Wednesday, July 24, 2013

My Strange Ride With Paul Westerberg

I don't think of myself as particularly OCD, despite a few quirks that I can identify.  But when I pulled out of my driveway in Chattanooga to start a 643 mile drive to Venice, Florida, something unusual happened.  It wasn't so unusual at the start.  All I did was to flip through my Ipod to find some music to start the trip and I settled on a Paul Westerberg CD.  His music had clicked with me before while driving, so I thought, why not?

Flash forward to almost 9 hours later, as I was turning off of I-75 onto Jacaranda Boulevard (Chattanooga to Venice is a single interstate trip; all you do is aim your car and drive), and I waited for a Replacements song to finish up before I clicked off the Ipod and focused on getting to my destination.

As you can infer, yes, indeed, I listened to Paul Westerberg sing his songs for 9 hours and for close to 650 miles.  I never deviated to another artist.  I never wanted to.  It was almost like I was in a trance and the only thing that could keep me going was--------more Westerberg.

I worked through (in this order)  Mono, Come Feel Me Tremble, the Open Season soundtrack, 49:00. "5:05", a bootleg version of "Nevermind" live, "Waiting For Somebody" from the Singles soundtrack, "Dyslexic Heart" and "All That I Had" from The Resterberg, Suicane Gratifaction, a bootleg live show from Fantasy Studios in 1996, Stereo (Grandpaboy), and 14 Songs, before moving all the way back to the 50+ Replacements song I have cherry-picked from various CDs.

For most of the trip, I eagerly scanned my Ipod to see what Westerberg I wanted to hear next.  His songs had established a groove, and I found that I wanted to stay in that groove.  Eventually, of course, I became fully committed to my course of action and told myself that I was going to see it through, but this wasn't a hard decision or a sacrifice.

During the entire trip, I skipped through only 4 songs that didn't hold my attention.

But I don't want this to be about Paul Westerberg or me, necessarily.  I want it to be about listening and music.  What was it about this music that made it the perfect accompaniment for that drive on that day?  I can name any number of artists whom I love, whose music has been seminal to my life, perhaps even (though I'm not sure) who are more accomplished than Westerberg, but whose catalog I probably couldn't hang with for two straight hours, let alone nine.

For those of you who tend towards jazz, or even classical, I would guess you face a similar problem--nine straight hours of Beethoven or Coltrane would likely break even the most dedicated listener.  For those of you who only dip into the most popular music, I'm certain a 630 minute dose of Kanye West (if he has that much) or Celine Dion or Rod Stewart would ultimately leave you babbling by the side of the road before you got through Atlanta.

So what is it about Westerberg?  "My traveling companion has over 170 songs/ He's an eloquent rocker of the first order?"

Not that you are ever going to subject yourself to this test, but here's why I think Westerberg is so durable:

1.  His songs are built on familiar patterns, but with enough variations to differentiate them from other songwriters using the same patterns and from his own other songs.
2.  He is skilled as both a lyricist and a musician, so that if the music doesn't get you, then the lyrics will, and vice-versa.  An early song like "Unsatisfied" doesn't have much to say beyond the fact that the singer is unsatisfied, but the melody and the vocal performance of this sentiment makes it one of the most affecting songs in his canon.  A late song like "Lookin' Up In Heaven," weighted with the knowledge of his father's death, has me hanging on each line of the lyrics.  The riffs and shifts all the way from "I Will Dare" to "The Devil Raised A Good Boy" (buried in 49:00) remind me that he is a superb popular songwriter.  Even his "deep cuts" sound like hits.
3.  His catalog is large enough that only the rare listener would be intimately connected with every song.  A full listen includes a mix of hits, personal favorites, and discoveries that hadn't stood out before.

There's something aesthetic at work here; there's something that readers of This Is Your Brain On Music would understand.  Unfortunately, I couldn't get through that book, so I will have to offer a lesser explanation and assessment:  the right music at the right time sure can make the miles go by pleasurably (and faster!)

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