Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Bastards of Young

one hell of a function
I have a confession to make, one I've never told anyone, even co-blogger DT: I never liked "Bastards of Young" all that much.

Oh, don't get me wrong, I liked it okay. Of course I did: it was the Replacements. But on the magnificent Tim, I lumped it in with the likes of "Lay It Down, Clown" and "Dose of Thunder" rather than with, say, "Little Mascara," "Here Comes a Regular" and of course "Left of the Dial." But there was something about it I just found always threw me off a bit.

It was DT, of all things, who got me to come around to it, but pointing out the brilliance of Paul Westerberg's lyrics, something I hadn't paid a lot of attention to on this one. And brilliant they unquestionably are.


God, what a mess, on the ladder of success
Where you take one step and miss the whole first rung
Dreams unfulfilled, graduate unskilled
It beats pickin' cotton and waitin' to be forgotten
We are the sons of no one, bastards of young
The daughters and the sons
Clean your baby womb, trash that baby boom
Elvis in the ground, there'll ain't no beer tonight
Income tax deduction, what a hell of a function
It beats pickin' cotton or waitin' to be forgotten
We are the sons of no one, bastards of young
Now the daughters and the sons
Unwillingness to claim us, ya got no war to name us
The ones who love us best are the ones we'll lay to rest
And visit their graves on holidays at best
The ones who love us least are the ones we'll die to please
If it's any consolation, I don't begin to understand them
We are the sons of no one, bastards of young
Daughters and the sons
Take it, it's yours

There's so much there. First of all—and I'm not being facetious here—that in 1985 Westerberg made sure to include both males and females there in the chorus was unusually woke. But beyond that, the deftness of the lyrics was, even by Westerberg's standards, remarkable. The LP's "Kiss Me on the Bus" had already proved that if post-punk had a Cole Porter it was, against all odds, this high school dropout turned janitor turned college rock icon. But the lyrics here, for all their caustic incisiveness, never came within a lightyear of mere cleverness for cleverness's sake. There's a wounded heart on the sleeve quality to them that's undeniable, starting with the very first line:
God, what a mess, on the ladder of success
Where you take one step and miss the whole first rung
As if it weren't already obvious just how self-referential this was, the next two lines make that abundantly clear:
Dreams unfulfilled, graduate unskilled
It beats pickin' cotton and waitin' to be forgotten
And it holds out little hope that things will get better, as a later slogan (correctly, generally) put it:
The ones who love us best are the ones we'll lay to rest
And visit their graves on holidays at best
The ones who love us least are the ones we'll die to please
(Although perhaps that's not entirely true, or perhaps Westerberg himself thought he was painting too bleak a picture, as the song ends with the repeated exhortation to "take it, it's yours.")

Once you become aware of these lines, the song can never again be viewed as just another of their rave-ups, a chance for genius but untameable guitarist Bob Stinson to wreak his glorious havoc.

(Also, take note of the quiet yet oddly powerful discordant sound right after "die to please"—perhaps a guitar pick scraping one of the wound strings?)

But it was only a few days ago, listening to the live Inconcerated set that came with the Dead Man's Pop boxset that I realized what it was that had originally thrown me off for so long. It was the mathematical imbalance of almost the entire song.


The song opens with two bars of solo guitar before the rhythm section bashes into play. The entire band (well, theoretically—Bob Stinson apparently only played the [amazing] solos on the record, all of which he recorded in a single afternoon) then plays for five more measures before slipping into the first verse.

The first verse itself is made up of two 7-bar phrases, for a total (obviously) of 14 measures. Get that? This isn't a 12-bar blues nor is it a standard 8-bar pop song format. Although it generally uses the same chords in blues, albeit just with standard major (and one minor) chords and not the dominant 7 chords typical of the blues, it's clearly not a blues, as it doesn't follow the standard blues changes anywhere.

It feels more or less like a typical pop formula, except by going with 7 rather than 8 measures per section, it throws the listener off, by setting up expectations which are then tossed aside, as the next section is suddenly rushed into, rather than gliding in right on time, as with the overwhelming majority of pop songs.

But then there's the chorus, which has 12 measures and not the standard 8, nor the now semi-expected 7. So once again, we're off-balance.

We then go into the bridge, a staple of pop music, and here they give it 4 bars. A nice round number, except that as the bridge is often called (especially by Brits such as the Beatles) "the middle eight" it's, once again, a very much not normal length.

Prodded by the greatly underrated drumming of Chris Mars, Bob Stinson then rips into one of his signature solos. But even here, even with the band member most notoriously resistant to trying new things, the solo takes up 11 measures: not 7, not 4, not 12.

Then we're back for the final verse. And the first two lines take up the by-now expected 7 measures, but the last two take up a normally normal but to us by now abnormal 8 measures. Usually that would be unremarkable, but by this time the listener has almost started to become accustomed to the unbalanced nature of the number of bars, so it feels like time is stretched uncomfortably, the tension rising almost but not quite imperceptibly.

Then we're into the chorus, which should be 12 measures, going by the form the first two times it was played. But this time it's an almost expectedly askew 11 measures and not 12...the first time through. This time the chorus is repeated, albeit sans lyrics, and this time it's only 10 measures, not 12 or 11, thus kneecapping even our already abbreviated chorus unexpectedly.

And then the outro comes smashing into our faces out of nowhere, an almost musical equivalent of the visual spectacle of the Who destroying their instruments.

Almost everything about the song is aslant, a musical representation of the scarred, twisted world the lyrics depict. Not bad for a band of drunken clowns, as they were often viewed (including sometimes, sadly, by the band themselves).

Altogether, it's an astonishing recording of an astonishing composition, and rock-solid proof all by itself of why so many think they were one of the greatest American bands ever, as well as a terribly sad example of why they should have been so much better known, and how much they could have accomplished had they not been so insistent upon shooting themselves in both feet every time a decent opportunity came their way.

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