From the Archive — Pleased to Meet Me

mats 1987

A couple of weeks back, a friend of mine was kind enough to share some airtime with me. After participating in the reunion weekend for my old college radio station two years runnings, I decided I was up for swinging north for a sub shift from time to time. So there I found myself, one Sunday night, playing an array of songs that fit snugly on the left end of the dial. To make sure I felt my age, I devoted one set to albums that were celebrating their thirtieth anniversary, concentrating on record releases from the fall of 1987. This led to thoughts of all the albums with that distant copyright date, including the one that I routinely argue deserves inclusion on any discussion of the great rock ‘n’ roll records of all time. Thirty years since Pleased to Meet Me? Suddenly my knees hurt. I also wrote about the album during my Spectrum Culture days, but this particular piece originally went up at my former online home, as part of the “Flashback Friday” series.

For years, whenever I engaged in that favorite late-night, barroom game of debating which rock ‘n’ roll album deserved the designation “the greatest of all time,” I opted for a fairly unique choice: the sixth release from The Replacements, Pleased to Meet Me. Hell, most fans of the Minneapolis band wouldn’t even rank this as their best album, usually opting for the turning point represented by Let It Be, an effort so venerated that you can be chastised for daring to muse over its imperfections. But to me, it’s exactly what a great album should be. It’s a collection of fantastic songs, each with its own personality but also feeling like a true part of a whole. It’s perfectly of the moment, but also timeless. It’s the wondrous clatter of a great band persevering, even as they seem to be falling apart, and if that’s not the overarching story of The Replacements, I don’t know what is.

The album was recorded as a trio, the band having parted ways with guitarist Bob Stinson and not yet recruited Slim Dunlap as his, um, replacement. Being a man down doesn’t lessen the band’s fullness, nor does losing their most sonically combustible member dull their edge. In some ways, it makes the playing of the other members a little rawer, a little more reckless, as if they’re trying to fill the void. The album has some of the same “Ah, what the fuck” energy of the early effort Hootenanny, a willingness to springboard to any different sound or thought that strikes them. The primary thing that sets Pleased apart is that Paul Westerberg has fully come into his own as a songwriter. Nothing here is just tossed off, an old habit of the band’s that seemed to signal their disinterest in the very rock stardom that they couldn’t help but chase. Even the plainest song on the album has a commitment to it that is energizing.

The album begins with a one-two punch that typifies the mix of abandon and polish that will follow. The first song “I.O.U.” is a potent scorcher, a propulsive rock song that finds Westerberg’s old punk scream worn down to growls and moans that don’t undercut the anger of the song one bit. That gives way to what is simply the greatest pop song Westerberg ever conjured up, something I suspect even the legendarily cantankerous songwriter believes. Six minutes and ten seconds into the record, and The Mats have already proclaimed they can take their music anywhere they damn well please, and then they proceed to take it bigger, bolder, brasher and further afield. There’s the gloomy anguish of “The Ledge,” the bounding lovelorn cynicism of “Valentine” (“Well you wish upon a star/That turns into a plane” is a contender for the finest couplet on the record, an incredibly competitive battle), and the happily boozy charge of “Red Red Wine.”

Then it ends as it began, with a pair of songs that brilliantly encapsulate the range and skill of the band. If “Alex Chilton” is Westerberg’s greatest pop song, “Skyway” is his finest love song, an understated, wistful lament that hinges on lovely example of fate’s cruel sense of humor. And, with just a couple of lines, Westerberg also manages to evoke the harshness of Minneapolis winter, giving the song a strong sense of place. That’s followed by the splendid amble of “Can’t Hardly Wait” that captures the weary stasis of a life of “ashtray floors, dirty clothes and filthy jokes.” With its false endings interspersed throughout, it’s the sound of a band that can’t quite motivate themselves to just give up on it all. They’ve been beat up at every turn, but there’s still a chance they may be able to wring some truth out off their guitars if they just grip the neck a little tighter, a little longer. When the track finally fades out and the record is over, in some ways so is the band. There are two more proper albums with the Replacements name on them, and there’s good stuff aplenty on those releases. But this sounds like the end of The Mats, the laughing, indifferent train wrecks from the north who were the last band that mattered, but didn’t really care themselves. May all our endings rock this hard, sting this sharply and shuffle off into the murky night with such aplomb.

