Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Loud Fast Words: Soul Asylum Collected Lyrics'

Dave Pirner's 'Loud Fast Words: Soul Asylum Collected Lyrics.'
Dave Pirner's 'Loud Fast Words: Soul Asylum Collected Lyrics.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Songwriters are asked about their songs, a lot. If you listen to what they say in response, artists from Paul Simon to Kate Bush to Bob Dylan tend to emphasize a couple of common themes. First of all, don't treat every song like a puzzle to figure out. That's not how songwriting works. Secondly, songs aren't poems. They're meant to be sung, not read.

"If this book is considered close to poetry," writes Dave Pirner in the introduction to Loud Fast Words (buy now), "I would be okay with that." He continues:

I suppose the idea for a song could be considered a seed. Some grow to be beautiful plants; others don't germinate at all. They are dormant seeds. No one wants to look at my collection of dormant seeds. They want to see the flower. The big, fat, f---ing sunflower. But every seed needs a fair chance. What is it that allows some seeds to turn into flowers? Is it Darwinism? Is it chance? Is it ego? I have no idea. Do I think that my opinion is important? Do I give a s--t what anyone thinks? I'm like a dog; I'm peeing on every tree I can find. is elusive. It's also important, and it's apt that the Minnesota Historical Society has published the collected lyrics of Pirner's group Soul Asylum. They're one of the most important bands in Minnesota music history, a crucial link between the '80s scene that produced the Replacements and the '90s scene that brought alternative rock into the mainstream.

Pirner came up on that scene, then suddenly broke out in the post-Nevermind era when Grave Dancers Union (1992) went triple platinum, producing the top five hit "Runaway Train." By the time that song was released as a single (surprisingly not the first, but the fourth) from that album, Soul Asylum had been a band for a dozen years. "It's like you've been screaming at a wall your entire life," writes Pirner, "and suddenly the wall decides to listen."

Screaming is right. The book's title comes from the original name of the band: Loud Fast Rules. "Some of the lyrics in this book are confrontationally juvenile to me," writes Pirner. He might be thinking about, for example, the opening lyrics to "Long Day," the first song on Soul Asylum's debut album Say What You Will (1984).

Mine is a lonely one, I forgot to have fun, standing under the streetlight
Ever so nervously, people looking down on me, telling me it's all right

If it were up to me, I'd tear down this whole city, what's all this s--t here for?
I give you my heart, but you still say I make you feel like a whore

All this trouble just to die
All this trouble's only temporary
It's temporary

You're not going to find a lot of 20-second handwashing choruses in Loud Fast Words. Pirner was a punk, so an offhanded sense of disenchantment was the order of the day; he was also, he writes, depressed. His early songs are confrontational, but they also show more empathy for others than for himself. "No Man's Land" (While You Were Out, 1986) addresses the theft of Native land; "P-9" (Clam Dip and Other Delights, 1989) was inspired by the 1985 Hormel strike; "Beggars and Choosers" (Hang Time, 1988) takes on inequality.

The lyrics appear in chronological order by release, with some odds and ends at the book's conclusion. Pirner writes brief introductions to each album and each song; while illuminating, they are brief. By no means is this a memoir, but it does track the history of Soul Asylum from its Minneapolis beginnings through a long journey that includes a lot of uprootedness. Songs like "Homesick" (Grave Dancers Union) and "The Streets" (Delayed Reaction, 2012) touch on Pirner's changing feelings about rootedness and rootlessness.

By the mid '90s, Pirner was gravitating towards New Orleans; in fact, as Pirner notes, there's a hint of that in the verse from "Without a Trace" that gave the band's biggest album its title.

I tried to dance at a funeral
New Orleans style
I joined the Grave Dancers Union
I had to file

The next two albums after that, the book illustrates, were to a significant extent a response to the band's sudden fame. "Misery," the first single from Grave Dancers Union follow-up Let Your Dim Light Shine (1995), is actually about the sudden commercial clout of angst-ridden alt rockers: "frustrated incorporated," goes the chorus.

The next major shock to the band's system came when bassist Karl Mueller died in 2005. (That's him on the cover of Clam Dip, a Herb Alpert parody inspired by the fact that the band was about to sign with A&M. A press release reprinted in the book refers to a "Karl Mueller 'stand-up'" that would be quite a souvenir to find on eBay.) Pirner explains that The Silver Lining (2006), with the Replacements' Tommy Stinson playing bass on the tracks Mueller couldn't cut, was influenced both by Mueller's illness and by Hurricane Katrina. "Being cast out of your own city is a uniquely tragic experience," writes Pirner, who was living there at the time, "more so for people who were born there or had lived there most of their lives."

That was also the first Soul Asylum album to feature their current drummer Michael Bland, also a member of Prince's New Power Generation. "Suddenly," writes Pirner, "I felt like I could write anything and it would work because of his ability to channel a song." The band's recent catalog is full of New Orleans references ("Bus Named Desire": "I'm payin' my dues underneath your tires"), and Pirner notes that the frequent Mississippi River references aren't accidental for a songwriter who's lived on both ends of the great waterway.

"Runaway Train" gets no more or less attention than any other song. There on the page, the lyrics are unassuming. Without the music's majestic beauty, they almost read like doggerel.

So tired that I couldn't even sleep
So many secrets I couldn't keep
Promised myself I wouldn't weep
One more promise I couldn't keep

"I had a melody with some words in my head," writes Pirner. "I believe it was called 'Two Souls.' It wouldn't go away. A couple years later I still had it stuck in my head. I sat down and wrote the words, and I didn't think much of it after that. But the song 'Runaway Train' is trying to explain a dark time."

Even if Loud Fast Rules doesn't change the way you listen to that particular track, it's apt to help you understand the life and work of one of our best-known, most widely appreciated singer-songwriters.

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Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Wednesday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

March 25: The 33⅓ B-Sides: New Essays by 33⅓ Authors on Beloved and Underrated Albums edited by Ann Stockton and D. Gilson (buy now)

April 1: Perfect Tunes by Emily Gould (buy now)

April 8: The Ox: The Authorized Biography of the Who's John Entwistle by Paul Reese (buy now)

April 15: My Name Is Prince by Randee St. Nicholas (buy now)

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