Friday, December 07, 2012

Been a Long Lonely Lonely Time

Today for our Friday music post, something a bit different - just got two DVDs - Celebration Day, the film of the 2007 Led Zeppelin reunion concert, and Color Me Obsessed, a doc about the Replacements. And they have, shall we say, cast my mind back a piece....

They are both pretty good films, for what they are - though this being music day, I do feel compelled to write about the music more than then filmmaking. And especially because they were both pretty important bands, for me - obviously important in the world at large, too, Zep openly, The Mats rather in secret.... but to me... I could probably call Led Zeppelin the beginning of my - mature, call it - tastes in music. I was a typical small town white kid in the 70s, and liked about what you would expect - from top 40 like Elton John to popular rock, like Kiss and Aerosmith, to more sophisticated versions of that, call it Queen, Styx - to, finally, plain old AOR. And while that included the Beatles and the Kinks and the Stones, bands you heard often enough on all kinds of radio stations, since they made singles too - it was defined, for me, and I imagine for pretty much everyone, by the Zep. You did not hear Led Zeppelin on singles stations. They were pretty much the definition of Album Oriented Rock.... I am not saying anything here that people do not know; but that does not make it less true. For me, they signified moving from being a pop fan (however much rock you liked) to being a rock fan. In practice, that usually meant switching to a different radio station. And that brought with it a completely new set of music - as well as a noticeably different format. Longer runs of songs between commercials - less talk - no news... You know. AOR, FM radio, 1979 edition. And this was most definitely tied directly to the radio. I didn't have money to buy a lot of records; I didn't really hang around with other kids listening to their records; I got my music from the radio. We kids talked about music - but if you wanted to hear it, most of the time you had to hear it on the radio.

I don't know how typical that is. Maybe most kids like me bought more records - maybe they traded tapes - I don't know. I imagine, kids living in cities and suburbs had very different options - more radio stations, record stores, concerts, within their reach... But I was well away from that. It was radio. And - for pretty significant periods of my youth, it was me sitting in my room half the night reading a book and listening to the radio, me alone, me and the music. And so - listening to Zep on the radio might have been an experience shared by millions of kids - but it was an experience I had completely by myself. And so - those songs got inside me, somehow, in my head, where they rattle and echo ever since. Not just Led Zeppelin, of course - and by the time I got to college, other bands were starting to be more important to me, and that went on... But for a year or so - my last year or two of high school - they were the best band in the world to me, the absolute center of the rock and roll universe. (Though maybe not the musical universe. I remember when John Bonham died, a terrible thing; but when John Lennon died, I was in shock, for days... But that's - a complicated equation. The music universe and the rock universe aren't necessarily the same things; and THE music universe and MY music universe weren't necessarily the same thing either - the Beatles were the world; Zep was my world, for a while.)

Okay... so how's the film? Not bad, for a bunch of old farts. Not up to their old standards, but how could it be? They are well rehearsed, they have chosen a very fine set list - they look fabulous... Robert Plante and John Paul Jones don't look a day over 45, either of them... Jimmy Page, on the other hand - looks like someone's granddad, pretending to be a rock star. But frankly, that just makes him cooler - with his white hair, thinning a bit, his little paunch - god knows how those other two do it, but he seems more or less willing to just look like his age. And when he wants the stage, he takes it... But still: in the end - it's a good show, but - missing something - no question what. Maybe, the fact that they are as tight, well rehearsed, enthusiastic, as they are just points up the utter indispensability of John Bonham. I think, when you get down to it, the fact is - they were, from start to finish, a duo, plus singer and bass player. Jones and Plante are very good at what they do - but they were always secondary. The band was a duet between Page and Bonham, plus a backup band... and Jason is not John. And so here - you get a very nice record (and video), but you don't get much point in listening to this instead of something like How The West Was Won.

Okay - that was long and autobiographical and barely mentioned the DVD - but wait 'til I get started on the Replacements! The film - Color Me Obsessed - is an interesting one. A documentary about a band that contains none of the band's music, no footage of them, and very little imagery of them at all. No appearances by anyone in the band, either. Instead - interviews, with fans, other musicians and people around the Minneapolis scene (up to and including Greg Norton and Grant Hart - no Bob Mould, though), journalists, from Robert Christgau to David Carr to Jim DeRogatis, the odd record company stooge, the occasional wife. It's an interesting choice - it is disappointing not to hear or see the Mats, I mean - don't you want that? but it's not a bad way to approach the Replacements. They were kind of a secret - they still are kind of a secret - wildly influential, but in ways that let people talk more about other bands... Though even in real time, they were harder, I think, to get a handle on than their peers. Someone mentions it in the film - that with Husker Du, they had a clear idea what kind of band they wanted to be; with the Mats - they never had any ideas. They slipped under the radar... So - talking about them, instead of seeing them - gets at something. Though I'd still love to see some good clean footage of them...

Digging around the web, I found an interview with the director - who says, every interview in the film started with the question, "Why the Replacements?" Well, I suppose like everyone in the doc, I could tell my Replacements story. I came to them late - after college - after Tim. There's autobiography in that - I grew up in the boonies, where AOR was the cutting edge, where Elvis Costello and U2 came off as exotic oddities - then went to college closer to civilization, though still in the suburbs. But I did what you are supposed to do in college, especially fi you come from the woods of Maine - I heard bunches of new bands, bunches of old bands that never got played up there, listened to a lot more depth of the bands I did like... Listened to records, as well as the radio, as it happened. Especially records I didn't hear on the radio - I got obsessed with Live At Leeds for a while there; some of us would listen to The River, all four sides, three times a week... But I heard new stuff as well - I had a buddy who liked X and XTC and Elvis Costello (as well as being a Springsteen freak) - I started taking newer stuff seriously. Nothing particularly radical - I mean - U2, The Pretenders, Prince - but still... not all Jimmy Page wanking, like high school.

