52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK FOUR

Week Four

Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life. Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It’s a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today.

“Left of the Dial”
The Replacements
Album: Tim
Sire Records

Don’t trust anyone who says the 1980s was a horrible decade for music. They clearly haven’t listened to The Replacements.

In the midst of countless hair bands, MTV airwaves-ready pop hits, and Toto, homespun bands like The Replacements were making great rock and roll, plain and simple. The group is often lumped in with the punk movement of the mid 80s, joining the ranks of Husker Du, Black Flag, et al, but this assessment only really works for the band’s early records. Instead, The Replacements remains one of the best truly American rock bands, making music that spoke to countless generations of regulars.

I wish I could say I grew up with The Replacements. I wish I could say my parents played its records for me at a tender age, schooling me musically like they did with so many other great artists. Sadly though, I didn’t discover The ‘Mats, as their also known as, until my last year at University after a dear friend’s band mate told me bluntly, that both Let It Be and Tim we’re must owns.

I had heard “Favorite Thing” from 1984s Let It Be before, but didn’t really fully appreciate the song until I heard the record as a whole. But what a dose of musical enlightenment discovering The ‘Mats was.

The ‘Mats lead singer and key songwriter Paul Westerberg is one of the truly great everyman American voices to come out of rock and roll. The Minneapolis native writes songs that range from the silly (Let It Be’s “Gary’s Got a Boner”), the tender (Tim’s “Kiss Me on the Bus”), the admiring (Please to Meet Me’s Big Star homage, “Alex Chilton”), the cruel (Tim’s “Waitress in the Sky”) the heartfelt (Let It Be’s magnificent “Unsatisfied”) and epics (Let It Be’s closer “Answering Machine”).

Westerberg’s lyrics are simple enough but carry a lot of weight. He writes about low-life Joes, average souls, salt of the earth folk, the people he grew up with and above all his love of rock and roll music. He doesn’t tell grandiose stories like Springsteen, and doesn’t carry the political muster of say Dylan, but he has a way with words that is unlike any other songwriter out there. Some liken Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy (a great songwriter in his own right) to Westerberg, but I tend think that’s wishful thinking for Tweedy.

On Tim’s “Bastards of Young” he laments about sons and daughters of his generation finding their place in mess of things–finding one’s way in an unforgiving world.

The ones who love us best are the ones we’ll lay to rest
And visit their graves on holidays at best
The ones who love us least are the ones we’ll die to please
If it’s any consolation, I don’t begin to understand them

The summer after I graduated was truly a summer of The ‘Mats. After discovering Let It Be I bought up the two other essential records in its catalogue: 1985s Tim and 1987s Please to Meet Me. All lingered in my car’s CD player for most of that summer as I said goodbye to college and went into the unknown of the real world, without a job and with no clue of what I was supposed to do with myself.

The ‘Mats music is essential driving music and the one song that ultimately ends up on most driving mixes is “Left of the Dial.”

To say this is The ‘Mats best song would be unfair since it’s damn near impossible to pick a favorite. This is, however, the best song to speed along to down a country road in Southern Indiana during the spring with the windows down, while testing the limits car stereo’s speakers.

I can remember vividly returning to my alma mater during the spring of my first year out of college, after a year back home and a job that paid well but left me, to quote The ‘Mats, “unsatisfied.”

Indiana University is tucked away in a truly beautiful part of the country, a place that even caught me off guard when I first visited the campus during my senior year of high school. Brown and Monroe Counties are known for their rolling hills, picturesque state parks and lakes. Outside of Bloomington is Lake Monroe, a scenic getaway that is worlds apart from the industrial Northwest Indiana neck of the woods that I grew up knowing.

One particularly nice day, I ventured out with my dear friend Chris and his girlfriend for a drive by the lake. No plan, just a chance to check out the area and enjoy the beautiful spring weather. The trip as a whole, like many visits to Bloomington was an escape from the then heavy weight of the real world resting on my shoulders. As we drove chatting and listening to various tunes, I felt bliss.

We toured the winding hill roads in my 95 Toyota Camry (not quite the ideal Replacement’s chariot–that would probably be a dilapidated relic of the Detroit automotive 1970s decade of excess, maybe a Gremlin–but close enough) with the windows down, the sweet, wholesome southern air rushing through the car. I had a number of mix CDs swapping in and out and a copy of Tim. We chatted, reminisced, shared some laughs, but were instantly silenced when “Left of the Dial” exploded through the stereo.

The song is one of a handful of Westerberg-written love songs. It’s an ode to a female musician that Westerberg either had a relationship with or simply lusted after. It’s also very much an ode to joys of listening to the radio, specifically the hipper college stations that reside “left of the dial” on most tuners around the States

According to Allmusic.com’s write-up of Tim, the song was written about Angie Carlson, the guitarist of Let’s Active, who may or may not have had a fling with Westerberg. Personally I think the song’s muse is best left unknown.

Pretty girl keep growin’ up, playin’ make-up, wearin’ guitar
Growin’ old in a bar, ya grow old in a bar
Headed out to San Francisco, definitely not L.A.
Didn’t mention your name, didn’t mention your name

And if I don’t see ya, in a long, long while
I’ll try to find you
Left of the dial

There is a level of comfort in the closing line, knowing that wherever she is he can always find her through the airwaves of obscure radio stations. It’s a romantic line but it also speaks volumes about what great music can become.

For me the song is as much a love ballad as it is a passionate ode to finding comfort on the radio through the songs we cherish. No matter where you are or how you are feeling, a classic song can bring you home.

When it comes to the airwaves, good radio is hard to come by these days but there is nothing like discovering a station or program that truly speaks to you–one that you can sync with aimless drives in the car as heard in the lines:

Passin’ through and it’s late, the station started to fade
Picked another one up in the very next state

Long driving trips alone can be lonely for some but for me I find them the perfect time to think. When tuning into local radio stations, it’s also a great way to soak up the lay of the musical landscape wherever you are. On one long drive from D.C. back to Bloomington, Indiana I did just this. Checking the stations in West Virginia to Ohio.

Musically, “Left of the Dial” is also a hell of a tune and is quite possibly the closest the band ever got to an arena rocker. Chris Mars’ drums are perfectly orchestrated, lacking the sloppy garage rock of some of the band’s earlier tunes. Bobby Stinson’s guitar solo leading up to the aforementioned closing stanza is one of his finest moments.

While I discovered The Replacements late in the game (still, better late than never) the band remains one of my favorites. I can play its records anytime, anywhere and find comfort in the music and Westerberg’s pure and honest lyrics. “Left of the Dial” will always bring to mind those times in the car. It will remind me of a great friend, the end of one memorable chapter in my life (college) and the uncertain start of another. It’s a powerful song that evokes all kinds of memories and is also just a great song to get lost in after a hard day.

NOTE: Sadly this was the only video of the song I could find.
It is not The ‘Mats but rather Westerberg solo.
Tim is a must own for anyone interested in great rock and roll.