Achin’ To Be.

faked by Wednesday, June 21st, 2006

The hardcore hate the Replacements album Don’t Tell A Soul. I’ve heard everything from it being “the death knell of the greatest band of all time” to “the only thing good you can say about it is that there’s no goddam horns or goddam Jim Dickinson” to “when I first heard it, I felt personally betrayed.”*

None of that ever changed my mind that Don’t Tell A Soul has some of the greatest rock and roll every recorded. It’s been one of my favorites ever since I picked it up used at the now-defunct Whirlygig in Tuscaloosa, sometime in the mid-nineties. I got Don’t Tell A Soul, Tim, and Please To Meet Me at the same time, and for the next few years those three albums would dominate the cassette player in my car.

Clocking in just a bit under forty minutes and strikingly out of step with the rest of 1989, the record spits in the face of marketing. There’s no lyrics, there’s only a couple of blurry photos of the band and the fishnetted legs of somebody that is clearly not a lady (who I’ve always thought was Tommy), and on no version of the album—LP, cassette, or compact disc—do the song titles appear on the outside of the package (just like—and I am contractually bound to say this—the fourth Led Zeppelin record).

The record starts with a jangle—the faux-memory of a gang of kids playing at the “Talent Show,” with their “waxed-up hair and painted shoes” and “guitars and . . . front picks,” the band “feeling good from the pills [they] took.” This isn’t real—it doesn’t stink like the Minneapolis basement the the ‘Mats still look they crawled out of—but it feels real, a recovered memory that maybe Paul Westerberg wants you to have, hinting that this record is the beginning, and no, folks, we’re not playing “Black Diamond” tonight. The Replacements didn’t start out as a rockabilly band with pompadours, doing Carl Perkins covers—but it’s really fun to pretend they did.

There’s also a youthful rebellion that’s almost sweet: this version of the band isn’t made up of junkies and alcoholics, but kids drinking a few cans of beer and taking some Dexies to get wound up for a show. There’s nothing wrong with that—in fact, it’s so purely rock and roll as to be almost sweet. Everyone thinks of the Beatles’ pre-recording time in Hamburg, swathed in leather, living in an adult moviehouse, and gulping handfuls of cut-rate amphetamines as idllyic. Instead of thinking it was, you know, terrifically sleazy and totally rock and roll.

The first song slides into “Back to Back,” which sounds any one of a dozen other ‘Mats mid-tempo rockers. It’s the lyrics that jam this song into your memory, and which remind you that this album, made as it was by adults, is still about growing up and the struggles that entails (“Why don’t you put a book upon our heads/And put some pistols in our hands/Count twenty paces at dawn/Count twenty questions we’ll get wrong”). There’s a pervading sense of how the system is rigged, but there’s no bitterness in this acknowledgment: just awareness.

On “We’ll Inherit the Earth,” though, that awareness spills into anger. “We’ll inherit the earth,” Paul sings, “but we don’t want it.” With those words, he declares his intent to move outside of the middle-class-world he was born into: explicitly intoning the centuries-old Biblical promise, he finds it believable, yet still renounces it. “We’ll inherit the earth, but don’t tell anybody . . . don’t tell a soul,” he sings, and then says screw it to the whole damn globe: “I put my hands in my pockets, and I wait for the day to come.” Whether he’s talking about when he actually inherits the earth, or when the planet spins into the sun, you don’t know.

“Achin’ To Be” is an extraordinary ode to the legendary beautiful horn-rimmed rock and roll girl. It’s brimming with all the splendor of longing:

Well, she’s kind of like an artist
Sittin’ on the floor
Never finishes what she abandons
Never shows a soul

And she’s kind of like a movie
Everyone rushes to see
And no one understands it
Sittin’ in their seats

She opens her mouth to speak and
What comes out’s a mystery
Thought about, not understood
She’s achin’ to be

Well, she dances alone in nightclubs
Every other day of the week
People look right through her

. . .

Well, I saw one of your pictures
There was nothin’ that I could see
If no one’s on your canvas
Well, I’m achin’ to be

Nowadays the sequencing of Don’t Tell A Soul, like most Sire-era ‘Mats records, seems to make no sense, staggering as it does from up-tempo jobs to gentle ballads. This was an album, though, and the too-slow lament of “They’re Blind” makes sense when you realize that it closes out side one; you had to work a bit to flip the sucker and then get the screamed introduction of “Anywhere’s Better Than Here,” which for my money is one of the greatest songs of all time. It’s pure frustration and self-loathing, alternately shouted and sung. “You press your luck/up against his body . . . your hair is black/only because you taint it/your life’s a joke . . . .” At the end of the day, “anywhere is better than here.”

