY’ers; and all the weird and cool stuff that big-time radio wouldn’t touch: College Radio. The college radio stations were typically found way down in the FM stations around 88, 89, 90 MHz, where the big time stations never were. These numbers were found on the far left side of any radio dial, whether a car, boom box or clock-radio. So if you wanted to hear cool music, you knew to look way over to that side: “Left of the Dial.”

The song opens with charging, clarion guitars that back off about 0:20 to allow Westerberg to sing while Tommy plays ping-pong bass notes and Mars clicks his sticks. Then the full band pours in, and the song continues this soft/loud approach throughout. It’s a stop and start sound that beautifully calls to mind a distant radio station found in a traveling car, late at night, fading in and out. The lyrics are actually about a woman with whom Paul was smitten, Lynn Blakey, who toured with another “college radio” band, Let’s Active, just like him, and who he heard talking on college radio late at night. There’s a wistfulness to the song, a feeling of the loneliness of being on the road, but – rather brilliantly – the words address the feeling indirectly, and it seeps through in the performance. Bob plays a great guitar throughout, and there’s also a cool, weird dueling-guitar sort of thing with Paul and Bob at 1:40 that builds into another take on those opening guitar chords, at 2:04, and it ALWAYS gives me the chills. “If I don’t see you / In a long, long while / I’ll try to find you / Left of the Dial.”

There is much to love about The Replacements, but what really grabs me are Westerberg’s lyrics. His clever wordplay, and his ability to turn a phrase are Elvis Costello-esque. He doesn’t always tell others’ stories with his songs, but in “Little Mascara,” he shows off this ability, too.

It’s a story of a woman who’s been left behind by her no-good man, and her new guy is telling her she’s better off without him. All she’s lost is “a little mascara” by crying over him. Paul’s rough voice sounds great on it. The song’s got a Classic-Rock opening, and at 2:08 Bob plays a really cool, very “Bob solo.” Bob was a punk guitarist who worshiped prog-rock virtuoso Steve Howe, from Yes, so on that basis alone he’s one of my favorite guitar players. He was later kicked out of the band, and died at 35 of organ failure from long-term drug use. His childhood abuse at the hands of a stepfather, as described in Trouble Boys, was heartbreaking.

The band sounds like they know heartbreak, and not just the lost-love type of heartbreak, either. And Paul can place that feeling in the center of any song, and he often did. On the album closer, “Here Comes a Regular,” he describes the lifetime of loneliness and pain that accompanies such heartbreak.

It’s a song about a life spent in a bar, the attachments with others one makes there, and the knowledge that – like you – those other folks are really attached to the bar, not the other regulars. Phrases like “I used to live at home / now I stay in the house,” and “Am I the only one that feels ashamed?” are terrific. But Westerberg pulls a neat trick by adding a sing-along chorus that gives the song a feeling of connection and warmth and keeps it from being purely heavy and dark. He’s a songwriter who seems to naturally understand the complexity of humans, and incorporates it into almost every song. I think that’s why he’s one of my favorites.

It’s 2018, and there is still child abuse and there are still topics some parents or communities will keep hidden from children. But I think the situation is improving. And for everyone who’s been hurt or had their spirits trampled, in large ways and small, there will always be music to help you through it. And for those folks who turn to creating music to help themselves through it all, and thereby help millions of others, I’d like to say Thank You. I’ll try to do my part by keeping the conversations public and loud.

Track Listing:
“Hold My Life”
“I’ll Buy”
“Kiss Me On the Bus”
“Dose of Thunder”
“Waitress In the Sky”
“Swingin’ Party”
“Bastards of Young”
“Lay It Down Clown”
“Left Of the Dial”
“Little Mascara”
“Here Comes a Regular”

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