Monday, June 11, 2012


DT already shared his Introduction to The Replacements story, in which I figure prominently. Here's the story of my own introduction to the 'Mats. Coincidentally, I figure prominently in this one as well.

I first heard the Replacements in the summer of 1987. I was working at Strawberry's, a record store chain in the northeast, when Pleased to Meet Me came out. It was one of the featured albums that month, so we had a tape sent out by the head office with three songs and a spoken introduction. Each of the dozen or so featured albums per month had three songs with an intro on those tapes. Naturally, we only played the mandated tape when the district manager was around. Otherwise, we played the actual album in its entirety once or twice, unless we liked it, in which case we'd play it a few dozen times. Or play whatever album we felt like hearing. We were an eclectic lot, so it was pretty hard to find something we all agreed upon.

The Replacements was one of them. At least for the others. I wasn't sold, not at first. The opening cut on Pleased to Meet Me is "I.O.U." and it was too chaotic, too noisy, too...well, too punk for the very mainstream me I was at the time. My guard and my dander were both up. So much so that even the album's second song, the utterly magnificent "Alex Chilton" didn't manage to win me over, not right away. And the third track, "I Don't Know," was like the first, just too punk for me. But the curveball that is "Nightclub Jitters," with its sultry lounge appeal, made me reconsider. And the last song on the first side, "The Ledge," which sounded pretty damn mainstream, albeit great mainstream, made me decide I kinda liked these guys. Yes, it took a song about suicide. By the time I hit the album's closers—the gorgeous, delicate, yearning "Skyway" and the seemingly celebratory "Can't Hardly Wait"—I was a fan.

Sorta. That is how the tracklisting goes, and it is how my love of the 'Mats was born. But in truth, it took hearing that album at least a half dozen times before that all sunk in. Fortunately, my manager was a major Replacements fan. So naturally, he was pleased I saw the error of my initial ways and encouraged me to delve into their back catalog. Wisely eschewing for the moment their earliest stuff, he lent me Let It Be and Tim.

Once again, I was not initially captivated. I taped them, of course, as one did at the time, one album on each side of a 90 minute cassette. And I listened a few times. But again, what jumped out at me the most was the punkish side of the band. For all they've said they were a terrible punk band and for all they were always the most mainstream of what was then called college rock and later was termed alternative before everyone decided they hated that label and it didn't make sense anyway, the fact remains that the Replacements had a distinctly punk edge to them—in a good way: they refused to play the game anyone's way but their own. And whether or not they had short hair or played at the speed of sound or refused to sign with a major or were straight-edge, that's the very best part of punk. (It's also, of course, one major reason they never achieved the kind of mainstream success they deserved.)

It wasn't until many months later that I popped the tape in again. And this time, I got it. And from that moment on, I knew I'd found my band, the one that somehow was singing the things I wanted to, but not only couldn't, but hadn't even known I wanted to until then.

It was "Unsatisfied" that did it. The oh so lovely acoustic intro grabbed me from the first. It was just so damn beautiful and even after "Skyway," I never would have guessed they had this sort of fragile beauty in them. Then the whole band kicks in and suddenly, unexpectedly, it's pure rock and roll. The guitars still shimmer rather than howl or scream, it's still mid-tempo, and yet it's rock and roll all the same. Even before the lyrics start.

But oh the lyrics. "Look me in the eye," Paul Westerberg sings, and it's not a plea, not even so much a request, as a flat demand. "Then tell me that I'm satisfied."

Sweet Jesu. I'd never heard anything quite like that before. One line, so simple, so direct, so plain-spoken and so very, very right. He's not singing about loving a girl that doesn't love him, he's not singing about the darkest depths of Mordor, he's not singing about unemployed auto workers, he's not singing about a princess on a steeple and all the pretty people—all fine song topics and all part of songs I love dearly. But this is a world away. So simple but so powerful, it was like getting punched in the chest. 

