Celebrity Playlist: Michael J. Nelson

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Monday, July 14, 2014
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Celebrity Playlist: Michael J. Nelson

Once upon a time, Michael J. Nelson was known as “the guy who replaced Joel Hodgson on Mystery Science Theater 3000,” but now…well, actually, he’s still that guy, but it’s been a long time since MST3K fans have sneered when speaking his name aloud, thankfully. Unfortunately, it’s also been a long time since MST3K, but Nelson continues to mock movies on a regular basis – along with his longtime cohorts Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett, the former voices of Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot, respectively – as part of Rifftrax, which recently took on Sharknado in a live nationwide theatrical event. (If you missed it, there’ll be an encore screening on July 15.)

When we asked Nelson to kick off our new Celebrity Playlist feature, not only did he graciously agree, but even though we gave him an easy out and told him that he could pick as few as five songs – which we would’ve called a Celebrity Hi-Five, naturally – he actually pulled together 21 songs. Granted, eight of the 21 were Replacements songs, but who in their right mind is going to complain about eight Replacements songs? No one here, that’s for sure.

1. Gordon Lightfoot, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” (Summertime Dream)

Mike Nelson: It’s a Minnesota thing that looms large in people’s lives, but when I had a young family, we made a family van trip to Duluth, and…I think I must’ve put that on a CD. My kids kind of picked it up, and my one son really loved it, so it ended up being a car favorite of everyone, and now he and his buddies at college have all learned it, and they play it on guitar and sing it. So it just has a nostalgic appeal to me, but it’s a funky story, too. It’s a cool song.

Rhino: Are you a Gordon Lightfoot fan as a rule?

MN: No. No, I am not. [Laughs.]

2. Prince and the Revolution, “Let’s Go Crazy” (Purple Rain)

MN: That’s a nostalgic college favorite. I kind of went with a Minnesota theme here. I was at…well, it’s not exactly ground zero, but it was pretty close to ground zero of Prince busting out, being close to 7th Avenue, where he started out, and seeing him a lot in town. So it was just kind of a college favorite. Here’s a guy who’s massively popular, but, c’mon, you’ve got to admit: this is a pretty good song to crank on a summer day. So if I had to pick a Prince song, that’d be it.

Rhino: What was it like being around when he was just starting out? Was there a buzz about him immediately?

MN: Yeah, there really was. It was, like, “You’re gonna be hearing a lot from this guy.” There was kind of almost an inevitability to that. And he carried around the legend of Prince with himself from the very beginning. [Laughs.] Like, he’d show up with entourages just to go to Arby’s or something. It was, like, “Who is that guy?” So he expected that to be the case, and it made it somewhat inevitable.

3. Van Morrison, “Sweet Thing” (Astral Weeks)
4. Van Morrison, “Astral Weeks” (Astral Weeks)

MN: I binged on Astral Weeks while writing one of my books, and then in the middle of writing that book, I went to Ireland and stayed there for a month or so, so it just sort of became… I felt like, even after that short stay in Ireland, I got Van Morrison a little more. I’m a huge fan. I love his whole…well, I love everything about that man. [Laughs.] But Astral Weeks is kind of the one. Also, my whole family loves it, so I’m allowed to play that, rather than some of his weirder stuff, which my family looks at me askance when I play. Putting on the pork pie hat and doing the fake blues stuff…well, I don’t want to call it “fake blues.” I won’t go that far. But I like his Celtic stuff and his soul-rock stuff. Not so much the pure blues, which he seems to think he’s really good at. Those are the least interesting things to me.

5. The Cure, “Pictures of You” (Disintegration)

MN: It’s just a great pop song that my whole family likes. I like a handful of their stuff. But that one… I saw it and thought, “Oh, that’s a good one.”

Rhino: What were you listening to in college?

MN: Well, this is where I have to do some explaining. I’m much more of a classical fan, so there’s very few sort of poppy or rock songs that have penetrated my sphere of knowledge. [Laughs.] So they tend to be a little bit more mainstream, because I just tend to like power pop and…well, you can see from my list. [Laughs.] But classical music is where I tend to put most of my listening time. Everything else is just sort of what I play in the car.

