The novelist Stanley Elkin was trying to explain the function of humor in his work to an interviewer. He compared it to a story he’d once heard of a mob guy heading into trial, holding his fedora over his face as he hurried up courthouse steps. A young reporter called out, “Why do all you guys hold your hat over your face like that?” The mob guy let the hat slip for just a moment as he answered, “Because we like the way they smell.”

That’s a wisecrack–but it’s not a good American wisecrack, not the type of wisecrack familiar from our national treasure tricksters like Philip Marlowe and Groucho and Bugs Bunny. The humor of those guys (and that rabbit) comes from superiority, from being smarter than everyone around them, smarter especially than brunt of their jokes who most of the time don’t even realize they’re being made fun of. The hat joke is someone aspiring to that tradition, but aware they’ll never achieve it. It’s a joke told out of powerlessness, not superiority, told because there are no other options, because telling a joke is the only way you can act like you’re equal to a situation that’s way beyond you.

That’s also what I hear in this song, and in many Replacements songs. Here’s a song about loneliness, fear, dead ends, no future, sung by Paul Westerberg in what another critic called his “open wound of a voice.” But even at its saddest there’s the wordplay of “if being afraid is a crime/we hang side by side,” there’s the image of life as a desolate, unending party we all have no choice but to attend. There’s the self-awareness of “if being strong is what you want/then I need help here with this feather,” the striving toward a cavalier dismissal of dire circumstances. Which fails, but fuck you anyway.

That’s the sound of Westerberg’s best songs: nervous laughter, desperate cool, blithe careening seconds before the crash you know is coming. No situation so dire and no expression so emotional you can’t take a minute to make a joke about it, or about yourself for taking it seriously. Maybe you do this so the other guys in the band won’t make fun of you. Or maybe because this stuff matters to you so much it scares you. So no, no superiority, but plenty of bravado. Laughing into the abyss, daring it to laugh back. The abyss must know some pretty good jokes.

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