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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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72nd Favorite: Let It Be, by The Replacements

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Let It Be. The Replacements
1984, Twin/Tone. Producer: Steve Fjelstad, Peter Jesperson, Paul Westerberg
Purchased: ca. 1992.

letitbe album

nutshellIN A NUTSHELL – Excellent rock songwriting, with terrific lyrics and strong performances. Leader Paul Westerberg is a treasure, and the band plays in a ragged style, almost as if trying to hide their talent beneath a layer of punk patina. The album has some of my favorite songs from the last 40 years. But for a few so-so songs, this would be top 20, easy.
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kendrickAs 2016 begins, my son is nearing 17 years old and is quite a music fan. He likes a lot of different musical styles, but his favorite is hip hop, which – given my advanced age – all sounds
kind of the same to me.

steviewOur tastes do cross paths at a few places. He loves the “Stevie Wonder Channel” he made on Pandora, and since I’ve played “Oldies” in the car ever since he was a baby, he has a fondness for 60s and 70s classic rock and pop.

Because he knows I’m a music fan, he is always on the lookout for new songs that I might like. He’ll often play a song for me and say, “Dad, I think you’ll like this one …” Typically he picks songs that have a strong bass line and a discernible melody in the chorus. When I do like a song, it makes him happy. If I don’t like it he’ll argue a bit, then tell me I have no taste.

80snerdThe other discussion he enjoys having with me regarding new music is the “What would people think …?” discussion. As in, “Dad, what would people think of this song when you were in high school? Would it just be totally crazy?”

The answer varies. For the hip hop songs, I think the answer is almost always “Yes, it would sound crazy,” because when I was in high school the only “hip hop” we knew was “Rapper’s Delight,” and a little Run-DMC, which sound quite different from anything by, say, Future. But some non-hip-hop songs from 2015, for example “Uptown Funk,” would’ve fit in quite nicely at my school’s Friday night dances after basketball games.

A good example of what it looked like when the author “boogied” during 80s high school dances.

But my usual answer is “I don’t remember how crazy it would sound.” It’s not that grandpaadvancing age is calcifying the once robust, agile fluidity of my cortex … Okay, that’s partly it. But mainly the reason I can’t remember is because of the fact that as music evolves, sounds that once were unusual or “crazy” come to sound normal, like they’ve always been there. So I don’t recall what sounded crazy, and when.

There is music all around us – in stores, on TV, in our cars – and our ears and brain recognize it as Music. And of course we listen to music for pleasure – buying it on Spotify or iTunes, or even on old-fashioned CDs and previously-old-fashioned-but-now-new-fashioned vinyl and cassettes. And our ears and brains adapt to the changes in popular music rather readily.

ears musicSome may argue that the more music changes, the more it sounds the same. Recording technology has certainly improved, but while music professionals might notice profound taylor bandchanges in music recording technology, without the thoroughly trained, hypersensitive cochlear apparatuses of a professional, can one really distinguish the sonic improvements in, say, Taylor Swift’s latest record as compared to her first in 2006? I don’t think so. Improvements in technology don’t change the fact that Taylor Swift makes catchy ditties with typical song structure and recognizable musical sounds, just like hits from 2006 and 1986 and 1946. Even Benny Goodman could have played “Shake It Off,” but his version would have come with a full big-band complement of trumpets and saxophones. Good Time Charlies in 1938 would’ve swung their chicks right along to a snappy number like that.

awful musicBut consider a few words in that sentence a few lines up: “recognizable musical sounds.” How do we as listeners adapt to new musical sounds and incorporate them into our personal basket of “recognizable” musical sounds? When does a “crazy sound” stop sounding crazy?

When truly new-sounding music hits the masses, the tendency is for it to be rejected by a large segment of the music-appreciating public. But if the new sounds can gain a foothold with a critical mass of music appreciation pioneers, the sounds begin to be heard more often, rite springand the next thing you know you can’t tell why you ever thought the new sound was so cacophonous in the first place; it’s now quite mellifluous.

This initial mass rejection of new sounds before subsequent mass acceptance has a distinguished history Probably the most famous example is that of riots in 1913 Paris over a wild new ballet by Igor Stravinsky.

Around the same time, the American media was observing a new kind of popular music, and railing against this “Satan’s music,” called “ragtime.” joplinRagtime was the first American music to cause a “true upheaval which had moral and economic consequences, other than musical consequences, in American popular culture,” according to composer and historian Max Morath. troubleIt’s the kind of music that Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man called “shameless music/That’ll grab your son and your daughter/With the arms of a jungle animal instinct.”

