Friday, June 23, 2006

Left of the Dial

Since Oso Raro did a piece looking back on the Pet Shop Boys, I figured the occasion of the release of “Don’t You Know Who I Think I Was?,” the new Replacements compilation, would be a sufficient excuse to write about Paul Westerberg and the Mighty ‘Mats.

As a veteran of college radio in the late 1980’s, I absorbed the Replacements’ music pretty much by osmosis. They and R.E.M. were simply inescapable. R.E.M. eventually crossed over to mainstream success, but the ‘Mats (‘Mats, fanspeak for Placemats, fanspeak for Replacements) flamed out in 1991. The lead singer and songwriter, Paul Westerberg, has carried on an uneven solo career since.

My affection for Westerberg/Mats music is based partly on the music, and partly on the persona. Westerberg (fun fact: in the movie Heathers, the high school is named after him) is a distinct type: he’s a talented fuckup who succeeds despite himself and fails despite his talent. (One writer described the Replacements as “the little band that could, and didn’t.” That’s about right.) The Mats’ sound, when they were sober enough to play, conveyed both an ambition for greatness and an indifference to practice. Their aesthetic dictated that an album with such undeniable classics as “Satisfied” and “Answering Machine” also had to have “Gary’s Got a Boner,” which sounds pretty much like you’d think it would.

I discovered the Replacements in my twenties, and still think of them as capturing something about that age. They veered uncertainly from eloquent longing (“Skyway,” “Left of the Dial,” “Answering Machine”), to narcissistic drama (“The Ledge,” “Talent Show”), moping (“Someone Take the Wheel,” “Here Comes a Regular”), and stupid restless energy (“I Don’t Know,” “Alex Chilton”). Unburdened by musical competence but with a telling weakness for catchy hooks, they hid vulnerable self-awareness under bluster and jokes. Contradictory as hell, but accurately so, and full of good lines (“you’ve got a voice like the last day of Catholic school,” “how do you say good night to an answering machine?”). They made the best anti-video ever (“Bastards of Young”), and their concerts were famously feast-or-famine, sometimes both. (At a show I caught in ‘91, they delivered a show-stopping version of “Alex Chilton,” and followed it with about thirty seconds of a cover of “All Right Now,” before stopping because Paul forgot the words. It was an exemplary ‘Mats moment.)

Replacements fans couldn’t help but notice how much Nirvana owed the ‘Mats, or just how closely the early Goo Goo Dolls resembled them. The first thirty seconds of “Left of the Dial” sound like the best song Kurt Cobain never wrote. The Arctic Monkeys have a ‘Mats-ish sound, albeit with cockney accents.

As Westerberg moved into his thirties and forties, the songs didn’t get worse, but the albums did. Self-awareness is his gift, and that actually ripens with age. His best solo stuff (“Things,” “It’s a Wonderful Lie,” “AAA”) reflects a man confronting his own failings, finding solace in catchy melodies. (He even did a surprisingly affecting, surprisingly rocking tribute to Sylvia Plath, “Crackle and Drag.”) The problem, though, is that the contradictions that had given his early work its urgency were largely gone. Most of the tracks on his 90’s and later work sound forced, which he has admitted they mostly were. He has too much self-awareness, and too little craft, to fake it convincingly. When he’s faking, you know it. “Actor in the Street” or “We May Be the Ones” can be physically painful to listen to, since they fail on every level: melodically, vocally, lyrically, everything. They’re the aural bile of a man who hates his job.

But even the failures are accurate. I don’t have the same drive for drama or restlessness in my thirties that I did in my early twenties. At 22, the prospect of dying face-down seemed vaguely romantic; now it just seems pitiful. There’s a time in life when you can sing, with goofy conviction, that “all I want to do is have beer for breakfast.” If you’re lucky, that time passes.

It’s also hard to maintain the striving-amateur pose at a certain point. After a while, you either develop competence and go with it (R.E.M. and the Goo Goo Dolls did that), or you find something else to do. Westerberg’s efforts at capturing the romantic, shambolic slacker become less convincing, over time. By the time he did Stereo/Mono, he had to resort to doing his own incompetent drumming and letting the tape run out on his single best performance, mid-song (characteristically, a cover of “Postcards from Paradise,” by Flesh for Lulu), to maintain the amateur vibe. It’s a nice trick, but that’s all it is.

Still, whenever he puts out something new, I perk up and listen, fresh hope flowing. For the first few notes, there’s a rush of familiarity, like hearing from an old friend. A few songs repay the attention; most don’t. Then I remember that I’m not 22 anymore.

Westerberg never really broke through to popular notice – if you’ve heard him at all, it was probably doing “Dyslexic Heart” in the movie Singles back in the early 90’s – and his oeuvre really doesn’t compare to the best singer/songwriters (Dylan, Waits) or even the most persistent and interesting of the subsequent generation (Kristin Hersh, Liz Phair). But, if you were there at a particular place and time, he got it. Periodically reconnecting with that place and time is gratifying, even if only to confirm how much distance has opened between then and now.

In an interview in the New York Times plugging the new cd, he admitted that he hasn’t listened to it. That’s about right. The “man without ties” is now his ten-year-old son’s baseball coach. Enfants terrible grow up. He’s busy now doing the score for an animated movie. I’m fairly sure it will suck. But I’ll listen anyway.