Album: Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out The Trash
. . .
Nah nah nah nah nah nah
Sticking out like a sore thumb in the midst of all the short, sharp, speedy songs, “Johnny’s Gonna Die” was a definite harbinger of things to come, both musically and lyrically.
Musically, “Johnny’s Gonna Die” was the first sign that The Replacements were more that just a band that was gonna pummel you to death, as its slower, bass-heavy groove — Tommy Stinson and Chris Mars in utter lockstep, especially Mars’s snare drum — was a template for slower ones for the rest of their Twin/Tone years, from which sprang quite a few songs I’ll be writing about in the next couple of weeks. For example, “Go” and “Willpower” repurpose the beat, and the mildly phased guitar comes into full fruition on “Within Your Reach.”
Johnny always takes more than he needs
Knows a couple chords, knows a couple leads
And lyrically? It showed that Paul Westerberg was capable of writing about deeper subjects than joyriding, hanging out and inappropriate crushes, as “Johnny’s Gonna Die” is Paul’s response to meeting one of his idols, Johnny Thunders, whose guitar powered the New York Dolls and his own Heartbreakers, both of which were obvious influences on the ‘mats.
Johnny always needs more than he takes
Forgets a couple of chords, forgets a couple of breaks
And everybody tells me that Johnny is hot
Johnny needs something, what he ain’t got
But, of course, if you’re reading this, you know that, and you probably also know that the ‘mats lobbied to get on the gig with Thunders, but lost out to Hüsker Dü, which — according to Trouble Boys, Bob Mehr’s amazing Replacements biography, which if you haven’t read, stop right now and read . . . I’ll wait — resulted in Bob Mould running around trying to score drugs to get Thunders straight. Well, not straight, I guess, but equilibrized. But it didn’t quite work.
And Johnny’s gonna die
Johnny’s gonna die
Johnny’s gonna die
And so, Paul was both fully chuffed to meet Thunders and disappointed that Thunders was too dopesick to play coherently. Out of it came “Johnny’s Gonna Die,” which on paper was a kill-yr-idols screed, but filtered through Paul’s mostly sympathetic vocal — outside of the “nah nah nah nah nah nah,” of course — it was somehow also incredibly loving. And, as the ‘mats would start stumbling through their own drug-and-alcohol disaster shows, ironically prescient.
Everybody stares and everybody hoots
Johnny always needs more than he shoots
Also contradictory, the lead guitar of Bob Stinson. With more room that he was normally accustomed to, Stinson alternated between laying out or echoing the melody, occasionally tossing in an unexpected flurry of notes, and during the “John-eeee, Jhoon-eeeee” part, practically making his guitar weep for a second.
Standing by a beach and there ain’t no lake
He’s got friends without no guts, friends what never ache
In New York City, I guess it’s cool when it’s dark
There’s one sure way, Johnny, you can leave your mark
That’s near the end, of course, after both Bob and Paul have taken long solos, Bob’s struggling to stay afloat (or maybe equilibrized), and Paul’s coming on thick and angry, to the point where at first Bob forgets to play rhythm guitar underneath it.
In the end “Johnny’s Gonna Die” doesn’t so much burn out as fade away, Paul waving “bye-bye” to one of his heroes and maybe even his innocence. And of course, Johnny Thunders did die, but not until 1991, which is closer to “we’re all gonna die” than “Paul called it!” territory, especially given how Thunders was living.
“Johnny’s Gonna Die”
“Johnny’s Gonna Die” live in Minneapolis, 1981
Did you miss a Certain Song? Follow me on Twitter: @barefootjim
The Certain Songs Database
A filterable, searchable & sortable somewhat up to date database with links to every “Certain Song” post I’ve ever written.
Certain Songs Spotify playlist
(It’s recommended that you listen to this on Spotify as their embed only has 200 songs.)
Support “Certain Songs” with a donation on Patreon
Go to my Patreon page