Now that it’s 2016, and Ragtime music is over a century old, and we’ve all grown up with its old-timey sounds in our lives, it’s hard to imagine a time when this music could have sounded devilish and crazy. It’s difficult to conceive of what it was like to experience that change of sound. And since these changes were taking place at the very dawn of recorded music, it’s difficult to get a good idea of the popular music landscape into which this “shameless music” was thrust.

So let’s jump ahead to Rock and Roll, music from an era that started well after “The Charts” were firmly established, tracking America’s music listening and buying habits, thus providing a clearer window to peek through into the world of the listening public.

zenithImagine it’s 1955, and you’re listening to your favorite song on the family Zenith radio, Tony Bennett’s beautiful 1954 Number One Smash “Stranger in Paradise.” You’re thinking of your sweetie, and the fine times you’ve had together, the finer times you hope to have. Music, you think, can’t get any better than this … As the song ends, and your warm feelings are lingering, the DJ announces the next number, featuring a new sound coming out of Philadelphia, and heard in the new Glenn Ford film, Blackboard Jungle.

It’s Bill Haley and His Comets, performing “Rock Around the Clock!”

You nearly leap out of your chair with fright!!! “This isn’t music!!!” you scream. “Where are the violins? This guy can’t even sing – he, he, … he BARKS!! And what the hell is that sound at 44 seconds in??!! It sounds like a bumblebee caught in a tin can? cannibalAnd where are those drums coming from, some kind of voodoo ceremony, or cannibal dance? I mean, I like Big Band Swing okay, but I’ve never heard anything like THIS!!”

Watch that video, and check out the woman dancing at 50 seconds. Could you ever fathom pants that tight moving in that manner along to Tony Bennett or Mario Lanza? This new sound must have sounded downright insane.

You, the Tony Bennet lover, might think that that crazy music was just a fad when Doris Day sets things back to normal in 1956, but in 1957 Elvis Presley comes along, and the next year Chuck Berry is duck walking all over the airwaves with that electrified guitar, and he’s not even trying to sing in any way that you recognize as singing! elvis etcFolks like Little Richard aren’t even trying to sing words; they’re just making up gibberish, and by now that Bill Haley song from 4 years ago doesn’t sound too crazy at all. In fact, compared to Chuck Berry, it sounds downright QUAINT! And once Pat Boone comes along to rephrase these songs in a way a Tony Bennett fan can really appreciate, you’ve become very accustomed to the rock and roll sound. Maybe you’re not a fan, but it no longer sounds like something from an outer space jungle insane asylum.

This script for the introduction of “new sounds” to popular music is repeated often. The Beatles entered the American airwaves and sounded different from the usual fare and were immediately dismissed by many critics and other music fans. unionjackBut in another year “The British Invasion” is in full swing, clogging the airwaves with anything vaguely Beatle-esque, and by 1968, nobody can remember what sounded so crazy about the 1964 version of the band.

Likewise, punk rock sounded like screaming knackmaniacs tossing electric motors down a marble staircase when compared to popular hit songs of the era, and most people didn’t get it. But by 1979, the top song of the year is “My Sharona,” a nifty new wave song whose success couldn’t have happened without listeners’ collective ears getting broken in by that edgy, repetitive, stripped-down punk sound.

All those examples of listeners’ ears adapting are from either before I was born, or before I began paying attention closely to musicalnirvana sounds. However, I clearly recall an adaptation my ears made that, in retrospect, renders cute my ears’ first confused apprehension of a new sound. It occurred in the very early 90s, near the end of the dreaded scourge of Hair Metal. In an era of phony-baloney, pretend-loud, pseudo-aggressive music by bands like Warrant, Kurt Cobain’s indecipherable mumbling and screaming, over the band’s boom-boom crunch in Nirvana’s famous “Smells Like Teen Spirit” sounded gloriously unholy and new. However, listening to the song twenty-five years later, it’s hard to remember what sounded so wild about it.

The point is that peoples’ ears are ears2only ready for new sounds when they’re ready for new sounds. Some folks get onboard earlier than others; some folks can hear the music in the noise more clearly than others. Music only clicks with the listener when the listener is ready, either after priming by the sounds of an evolving genre, or because a listener is just out there searching for something new. And when I hear The Replacements today, it’s hard to imagine how crazy I thought they sounded at first.

