Tuesday, September 16, 2014

In Search of Lost Time: The Mats at Midway

photo by John Christenson
Time has a strange way of expanding the further back in the past you leave it. I moved to Minneapolis in 1999, eight years after the Replacements broke up. It's been 15 years since then, which is longer than the period of time the Replacements were originally together. I've spent longer mythologizing them then they've actually been a band. I'm not alone in this, I'm sure. Last Saturday night I was surrounded by 14,000 other people who are likely in the same boat.

Seeing the Replacements play Midway Stadium in St. Paul the other night was the culmination of a dream come true for a lot of people, myself included. Since moving here I've seen many reunited legendary acts I never dreamed I'd see (Echo and the Bunnymen, Wire, Mission of Burma, Gang of Four, and hey, Big Star). After living here a decade though, I'd given up hope on ever seeing a reunited Replacements.

I spent the first few years here finding traces of the band's presence everywhere: learning my first apartment was across the street from the Twin Tone offices, finding the Let It Be house, working at First Ave., being thrilled that Daniel Corrigan was going to shoot my band for the City Pages. There was plenty of romanticism to feed the mythology I had built up in my head since listening to the Replacements back in college in Iowa City. My outsider status of not being from Minneapolis aligned itself with the feelings of outsider-ness expressed in the Replacements' songs of adolescent confusion and angst. I was in high school when Don't Tell A Soul and All Shook Down came out. A little too young to fully appreciate them, but just young enough to attach a significant weight onto those records.

Gradually, as this city became my home, I built my own experiences that made the legend of the Minneapolis music scene not loom so large. To put it another way, someone like Terry Katzman became a person to me and not just a name I knew from a record sleeve. In all that time, the only Replacement I'd manage to meet was Slim (who couldn't have been nicer - I sold him a Lyle Lovett CD for a song he had to learn for a wedding gig). I got older and wiser and realized that the Replacements were just a band - a great one, sure - but ultimately just a band.

Then slowly, the Replacements started getting back together... kind of. There was the best of collection with the two new songs. Then the tribute/benefit for Slim happened. Then the Riot Fest shows were announced. And then Slicing Up Eyeballs posted that 9-second video of the Replacements rehearsing "Alex Chilton." The video was posted right before I saw it and the thought that somewhere in my city the Replacements could be playing right now made the abstract myth of the Replacements very real and present. The sound was glorious. It was the most exciting 9-seconds of music I had heard in a while.

When my friend bought our tickets to the Midway show I started getting very protective and cautious about my emotions. Working at First Avenue and at record stores for over a decade makes you very jaded as far as rock shows go. I was worried that I'd hype the show up for myself beyond hope of what could be delivered.

In the week leading up to the show I looked at the set lists of the other reunion shows thus far to get an idea of what they'd be playing. I saw a lot from Sorry Ma... which I hadn't listened to in a long time. I went back to it and was surprised how well it held up for me. I started listening to all the records again, making a playlist of my ideal set list, something I hadn't done in preparation for seeing a show in a long time. I let myself get a little more excited.

I'd never been to Midway Stadium. Although the idea of seeing the Replacements in a stadium wouldn't have been my first choice, the fact that it would be the last event held at Midway before it was demolished seemed fitting for a band who spent their career operating under the ironic cliche of snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory. Who else would stage their hometown homecoming at a place not actually in their hometown, at a venue that was doomed to be torn down?

The night was cold and parking was horrible, but there was a giddiness around the stadium from everyone's excitement. That could have been the Grain Belt though. I confess I was dreading that the night would be an endless string of run-ins with everyone I had known in Minneapolis for the past 15 years. Not that I wanted to avoid anyone in particular, I just wanted to concentrate on the show with distraction. I actually only saw a few people I knew. It helped that we sat in the bleachers along left field. The sound was decent and I knew as a short person the sight lines in the crowd wouldn't have been much better. I will say from my vantage point that they probably could have fit another thousand people in there. On the other hand, that would have just made the parking and lines for the porta-potties that much worse.

