I’ll start with an “accidental (quasi-) Limerick”—
The Westerbergian Sublime
Can be summed up in the line
“I suppose your guess
is more or less
Probably as bad as mine.”
There’s a Confidence-By-Default in that line from “Nevermind” (from Pleased To Meet Me). It’s basically the opposite of the “First Thought, Best Thought” dictum so beloved of the Beat Generation. You could even call it The VIA NEGATIVA. Starting from the basic “life sucks,” or “life is shit,” premise, there’s the realization that two negatives might make a third, worse, negative—but they could, maybe just maybe, become a positive. This Westerbergian Sublime (an anti-essentialist essentialism or essentialist anti-essentialism) is evident in so many of the classic mid-80s Replacements songs, but it’s also there even on their 1981 debut, Sorry Mom, I Forgot To Take Out The Trash. Like much punk, Paul puts himself into relationship with a voice of authority, but often the authority is a woman and is respected more than the mere male authorities---“Sorry, Ma” isn’t just a joke.
Take “Customer,” for instance. I’m shy. I’m terribly shy, but since I have to be “nothing but a customer” anyway, I certainly don’t want to be “Lost In The Supermarket.” (The Replacements hated when critics would compare them to The Clash, preferring, say, The Faces and Small Faces), and this cashier is kinda kute, I can at least be theatrical about my inability to make a genuine first move in a pick-up bar (especially, as long as got this sonic force of a rocking band that needs a vocal/verbal image face to complement Bob Stinson’s Lead-guitar face).
This studio recording provides a replacement to video culture (years before they finally broke down and created the seminal ‘nose thumbing,’ yet poignant, “Bastards Of Young” video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fl9KQ1Mub6Q) by creating its own very theatrical verbal/musical “moving picture”
How about cigarettes? CHORD CHORD CHORD
I'll take sugarless CHORD CHORD CHORD
You sell Wombats? I’m a Customer…..
The call and response between vocal and guitar-lead band could paint a picture of the singer on a rampage back and forth through the store to get these items, but that interpretation is a stretch (though no more than 95% of music videos). It’s probably more accurate to see the beloved cashier rushing around trying to find the Sugarless, The Cigarettes, and The Wombats. He’s not just asking her (though “What’s On Sale?” is delivered with a sexy-coy come-on wink), he’s ordering her around, making her grab all these different items (which he may not even buy!), pushing the envelope of the Customer role so he can feel, uh, Empowered! (I wonder if she ends up calling him “Chief” or “Boss,” well, save that for the answer song).
Nonetheless, in terms of sexual politics, in much of Westerberg, male is gendered consumer and female is gendered producer—which for many women, especially in the 80s, was very refreshing. Most men, even in the underground scene, were still clinging to macho-breadwinner postures without any substance to back them up; here was a male could admit women’s productive power (like a cross between feminism and the blues that understands the woman as “replacement” for G-d—or, more accurately, G-d as replacement for woman).
Still, it’s certainly not a very efficient way to seduce or shop (although the song is very efficient, a nugget, a gem). If there are people behind him in line, they must be getting pissed off (unless they’re too busy moshing). And this is where the hope that the strictly non-verbal aspects of the music can somehow compensate for the social transgression implied in the words, like Jonathan Richman taking his band to the Government Center to “make the secretaries feel better when they put the stamps on the letters” (what I call the Westerbergian Sublime is also very evident on The Modern Lovers’ first album, especially the “confidence-by-default” in the quasi-revenge fantasy of “I’m Straight).”
In “Customer,” Westerberg has it both ways: shy and cocky. It’s a scene more than a story, and there are lots of scene-songs on the first two (“melodic hardcore”) Replacement disks. “Goddamn Job,” is a scene. Or two frames in a short graphic novel with the phrases “I need a goddamn job” and “I need a goddamn girl” in word balloons. It’s even more minimal than “Customer,” but expressed with such urgent conviction that the listener may be convinced that these are the only two basic needs (and maybe they are, if not “bacon and cigarettes” or pictures on the fridge that are never filled with food)—in the consumerist America of the 80s. And then it hits me---well, at least he had a goddamn band!
In “Hanging Downtown,” things don’t get swell until 3AM. Westerberg’s timing is way off. So was mine (college all-nighters). Via Negativa? Another Variation on The Westerbergian Sublime: The singer doesn’t want to do anything, but doesn’t want to do nothing either. If nowhere is home, everywhere could be? Maybe just maybe! My needs tell me that. What the hell: let’s go downtown by default!
At least it’s semi-peopled with pimps and whores and liquor stores, some lonely loner stick figures out of a Beckett set-design by Giacometti. This may make Westerberg feel less lonely than he would in a crowd (unless it’s the ward where he’s the doctor, or front-man) There is a lot of nothing to see, and this “nothing” in the Westerberg sublime could come straight out of Alan Watts!
Despite the quasi-Ashberian heightened ambivalences of the Westerbergian sublime, he still does fall from it, like the boy on “The Ledge,” or at least into mere inversion: “one foot in the door/the other foot in the gutter/the sweet smell you adore/I think I’d rather smother”---is he talking to a goddamn job, like record label (as the cover image to Pleased To Meet Me suggests) or to a woman? It’s probably either at different times, but it changes the meaning of those words.
But crucial to Westerberg is the pain, the cry, in the voice even when he uses the most aggressive vox he can summon. And, yes, all these songs tell us as much about 1980s culture, and even for many “our 2013 culture,” as it does about Westerberg as person and persona. “Customer” was the 1980s, before many cashiers were replaced by machines, or just less cashiers were hired, which caused longer lines and thus more strained relations between workers and customers (as anyone familiar with 19th century social philosophy will understand, alienating the laborer—who is also a consumer—from him or herself)
“Hanging Downtown” feels as true in Downtown Oakland, San Francisco, Philly and the Skid Rowkio (Skid Row meets Little Tokyo) section of LA today (and probably The Twin Cities as well; the only possible exception in the USA is NYC) as it was in the 80s. BLEAK; oh and I forgot to mention the police presence (they’re in other early Westerberg songs); you probably got to be the 20 something kid Westerberg was then to navigate it—not that he really navigates it outside the studio. It’s a short moving picture. At least you get a two-minute song out of it.
The Piano Van version is 2:29, and performed at Von’s Hollywood around 9PM—about as much as a 40-something disabled guy can muster, but I needed to spread the word of The Westerbergian sublime…and appeal to Jeff Feuerzeig’s love of “lost classics” from the 80s, like Richard Hell’s “Time.” And Sorry, Ma is definitely more of an underrated lost classic than Let It Be and Tim are—and, besides, it’s true I, desperately…..need…..a goddamn…..job! (I mean woman!)
Here’s the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VSIPdIw-DcY