Sunday, November 15, 2009

Love It To Death

I was delighted to find this recently, and not because it's especially good. It's a Replacements cover of an Alice Cooper tune, and it literalized a realization that I'd been stumbling towards for the past couple months--that the great Alice Cooper song "I'm Eighteen" provided a blueprint for The Replacements.

I'm no Cooper expert--the early 70's work seems to get love--but I always associated the guy with cheesiness. Cheesy rock songs, cheesy makeup, cheesy movie cameos, cheesy everything. It seemed like an act designed to exploit adolescent boys.

But "Eighteen" is another matter. If you haven't heard it recently, take another listen (this six-minute version is the one you want to hear, and the one I'll discuss). It's a beast of a song. Cooper and guitarists Glen Buxton and Michael Bruce aim for the jugular and annihilate it. The central riff is unreasonably epic, and the wild soloing sounds like an electrical storm. Weather metaphors are all I can come up with to describe the mood--it sounds like clouds scraping the sky, lightning with nowhere to strike.

And Cooper nails the vocals. He doesn't start until almost a minute in, when he begins raging wordlessly. The first line is perfect: "I got to get out of this place." His solution, "running in outer space," isn't great, but then there's no escaping teenage angst when you're in the thick of it. The narrator's embrace of his adolescence--he doesn't just like being eighteen, he loves it--is the most ambiguous lyric, but Cooper's delivery strongly suggests that this embrace is a misanthropic one. Indeed, in spite of its attendant problems, the hormones that dominate an eighteen year-old boy do make him feel very much alive. And "I'm Eighteen" crackles with uncommon vitality, all these years later.

Fans of Cooper's contemporaries Big Star would do well to give "I'm Eighteen" a listen. The song turns Chilton and Bell's youthful melancholy inside out, lashing out with no clear target. Chilton only ever sounded like a threat to himself, but Cooper sounds like a menace to society.

Both artists were working against the grain, however, by retaining as their subject matter the lives of American teenagers. By the early 1970's most of rock and roll had left behind the puppy love and heartbreak of doo-wop and early 60's pop in favor of more "mature" fare. Think about The Beatles: everything about the band had transformed radically between Please Please Me and Abbey Road, and the Fab Four were a bellwether throughout their career.* The years after their break-up saw a proliferation of singer-songwriters and politically conscious R&B stars, now somewhat freer to release what they wanted. In any case, a lot of the albums we valorize from that era sound like they were made for adults.

Alice Cooper and Big Star weren't making music for adults. Still, their songwriting benefited from the growing up of rock. Both bands' visions of adolescence were grim--a wounded rage, in Cooper's case, a deep melancholy, in Big Star's--in a way that songs rarely had been.

Both of these qualities would later manifest themselves in Paul Westerberg's songwriting (with a big assist, one presumes, from Peter Jesperson). The Cooper connection is undeniable. The wildcat guitar on "I'm Eighteen" actually sounds like Bob Stinson, and may well have influenced him. The lyrics on "Eighteen" too sound like a direct predecessor to The Replacements. One of the reasons I've dismissed Cooper is that he frequently sounds like he's playacting. Not so here: he plays his part in "Eighteen" with such conviction and reckless abandon that I'm convinced The Birthday Party were listening. But that's off-topic. I hear something of the confrontational but hurt "Unsatsified" in "Eighteen." As a lyricist, Westerberg followed Chilton much more vocally, but it's Cooper who animates his earlier, angrier work.

Paul Westerberg would also, of course, pen some startlingly original and true rock and roll, but everything has roots. The real-time molotov cocktail of "I'm Eighteen" is one root. It's also a fantastic song in its own right.

*The mere existence of James Brown disproves this assertion, but it's true enough to function as an example here


  1. I get what you're saying--there is sort of a line to be drawn between Big Star and Alice Cooper, with their sophomoric-sounding twin-guitar freak-outs. Nevertheless, I think you're projecting this "wounded rage" on to a song where there probably isn't one: a far more convincing case can be made for Cooper as the lyrical springboard for the oncoming mook-rock and hair metal of the 80s (despite Zappa's endorsement).

    The difference, as always, is in the style and presentation. Cooper writes a song about turning 18, but it's basically used as an excuse to act like a menace to society--not because he's working out his own problems, but simply because he enjoys causing wanton terror and destruction. Plus the fact that he LOVES being 18 flies in the face of Westerberg heroes who are perennially "unsatisfied": drinking age isn't the answer to his problems, clearly. I agree that Nick Cave was probably a fan. A lot of the early punks were, I think.

  2. I don't exactly agree, but I guess I was trying to say that this song is a novelty for Alice Cooper, in that it does evoke something genuine. But then "genuineness" might be a worthless distinction, so who knows?

    The post is sorta half-baked though--something I meant to apologize for. I wanted to finish it before I went to bed last night and sort of raced to do so, ignoring clarity and good transitions. A bad idea? Yup, but there are so many posts languishing in Rockaliser purgatory that I wanted to make sure at least one of them made it on here.

  3. I have a few fact, you may have inspired me to buckle down on a Zappa-related post I'd been mulling over for a while.

  4. Have you seen the Freaks and Geeks where Mr. Rosso plays the song for his troubled pubescent students? "I'm a boy (or girl) and I'm a man (or woman)"