Bromantic Poets

Halfway through The Replacements concert in Queens last weekend, I was marveling at the number of great pop songs Paul Westerberg has written – how deep his catalogue is. “Oh yeah, this one too,” we all kept thinking, one after another. And then what did they play next? “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out.”

Now, it’s not exactly out of character for the Replacements to play a comic, throw-away song, but the choice was deeper to the heart of the experience than just that.

Forest Hills Tennis Stadium, September 19, 2014

Forest Hills Tennis Stadium, September 19, 2014

Tommy Stinson, the bass player and only original member left besides Westerberg, was younger than the rest, the band’s teenage mascot of sorts when it started. He’ll be 48 years old in a few weeks, but he still regaled the audience with a story about an emergency room visit. “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” evokes the world of having a little brother, knowing his intimate secrets, and callously, if lovingly razzing him for it – all the while opening one’s own eyes to the vast hypocrisy of the world of adults.

The youngest of four brothers myself, one of the most precious memories from my childhood (no one said “tween” yet) is the Saturday mornings I spent sitting around the stereo with my brother, listening to The Who’s Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy. The flaccid-phallic double entendre from then-closet case Pete Townsend was lost on us (on me, anyway, but I was the runt of this litter ), but I was captivated by the cover art, showing The Who checking themselves out as boys – on the back cover they were boys spying on themselves as adults. It inexplicably suited the songs about the sexual awakening of social outliers: “I’m a Boy.” “Happy Jack.” “Pictures of Lily.”

Around this time I watched Help! on TV on a Saturday afternoon: Missing it would have been unthinkable, but there were fewer TV stations back then! The scene that blew me away was when The Beatles say good-bye to each other outside their London row-homes, up and down the same block, only to walk inside their respective front doors and into a gigantic interior in which “the boys” all still live together.

The unleashed teenage sexuality of girls screaming is remembered as the essence of Beatlemania, but I only know a few adult women who have ever told me any trivia about the Beatles, their egotistical feuds and what their songs are about, that I hadn’t already heard more than once from adult men. The guys are just more into it. In the mind of the male fan, the female ecstasy only has to happen once in a while to validate the rock star as Alpha Male. Really, rock group fandom is about the Alpha Male Bromance, the band itself the nucleus of that fraternal magic, the rest of us sitting around our parents’ stereos (“Turn that down!”) or passing a pot pipe around a dorm room.

Once in a while a singular pop genius such as Dylan or Hendricks or Mitchell or Beck can come along and be the lone voice and surrogate friend to the listener, but what the British invasion got right, as a marketing stunt, was packaging the songwriters as bands, and most of rock music has copied it ever since. If Donovan had called himself and his band The Chartists, or The Miners, or anything vaguely Welsh, and released a few colorful stories about the misdeeds of his bass player, he’d have made a few million more devotees, and “Hurdy Gurdy Man” would turn up on the radio as often as “Let It Be.”

The Who's compilation from 1971.

The Who’s compilation from 1971.

John Lennon had only been dead a few months when The Replacements recorded their debut, Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out the Trash, their noisiest record in which, the conventional wisdom goes, Westerberg was barely peeking his head out as a songwriter. I was happy to hear that three of the first four songs in Forest Hills last Friday were off Sorry Ma, as in, “Let’s get one thing straight: This is a rock show.” Judging by the mass of guys (about 75%), many with gray hair and black tee shirts, slapping each other on the back, I wasn’t the only one who was glad they rocked it. Now that the punks and the “alternative scene” of the 1980s are well into their 50s, or older, a guy like Westerberg can play the City Winery circuit any time he wants – “An Evening With David Johansen” with a pinot noir flight to go with it can only be so far away.

Westerberg brought Tommy along, and The Replacements were still The Replacements.



Spider Man Is Dead!

Much to tell in coming days about all the films I’ve seen during the pre-Awards season festival: that last month or so of the year and first few weeks of the next, when the cinema-going public matters a little, and revels in that relevance.

It’s the time of year when the industry tries to figure out who deserves the Academy Award® brand moniker, which has some bearing on home viewing sales and a handful of artists’ bankability, but first they have to get past the four women having movie night in Boston: Which one of them will say “Okay,” suck it up and watch a film a second time for the sake of group cohesion? Past the gay guy in Lawrence, Kansas trying to figure out which matinée to take his mother to. Past the theater owner in Pennsylvania who’s looking at the numbers wondering whether he can keep a screen for Dallas Buyers Club for another week.

Every year I swear I’m not going to get caught up in it – I’m a serious artist, after all! – but, like the Democratic Party, I end up a sucker for it every time. But that’s not what we’ll be raising our glasses for this afternoon when I visit my friend with his stack of S.A.G. DVD screeners. We’ll be toasting to last night’s closing of a Broadway show: Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.

“The producers and investors,” says the Times, “are expected to lose up to $60 million on the Broadway run, though they could still see some financial return if the show runs in Las Vegas and proves popular.” Go west, young man!

You can spend $75 million on play development for a comic book story that even people who never had a comic book phase, such as yours truly, already just know by osmosis. You can hire two of the best-selling (though not especially known for narrative) rock songwriters to write the lyrics. Disney could even buy Marvel Comics around this time, which it did. You can pair up Julie Taymor herself and a children’s TV writer, and it can still flop, and you might have to call in one of the writers of Glee, who currently has a musical adaptation of American Psycho up in London, to do his best to save your story.

Get back to where you once belonged.

Get back to where you once belonged.

True story digression: I was on a Chinatown bus about six years ago, and a 16-year-old Latina sits next to me. Her phone goes off, starting with an unmistakeable acoustic guitar riff: Bwim-BEEM! Beep-bip-bip-beep.”Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup…” “Hola?” Where’d this girl come from, listening to John Lennon? And where was she when I was obsessed with that song when I was 16? Then I remembered the Julie Taymor film Across the Universe that had just come out.

I absolutely loathed it, but if it got the kids to listen to the Beatles for another decade, God bless. I have no such connection to Spider Man, so good-bye. I guess there were enough 16-year-olds in 2007 willing to drop ten dollars on a second viewing of a childish story with a cartoonish sense of history, but not enough families willing to drop $400 since 2011. It’s a good day for writers when a titanic production that put someone other than a writer in charge of the story finally sinks.