Truthfully, side two mostly clunks along, but “Asking Me Lies” is a stand-out, filled with quintessential Westerberg twisted rhymes: “the rich are getting richer/the poor are getting drunk/in a black and white picture/there’s a lot of gray bunk.” Like “Back to Back,” a mediocre song is salvaged through inventive and surprising wordplay that is fun to just roll around on your tongue.

Don’t Tell A Soul is pervaded by romance, frustration, and unfulfilled desire. That’s what I wanted to evoke with the picture above. It’s dark, it’s blurred, the words stagger around and don’t quite fit, but at the end of the day it’s hopeful that there just might be something better.

*This was said to me in the Magic Platter in Birmingham, by a record clerk who was a longtime musician, famous in some circles. The only response I could muster was literal slack-jawed-ness.

20 Responses to “Achin’ To Be.”

  1. Holy crap, gorjus, I think this is one of the best things you’ve written. I’ve always been a DTASnay-sayer, but this post makes me sad that I traded in my copy of the album many years ago (after one frustrated listen). Maybe I should’ve given it a chance. Then again, I think the album you evoke here is better than the real thing could ever be.

    (I do still think one of DTAS’s strengths is the no-Jim-Dickinson thing. I had just about forgiven him until “Valentine” came up on he iPod the other day. Is there some reason he had the snare drum turned up to, like, 12, and the guitars down to three? Was this bizarro mix actually an attempted (and failed) intervention on the part of the ‘mats to get Jim to finally admit he was illiterate?)

    Seriously, though, this post is frickin’ great. Bravo.

  2. Jeff says:

    I know exactly what the record store clerk was saying. I hated, hated, hated this album and felt like the band, my favorite still to this day, had been led out behind corporate headquarters and shot then replaced with a bunch of boring hacks that sounded like a muzak version of the fellas who had recorded Hootenanny. But age has made me appreciate this album more and more. My fondest memory of the song “Anywhere’s Better Than Here” is seeing it performed live in Pensacola and some yahoo in front of me taking offense, thinking that the band was somehow making fun of his city. He kept flipping them off…like it mattered.

    Great post, btw. I’ll be humming this album the rest of the day.

  3. Danny Chase says:

    I like rock and roll. There’s a willful carelessness—something religion mostly feigns—which it entails. I like the glory of its darkness, and the residue it leaves on every age.

  4. gorjus says:

    Jeff, when John Strohm told me he felt betrayed I didn’t understand it—because I was a new fan, and the breadth of the ‘Mats oeuvre hadn’t hit me yet. I got Let It Be afterwards, if you can believe that!

    And, understanding how they developed as a band, I can see where the shock comes from. Going backwards is pleasant—the fun wordplay is still there, and you get it coupled with a sloppy joyousness.

    My post above still being true in my opinion, I think there are two bands. Mats v. 1 dies at Hootenanny. Mats v. 2 starts at Tim and, lord knows, All Shook Down (which I think is terrible) killed it off. Let It Be is the thundering lynchpin between the two bands: with the speedcore vitriol of v. 1 (“Tommy’s Got a Boner,” “Black Diamond”) mixed with the sensitivity of Westerberg’s emerging ability as a songwriter (“Unsatisfied,” “Androgynous”), I think it’s their masterpiece.

    Thanks for the great comments!

  5. herman rarebell says:

    gary got a boner.
    tommy had his tonsils out.

    has anybody heard the mats v. 3 on the new greatest hits dealio? oh, and, gorjus, we need to drink beer and listen to this bent outta shape LP real loud. like mats v. 1.5.

  6. gclark says:

    i’ve heard that “new” song. sounds suspiciously like that westerberg tune from “singles.” definitely not something to get jazzed up about.

  7. bulb says:

    I held off commenting on this due to my long held belief that the ‘Mats are overrated, though I did recently purchase Let It Be, Tim, and Pleased to Meet Me on disc to give them another chance. A friend from Minneapolis/St. Paul who went to school with westy doesn’t liker Hu Du that much, but we finally figured out he just didn’t like Mould’s atonal stuff. I’mall about the Du from Metal Circus to The Living End. Liked PTMM best but then I liked it msot back then as well and had it and Tim on vinyl. I won’t touch LiB to avoid a flame war. I hope to pick this disc up and give it a whirl.

    Lots of bands reforming lately; the one with the best results is still The Mighty Mighty Mission of Burma, my undergrad band of choice who I must have seen 100 times in Boston between 9-81 and when they played the last show at the Bradford Hotel in 1983.

