Friday, October 20, 2017

More Than A Feeling

The interwebz told me there was a “new” Replacements album out – that is, a new release of old material, a live show from 1986. I have a tape of that show somewhere amongst my stuff, but I wanted to support them and I figured the best way was to buy an actual thing of it – an object. A commodity. A relic. 

I could have ordered it on Amazon. I could have downloaded an MP3. But just for the sake of old times, I decided I’d go whole hog down memory lane and go to a record store to purchase it.

Sadly, it wasn’t that easy. To begin, there isn’t a record store anywhere in my town. Luckily I work in San Francisco, where there are many. Still, in order to go to the record store, I had to leave for work a half hour early one Thursday, find a parking space near Haight Street, and put money in the meter…none of which are actually instantaneous, the way that downloading an MP3 is.

In addition to the sheer time consumption of that process, there is a mentally draining component. The record store I chose to go to – because close to my work – was Amoeba, on Haight and Stanyan. I am so old I remember when the building was a bowling alley, which was right around the same time that I saw the Replacements play across the street, upstairs at the I Beam, in a building which is now a large Goodwill. So there was a little bit of weltschmertz to be dealt with, going there: that sense of ‘you can’t go home again.’

I suppose that is the proper feeling to feel though when purchasing a live album. The whole point of live albums is to capture a long gone moment; to re-feel a feeling, to drown out the present. And the first feeling that I captured, even before I put on the record, was sadness that record stores are gone. Man, I spent a lot of time in them when I was young! In the town I grew up, there was one downtown, in an old Victorian house, and that’s where I learned most of what I knew about music: standing in the aisles, flipping through records, staring at their covers, memorizing song titles, absorbing whatever music they were playing at the time (usually prog rock or experimental fusion). Part of the reason I did it was my great love and interest in music, but part of it was that in my hometown, there was nothing else to do. Literally the only other retail shop of interest on the Main Street at that time was Douglas Fabrics, at which I sometimes bought felt and notions for my troll doll clothes. At the record store, I met people, heard good music, felt involved and like I belonged to the rock scene. It was almost like belonging to a club.
douglas fabric. my home town.

Later on my parents moved to San Francisco, corner of Filbert and Columbus, and after that I spent a lot of time at Tower Records there.  Sometimes they had live performances outside, and I’d peep at “rock stars” like Pearl Harbor and Fee Waybill, through my fingers there. It was the Amoeba of its day. Later on, when I wrote a book about music scenes in America (Route 666) I postulated that all indie rock scenes of that era were built on the presence of a good independent record store -- like Oarfolkjokeopus, in Minneapolis, which was instrumental in how the ‘mats got their start.

But therein lies a tale you can read in places much more informed than here. And anyway, it turned out that Amoeba was sold out of the Replacements record, so I ordered it online, from their website. Then on the next Thursday afternoon I set out for work again, this time with the exciting prospect of a live show at Maxwell’s to enliven the journey to SF.

And the minute it began I was like…oh my god, am I a bad person? Because at first, I didn’t like it. And then I was like, wait, that’s not a thing. I love all things Replacements, those are the rules. Not only are those the rules, I am the one who made them! So love them I would.
photo credit: Dan Corrigan (I think).

First, let’s be clear: It wasn’t the music I didn’t like. Back in the day, I collected bootleg tapes; befriending soundmen, trading tapes, or otherwise figuring out ways to get nice people to send me stuff was practically half the point of becoming a writer, and there are a number of live albums, like Lou Reed’s “Take No Prisoners” and U2’s “Live at Red Rocks,” which I truly treasure. So there’s a whole treatise to be written about the point of listening to live albums, but this one sounded a little unreal. It was super clean. There was no patter at all, which didn’t sound right in my experience, and although there was a bit of heckling - - absolutely tons of idiot-calls for “Free Bird” calls (interspersed with ones for “September Gurls”) – it was very subdued. The whole concert felt subdued, in fact, and that’s also not a thing I recall from those days…so what  I gather is that recording technology has really changed now, and the result was like the aural equivalent of a an instagram photo with many many filters – the ones that change the light values, sharpen the image, thin your face, and add different hues to the whole picture to give it a different feel.

