Songs I Love – The Replacements, “Here Comes a Regular” (1985)

There are days when I’m convinced the best thing that ever came out of Minnesota was Paul Westerberg.

This album came out in late 1985, and it’s the first real solid song collection from the Replacements. Both 1983’s Hootenanny and 1984’s Let It Be are brilliant, but they have their rough edges too. On the other hand, The Mats were a mess of a band, and it was a mess that worked for them. I recently listened to Hootenanny for the first time in years, and I’d forgotten just how good an album it is. (“Love Kitten! Oh yeah, oh yeah, Kitten! Oh yeah, oh yeah!”, for a badly edited taste.) Rock music critics melted over Let It Be like an orb of whipped butter on a short stack of buttermilk pancakes.

But there’s something serious about Tim. As a record, it goes beyond late adolescent angst and wanders into the land of young adult unease and melancholy. Which is no longer cute. And which no one really cares about. (This probably explains why so few paid sustained attention to Scott Miller’s “Young Adult Hurt Feeling-a-Thons.”) There is a dark and haunted quality to this entire album. It’s not the mess of Let It Be, but it’s not trying to please in the way that Pleased to Meet Me or Don’t Tell a Soul were. Now, that may be because the tape of Tim generally found its way into my car stereo was at 2:30 in the morning as I was somewhere on I-5 or U.S. 101 or possibly in-between, on highway 198 heading to Coalinga or making my way through a dark and foggy Paso Robles, as I wound the long road from the Defense Language Institute in Monterey to my parents place in Upland, California. This album just does dark and fog for me.

I couldn’t find the actual Tim recording of “Here Comes a Regular” online, which is a pity. It’s a beautiful recording. The acoustic guitar sounds and feels so tight, like the strings are about to break. They swirl and echo, like a cold gentle wind blowing autumn leaves around. Westerberg’s voice also sounds like its about to break when he sings “Well, a person can work up a mean, mean thirst / after a hard day of nothing much at all,” or as winds himself up for the refrain, “Everybody wants to be special here / they call your name out loud and clear / here comes a regular / call out your name / here comes a regular / am I the only one here today?” He isn’t just walking into a bar, he’s walking into the only place in the world he belongs. Adding to the swirling tightness of the guitar is a fragile and echoey piano solo, and a very basic basic synthesizer — fake strings — very carefully filling in the bottom. What strikes me as stunning about this recording is how little there is to it. Westerberg’s guitar, his voice, the synthesizer, the piano. The production is even fairly minimal — on the album version, it’s all down the center. Even the synthesizer fills in some of the sides. But it’s basically a mono recording, even as it echoes.

This song is lonely for me. And yet, it seems to believe there’s actually something more than lonely possible in the world. Which is about where I was at the time. And, as noted above, this song evokes some very specific memories for me. I can’t hear this song and not feel the wheel of my 1979 Plymouth Sapporo in my hands, the California highway under my wheels, can’t smell the heavy wet air of the Central Valley, the curves in the road, driving slower than I’d like because of the fog. For some reason, I only hear this song on the Monterey-to-SoCal run. I probably played this cassette on the return trip. But those were generally daytime trips, and this song only evokes night for me. And the California winter, which is early autumn where I currently live.

Here’s Westerberg playing this solo in 2005, I think.

I had the fortune of seeing The Replacements perform live twice – in San Francisco in 1986 during their tour for Tim and in 1987 in Reseda during their tour for Pleased to Meet Me. And both times they were relatively sober and played fairly solid sets of album material. (The Replacements were well-known for getting stinking drunk before going on stage, and playing nothing but covers. Twin/Tone put out a cassette-only recording of such a performance, The Shit Hits the Fans.) I’ve not kept up with Westerberg’s solo career. Maybe I should.

Songs I Love – Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, “Why I Love Country Music” (1985)

Oh, I cannot help myself. The gears in the brain are turning, turning, and will not stop. And so while this may at some point be a weekly feature, it’s going to be as often as I feel the need to write. (Because Cavanaugh remains unfinished!)

Ever been in love and know it was doomed from the start? Then you probably have some songs to go along with that feeling, songs that helped you get through it, songs that either spoke to that exact feeling or made you capable of hiding in better feelings. Me, I do the first one far more than the latter. And this collection, Easy Pieces, was my late 1985 doomed relationship album.