I'm not a fan of either Lucero or the Hold Steady so I won't judge their performances. They got on stage, did their thing, and got out of the way, which was all that I would have asked of them.

The Replacements took the stage as dusk fell and played a set which closely resembled what they had done at earlier reunion shows. They moved through the songs quickly without too much banter which is exactly what a rock band should do. They were loose too which is important to note. The worst thing you can say about a band is that they sounded tight. That's something you tell your friend's band when you have nothing nice to say. It means that they were predictable and met the most basic functional requirement of playing their instruments in time together. When a band is loose it means they sound spontaneous, like it could come apart at any minute, like the band will never play these songs the exact same way ever again. It means the music sounds raw and alive, which it did.

My cassettes and copy of Boink!!
They played almost every song you might want. The representation by album brokedown thusly: four from Sorry Ma..., three from Hootenanny, five from Let It Be, five from Tim, five from Pleased to Meet Me, three from Don't Tell A Soul, one from All Shook Down, a Westerberg soundtrack cut, and a slew of covers. There was nothing from Stink (boo - I would have killed for "Kids Don't Follow" and "Go") and I would have easily traded "Talent Show" for "I Won't." Still, it's hard to argue with a set that included non-album classics like "If Only You Were Lonely" and "Nowhere Is My Home" (technically both were released on the non-canonical Boink!!). The latter was especially important for me. Originally produced by Alex Chilton, "Nowhere" is in my mind one of their best songs. The fact that's its only release would be on an import-only collection is frustratingly typical. No song better embodies the feeling of growing up lost and alone in the middle of nowhere. Bringing Tony Glover on stage for the Jimmy Reed cover was a nice surprise and a good reminder that the Mats were grounded in blues-based rock more than most of their '80s alt-peers.

By the time of the second encore I just wanted the crowd to shut up. It was obvious the band was freezing. "Unsatisfied" is a great song, but it almost feels perverse to sing along to it en masse. I suppose some people find it comforting, but for me that song is something private. After that last song, the Twin City audience kept clamoring for more, not being able to (or not wanting to) recognize that it was the end. You can read that last sentence metaphorically or not. It would have been really great if they would have gotten a Minneapolis police officer to come on stage and say, "Hello? This is the Minneapolis police. The party is over. If you all just grab your stuff and leave there won't be any hassle."

I'd like to say that the night provided some personal revelation or reconciliation with my past hero worship of the band, but I'm too old to lie to myself like that. They were simply a great rock and roll band, something that is unfortunately rare these days. They're the real thing. They still come off like dorks who practice in a basement - and I mean that in a good way. There's no pose or pretentiousness or anything that smacks of professionalism. And yet, there's a self-awareness and sense of humor about themselves that keeps them from some maudlin display of over-earnestness. Their performance validated my impression of them and of what I always thought rock and roll should be.

People always talk about how the indie rock bands of the '80s would have cashed in and made it big had they peaked in '91 instead of '84 or '85. I don't know if that's true. I think if the Replacements were a new band coming out today they would still struggle commercially. Most of the public doesn't want something real. Reality's not pretty; it makes you think and feel. I still think the Replacements are too good for the masses.

Here's a full set list from the night which differs from Andrea Swensson's list (hey Andrea!) in that I had "I Don't Know" listed last in the regular set, not "Bastards." I remember thinking it was typical Mats to end on such an ode to ambivalence rather than a generation anthem.

Favorite Thing
Takin’ a Ride
I’m in Trouble
Don’t Ask Why
I’ll Be You
Waitress in the Sky
Tommy Got His Tonsils Out / Third Stone from the Sun
Take Me Down to the Hospital
I Want You Back
Going to New York w/ Tony Glover
Color Me Impressed
Nowhere Is My Home
If Only You Were Lonely
Achin’ to Be
Kiss Me on the Bus
I Will Dare
Love You Till Friday / Maybelline
Merry Go Round
I Won’t
Borstal Breakout
Swingin’ Party
Love You in the Fall
Can’t Hardly Wait
Bastards of Young
I Don’t Know / Buck Hill (Is that what that was?)