Although, to be fair, I’d never actually HEARD them when I thought they sounded so crazy. I should have learned from Billy Joel: “there’s a new band in town/but you can’t get the sound/from a story in a magazine/aimed at your average teen.”

Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 6.13.46 AMI have a recollection of being in high school and reading a little about The Replacements in an issue of Rolling Stone.

At the time, a friend had recently tried to get me into the mid-80s punk rock music by playing songs by a band called The Meatmen, from an album called (rather hilariously) We’re the Meatmen … And You Suck! In listening back to this song today, it’s hard to believe how crazy, unmusical and uninteresting it sounded to me in 1985. It sounded like guys who had picked up guitars and meatmenjust started whacking away on the necks and shrieking along. It was amusing in that way, amusing enough that a couple friends and I actually made up and recorded some songs for fun in which we did just that. And although the Rolling Stone article stated, quite accurately, “The Replacements mix country and blues with hard rock Rolling Stones-… style,” the description didn’t register. All I knew was that I’d already heard some of this new “punk rock,” and I thought it sucked and that the people who played it sucked. (Spoken like a true Rush fan!)

mats bandI heard about the band again over the next several years, read their name in articles, saw some records in record stores and all along thought they were lousy, screaming creeps banging unrelentingly on their instruments. And maybe they were. But I still wish I’d given them a chance back then.

I was finally forced to actually listen to the band when I joined a band myself, The April Skies, which featured a lead guitarist/songwriter, Jake, who had a Replacements obsession. Maybe obsession is too strong a word. Call it a fascination. Or a condition. Nah, it was obsession. He talked about them all the time, and at rehearsal he often played a simple riff over and over, a catchy little thing that went like this (7 seconds in):

When I finally heard the full song – during a long drive in a van on the way to a faraway gig – I was blown away. The catchy melody, the interplay of bass and drums, the singer’s expressive voice, the lyrics evoking a young person’s desire … it sounded like the perfect song. How could this be coming from a band I knew, just KNEW – from reading a short article and hearing a couple songs by a completely different band six years ago – to be a bunch of talentless losers??

“I Will Dare” features lead guitar from Peter Buck of R.E.M., who were traveling the same College Radio circuit as The Replacements in 1984. paul hairAlso, Replacements’ lead singer and main songwriter, Paul Westerberg, plays a catchy mandolin to end the song. I love everything about this song, from Chris Mars’s four-on-the-floor drumbeat at the beginning to Westerberg’s plea, “Come on!” before the second chorus, to guitarist Bob Stinson’s sort of out of tune run at 3:11. Westerberg has a distinctive rock voice that strains against years of cigarette soot to reach the correct notes, but reach them he always does. If I were writing about my top 100 songs of all time, I think “I Will Dare” would break the top ten. I remember being young and experiencing all the feelings this song expresses, the thrill of the danger in seeking reciprocated love, the desire for a call on Thursday – or Wednesday, better still! And no songwriter can turn a phrase better than Westerberg (“How young are you?/How old am I?/Let’s count the rings/Around my eyes”). More times than not, I’ll get chills listening to this song. It just has that effect.

paul singWesterberg has a talent for mining a deep vein of a particular form of 70s/80s suburban teen angst, from the days before the internet brought everything everywhere right to your fingertips. It’s a mixture of boredom (“There’s nothing to do in this town…”), doom (“… and I’ll never get out of here…”), doubt (“… and I’m such a loser, nobody will ever like me …”) that is spiked with deep pride (“… but all those folks from other places who think they’re better than me and my town can kiss my ass!”) A good example is the beautiful “Unsatisfied.”

There isn’t a whole lot to the lyrics, but put chrismarsto this tune, and sung in Westerberg’s moving style, they say so much more than their content. Westerberg adds a wonderful lap steel guitar to the song. I don’t know of another song that makes me feel so much like I did as a fifteen year old in rural Pennsylvania, even though I didn’t hear the song until I was in my twenties!

The topic of teenage angst is handled even more directly in the sweet “Sixteen Blue.”

It’s the third song I’ve written about, and still there’s nothing on the album that sounds like The Meatmen, mats concert 1nothing even reminiscent of the boast Westerberg made in that Rolling Stone piece: “A rock & roll band needs to be able to get under people’s skin … You should be able to clear the room at the drop of a hat.” These are great, straight-ahead rock songs. “Sixteen Blue” has some really nice lead guitar courtesy of Bob Stinson, mirroring the sadness of the lyrics.

But despite a yearning for something new, something to break up the monotony, The ‘Mats aren’t the types to go in for something new just to keep up with those around them.