In fact, Easy Pieces is one of my favorite albums ever. It still is. It is one of a handful of discs I’d take with me to a desert island were I exiled (because maybe that’s what happens to crazy holy men?) to distant speck of nothing. And forced to subsist on fish and copra under the southern sky.

Lloyd Cole was one of the people I discovered watching MTV. The video for “Perfect Skin” on his first disc with The Commotions was played a time or two on MTV (or something did, because I can’t find a video for this song), and it was intriguing enough to buy his first collection Rattlesnakes. Rick Ocasek of The Cars was called in to remix three of the songs for US release, adding his star power (yes, he had that in the early 1980s, which is why he was able to marry a supermodel) in attempt by David Geffen to market this record. How well it worked, I don’t know. Probably not as well as anyone had hoped. That was 1984.

Easy Pieces came out toward the end of 1985. Back when things has sides, I bought the imported cassette on UK’s Polydor label, as it had two additional tracks — “Her Last Fling” and “Big World” — that the Geffen version for the US did not have. (And they didn’t rebalance the tracks, so the first side of the cassette had about five extra minutes on it, the two additional tracks tacked on at the end of side two, so I added OMD’s “If You Leave” on to side one — because I was 18 and that’s exactly where I was, thank you very much.) Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley produced, but managed to keep their trademark slickness to a minimum with these songs, letting Cole and his Commotions do their wonderful thing with the help of some Clanger/Winstanley regulars (Anne Dudley with strings, Gary Barnacle with horns, and Jimmies Helms and Chambers singing some backing vocals).

The sound of this band is the sound I would love to have. The two guitars, the bass and drums, and Blair Cowan’s very accordiony keyboards are almost perfectly balanced on this record. (Those who pay close attention will hear the influence in my recordings.) The music surrounds Cole’s voice but doesn’t drown it out. (The reviewer for Spin at the time described Cole’s voice in almost orgasmic terms.) There’s not a bad song in the whole LP batch, though the A side — “Rich,” “Why I Love Country Music,” “Pretty Gone,” “Grace,” “Cut Me Down” — is about as perfect a covey of five songs could be on a slab of vinyl or two tracks of mylar tape. The B side isn’t bad either, but it doesn’t sink into my soul quite as much as the A side.

So, with five almost prefect songs on that side, why pick “Why I Love Country Music”? Mostly, it’s just everything about the song. Especially the lyrics:

Jane is fine, always fine, we’re unhappy most of the time
We don’t talk, we don’t fight, I’m just tired she’s way past caring
But she says she is fine, she tells lies most of the time
What she needs, I don’t have, that’s not in the hand that I’m holding
So we drink Spanish wine, she plays country records until the morning
This is mine, all of mine, she is not, she is not mine
But I feel fine only when I’m sleeping, only with the tv on
She and I and empty wine and whisky bottles
And she, white beneath crumpled sheets
She is everything I need but she would rather, be anyplace but here

I’m guessing most of you have been in this awkward and unhappy place too at least once in your lives. For me, those last two lines are the emotional core of the song. They are what make this song work for and in me, and Cole’s voice trails off into a small instrumental section, and the notes tumble down (especially the piano on the LP version) that allows the feeling to both just sit there and yet build. And then Cole finishes his story:

Jane is fine, always fine, we’re unhappy most of the time
We don’t talk, we don’t fight, I’m just tired, she’s way past caring
So we drink Spanish wine, we tell lies, we’re killing time
We feel fine, well, what’s the crime?

Well, what is the crime?  For me, there was always an irony in that line, since I always had a sense at the time that the sheer seeming pointlessness of it all was some kind of crime. At least against the self, if no one else. The fact that she’s still here, even though she could be anyplace at all, is less important than the interior world of the story teller. Cole is a fantastic teller of musical stories, and I think the song — like the poem — is an underrated and under appreciated means of telling a very sophisticated and complex story in a very simple way.

I could not find the LP version of “Why I Love Country Music” anywhere on line (I suppose I could have uploaded it), and so I found this recording from a recent Lloyd Cole tour with his Small Ensemble. The sound quality is terrible. I apologize for that.

This is the next song from Easy Pieces, and is also breathtakingly beautiful.

And this ends the collection. Well, aside from the B-sides tacked on at the end of the UK cassette and CD.