And so “the year of posting daily” comes to an end. When I learned that Paul Westerberg, lead singer/songwriter formerly of The Replacements, was born on this day, I experienced what Jay Farrar might call “a foregone situation.” I don’t see how I could pass up today’s song as the last song of the year.
Not that there weren’t others in the running. I considered “Here Comes a Regular” but it’s too late in the year for that. And more rocking numbers like “Never Mind” (title of a Replacements’ song before it was the title of a Nirvana album) would not have been out of place. Then there’s solo Westerberg, and songs like “It’s a Wonderful Lie,” “Love Untold,” “Hide N Seekin,” “Things,” are all favorites. Or what about “Attitude,” from the last Replacements LP?
But, given the theme of ghosts that I’ve touched on more than a few times, and considering “the end of it all” vibe I’m going for here, “Rock’n’Roll Ghost” seems the most appropriate. It appears second-to-last on the second-to-last Replacements LP, Don’t Tell a Soul, the first album with Bob Dunlap taking over for the ousted Bob Stinson. For many, the loss of Stinson changed the tenor of The Replacements, as Westerberg led the band toward a more “commercial” sound with less of their former abrasive punk style. Sure, but that’s the way things were going by the late Eighties in any case. My view, not being that big a fan of the more shambolic 'Mats, was simply that Westerberg’s songwriting was improving and to make that apparent required a bit more commitment to the material. The early 'Mats stuff was cheeky and sloppy and fun, but, y’know, all things must pass.
And that’s what this song is about. It’s a good tune to comment on all that because one suspects that it’s Westerberg acknowledging that he is, himself, a “rock’n’roll ghost”—a mere shade of the ballsy rocker he once was, about to turn 30 the year this album was released: “I was much too young / Much too cool for words / Look at me now.” That’s not an old man’s comment, that’s an older young man’s comment. That’s full of the regret that comes from realizing that—to the cool dude one once was—one’s current self would not past muster. “I look into the mirror and I see / A rock’n’roll ghost.”
As someone who turned 30 the year today's song was released, I found the song commenting on something I was realizing, as I trundled off to grad school. My days when rock was the brightest beacon in the firmament were coming to an end. In fact, they’d already ended, mostly, and bands such as The Replacements were helpful in keeping some of that engagement alive even while, as here, lamenting its passing.
Well you know / And you go / When I’m alone I have no cause / To think about the shit we used to know / Made of snow
That opening sounds starkly beautiful. And, what’s more, Westerberg isn’t afraid to make it feel beautiful, to pay witness to that “wan and heartless mood” we know so well. We might think, if we like, of the opposition of “shit” and “snow,” where the one is the stuff that, as they say, sticks, and the other is the stuff that melts. We used to know lots of things, lots of shit. But there’s no cause, no longer with you, to think about that.
But without that shared material, there’s not much worth living for, apparently. Well you said “he’s better off dead.” Possibly. At least, there’s a feeling of getting a glimpse of what’s called “Death-in-Life,” that state bereft of inspiration and imaginative sallies and the full tilt not giving a fuck of the true blue rocker. Limboland.
There’s no one here to raise a toast / Take me by the hand, man, raise a toast / A rock’n’roll ghost / To a rock’n’roll ghost. Yup, one ghost toasting another. It’s perhaps too chastened a song for the night when people like to party as one year becomes another, but, however good or bad 2014 was or 2015 will be, the song speaks, as the last Song of the Day, for a quiet, reflective tribute to the ghosts of rock’n’roll that continue to haunt so many of us. “We don’t know until we’re gone,” Westerberg says, and maybe he’s right. Maybe knowing what we did while we were here is for someone to decide after we’re gone. Fine. Finis.
Happy New Year! And, in the words of my favorite line by one of my favorite ghosts: “Look to see me no more.”