Friday, July 17, 2020

Certain Songs #1869: The Replacements – “Answering Machine” | Medialoper

Album: Let it Be
Year: 1984

. . .

How do you say “I’m lonely” to an answering machine?

“Answering Machine” just might be the greatest song Paul Westerberg has ever written.

And it’s my official All-Time Favorite Song. But, how do you say a song, any song, is your all-time favorite song?

What does that even mean? And given that I’ve been making that claim about this song for nearly 35 years, what does that say about me? And once again, is it even true? I mean what about “Ceremony” or “Eight Miles High” or “Sway” or “Train From Kansas City” or even more recent songs like “The Swish,” “Sun Glass,” “Me and Magdelena” or “Future Me Hates Me?”

Or any of the other thousands of songs I will have written about by the time this ridiculous project is over?

One thing I can tell you for sure: “Answering Machine” killed me immediately. Just fucking dead. From the opening notes.

Which is just Paul on solo electric guitar, playing a lilting, corkscrew riff and jumping right into his dilemma:

Tried to breathe some life into a letter
Losing hope, never be together
My courage is at it’s peak, you know what I mean?

How do you so “I’m OK” to an answering machine?
How do you say “good night” to an answering machine?

When I interviewed Paul for my college radio station in April of 1985, I asked him why he was the only person on “Answering Machine,” and he mumbled something about being the only person to show up in the studio that day.

Which, of course, is utter horseshit: it’s more likely that he knew that the “Answering Machine” in his head, this “Answering Machine” would have been impossible for his band to play. It would have never seen the light of day. (Though when they played it that night, full band from the very start, it kicked ass, so what do I know?)

In the review that was published in my college newspaper that day — busy day! — I called it an “electric folk love ballad for the ’80s.” But it wasn’t totally without precedent.

When he first started out, Billy Bragg would perform his songs with just him and an electric guitar. He called himself a “one-man Clash.” He often played Clash-like riffs that were often in search of a rhythm section, and subsequently left a lot of space. Why more bands didn’t do full-blown Billy Bragg covers back then has always escaped me. Anyways, there’s definitely some of that going on in “Answering Machine” except that what Paul Westerberg is playing on the guitar is light-years ahead of what Bragg was doing.

Westerberg’s guitar crawled all over the song, sometimes echoing the melody, sometimes harmonizing with it sometimes playing counterpoint, never even for a second letting the the singer or the song, er, off the hook.

Big town’s got its losers
Small town’s got its vices
A handful of friends:
One needs a match, one needs some ice
Call-waiting phone in another time zone

How do you say I miss you to an answering machine?
How do say good night to an answering machine?

This was the point where I was going to make the joke about explaining what an “answering machine” is to all of the young folks who might be reading this, but you know and I know that this is fucking forever and universal. Jesus christ, right now, where so many relationships are long distance by necessity, people are probably going through this kind of shit all the time.

How do you say “I’m OK” in a text message?
How do you say “goodnight” to someone’s voice mail?
How do you say “I miss you” to someone who isn’t on zoom or won’t answer their facetime?

What might need to be explained of course, is the sample of what I used to call “the phone lady” — the pre-recorded voice that the phone company had to be helpful when you were trying to call someone who wasn’t answering. Because if you didn’t hang up the phone, if you were just holding it in your hand doing nothing — because you didn’t know what to do — that was no good, and the phone company let you know what your options were: “If you’d like to make a call, please hang up and try again. If you need help, please hang up and dial your operator.”

To which Paul mumbled something I still don’t know what it is, and went into the last verse, the guitar getting almost normal for a second, as some percussion starts coming up.

Try and free a slave from ignorance
Try and teach a whore about romance

So, I’ve been praising Westerberg’s singing and will continue to do so, but the way is voice breaks on “whoorrrrre” is so sadly beautiful it’s beyond belief. And somehow he tops it with the final chorus.

How do you say I miss you to an answering machine?
How do you say good night to an answering machine?
How do you say I’m lonely to an answering machine?

If “Answering Machine” is the greatest song in the history of music, then “How do you you say ‘I’m lonely’ to an answering machine” is greatest moment in the greatest song in the history of music, an unmatchable combination of lyric, melody, vocal and guitar all coalescing into something bigger than itself.

And it’s at that moment that you realize that “Answering Machine” isn’t about some drunk loser trying to get ahold of some chick he wants to bang, but rather about our inability to communicate properly with anybody under any circumstances. It’s just impossible to do.

Which, of course, is too big to handle in the moment, so Paul scapegoats the technology that is designed to enhance communication for blocking it.

The message is very plain
Ohh, I hate your answering machine
I hate your answering machine
I hate your answering machine
I hate your answering machine

Sure, Paul, it’s the answering machine’s fault she’s not around to take your call.

What rules about the increasingly desperate screams of “I hate your answering machine” is the overdubbed backing “ma-chiiiinnnnnneee” echoing into the night increasingly buried by a hailstorm of percussion, and of course, the phone lady, who is now back to mock him.

If you’d like to make a call please hang up and try again
If you need help
If you need help
If you need help
If you need help
If you need help
If you’d like to make a call please hang up and try again
If you need help
If you need help
If you need help
If you need help
If you need help

And boy does he ever need help, as he’s reduced to randomly screaming area codes into the night as “Answering Machine” fades out, ending what is maybe the greatest album ever recorded.

Even now, all these years later, “Answering Machine” continues to totally and utterly stun me. I’ve never gotten sick of it, and who knows how many time I’ve played it, I’ve lost count. All I know is that it’s a song that I love beyond all rationality, beyond all measure, and beyond time and space. OK.

“Answering Machine”

“Answering Machine” Live in Orange County, 1989

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