52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK TWELVE

Week 12: Rock and Roll is Here to Stay

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.

“Thirteen”

Big Star

Album: Number 1 Record

Ardent Records

1972


“They sing ‘I’m in love. What’s that song?

I’m in love with that song.’”

“Alex Chilton”by The Replacements

 

Martin Scorsese’s masterful documentary, “No Direction Home,” chronicling Bob Dylan’s ascentfrom his early Minnesota roots to his electric rebirth in the late 60s, gives fans of Dylan a rare glimpse into the music that Dylan was influenced by. Combined with Dylan’s own personal memoir of the time, “Chronicles: Volume One” shows the musical cartography of how Dylan’s sound was born.

 

It’s comforting to hear a musician talk about his or her idols. It takes them down to the listener’s level, reminding us that they, too, were once and are avid fans of music. Discovering the musical influences of truly inspired musicians is one of the many joys of carefully listening to music. Art imitates art. Some musicians seem reluctant to trumpet their idols, others come right out and say it. It’s one thing to be turned on to a band or artist by a friend, it’s entirely more satisfying for a song to accomplish this feat.

 

When I first discovered The Replacements, through a completely fulfilling survey of its trifecta of masterpieces–Let It Be, Tim, and Please to Meet Me–one song caught my attention for its unapologetic hailing of one of lead singer Paul Westerberg’s musical heroes, Big Star lead singer Alex Chilton.

Please to Meet Me’s second track, simply titled “Alex Chilton,” explodes into action with crisp snare drum notes and barroom guitar riffs. What follows is more than a simple ode or homage to Chilton, it’s a sermon of praise for an artist that before hearing this song I was completely unaware of.

 

Well, this is not entirely true.

 

During one verse of “Alex Chilton” Westerberg describes Chilton as an, “invisible man who can sing in a visible voice,” a fitting and painfully truthful description of one of rock and roll’s most unsung voices.

 

Big Star was ironically never a big band. It released only three major records in its 1970s heyday,none of which made much of a splash. It managed to maintain a cult-driven legacy since then, elevated recently by Chilton’s untimely death last March.

 

The band’s song “In the Street” found a second life when power pop band Cheap Trick covered it and it was eventually was used for the opening credits of Fox’s television sitcom “That 70’s Show.” Beyond that, it’s safe to say that most people don’t know Big Star.

 

Thanks to Paul Westerberg I can happily add Big Star to my growing list of the essential pioneers of rock and roll.

 

It’s fitting that Westerberg, a gifted lyricist with a penchant for writing songs that bring to mind the joys of youth, was drawn to Big Star at a young age. Alex Chilton and band also excel at writing great rock and roll for rock and roll’s sake. It crafts classic love songs that never tread on being overly sentimental but rather feel nostalgic of the times when the word love and the grasp of how big life is, in general, was thought to be understood but not always fully.

 

Take Number 1 Record, It opens with “Feel,” a rip-roaring plea to a girlfriend who is toying with its character’s emotions. On “The India Song” Chilton fantasizes about escaping the mundane for love, luxury and endless gin and tonics in a mystically portrayed India. “Give Me Another Chance” plays out out like an apology, or rather a plea to be forgiven and taken back for actions that may or may not be unforgivable. Chilton and band mate Chris Bell write innocent love ballads that hearken back to the days of drive-in-movie dates, school dances and the pursuit of meaningful but often naive love.

 

Number 1 Record’s “Thirteen” is widely considered one of Chilton’s best songs by fans and for good reason. The song has been gorgeously covered by the likes of Elliott Smith and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, singers who, like Chilton, reserve chillingly soft-toned vocals for the song.

 

The aforementioned innocence of youth is at the forefront on “Thirteen.” The song brings to mind the nervousness of having a crush and the downright fear that comes when it’s time to ask for a date (subtly emphasized with the music’s gradual increase in tempo throughout the song’s duration and Chilton’s slightly reluctant delivery of its last verse).

Won’t you let me walk you home from school?

Won’t you let me meet you at the pool?

Maybe Friday I can

Get tickets for the dance

And I’ll take you.

Won’t you tell your dad, “Get off my back”?

Tell him what we said about “Paint it, Black”.

Rock ‘n Roll is here to stay

Come inside where it’s okay

And I’ll shake you.

Won’t you tell me what you’re thinking of?

Would you be an outlaw for my love?

If it’s so, well, let me know

If it’s “no,” well, I can go

I won’t make you.

 

Lyrics aside (and make no mistake, these are some of the best lyrics ever written–simple, to the point and utterly unforgettable), “Thirteen” is a lasting effort thanks to Chilton’s beautiful vocal performance and his gentle acoustic guitar picking.

 

It name-checks The Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black” not so much as an homage to a specific idol but rather as homage to rock and roll’s early days when the music presented teenagers an escape.A song like “Paint it Black” must have brought a level of fear to parents or people who hadn’t yet jumped on the rock and roll bandwagon. For those who enjoyed its dark undertones it was something new and unique to rebel to.

 

“Thirteen’s” most impressive feat is that it has the ability to make the listener yearn for these days, back to a time that was much simpler.

 

On The Replacements’ “Alex Chilton,” Westerberg sings:

I never travel far, without a little Big Star

 

Big Star’s music can be enjoyed anytime, anywhere. It’s perfectly crafted rock and roll. You can fall in love with its songs like you fall in love with sentimental cuts from The Beatles’ canon or say Simon and Garfunkel. Since I was fortunate enough to discover it I regularly return to its records. “Thirteen” is a song that makes you pause and remember; to recollect the past.

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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
1985
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.