One for Friday — Any Trouble, “Girls Are Always Right”

any trouble

This is it, friends. This is exactly what 1980 sounded like. The single “Girls Are Always Right,” from the U.K. new wave band Any Trouble, has some Joe Jackson to it. And Elvis Costello, and Graham Parker, and Marshall Crenshaw. And Squeeze. And Nick Lowe. It could have been the catalyst for the invention of wistful montages in the third acts of eighties high school movies.

It’s flat-out perfect. Much I might try to be wordier, that’s all I got.

Listen or download –> Any Trouble, “Girls Are Always Right”

(Disclaimer: As best as I can tell, this song is currently out of print as a physical object that can be procured from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that compensates both the proprietor of said store and the original artist. It is shared in this space with that understanding, but I do know the rules. I will gladly an promptly remove it from my little corner of the digital world if asked to so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

Now Playing: It

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I remember when Stephen King’s novel It was first published, in 1986. Then only a dozen years into his career as a novelist — but already claiming nearly twenty books to his credit —  King was an unstoppable force in the world of popular fiction. The tome was his first length work under only his own name since the absolute blockbuster Pet Sematary, three years earlier. On the King time line of astounding prolificness, that may as well have been an eon. Appropriately, then, the book he delivered, It, read like a magnum opus, a compendium of everything he’d done to that point packed tightly into over 1,110 pages. Alternating between the forlorn persecution felt in youth and the tart disappointment of encroaching middle, the story included so many elements familiar from the author’s previous efforts that it was like sort of Stephen King gumbo, cooked up on the foundation of a dark, dark roux.

The books also, to my recollection, wasn’t all that good. Although I concede it contained one of the few instances of King’s writing genuinely leaving me scared, it was also a tangled mess, the narrative a cyclone that spun forever without ever picking up speed or strength. Its endurance as a favorite entry in King’s bibliography is baffling to me. Surely, there was no reason to expect that a belated film adaption — itself arriving nearly three decades after a television version — would be a success. Movies were once the province of King like few other authors, but those days are long gone, with only the occasional stab at transferring a book to the screen making an appearance, mostly to wan curiosity.

And yet here we are, with a new stab at It proving to be that rarest of beasts at the U.S. box office: a flat-out sensation. The film’s second weekend would have set a record for biggest of September, and the number of feats it will be able to claim by the time it’s done — already It is the highest-grossing horror film of all time — boggles the quivering mind. How the Castle Rock did this happen?

Well, the movie is surprisingly good, even if occasionally tripped up by the problems that are cooked right into the original story. (Thankfully, the most egregious narrative misstep has been excised entirely.) Director Andy Muschetti — who previously presided over Mama, for which I have a surprising, lingering fondness — brings a welcome visual panache to the proceedings, shrewdly determining when the film would benefit from a touch of Spielbergian nostalgia (cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon and score composed Benjamin Wallfisch are able co-conspirators on this mission) and when it needs the edging creepiness of modern, CGI-reinforced horror. The occasional plot lumpiness of the screenplay (credited to Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman) is redeemed by the lowbrow naturalness of the dialogue. The misfit kids in the movie talk the way misfit kids talked in the nineteen-eighties. I type the preceding sentence with some field-tested authority.

The smartest decision made by the filmmakers was to cut out half of the book. King alternated between the kids in late nineteen-fifties and them as adults nearly thirty years later. It, the film, sticks with the kids, bumping the era forward to the summer of 1989. A focus the novel lacked is decisively present in the movie. And there’s an added brutal poignancy to parallels between the metaphysical horrors delivered by Pennywise the evil clown (Bill Skarsgård) and the all too real miseries inflicted by parents, bullies, and authority figures. It helps that Muschetti coaxes solid performances out of his youthful performers, with especially admirable turns from Jack Dylan Grazer (as the eternally fretful Eddie), Sophia Lillis (as the tomboy dream girl Beverly), and Stranger Things carry-over Finn Wolfhard (as motormouth Richie).

To damn with praise so faint it flickers into near-nothingness, It immediately stands as one of the strongest King adaptations, horror division. (Interestingly, given how he’s made his name, King’s more straightforward material has fared better in the journey to film over the years.) That could be why It has broken through like no other adaptation of King’s work. The film is imperfect, peppered with plot holes, and reliant on characterizations that sometimes lean on well-worn archetypes. The same shortcomings can be found in much of King’s writing, including novels that are adored by loads of people, including me. After all this time, and across countless adaptations, the basic methodology for transferring King’s commercial success at bookstores to the movie box office turned out to be incredibly simple. Respect the material. There have been better films sporting King’s name, but few have felt like a more honest realization of his base creative vision.

