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.