But it stopped. I don't know why, maybe there were too many reasons. The X and XTC buddy dropped out; maybe the radio got more conservative, or maybe the music scene got more conservative (I don't rule either out: the turn of the decade, even on fairly mainstream radio stations, I heard the standard new wave bands, Talking Heads, B-52s, Elvis Costello; The Ramones and the Clash getting airplay on mainstream rock stations; U2, The Pretenders, The Police; you'd hear The Damned, Soft Cell, Romeo Void, Gang of Four... by '84 or so the new stuff was dull and derivative - Simple Minds? The Call? Tears for Fears? The Alarm? - not all bad, I guess, but nothing there that would wake you up the way U2 or The Pretenders or London Calling woke me up earlier... There were still songs on the radio I loved as much as ever - but they were usually by groups I already liked, usually discovered in the first year or two of college: U2, Prince, REM...) Maybe it was me - college wasn't a high point, I tended to stagnate while I was there. Did I grow complacent?

Whatever it was, it changed when I left college - I went to grad school, in the big city, and there I started seeing fanzines and underground rock papers, that mentioned bands I had not heard of - and I paid attention. I started looking for college radio or anything else that went away from the normal stuff on the radio, and heard some of them. Somewhere along the line I got wind of The Replacements - I remember a college newspaper running a cartoon using them to beat up REM, and I think I remember some kind of big time magazine (Time?) running a story about punks on major labels, covering Tim and Candy Apple Gray. (And Three Way Tie for Last - though I guess that wasn't actually on a major label, so I might be making this up). The point is - it gave me a target, and when Tim came out, I got it....

Or maybe I heard it on the radio - I think Hold My Life played a bit.... It doesn't matter, I bought it soon enough. What matters is - when I heard them - Hold My Life, specifically - I was floored. There have been some other songs that had that kind of effect on me - not many, though, few as quickly or completely. (I Will Follow; South Central Rain; Slipping (Into Something); Walk on the Wild Side? London Calling?... there aren't a lot...) With the Replacements - they sounded like nothing I had ever heard before. Or - maybe they sounded exactly like what I loved already. They had that quality - to sound like rock and roll distilled to its essence, but like they were inventing it on the spot. I don't know. I still feel it when I listen to Tim - the qualities, the songs, the rough way they are played, the way Westerburg sings - it has a kind of immediacy you don't get anywhere else. Except the other Mats records. (I quickly bought Let It Be, and was blown away a second time.) But that record, Tim, especially - Hold My Life, Bastards of the Young, Little Mascara, Left of the Dial, Kiss Me on the Bus, Here Comes a Regular - I am hard pressed to explain, though it comes to being the best written songs for an awful long time either side of it, and given performances that have an almost inexplainable directness. Loose, almost careless sounding, but still, somehow, precise, sharp, completely committed.... I don't know.

I know that for a year or two, probably roughly from the time I got my hands on Tim to the time - christ - til the time I got Pleased to Meet Me - they were my favorite band in the world. The center of my rock and roll universe. They were what I wanted rock music to sound like. It certainly helped that I saw them, right at the end, a couple weeks before Westerberg broke his arm and they cancelled their tour and a couple months before they fired poor Bob Stinson from his own band... They were as advertised - an odd mix of drunken shenanigans, half serious covers, snarky noise, and those fucking incredible songs, given strange, sloppy, but usually completely committed readings. They were funny and mind-blowingly brilliant at once. They ended up playing Mississippi Queen until the cops escorted them off the stage at closing time. My god, they were great.

And - like poor Led Zeppelin before them, I was not faithful to them. I had some money in my pockets and started buying records and found plenty of other music to love - Husker Du and the like - though most profoundly, the Velvet Underground and Joy Division, whose records I bought up that summer and listened to rather obsessively. And then I saw The Feelies. And then Pleased to Meet Me came out, and I saw them again, and despite a stunning rendition of Within Your Reach (immediately becoming one of my all time favorite songs), they were - just a band this time. Great as that record is - they were just a band. And by now I was fairly immersed in the contemporary music scene - going to shows, buying records - finding the Meat Puppets and Butthole Surfers and a whole bunch of local bands, and later the Pixies and Jane's Addiction and then Public Enemy and BDP and NWA... and filling in all the old stuff, and finding that these bands - The Stooges - Pere Ubu - The Byrds - Hank Williams and Johnny Cash - as well as the Velvets, Joy Division and the like - that was what I really liked - that is what I meant, all along. And the Replacements - didn't keep up. While I was listening to more and more music, they were putting out more and more mediocre material. I saw them a third time, at a theater even - and remember nothing at all about it, not even what record they were supporting (Don't Tell a Soul? maybe...)

And there you have it. You can probably blame the movie for this long piece - the film is reflective and personal, about music's impact on the listener, the fan.... And it took me back there, 25 years, to hearing them, seeing them.... and, by extension, 30+ years to sitting in my room listening to Ramble On... Nostalgia, nostalgia. And reminders that for a while, both of these bands were completely transformative for me. I still love them - I may be more likely, if push comes to shove, to listen to Fairport Convention or Can - or to the Minutemen or The Feelies or the Meat Puppets, here, today, 2012 - but I don't think, without the passion I felt for Zep and the Mats, that I would have ever have heard of those other bands.

This could be me, right down to the stereo on the milk crates...

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