My Writers: Robert Caro

master

The books are massive, which makes them intimidating. Just glancing at one of the spines, likely wide enough to place a comfortably discernible portrait on it, is enough to tingle up a feeling of exhaustion. And yet one of the things I find most remarkable about Robert Caro’s biographies is the clarity of the writing. There’s a plainspokenness to his writing that makes it approachable, as if a story recounted rather than heavily detailed reportage based on unbelievably exhaustive research. That doesn’t mean the material is simple. Caro locks in on the complexity of lives of people who changed their worlds through sheer will of force.

There is nothing dashed off and no supposition lacking a mound of evidence. And Caro is notorious for his meticulous approach, reworking every last words of manuscripts that swell near to — and sometimes over — one thousand pages. He doesn’t farm out the research, nor does he easily acquiesce to the alterations of editors. Every word is his.

And those words lead the reader expertly, with a constant pull forward. Although Caro is master of the time-honored craft of ending every chapter with a promise for what will come next, he assiduously avoids anxious cliffhangers or other overt manipulations. In Caro’s craft, the pending page is as necessary and as natural as the twinkle of tomorrow.

Caro’s first book was published in 1974. His recent tome was unpacked onto bookstore shelves in 2012. In that multi-decade span, Caro effectively wrote about two men. The earliest biography covered the life and career of Robert Moses, a towering public figure in New York for a sizable chunk of the twentieth century. Four other books — thus far — have traced formative years and political ascendancy of Lyndon B. Johnson, the thirty-seventh President of the United States. Caro was in his forties when the first part of his multi-volume Johnson biography was published. As he’s chipped away at the fifth and probably final volume, the writer has become an octogenarian. Half of Caro’s life has been devoted to the Johnson books. It’s astonishing, speaking to a stalwart sense of mission. And the resulting extended biography is staggering, demonstrating that it is still possible — through dedication, precision, purpose, and artfulness — to create a work that is truly definitive.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “My Writers” tag.

My Misspent Youth — Marvel Team-Up Annual #7 by Louise Simonson and Paul Neary

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

When I started reading superhero comics, I had only a passing interest in Marvel Team-Up, which routinely paired Spider-Man with other costumed do-gooders, albeit ones who weren’t quite as amazing or spectacular as him, at least when it came to sales numbers. For some reason, the exception was the title’s yearly Annuals, one-off, double-sized adventures that were published in the summer months, presumably because kids were patrolling the spinner racks with a little more money in their pockets thanks to lawn-mowing gigs. (It was a different time, friends.) These thicker periodicals I found more difficult to resist, especially if favorite characters were sharing the masthead. And in the summer of 1984, the Canadian crimefighters of Alpha Flight were high on my list.

I was already a devotee of the Alpha Flight series, written and drawn by John Byrne, but my feelings were especially intense at the time the characters crossed over to Marvel Team-Up Annual #7. My nerdy little brain had been recently been blown by the landmark Alpha Flight #12, in which the team’s leader, Guardian, had been killed. I was feverishly committed to reading every last Alpha Flight story I could get my hands on. (It was around this time that I spent way too much to procure a copy of the X-Men issue that held Alpha Flight’s first appearance.) Seeing them on a comic book cover compelled me to make a purchase, even if they were joining Marvel’s flagship character in grappling with an oversized pink snake.

Written by Louise Simonson and penciled by Paul Neary, the story begins with the wall-crawler’s alter ego, Peter Parker, suffering some typical workplace indignity, as Daily Bugle editor Joe “Robbie” Robertson chastised him for a numbing sameness in the subject of his photojournalism efforts.

mtuann pix

Though Peter’s word balloon has his boss’s name spelled with a y, I swear the way I typied it above is correct. Also, I’m aware that few things illuminate the comic fan pedantry I still carry than an urgent, mid-post fact-check of a minor narrative detail. I’ll take my No-Prize now.

Shortly after Robbie tells Peter that Spider-Man shots aren’t really needed, another figure develops a very different theory about the desirability of wall-crawler memorabilia. Although, in the case of the intergalactic figure known at the Collector, the desired trinket is the super-powered man himself. So, a few panels later, Spider-Man finds himself ensnared, with the added indignity of being tossed by a multi-headed genie into the prison of an oversized oyster shell.

mtuann oyster

Yay, comics!

