“Pretty girl keep growin’ up / Playin’ makeup, wearin’ guitar.” Those classic lines are from “Left of the Dial” by The Replacements, a song that, in effect, changed my life when I first heard it as a freshman at Bowling Green State University in 1986. Yeah, I’m kind of old. Well, I just turned 48 on October 10. Anyway, I had an urge to write about this band the other night (October 15), and, the next morning, I learned that The Replacements are one of the 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees, along with Nirvana, KISS, Deep Purple, and twelve other artists. The Replacements won’t make it in this time, I’m sure, but, if Nirvana isn’t inducted in their first year of eligibility, I will have lost all faith in the Rock Hall.
But, this post is about The Replacements. So, how does an all-dude band from Minneapolis, MN, led by genius frontman Paul Westerberg, relate to rock chicks? Well, “Left of the Dial” is not only Westerberg‘s ode to college radio (whose frequencies were found on the left side of an old-school radio dial), but, also his tribute to Angie Carlson [not the one from truTV‘s Full Throttle Saloon], guitarist of producer Mitch Easter‘s ’80s rock band Let’s Active. Westerberg had a crush on Carlson, but, she later married Easter. Angie Carlson is a rock chick. So, there.
The Replacements, or The Mats, as their fans call them, are one of my all-time favorite bands, and, in the ’80s and ’90s, were one of America’s best kept secrets. I saw The Mats live twice before they disbanded, and Paul Westerberg solo once. The Mats were known for their drunken performances in which they would screw up their own songs, and often begin a cover but a minute later stop and begin another. I was able to witness this behavior in 1987 when they toured for their Pleased To Meet Me album. But, in 1989, they sobered up for their Don’t Tell A Soul tour. That show was, obviously, more restrained, but, none the less amazing. And, Paul Westerberg, solo, covered some Mats songs but re-worked them with different arrangements. Very cool.
In January 1986, a year and a half after graduating high school, I started my freshman year at BGSU in the Harshman Bromfield quad. I was a classic rock fanatic, raised on The Beatles, ’70s KISS, and Led Zeppelin; and, at the time, I was listening to all the popular mainstream rock artists like Van Halen, INXS, Stevie Nicks (solo), etc. But, one day, early in the semester, while studying between classes, I turned on my roommate’s radio which was left on WBGSU, the college radio station, and, I heard music I had never heard before. I was intrigued. I turned it up. Then, I heard ragged guitar chords ringing through those tiny speakers, followed quickly by pounding drums. The song was so raw, sloppy, but, still so damn melodic. Then, as the intro ebbed, a raspy drawl took over: “Read about your band / In some local page/ It didn’t mention your name / Didn’t mention your name.” I sat there, in awe, listening to that song, mouth agape, as everything I liked about music changed instantly. After the guitar solo, that glorious riff began ringing through again, only slighty faster, the backbeat more intense. “Pretty girl keep growin’ up / Playin’ makeup, wearin’ guitar,” that gravelly voice snarled. “Did he just say playin’ makeup and wearin’ guitar?”, I wondered, as he continued, softer: “Growing old in a bar / You grow old in a bar.” But, eventually, the song ended. I swear I was in Heaven for 3 minutes and 44 seconds!
The DJ, who was in one of my classes, said the song was “Left of the Dial” by The Replacements. So, I ran down the hall to the punk kid’s room. I think his name was Sean. “Have you ever heard of the Replacements?” I asked. “Yeah,” he said, as if he was offended that I could have possibly thought he didn’t. “Do you have any of their albums?” I asked. He rolled his eyes, then searched his collection [vinyl records, by the way – we didn’t have MP3s] and pulled out The Replacements‘ 1985 album Tim, handing it over for me to peruse. I flipped it over and saw “Left of the Dial” on the track list. “Thanks,” I said, handing it back, and, then, instead of attending my final class that day, I ran to the campus record store, and purchased the album for myself.
Those ragged sounds I heard in “Left of the Dial” were nothing like the overproduced mainstream rock I was listening to at the time, and, even though it was a love song of sorts, it wasn’t like any I had ever heard before. I couldn’t wait to hear the rest of that album. When I got home, I laid the needle gently down on that record for the first time, and “Hold My Life” exploded from its grooves. I sat back in awe, again, but, this time, I listened to Westerberg‘s lyrics: “Hold my life / Until I’m ready to use it / Hold my life / Because I just might lose it.” He was speaking to me, and every other kid filled with angst and doubt (like Kurt Cobain would do only 5 short years later). “God, what a mess / On the ladder of success / Where you take one step / And miss the whole first rung,” Westerberg snarled in “Bastards of Young”, an anthem for an entire generation of disenchanted youth. And, the sparse acoustic loneliness of “Here Comes a Regular” is harrowing, especially the sadly beautiful piano interlude. Tim is an amazing record, and one of the best albums of all damn time.
So, for the rest of the semester, I listened, obsessively, to WBGSU and discovered hundreds of amazing bands that none of my Abercrombie & Fitch-looking friends had ever heard of, nor wanted to hear. On summer break, I went home, and rifled through my brother’s leftover record collection and found Raw Power by The Stooges, Never Mind The Bollocks by The Sex Pistols, and, the Ramones self-titled debut. But, I discovered The Clash‘s London Calling on my own. I stumbled into a whole new reality that I never knew existed, and, over that summer, I took all my mainstream rock albums and traded them in for more albums by The Replacements and the Ramones, and albums by Hüsker Dü, the Pixies, Agent Orange, the Descendents, and more by dozens of punk/indie bands you probably never heard of.
When I returned to BGSU for fall semester, my taste in music, obviously, had changed drastically, but, I still looked exactly the same, and, I certainly didn’t want to change my appearance, after all those years, just to try to fit in with the art school punks. Anyway, resembling actor Matt Dillon, back then, had worked well for me since high school. But, I was alone. I couldn’t relate to my Abercrombie & Fitch-looking friends anymore, but, the art school punks would just laugh if I talked to them. So, I hung out with the crowd that I fit in with on the outside, while embracing the music I loved, alone, on the inside, always searching for the next great band that my friends, who’ve come and gone, never heard of, in record stores, magazines, and, of course, left of the dial.
And, I never looked back. However, over the years, I’ve slowly learned to embrace mainstream rock again (which is obvious from some of the bands I post about), but, punk and any music influenced by punk has had my heart ever since I first heard “Left of the Dial” on WBGSU in 1986. And, that’s where I still find amazing music – left of the dial, figuratively. You won’t always find the best music on major labels, playing on every radio station, rising up every chart. You need to find that great music on your own. It’s out there, waiting. And, I want to hear as much of it as I possibly can.
Watch the promo video for “Left of the Dial” here:
Yeah, they called an album Let It Be!