Then there was the problem of the time-space continuum. Live albums are weird because they rip it apart. Hearing a concert 31 years ago in one of my favorite venues, transposed to a sunny fall afternoon in California while zipping down the freeway…it’s just hard. It’s hard to put yourself back into that mindset. But, unsurprisingly, after a little while, I did. And underneath the shininess of it all, there they were there; the band we loved, the sound we swallowed, the songs we sang along to, the je ne sais quois of an era and a place that is very difficult to articulate, that at the time to me was actually holy. “For Sale” does catch at some of those things, as on “Hold My Life” or “Bastards of Young,” or of course, on “Unsatisfied.” This may well be the best-sung version of that number I’ve heard, and it is still a dead-center shot to the absolute heart.

Mostly, this recording is just this reminder – a sonic Madeleine, rather than a revelation, of just how good good can be. Few bands have more than three great songs in whole career, but in 1986, I had only been listening to the Replacements for two years, and even if you account for personal taste (i.e. I never liked Gary’s Got a Boner or Fuck School), there are a minimum of twelve great originals – “great” being an utterly inadequate word, as there were actually no better rock songs written in that era than the afore mentioned ones and a whole bunch of others: “I Will Dare,” “Can’t Hardly Wait,” “Go.” None. Nil. At their best, the Replacements were so good that even some of their songs that sounded like throwaways at the time, like “Kiss Me On the Bus” and “Color Me Impressed” hold up really well.

It’s weird how some things are so dated, and yet so not. Can any kid today really understand why or what it means to hate your answering machine? And fucking don’t even get me started on ‘Left of the Dial.” The import of that phrase, the tag line and title, which describes the imaginary place where we would all meet, the Replacements and you and me, back in 1986, would be completely meaningless to kids today, but on the tape, in the show, it is simply everything. It’s so important that Paul Westerberg leaves it unspoken and the audience kind of thinks it outloud. “I’ll try to find you,” he sings, and the sound comes to a halt.

Left of the dial.

You can hear, feel, intuit, the audience chanting it to themselves. It is a whisper on the tape, but a scream in my mind. I did it myself, in my car, in the daytime, thirty-one years after the fact.

That the ‘mats had that many great songs at that time is really remarkable, and even more remarkable is that at that moment there were a bunch of already extant great songs (“Sixteen Blue,” for example) they didn't even play -- as well as songs like “Alex Chilton,” “Skyway,” “Merry Go Round,” “The Ledge” that are hovering around or in the near, near future. This recording captures what a live show was like so well. I recall at the time we absolutely loved it when they played covers like “Nowhere Man” and “Baby Strange” and “Fox on the Run” but actually playing those things were a big waste of time compared to playing their own work. They were too humble by half.

Anyway, one thing this recording hints at (though does not really delve into), is that most of the time the Replacements played like shit. Over the years, I saw way more bad shows than good ones, and yet, there was something about the experience that captured what it was like to be alive and human, something about them that was just so poignant and true. Do you know, I think that in the modern world, it takes an incredible amount of courage, and is almost unbelievably honorable, to actually suck a little bit. To take a chance. To not care. That’s what the mats did; that singular thing that we all envied so much. They really didn’t care. Paul Westerberg, he just burns talent. He drips it off him in great globs and then he squanders it in front of your face. But that is all he does with it; he lets it go. At the time, and even now, it seemed like a positively noble gesture, a grandiose ‘fuck you’ to a world of expectations and aspirations and responsibilities and tension: a giant sigh of relief. Loving the Replacements was like that too: it was a way to just let go of desire and doubt. To be OK with what you got, whatever the hell that was.

Anyway, to suck a little bit as part of your brand; if you think about it, that’s not such a bad strategy. That was what I’d forgotten, and it is what you need to remember to enter into the spirit of this record. In 1986, six months or so after this show was recorded, I flew to Paris (but only from London, where I was hanging out at the time) to see the Replacements play a tiny club in the Marais. There were about 20 people there, and the ‘mats were just terrible. After it was over, Bob Stinson followed us down the street to ask if we knew where he could score any drugs; we had to positively shoo him away. Then, on the opposite side of the spectrum, many, many years later, I was sitting glumly in a crowded movie theater with a bunch of tiny children surrounded by wails and the small of fake buttered popcorn, watching a dumb movie about animated grizzly bears when Paul Westerberg’s voice burst onto the screen and briefly turned me into a puddle of glop. It was like finding a nugget of gold at the bottom of a porto-potty. It shook me up to hear it then, and it shakes me up now: 

