“Crack up in the sun / Lose it in the shade.”
How great does a songwriter have to be to pen a generation-defining anthem? How about when he does it at least twice on one album, all while drunk and highly allergic to success? Such is the legend of Paul Westerberg, the guy who made it seem so effortless.
There have been multiple books published trying to unravel this legend, but the more I learn about similar great songwriters of the 80’s (e.g. Paddy McAloon, responsible for my third-favorite record of 1985; see below), the more I realize they’re just humans with the same insecurities or apathies as anyone. Westerberg himself had a career painted by what the major labels of the 20th century referred to as “failure.” You wouldn’t know it listening to his band’s major-label debut, which sounds like the retroactive soundtrack to an entire era. Westerberg’s hero Alex Chilton accomplished something similar (retroactively) for the early 70’s with those Big Star records. Paul would sing tribute to Chilton in what mayyyy (shrugging while saying it like a question) be the best-known Replacements song on “Pleased to Meet Me,” but today’s essay isn’t about the totally okay, Bob Stinson-less Pleased to Meet Me.
I remember finding it curious that Michael Azerrad cut off his Our Band Could Be Your Life chapter on the Replacements when they left Twin/Tone, but he had every right to. Critics still have a weird relationship with Tim, though I never understood why. The cover art is grotesque, and I’ll begrudgingly admit that the band does sound like they’re on autopilot for a couple of tracks here (“Lay It Down Clown” and “Dose of Thunder” were once denounced as ‘filler’ in a Rolling Stone classic review), but there’s nothing on Tim that couldn’t have been on Let It Be. This did turn out to be Bob Stinson’s swan song with the group – taking a bit of a subordinate role as lead guitarist before slipping out the back door and disappearing into various Twin Cities kitchens (and his addictions) until dying in 1995.
The thing that was so easy to forget about Westerberg was that he did have big-time aspirations. He wanted to write songs that spoke to people. He wanted to sell records. In fact, he spent the better part of two decades as a major-label artist – albeit, personally, I would struggle to name a single one of his solo tracks. In fact, the first time I can remember hearing his name was in a family friend’s car sometime in 1996. My friend Beth implored her mom to put Paul Westerberg on (it would have been his second studio album Eventually), but we wound up listening to Ben Folds Five’s first album instead (it was “Julianne;” you never forget a lyric like “I met this girl she looked like Axl Rose”). Soon, though, I discovered The Replacements, but ironically, I don’t remember how.
What I do remember, though, is listening to Tim on repeat in my discman on a trip through Spain in 2000. Songs like “I’ll Buy” and “Kiss Me on the Bus” will always bring me back to those long rides through parched Iberian landscapes. Also, I split a hotel room in Barcelona with a friend named Tim. I don’t remember if that coincidence had any bearing on my time there, but it was definitely linked to that coming-of-age experience.
I wouldn’t make it to the Twin Cities for another decade, but I got the impression that by 2011, the Minneapolis and St. Paul that created Prince, The Replacements, and Husker Du (three artists at the peak of their powers in 1985) was a distant memory. A lot of the old Scandinavians and Catholic VFW-dwellers had been dying out, and gentrification had certainly done a number on the cities, right?
I was wrong. The Twin Cities’ landscape had changed a good bit since Westerberg, the Stinson Brothers, and Chris Mars first ground out a demo of “Raised in the City,” but the spirit still felt there. I had spent many nights on couches in punk houses, but I’d never before stayed in house in a punk neighborhood. Two of the Midwestern punks I stayed with brought me through a series of alleys to Matt’s Pub, where we got (absolutely worth the hype) Jucy Lucy burgers. I returned in 2017 for the Oral History Association conference, which I now regret not having returned to since then, looking back through that linked entry. I think that, sometime in the coming years, I will make it a point to converge with the OHA again. Apparently, they are returning to in-person next Fall in Los Angeles. Anyway, I’m veering off of my point.
As my shared thoughts above on Tim demonstrate, it’s exceedingly hard to write anything original about the Replacements without getting somewhat personal. So, because I don’t have much else to contribute to that conversation, here are my three favorite lyrical moments from Tim and why:
- A good friend of mine from the Midwest once overheard “Here Comes a Regular” while walking home after a bad night, and he was convinced the universe was mocking him. I immediately knew how he felt, considering how that’s one of the saddest songs ever written. “I used to live at home / now I stay at the house” just HITS me every time I hear it, even on nice, sunny days with no worries.
- “If I don’t see you, for a long, long while, I’ll try to find you left of the dial.” As much as it physically hurts to pick a favorite track from this album, I always wind up going with “Left of the Dial.” It’s so goddamn powerful and such a love letter to the entire cultural landscape that Westerberg knew. There’s a reason that Rhino Records milked the title for at least one 80’s Underground compilation.
- The entirety of “Bastards of Young.” Westerberg, at least in my mind, named that micro-generation after the Baby Boomers but before the Gen-Xers. I was going to single out the bridge lyric “Unwillingness to claim us/ you’ve got no warrant to name us,” even though I had long heard it as “Got no War to name us,” which would also be a powerful line.
Here’s to you, Paul Westerberg. May all of your Walgreen’s shopping trips go uninterrupted my local news teams.
LINER NOTES: to round things out, these are my full top 10 favorite albums of 1985 – another mammoth year for great music (and American pop culture at large -although two of these albums are British and one is French).
- The Replacements – ‘Tim’
- Gray Matter – ‘Food for Thought’
- Prefab Sprout – ‘Steve McQueen’
- Tom Waits – ‘Rain Dogs’
- The Jesus & Mary Chain – ‘Psychocandy’
- Berurier Noir – ‘Concerto Pour Detraques’
- Dead Milkmen – ‘Big Lizard in my Backyard’
- Husker Du – ‘Flip Your Wig’
- Husker Du – ‘New Day Rising’
- RUN-DMC – ‘King of Rock’