But Westerberg's not quite done. "Could you satisfy?" he wonders. But that's not really the question he's interested in—having asked it once, he never really returns to it. Instead, he again sings, "Look me in the eye, then tell me that I'm satisfied." A pause, then a "hey!" A simple interjection by the singer, a singerly affectation, as in tens of thousands of songs? Probably. But it doesn't feel like that's what it is. It feels like he's really trying to get someone's attention, a girl perhaps, that having delivered a sort of pickup line and having lost her because of it, he's trying to get her back, to get her to really listen to him, something he's tried his whole life. It especially feels like that's what's happening when he follows up with the question, "Are you satisfied?", tying them together, binding them with their mutual and burning lack of fulfillment. And the thing is, you don't even need to hear her reply, if there is one, to know the answer. Hell no, she's not. She's not satisfied either.

We go into the bridge, a melancholy "And it goes so slowly on...everything I've ever wanted," and his voice, having dropped, accompanied by the sound of a lapsteel's piercing cry, before he pleads, "Tell me what's wrong."

Another verse of him demanding, more insistently, "Look me in the eye, then tell me that I'm satisfied. Were you satisfied?" No more feigned detachment: this time, his voice, rougher now, leaves no doubt of his emotional state. "Look me in the eye, then tell me that I'm satisfied. Now are you satisfied?"

Unusually, we then go into a second bridge, with different chords and very different lyrics. "Everything goes," he sings, his voice not as hoarse as before but not as melodious, either; his voice doesn't drop this time, instead staying up but semi-talking, before...what? Clarifying? Correcting? "Well, anything goes," he sings, "All of the time. Everything you dream of is right in front of you," and again you feel that ache of wanting, wanting but not being able to have, even though it's hanging, tantalizingly, just out of reach. And then he mumbles the bridge's final line. I'm not sure it's "but everything's a lie"—in fact, despite that being a common belief online, it more sounds like it's not that than that it is that. But it feels right.

"Look me in the eye, then tell me that I'm satisfied," he sings again, and now his voice is getting hoarser and hoarser. No more pickup lines—in fact, he doesn't even care about his listener's state of mind anymore. Instead of turning it around, he follows up desperately "Look me in the eye and satisfy." That's where he is now: pushed so far that even the simple act of being looked in the eye is enough human contact for him, enough to finally, maybe, hopefully satisfy him.

But he doesn't get it. "I'm so...I'm so unsatisfied," he sings, adding, "I'm so dissatisfied." Has he gotten something, at least? A little something? If so, it's not only not enough, it's not even palatable.

"I'm so...I'm so unsatisfied. I'm so unsatisified.

"I'm so...I'm so unsatisfied. I'm so unsatis...

"I'm so..."

And he trails off, exhausted. He'd built up from cautious to nearly screaming, but instead of continuing to build, he hit a point where he just couldn't go on. He didn't give up, he kept trying, but a little less and less passionate if no less emotional each time. And then it comes to a point where he can't even finish the line. He tries but then simply lets go, and lets the music make the point for him. When the lyrics fail, when words just won't do, there's always the music.

And that's what it really comes down to: the music. For all the Replacements broke up so Westerberg could find more simpatico musicians, for all you can't blame him for following his muse even though it's obvious he never did and never will find those musicians he was seeking—and it was pretty obvious at the time—that the evidence was right there, on their fourth album, on this song leading off the second side. The bassline, the drumming, they're the kind of parts that'd never, ever be played by seasoned studio vets, superior technicians, but which are only created by the kind of guys who've grown up together, who've played together for years, slogging it out in the back of vans to get to horrible clubs in the middle of a bitter winter. That for all Westerberg was singing about how unsatisfied he was, for all you can clearly hear in his voice that he meant it, that he was really, truly unsatisfied, down to the core of his being, the tragedy is that if he could have just heard what the rest of us heard, if he had just looked around the studio a little more carefully, he would have seen three other guys feeling exactly the same way. He would have really seen and, more important, really heard this insanely perfectly balanced band, so perfectly encapsulating the "greater than the sum of its parts" truism. And he would have been more than satisfied.

That he couldn't hear what was so obvious to the rest of us, of course, is exactly what enabled him to create art this transcendent. His sad loss is our tremendous gain.

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