Well, what can I say? Life is very long, and very strange, and it takes you to so many places, and so is, and so does, music. F Scott Fitzgerald (who grew up in St. Paul) once said that American lives have no second acts, but actually I think he was wrong as hell. Always what I loved about the Mats was their downhome-ness, the way they tied country music to punk and saw the beauty in cheesy top forty tunes, and took minute pleasure in the most manufactured and daunting aspects of life in these United States. The Replacements couldn’t help themselves out of a paper bag, but they’ve always had the power to help me through rough times.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Song of the Week #1 and #2 (Oct. 8-15)

“I Know What Boys Like.” (Oct. 9)

This blog has generated a certain amount of fury amongst my friends (and enemies) because of the controversial nature of its thesis, which postulates that Cheap Trick are not in fact the best band on earth. Across all the discussion and arguments I have had this week about boys, bands, Cheap Trick and 70s rock, there is one single consensus item and that is that this is one great song: 

("Surrender," by Cheap Trick, from the LP "Heaven Tonight." 1978.)

This short review of the Afghan Whigs show at the Fillmore, only posted at Medium, mentions in passing the stellar presence of Marcy Mays, who made a guest appearance mid-show to sing the song “My Curse" and fucking crushed it. Seeing her sing last week reminded me of her band Scrawl, who were a very awesome female presence in the pre-grunge world of indie rock, and who definitely deserve a little more belated love. So for those who missed them the first time around, here they are, in all their glory:

 "Charles," by Scrawl. From the LP "Smallmouth." Rough Trade Records, 1990.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

I Know What Boys Like

Last Sunday, I went to Golden Gate Park to see Cheap Trick perform for free. I don’t know what possessed me to do that – I think I thought I liked Cheap Trick better than I actually do. Actually, I don’t. Like them, I mean. They are a boy’s band. There was a time, though, when I was a teenager, when I only liked the records that boys like. It wasn’t exactly deliberate, but of course that was all I ever heard about, since boys were the only ones who told me about bands.
do you remember laughter?

Cheap Trick are a case in point. I think I probably heard about them from Creem magazine, and what I heard was that they were such an awesome band. Creem being my Bible, I wouldn’t have dreamed of questioning that opinion about them. But I can faintly remember listening to one of their songs, “I Want You To Want Me,” or “Dream Police,” and secretly thinking, wait, why is this supposed to be good? But, I thought, something was good about it, or there wouldn’t have been such unanimity about that opinion. I think I thought the same thing about Ernest Hemingway.

Musically, Cheap Trick fell into a big bucket of bands that weren’t considered good – bands like REO Speedwagon, Foreigner and Journey. Also, Boston, Kansas, and April Wine. The only difference I could determine between those ‘bad’ bands was that Cheap Trick – like Kiss -- sort of dressed up. There was one who wore a hat, and one who wore a glasses, and two who were “cute” – that is to say, I was supposed to think they were cute, though in fact, I didn’t. (Note: this was in the days before videos, so all we knew about them, and their costumes, was from their album covers.)

Creem liked Kiss a lot, also, but I understood that to be an ironic stance. I don’t think they were being ironic about Cheap Trick, although “Cheap Trick at Budokan,” the band’s best-selling record, was originally pressed on colored vinyl, a novelty at the time, and the background screaming of 12,000 Japanese fans was clearly meant as kitsch. In 1978, it sold 3 million copies, which certainly helped me somehow internalized the idea that Cheap Trick was a really good band.

Then I never thought about them again until last week, when they appeared on the bill of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.

Having them on the roster seemed like a funny and cute idea: they are so far from hippies. So far from folkies. So far from anything you associate with free festivals in Golden Gate Park, although at the same time that they bleach the genre, one can’t deny they play the epitome of a certain kind of American Music. It seemed like it would be a real laugh, and as it was a beautiful day last Sunday and I had nothing else to do, around three in the afternoon, I dashed over the Park, getting there so fast that I had time to drop by the Rooster Stage to see the Bob Mould Band. That was interesting, especially as he played three Husker Du songs in the first six minutes. Do you know what hearing Husker Du is like to me now? It’s akin to hearing the theme song from “Totoro” or the Hello Kitty song from the videos my daughter watched as a baby. It gives me that indescribable fuzzy feeling of awwwwwwww, where your stomach clenches and you tear up a little.

