Song 299: Tom Waits, “Time” (1985)

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I don’t listen to Tom Waits very often, and I’m not sure why that is. I certainly enjoy his songs, whether they’re heartbreaking ballads or carnival barker stomps. No matter which type it is, he still sounds like Tom Waits, expert songwriter and man from a different era.

How lovely is this song? I have no idea what “Time” is about, and I’m not sure I can guess. Either it’s a string of images without a narrative or I’m just missing what that narrative might be. Either way, I absolutely love it; if the song is meant to be only imagistic, I’m totally on board. The phrases Waits uses in “Time” are quintessential Waits: “it’s raining hammers, it’s raining nails”; “things are pretty lousy for a calendar girl”; “the shadow boys are breaking all the laws.” Those lyrical choices are one reason I love Tom Waits.

The other main reason is his knack for writing melodies that are flat-out gorgeous. This song’s melody is so simple that it sounds like a traditional hymn, and its simplicity is an effective counterpoint to the lyrics’ hard edges. When Tori Amos covered “Time” in 2001, she wisely left it alone; her vocals-and-piano approach lets the song speak for itself.

My favorite part of “Time” is that beauty of a chorus, which can be interpreted a couple different ways. “It’s time that you love” can mean either “you love time” or “you’ve gone without loving for this long, but it’s time that you love.” That he can achieve such cleverness without using many words is pretty impressive, especially in a song filled with lines like “Napoleon is weeping” and “these mama’s boys just don’t know when to quit.” The verses are dime store novels, the chorus is the plain truth.


Song 167: Camper Van Beethoven, “Take the Skinheads Bowling” (1985)

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I’ll admit it: I chose this song today because I wanted to know why the hell it exists. It’s a great song, but what? “Take the skinheads bowling”? Was Camper Van Beethoven high when they wrote this? Or were they just trying to amuse themselves?

According to frontman David Lowery’s blog, it’s basically the latter. The song was an exercise in making as little sense as possible: “The lyrics were purposely structured so that it would be devoid of meaning. Each subsequent line would undermine any sort of meaning established by the last line. It was the early 80’s and all our peers were writing songs that were full of meaning. It was our way of rebelling.” Oh man, what a relief. I know that interpreting lyrics isn’t my forte, but I really thought I was losing my mind.

Knowing that this song is simply a string of non sequiturs makes it even funnier. Lines like “Everybody’s coming home for lunch these days” and “I had a dream I wanted to sleep next to plastic” sound like the things people say when they don’t know what else to say, so why not put them in a song whose sole purpose is to say nothing? And the fact that the band put so much effort into producing and arranging “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” with its violins and vocal harmonies, is also very funny.

Some people say that bowling alleys got big lanes.


Song 145: Huey Lewis and the News, “The Power of Love” (1985)

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As anyone who knows me can tell you, when I was a kid, I was obsessed with Back to the Future. I watched it a million times, especially when I was sick or especially bored. I loved it the way some kids were super into Star Wars, which I always found a little cold and overly complicated. Like Star Wars, Back to the Future has action, adventure and sci-fi, but it’s also very funny, and very silly, and very clever. (Sorry, George Lucas, you’ve never been any of those things, except for the genuinely funny American Graffiti. And I’ll give you  “Laugh it up, Fuzzball.”)

I also loved the soundtrack to Back to the Future, which, like many ’80s soundtracks, contained songs that had nothing to do with, and were barely in, the movie. There were songs from Eric Clapton and Lindsey Buckingham that were only played on radios in a given scene. However, the soundtrack also features what we can consider the movie’s theme song, “The Power of Love” by Huey Lewis and the News.

Why this song plays such a pivotal role in Back to the Future is beyond me. It’s a good song, and the team behind the movie wanted a popular rock star for obvious reasons (and Lewis and his band were still riding high off their record Sports), but “The Power of Love”? Unless the original title was “The Power of Love (Is Strong When You’re Trying To Seduce Your Future Son)”, I don’t get it. Nevertheless, it’s a really fun song, and everything about it is a little ridiculous. That synth, that vocal style, the line “don’t need no credit card to ride this train” (what does that mean?!), the fact that it provides a song to which Marty McFly skateboarded behind a jeep (driven by a guy wearing a Mountain Dew hat!). Oh, the ’80s. You were kind of terrible, and we didn’t notice until it was too late.

All of the above makes it sound like I don’t like “The Power of Love,” but I kid because I love. The synth is really glorious, and the bridge provides a sweet respite from the surrounding bombast. My friend Claire, well aware of my McFly obsession, asked me to play this at her wedding, as a surprise for her groom Tom. After my performance, someone asked if I wrote it. I wanted desperately to say yes.


Song 122: The Replacements, “Here Comes a Regular” (1985)

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What makes a great bar? The beer list? The clientele? The jukebox?

I think it’s a little of each, and my favorite bar in the world, the C.C. Club, excels in all of those categories. It’s an ages-old watering hole in Minneapolis, small and unassuming on the outside, cavernous and womb-like on the inside. The booths are plush, but not too soft; the lighting is dim, but not too dark. The walls, grayed by decades of cigarette and pot smoke, are covered in a rug-like material, the kind you might see in a suburban basement. The whole place, in fact, is like a basement–not in the sense that you feel cut off from the world (though you do), but because you feel like, at any moment, a grown-up will come in and tell you to stop yelling so much.

When we moved to Minneapolis nine years ago, we had the pleasure of getting to know all the amazing things about the city. Some of them–Prince, lakes, The Mary Tyler Moore Show–we knew already, but there was a lot yet to know. Among the unknowns was the Replacements, a band that I had heard of but never heard. I instantly fell in love with them, for the same reasons so many people do: primarily, they consistently sounded like they were on the verge of falling apart, but they seldom did.

When the Replacements drank (and they, um, often did), it was typically at the C.C. Club. And maybe this is just how it seems in retrospect, but it’s a very Replacements-esque bar. It’s definitely a place for casual and professional drinkers, but the professionals seem especially at home there. In a recent oral history of the C.C. Club, Replacement Tommy Stinson said of the bar, “It’s just a dingy old working-man’s bar, they’re littered all over the country, like where the blue-collar guy goes to unwind and talk about his woes. But all of us, we kind of came from that. We all come from that sort of life, a bunch of crap working stiffs trying to get by.”

That’s where “Here Comes a Regular” comes in. It’s a paean to bars full of, well, alcoholics (says one person in the article, “to some degree it was like, ‘Jesus, we’re all at a certain point when we needed to cut back on our drinking'”), but also about places full of people just like you, whatever you’re like. It also perfectly captures Minnesota, whose weather, hot or cold, seems to encourage people to take shelter. “Summer’s passed, it’s too late to cut the grass,” sings Paul Westerberg, “there ain’t much to rake anyway in the fall.” It’s a song, and a place, full of people stuck in limbo.

Westerberg is famously cagey about his songs, but the consensus is that “Here Comes a Regular” is about the C.C. Club. “I mean, it sounds like it was written in that place,” says journalist G.R. Anderson in the oral history. “Who knows what a song is about, but it sure sounds like the C.C. Club to me, the C.C. Club that I know. And the place always got awfully quiet when you played it on the jukebox.”