Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Go to the 'Mats

One of the fundamental elements of writing, regardless of the formant, is that there must be a story, no matter how miniscule.  Even when the form is as kaleidoscopic and broken apart as Ulysses, there remains a core story, which pulls us in; a core story that we truly care about.  This is an obvious and widely known fact by any one who has read a book, watched television or retreated to the darkness of the movie theatre.  All of this being evident and proven true (yes, even you Seinfeld), makes the fact that what I am about to write even harder, because I am not so sure what the story or the point of the matter even is.

Alex Chilton is of course dead now.  Most music fans know this and most music fans mourned this.  Alex Chilton’s work was somewhat widely known, greatly appreciated, and especially loved by that button down shirt or old sweater that you maybe wore too much, but everyone seemed to love because it smelled like you – or if not you specifically, then your closet or the detergent your mom packed away for you when you moved out. 

However, there was a time when Alex Chilton wasn’t dead and in that time I learned about a band that his music as much as their own dirty shirts – that band was the Replacements. Coming of age in the late 90’s and early 00’s, of course I was late to the Replacements party.  I had only learned about them through Big Star by way of Wilco and even then, it was through singles (did they really have any?) and odd tracks that I picked up in the glorious groping days of downloading from Napster or Limewire or Kazaa or whatever you could pump for music and bits of porno – this is already starting to sound like a bit of a Replacements song.  However, it was not until I got to college and a good friend of mine who lived on the first floor of my dorm (I lived on the third) introduced me to a thorough knowledge of the band and an immediate love of the album Tim. I could immediately relate to the feelings of angst, restlessness, passion, self-deprecation, and ultimately drunkenness that roamed around the corridors of each track on the album. I distinctly recall visions of looking out the window of one of my living spaces on a Sunday and listening to “Here Comes a Regular” and thinking that I had to grow up sometime, but the only problem was that I enjoyed the clarity of the picture that was painted for me, that I wanted to indulge in the cliché even further: that brown, not sepia, toned image of a bar in the middle of the day, which causes a certain level of ease on the surface, until you realize that that image is good for one day, but will ultimately cause a hollowness and loneliness as seasons pass.  I think I thought about those things in the fall.

And it turns out I wasn’t alone in having my mind drawn to such profound ruminations on the human condition.  After I graduated college, I spent a stint teaching at a private school in New Hampshire right on the shores of Lake Winnipesauke.  The summer was spent teaching students from Thailand about American culture and the American education system.  As part of this teaching, we were given small focus groups of eight students with which we were to discuss current events, American customs and values or relevant cultural touchstones.  I had the inclination to teach my group about the Replacements.  Not because I was a rebellious punk – I have always been far from it – but because it seemed to make the most sense to use the band as an example for these kids, who came from a rigid memory based education, to the merits of forming an opinion and expressing it with passion and conviction.  Critical thinking and self-expression are the ultimate goals of American education are they not?  Well, at least the liberal college demographic, then? OK. We agree.  So, I played them various selections from The Replacements’ (The Mats) catalogue, including the aforementioned, album-ending masterpiece that is “Here Comes a Regular.” While the song was playing, I asked the students what they thought of the music. I asked them how it compared to their music.  I asked them what it made them think of.  The most memorable response was from a favorite student of mine who was an innately creative guy. His response was:

“I see myself…I see myself walking across the blank.”

I don’t think that two dozen rock-writers crammed into a room could have stumbled across that poignant and absolutely perfect description of The Replacements.  What this student grasped about the song, and perhaps the entire band, was how well that could make palpable that fine line between loneliness and rebelliousness and energy and how the two are usually inseparable and usually leave you, in one way or another, “walking across the blank.”

The story continues to become diluted, because this is not  supposed to be about “Here Comes a Regular” or even about the album Tim.  This is really about the album Let it Be (those new to the Replacements, that is a Replacements album, not the Beatles album, although it is a toss-up for iconic album covers in my opinion).  This is about the album Let it Be because during that time, like Alex Chilton and like the Replacements, I loved something so much that it joined that rare pantheon of those shirts and sweaters that are at one with the familiar scents that we can only call “me,” “fresh laundry,” or “home.”  In my case, like the cases of so many other people in the world, this was an actual person. And maybe I haphazardly allowed myself to indulge in these strong emotions, but maybe not.  Hindsight is never 20/20.