Meanwhile, a member of Alpha Flight, the slick-swimming Marrina, was also scooped up by the Collector along the way. That brings the charging Canucks into action.

mtuann af

As if often the case in these impromptu collaborations between superheroes, things don’t exactly proceed smoothly. In keeping with the deliberately disparate storytelling that epitomized the Alpha Flight title — though technically a team book, the characters spent most of the periodical’s first year engaged in solo adventures — and the group’s recent loss of leadership, the heroes from the north spent a lot of time bickering, much to Spider-Man’s annoyance.

mtuann fight

Just as the turmoil was predictable, so was the ending. Rescues and escapes were perpetrated, and justice was done, everything wrapped up before the final page.

I remember the issue fondly enough, but it’s also one that helped teach me an important lesson about how to select which comics I’d read. At the time, I completely bought into the notion that the proper was to pick favorite characters and stick with them, through and through.

But this issue of Marvel Team-Up Annual wound up presenting me with a contradicting experience. Although Simonson hit all the right details in her presentation of the characters — such as Aurora’s claustrophobia inducing the emergence of one of her multiple personalities, Northstar’s arrogance, and Sasquatch’s scientist certainly existing somewhat incongruously with his furry colossus physical figure — something seemed off about my beloved Alpha Flight. They were written correctly, and yet they didn’t have the same zing as I found in their primary publishing home. I wasn’t a fan of Alpha Flight, it turned out — I was a fan of Byrne’s version of Alpha Flight. It was about the creator, not the brand, which was really driven home when Byrne left Alpha Flight about a year later and the title got so bad, so quickly.

As far as life lessons go, it’s not a bad or particularly traumatizing one. And, as a bonus, it did have that giant pink snake in it.

mtuann end

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

Laughing Matters — George Carlin, “It’s the old American double standard….”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

This snippet of a longer George Carlin routine was recorded nearly thirty years ago, as part of the 1988 comedy special What Am I Doing in New Jersey? All that’s missing is a reference to football — a subject that the master comedian of course covered ingeniously elsewhere — to make these couple of minutes shockingly pertinent for the current moment.

“We got the only national anthem that mentions rockets and bombs in the goddamn thing.”

It’s tempting to speculate about what commentary Carlin would have crafted about the politics of today. But even a cursory examination of his material shows that Carlin has long recognized, understood, and convincingly challenged the portion of the national character that has come to the forefront in our misbegotten current era.

 

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 3

3 new tale

3. Love and Rockets, “No New Tale to Tell”

“This was our ‘getting it together in the countryside’ acoustic album,” David J wrote on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of Earth, Sun, Moon, the 1987 release from Love and Rockets.

The third album from the English trio that emerged from the collapse of goth icons Bauhaus, Earth, Sun, Moon was a deliberate attempt to move away from the jagged, buzzy music found on their prior album, Express. That was partially inspired by a desire to keep the audience guessing, but at least some of the band members were willing to concede it was also a matter of getting better at their jobs.

“The songs are more like crafted songs, whereas on the other albums you’ve got chunks of noise,” said David J, at the time.

A couple of years later, David J would go even further in assessing the earlier material, considering it within the framework of withering appraisals of the band’s music in the U.K. press.

“I must say, I think a lot of criticism aimed at us in the past was more than valid,” he said.

It was one of David J’s contributions that delivered a major commercial breakthrough for Love and Rockets. “No New Tale to Tell,” released as the second single from Earth, Sun, Moon, became a MTV staple and found a modest but noticeable place on the U.S. charts.

The inevitable music video had several striking details, including a cameo appearance by the Bubblemen, a sort of performance art band Love and Rockets occasionally masqueraded as, but years down the road, David J noted that one participant in the video shoot was especially memorable. The song included a flute solo at the midpoint, and someone alit upon the idea of giving a pan flute to a monkey and making it appear as if the furry little fellow was delivering the showcase moment. In order to get the monkey to position his mouth convincingly around the instrument, the trainer placed peanuts inside the pipes.

“Worked out pretty well,” David J recalled. “But when the little bugger wasn’t trying to get at the peanuts, he was wanking. Endlessly. For hours. Hours and hours. And staring at us. It was quite impressive, actually! And a little terrifying. No one wanted to go near the filthy thing.”

The individual members of Love and Rockets have made it clear that there’s no chance of any further reunions of the band, which means no more live performances of this college radio staple. But, if you play your cards right, David J just might come and play it in your living room.

 

As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown.

The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.