First Encore
Left of the Dial
Alex Chilton

Second Encore

In honor of those Replacements who weren't at the Midway show, here's a playlist of songs the band didn't play on Saturday. It spans their initial run and is an excellent illustration of just how great this band is/was. These left-behind songs are better than most people's greatest hits.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Steely Dan? Who the Hell Am I?

One constant of my music taste has always been my extreme distaste for Steely Dan. In the past, I have described listening to their music as akin to drinking a tall glass of lukewarm vomit. Their aping of jazz tropes mixed with sleazy subject matter approached with a patronizing pseudo-intellectual tone concocted an overall stew of 70s session man "grooviness" that has always made me gag.

And yet, I've always respected Donald Fagen and Walter Becker from a distance. They are very good at what they do. They made the music they wanted to in an exacting, precise fashion. What I deemed as their awfulness was never a mistake. The fact that they made music that terrible on purpose made dislike them even more.

So it is with great personal confusion that I admit that I have recently reevaluated their music, and discovered with some shock and horror that I like Steely Dan. There have been weeks over the past nine months during which there have been periods where I have listened to little else. I am fine with being proven wrong, but such a dramatic shift in my own opinion has made me question the very fabric of my being. I like Steely Dan? Do I even know who I am anymore?

To be fair, this isn't something that happened overnight. I've grown an appreciation for them slowly over the past few years starting with their debut album. It had always been with some embarrassment that I would admit to myself how much I liked the verses of "Reelin' in the Years." I say the verses because this 70s FM nugget's cheesy guitar lead and chorus always gave me hives. However, the verse's piano riff and Fagen's sardonic (Steely Dan, in a single word) vocals are sublime. Song by song, their first album, Can't Buy A Thrill (1972), revealed itself to me to be distinct from the rest of their catalog. I could admit to liking one of their records. The fact that critics and album guides singled the album out from the rest of their work as being more rock 'n' roll made me more comfortable liking it. Here was a band that began with a promising anomaly, but quickly fell off the deep end of jazz rock pretension and smug hipster intellectualism.

Further investigation was halted by the first track on their second album, "Bodhisattva." This song ranks up there with "Sugar Magnolia" as one of my least favorite songs of all time. Bookending the rest of their career with the later sleazy, predatory "Hey Nineteen" from Gaucho (1982), I was able to dismiss everything else in between.

So what changed? Well, at first, I was exposed to their music little by little through external sources: the Minutemen's cover of "Doctor Wu," the hilarious albeit exaggerated characterization of them in the Yacht Rock series, and the VH1 Classic Albums documentary about Aja (1977). I was even secretly thrilled when Becker and Fagen won the Grammy Album of the Year in 2001 in a startling upset for their comeback, Two Against Nature. All these incidents opened my mind towards them, but it took something more personal to fully bring me around.

I came to embrace Steely Dan through periods of great stress. The first time was while I was editing my first issue of The Chord, the newsletter of the record store where I worked. I was under deadline working in my basement office hours after the store had closed, catching peripheral glimpses of mice scuttle by my door as I struggled to learn InDesign on the job. It was in this environment that the first album truly took hold. Something about the music helped me cope with the crushing fear of failure.

Steely Dan make music about pathetic losers, cowardly cheats, gangsters, perverts, junkies, and reprobates - desperate people who have nothing left to lose. Listening to the stories of the characters in their songs I am reminded by something Leonard Cohen once said about staying in hotels. Cohen said one always has the feeling in a hotel room of being on the lam, a safe moment in the escape, a refuge and sanctuary of a temporary kind, a place in the grass while the hounds pass by. This was the feeling I got listening to Can't Buy A Thrill in the late hours of the night (or early hours of morning) engaged in the exercise of amateur journalism.

This past spring saw me working late nights, taking work home during the week and on weekends. This time I fell in deeper than just the first album. When everything is bearing down on you there's something relaxing about the Dan's epic ambivalence. It's a shrug of the shoulders as your just about to go over the cliff.

Below is a playlist that prunes the catalog for my favorite touchstones. A lot of these are the hits, but you'll note that "Bodhisattva" is still conspicuously absent.