So, in this time that I refer to, I loved very much and listened to The Replacements’ Let it Be very much. I even took an initially ill-advised and haphazard trip to Europe to visit this person and amid all those mixed feelings that had built over a certain period of time, there was a realization that came to me one night in my hostel room.  Maybe it wasn’t a realization so much as a feeling.  For the early part of the trip, like the hero in my own ex-patriate novel, my aunt had put me up in a fine to premium Spanish hotel in the middle of Madrid, where I could drink whiskey and then go out and walk around the city and meet the person I loved and drink wine and whisky and come back to my room and smoke cigarettes out the window into a courtyard, with a dim light on and FoxNews playing lowly on my TV to give the sound of America its due cadence.  However, that luxury ran out justly and I found my own accommodations – rightly so – in hostels around the city.  One night, before I was to go out and drink a beer or two on the street before meeting this object of my desire, I placed Let it Be on my Discman.  My hostel room was empty and as I listened to the blistering cadence and lyrics of “Seen Your Video” I was dumbstruck.  I heard the lyrics “Seen your video/phony rock n’ roll/we don’t wanna know.”  Although I had heard the lyrics before, it was as if I had never paid attention. I knew all of the rock n’ roll tradition that had grown out of this song and this band, but I had never let the song just sink completely over me.  The ragged and blaring guitar first made me want to run out and find a beer to drink to cool myself.  However, I let that initial feeling wear off and I realized that there was more to it and that there was more to my wanting a beer to “cool myself” as I had constantly sought to do.  It was that this song made me feel alive in a way that I had never remembered. Not better or worse than the love I felt at that moment, but different in a way I had never remembered.  It made me want to run out into the streets and embrace everything that was life, which was everything that was true and was false.  I wanted to run into the cool, light October air and watch the night fall in around me and see the lights of the city meet the darkness. I recognized that much of my life had been postured and phony and that anything that reigned me in would always be there and that it was my duty to fight it off in any way I could, but that in the end it would always be there, because that is life for good and bad. Life for good and bad is “phony rock n’ roll.”  We’ve seen it all before and it will always be there, but we can still scream and rail at it like Westerberg does to try to keep it at bay. However, in the end, it is that life that gives us that glorious Westerberg scream that says he isn’t going to die, even though he probably knew he was going to, just like Alex Chilton did.

And this is all true all over the album.  Even months later when I had returned from my Europe trip and distance had turned things for the better, I was feeling myself satisfied (obvious cue to where this was going) with the love I felt, for it had been hard fought and placed at a point of maturity in my own mind and in my own history of feeling.  However, I knew even then that I would still remain unsatisfied in some way because at that time I was living at home with my parents and wanted to be a big voice and be on my own and making it and that’s all I could ever talk about. Even now, with all this past, I still, like I am sure most of us feel, unsatisfied.  Like Westerberg says in the song, “look me in the eyes and tell me I’m satisfied” or, plain and simply “are you satisfied?”  I have never believed that anyone wanted to know anything as much as Westerberg wants to know that he’s satisfied or if the person he is speaking to is satisfied.  I don’t mean to turn to those I know and those who are from my generation and call them out on being satisfied with the same blood-curdling urgency that Westerberg does (although I certainly feel that urgency within me), I simply want to relate.  For again, here, in this song there is that abundance of life.  We are surrounded by good things. I don’t have a lot of money, I have friends, I have freedom, I have youth, I have the desire to create – but I’m not satisfied.  If I had money and nothing to work for to keep my alive, I wouldn’t be satisfied.  Becoming satisfied is becoming to understand yourself better.  It’s not like that recent 30 Rock where Liz Lemon considers “settling.”  Becoming satisfied is finding reality and that’s all that the Replacements were about.  I’m closer to understanding their basic records that understanding myself.

I only briefly want to mention “Sixteen Blue,” which is a classic Replacements song.  It has classic 50’s/60’s chord progressions and a messy Westerberg vocal where at one point he slurs classic lines such as  “your age is the hardest age/everything just drags and drags” and “don’t understand anything sexual.”  The guitar tone is the purest on any Replacements song.  There is something simple and concise about it.  It has the poignancy and noise that Pearl Jam almost sought out but never achieved.

The last arbitrary song mention goes to “Answering Machine,” which, if you want to tie it to my story of distant love before, played a big part in my life. “How do you say goodnight to an answering machine? How do you say I miss you to an answering machine? How do you say its OK to an answering machine?”  You don’t need a long distance romance to find the importance of this song.  The key line comes in the very first line, when Westerberg, never more earnest than in this song sings, “Try and breathe some life into a letter.”  Maybe this song is about trying to leave a message for a person that you love on their answering machine when that love has gone wrong.  Sure.  I’ve been there; we’ve all been there.  Especially now that texts and other online ways of leaving messages are easy ways to relay the insecurities we feel in a relationship.  What this song always was to me was that riddle of communicating with another person.  The symbol of technology and technological advancement is obviously there with the empty space of the answering machine, but this ties into those best parts of Desolation Angels when Kerouac wonders if he will ever be able to connect to another human being in the greatness, sadness and holiness of the world.  Maybe Westerberg didn’t think that profoundly or intend his song to come off as profound – and it surely doesn’t in any traditional sense.  However, this song is nothing if not profound.  It sounds youthful like all of the other songs on the album, but it points out that clear presence of loneliness and isolation in the world, where we can’t even express our satisfaction or dissatisfaction to another person; that desire that clearly lies in our voice or behind our eyes. So, perhaps it wasn’t the Rolling Stones that always capture that impalpable energy of youth, maybe it was the Replacements the whole time, because they were closer to the pulse of life when Westerberg sang “Unsatisfied” than The Stones were when Jagger strutted on Ed Sullivan and pouted “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.”

Is there a story in all of this? In these anecdotes about Alex Chilton, laudry detergent, old shirts, college, friends, teaching, Thai students, summers and profound loves?  No, there probably isn’t much of a story and I have violated the elementary focus and cornerstone of writing.  However, whatever this is, it has love, death, travel and the attempt at human connection.  So maybe there is a story somewhere and, at the very least, there is life, which is what we are striving after.

And believe me, I don’t have one and I am not satisfied.  But you’ve already seen that video, haven’t you?  Damn those Replacements.


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