    The other contender for great comeback record(s) was Wire MK III with Send and Read and Burn eps, but alas they stopped again. Here’s a fun show review from Chicago two summers ago:

    BTW, Starkville just got the low rent version to join our Waffle House out old highway 82. What you ass: A Huddle House! The Horror The Horror!

    Keep up the photographic blogetry.

  8. Jeff says:

    Gorjus, I couldn’t agree more w/ your 2 bands assessment and your claim that Let It Be is their masterpiece. In fact, I’ve tried to convince friends that “Answering Machine” is the perfect rock’n’roll song, but no one will buy it.

    By the way, I don’t think the Mats will ever fully reunite. And for obvious reasons. I’m still bitter about the Pixies “doin’ it for the money” tour, especially the 35 bucks they wanted me to pay to listen to them do 20 year old songs. No thanks.

    bulb, I guess you didn’t much care for the New York Dolls reunion tour? Joke. I second your Mission of Burma nod.

  9. Scott says:

    My first taste of the ‘Mats was via a tape copy of Pleased to Meet Me. I was in 9th grade. Perfect.

    Great post…

    We are the sons of no one…

  10. hannah says:

    The ‘Mats are one of the most underappreciated bands of all time. But back in the day, back when I was in high school and college (mid 80s-early 90s) I never listened to them. And I grew up four hours from Minneapolis. Same with Husker Du. I love them both now. I am fascinated with the disfunction that is the ‘Mats. Why were they so fucked up? What caused it? Was it Westerberg? Was it the Midwestern middle-class attitude? Who knows, but they produced some of the best music of their day. I am partial to Let it Be and Hootenanny. I like the general fuckupedness of Hootenanny. I also like how you can hear Westerberg’s upper-midwestern accent on Lovelines. A friend of mine once said that Hootenanny was a mess and people who like Hootenanny the best were a mess. Eh, whatever. I like it. And Within Your Reach is awesome. Supposedly was the song originally considered for That Scene in Say Anything. Let it Be… Well, Unsatisfied is the most emotionally raw songs I have ever heard. It is Westerberg at his best.

    Husker Du (speaking of Mnpls bands) rock my world. Real World on Metal Circus screams, “this is not your big brother’s hardcore.” It is an obvious dig at Minor Threat and the Straight Edge movement. (Minor Threat is one of my all-time favorites, but I like the back and forth between bands).

  11. Scott says:

    Gorjus…What about “Darlin’ One?” (the closer on Don’t Tell a Soul)... Yes, the guitars are way overproduced, with none of the gritty tube-amp tone that I love, but it’s a pretty good tune and seems to fit the feel of the record as a whole…

  12. Gramps says:

    “Don’t Tell a Soul” has some good songs, but they’re obscured by a high gloss late 1980s production sheen (done, I would guess, to help make the band more palatable for radio) that’s hard for me to get past. I can’t remember the song, but I always hated the whispered “Don’t Tell a Soul,” that’s somewhere on there.

    The band’s high point? performing “Bastards of the Young” on Saturday Night Live.

  13. gorjus says:

    Gramps! Thanks for jogging my memory. YouTube has tons of ‘Mats videos and live stuff. I couldn’t find the SNL stuff but I found a video for “Achin’ to Be” (embedded above) and tons of other great things.

  14. Jeff says:

    I’ve had the SNL appearance bookmarked forever:

    Been awhile since I’ve checked to see if it still works and because I’m at work I don’t want to do it now. Hopefully it does because it will make your day.

  15. gorjus says:

    Arrgh! Somebody check! I refuse to install eight gigs of Quicktime to watch it.

  16. brd says:

    That was an enlightening addition to your post. And the complete name of this group is Replacements, shortened to Mats?

  17. herman rarebell says:

    re: hannah’s hüskers vs. minor threat. in the hüsker dü section of “our band could be your life” they talk about playing a couple of bills w/ minor threat. to screw with ian, they would prop the stage with cigarette butts, beer cans, pill bottles, and other assorted refuse from the backstage area.

  18. hannah says:

    iIve read Our Band Could Be Your Life, and it is excellent. That is when it dawned on me that that song was a goodnatured dig at Minor Threat. A friend of mine, and Huskers fanatic, didn’t believe me until she listened to it again and looked at the dates (to make sure the dates the songs were released worked out).

    If you want videos of the Mats live, check out Click on Video>The Replacements. They have videos of early Mats video. Tommy looks like he was about 10.

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