In the song “Answering Machine,” our protagonist, the Unsatisfied, Blue Sixteen year-old, hoping that a special someone Will Dare with him, is thwarted by a newfangled object in 1984.

The song expresses a “What is wrong with these people?” mats band dresssentiment, an exasperation that no one else can see just how useless a useful machine can be to a human seeking connection. The song features just Westerberg and his guitar, and this arrangement enhances the song’s emotional and informational message.

mats tommy leapThe band also expresses their contempt for another 80s touchstone, Music Videos. The rousing, punky “Seen Your Video” was an attack on the MTV generation, on style over substance, and a poke at R.E.M. (or so I’ve read – either in All Over But the Shouting or Our Band Could Be Your Life, two books I HIGHLY recommend), friends of The Replacements who were just getting some attention on mainstream radio, and were starting to make videos for their songs.

It’s an instrumental (mostly) that’s catchy and aggressive, with nice guitar lines throughout. This is the first song I’ve mentioned here that even smacks a bit of punk rock. But there are others on the album.

“Favorite Thing” is a raucous ode …

a raucous ode to … something. Punk rock? Rock and roll? The way Westerberg sings it, I always thought it was to a person, but the lyrics seem to be about a lifestyle (“It’s really hip, with plenty of flash”), a desire (“Wanna be something/Wanna be anything”), perhaps even a future (“I think big once in a while”). Once again, it’s that 70s/80s small town adolescent, wishing for something but not sure what.

Another fine, funny punk song is about bass player Tommy Stinson’s health problems, “Tommy Gets his Tonsils Out.”

“He gets his tonsils out?” you may ask. “How old is he, twelve??!” tommyWell, actually, he was twelve when he joined the band in 1979, and he dropped out of school three years later to go on tour, after the band’s manager obtained legal guardianship of him so Tommy could legally enter the bars they played. He’s led a very Rock and Roll life. This song is plain fun, with witty lyrics gently teasing the young teen. It’s somewhat of a throwback to some of the band’s earlier, rougher, punkier tunes, but it’s a much tamer and mainstream sound than the early songs.

mats fingerAnother humorous song is the raunchily titled “Gary’s Got a Boner,” dealing with another teenage angst-filled topic, sex. “We’re Coming Out” is a barn-burner about … something. The band also covers the Kiss song, “Black Diamond,” which I generally skip over.

I prefer the less punky songs on the album, something that might annoy long-time, hardcore ‘Mats fans. But the album, and its famous album cover, definitely has a punk feel – especially the title. Giving an paul guitaralbum the same name as an album by the greatest band ever is a pretty “punk rock” thing to do. Also punk-rock is the embrace of the “other,” particularly in one striking case – the song “Androgynous.”

It’s a song that I used to mistake as a case AGAINST boyish girls and girlish boys, bob skirtbut a close reading of the lyrics reveals a sophisticated, sincere and broad-minded take on the issue of gender identity. “Tomorrow who’s gonna fuss?” Westerberg asks, a prescient view of societal changes to come in the next thirty years after this recording. “Kewpie dolls and urine stalls/will be laughed at/the way you’re laughed at now,” he sings, and sure urinals still exist, and girls still play with dolls, but more and more “unisex” restrooms are found nowadays and toys are becoming much less rigidly gender-specific. The song’s become a bit of an anthem in the LGBTQ community, performed last summer by Miley Cyrus, Joan Jett and transgender singer Laura Jane Grace of Against Me!, to raise funds for Cyrus’s “Happy Hippie Foundation” for homeless, LGBTQ and vulnerable youth.

As someone with close relationships with people whose gender and sexual identity has been a source of significant personal struggles, the fact that a song by a favorite band of mine has become such an anthem makes me very happy.

mats busIt’s hard to believe how radical an idea androgyny was in 1984 – the simple fact that a boy could want to look girlish and a girl look boyish (even if they’re a straight couple, as the song describes) was rather shocking back then. And it’s hard to believe how shocking 80s punk music sounded to me back then. When my son asks me if a song from today would’ve sounded crazy back then, all I can think is that so much sounded crazy back then – both in music and society – and it’s a damn shame we let that so-called craziness prevent us from trying to understand. I probably missed out on some damn fine music, and others probably missed out on a whole lot more.

TRACK LISTING
I Will Dare
Favorite Thing
We’re Comin’ Out
Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out
Androgynous
Black Diamond
Unsatisfied
Seen Your Video
Gary’s Got a Boner
Sixteen Blue
Answering Machine

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