I feel this may not have been the case for the majority of Hardly Strictly attendees who were at the Rooster stage right then, some of whom were leftover from the Emmylou Harris-Steve Earle - Bob Weir-augmented super group who had just finished playing Tom Petty songs. To them, Mould’s trademark power trio/tuneful thrash sound may have sounded strangely un-funky, unfolky, and definitely white  - though I did see a hippie couple attempting to boogie to “I Apologize.” I don’t think the whole point of Husker Du has made it down through the ages in the same way the Tom Petty’s point has – but for a very few of us in that glade that afternoon, “Never Talking To You Again” was Free-Falling-esque.

The best fucking...oh, whoops.
Thanks to the magic of twitter, I ran into my friends Tim and Donna at the Rooster stage, and the three of us decided to hoof it to the Cheap Trick stage before Bob Mould was done, passing by Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile in transit. We found a nice place on a grassy green hillside to spread our blanket, and busted out some nachos and salsa.  

It was super nice on that hillside, surrounded by sunshine, and the incongruity of it all had somehow convinced me that Cheap Trick would provide one of those Only-At-Hardly moments, like when Dolly Parton played “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” or when Marianne Faithfull sings “Down to Dover,” but in practice, it wasn’t quite that transformative. Indeed,  their more ironic moments fell a bit flat, as when the band appeared on stage foreshadowed by an announcement by a sultry female voice saying, “Ladies And Gentlemen, introducing the best fucking rock band you’ve ever seen!” That statement just doesn’t work that well when the crowd has just seen Big Freedia, Ozomatli, or kinda-sorta Husker Du.

 Also, some bands can pull off playing in daylight better. Sunlit glades are not that problematic for blues and folk acts, but it does not suit what a friend of mine described later as ‘unsexual cock rock.’ That is the kind of thing, with its sparkles and posturing, craves darkness and a spotlight and a large cement arena where you can’t see any of it to close up. Also helpful: alcohol. Without that, the arena rock staging and silliness -- Rick Nielson’s goofy five neck guitar, for example; Robin Zander’s tailor-made suit in camo – look cheap and tawdry, like something your nerdy neighbors decided to do one Sunday afternoon and you were forced into listening.
The cheapest tricks.

One thing that struck me is that Cheap Trick is somehow essentially a boy’s band. Despite the good looks of Robin Zander and Tom Peterson, their music is practically vehicular in its rhetorical appeal to a certain type of lowkey masculinity. This isn’t meant as a diss of lowkey masculinity, of which I am generally a fan. But there are certain masculine-appealing things, like carburetors, batting averages, and I guess Cheap Trick, that simply crowd out my brain.

Near the end, Cheap Trick played their best song “Surrender,” and the whole crowd really got into it, including Jon Langford of the Mekons who joined the band onstage to sing the chorus. But sadly, given the glee it was met with, it wasn’t the last song, which just shows that Cheap Trick also has issues with pacing.  Honestly, though, the real problem wasn’t even pacing or sunlight or tempo or cock rock. It was just that Cheap Trick’s cheap tricks are all the things I hated about seventies rock bands in the first place. To begin, its tempos are decidedly mid – that is, mid-to-slow, sludgy, and punctuated with pointless arpeggios. Yet, despite the constant WEEDLE WEE of Nielson’s histrionic solo-ing, the songs never had a minor chord or rose to using more than three. Also, their output is somewhat meagre. At one point, they played not one but TWO Lou Reed songs – and they played them wrong. Also, they played long instrumental solos.

Basically, what Cheap Trick made me realize is we all know too much now: we’ve been spoiled, or intervened with, or overeducated, however you want to look at it, by punk rock and rap and by thirty years of plenty. And thank god we were, is all I can say, because what if we hadn’t been? What if the pop and rock world really HAD been ruled by Cheap Trick – rather than messed up in the head by the Sugar Hill Gang and the Sex Pistols, by Queen Latifah and the Raincoats? What if you’d had to hear an endless loop of this kind of music, instead of stuff by the Talking Heads, by Grandmaster Flash, by Bruce Springsteen and Blondie and Madonna? It hardly bears thinking about.