6. Talking Heads, “Crosseyed and Painless” (Remain in Light)

MN: That was just my jogging music for a while, so I just kind of listened to that album over and over again. I don’t know what the heck they’re talking about at any given time, but somehow those phrases and that music just has that sort of mesmerizing effect that I love.

7. The Replacements, “Color Me Impressed” (Hootenanny)
8. The Replacements, “Unsatisfied” (Let It Be)
9. The Replacements, “Answering Machine” (Let It Be)
10. The Replacements, “Left of the Dial” (Tim)
11. The Replacements, “Bastards of Young” (Tim)
12. The Replacements, “Here Comes a Regular” (Tim)
13. The Replacements, “Skyway” (Pleased to Meet Me)
14. The Replacements, “Can’t Hardly Wait” (Pleased to Meet Me)

Rhino: And so we come to the Replacements portion of our conversation…

MN: Yeah, it’s like when you go through a buffet line, and you take a little bit of the salad, and then the guy’s carving the roast beef, and you just stand by him for five minutes and say, “Keep it coming!” That’s kind of what I did with the Replacements there. [Laughs.]

Rhino: You started off with “Color Me Impressed.” Was Hootenanny your first Replacements album?

MN: I think I pretty much had everything from them. It was also required listening for Minnesota. You just had to be into the Replacements. And I’m kind of a contrarian, so people would tell me, “Oh, there’s this new band, and they’re the greatest thing ever in the history of the world,” and I kind of ignored it for a while, but then…well, it’s tough to admit that you’re wrong. [Laughs.] So I started listening to them from pretty early on, and it’s been funny, because my kids picked up on it, and they absolutely love them now. They know more about the Replacements than I ever did.

Oh, and (Paul) Westerberg was a neighbor for a while, so we used to run into him on the street, and his kid went to our kids’ school, and stuff. So it was always kind of a weird and cool thing to see the rock ‘n’ roll ghost sliding around through the hallways of our kids’ school. [Laughs.]

Rhino: After Hootenanny, you’ve got two tracks from Let It Be: “Unsatisfied” and “Answering Machine.”

MN: Yeah, those are classics, and I think a lot of people would agree with that. I had a friend when I was younger who talked me into “Answering Machine.” You know, the Replacements some stuff that’s skippable, and I kind of always thought that song was, but he said, “No, no, no, this is the best song on the album!” So out of duty to him, I listened, and I was, like, “Yeah, that’s not bad.” [Laughs.]

Rhino: Do you have a favorite Replacements album?

MN: Well, I may have shorted it with the tracks I picked, I can’t recall, but Tim was a big one. And according to the real aficionados of the Replacements, that makes me a philistine. I’m supposed to not like anything from Tim on. “Only their pure, anarchical early stuff, that’s the only Replacements!” But I take issue with that. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with getting better, getting more accomplished. And also, yes, having a few horns in a song is always a good thing. [Laughs.]

Rhino: Having said that, you don’t have anything from Don’t Tell a Soul or All Shook Down.

MN: That was probably only an omission because of time. I got caught up in the process of putting this together, and I realized I was running out of time because I was perusing all the albums! [Laughs.]

15. The Rutles, “Cheese and Onions” (The Rutles)

MN: Again, that’s a college thing. I was in a band in college that was half-jokey and half-real, so we covered a few Rutles songs. And that one in particular, I think, tweaks the Beatles in kind of a weird and funny way, so I’ve always liked it.

Rhino: Did you listen at all to Neil Innes’ earlier group, The Bonzo Dog Band?

MN: You know, I didn’t as much. Trace Beaulieu, who I was at Mystery Science with, was a big fan of them, but he kept promising me that he’d get me their stuff, but he never did. So I missed them.

16. Marshall Crenshaw, “Blues is King” (Downtown)
17. Marshall Crenshaw, “There She Goes Again” (Marshall Crenshaw)
18. Marshall Crenshaw, “Someday, Someway” (Marshall Crenshaw)
19. Marshall Crenshaw, “2541” (Miracle of Science)

MN: There’s a guy that I knew who argued vociferously for the perfect three-minute pop song, hence some songs we’ll get to, and a phrase that’s always stuck with me is that “the guys who can write three-minute pop hooks, that’s what separates the men from the boys.” There’s a lot of crappy pop, but there’s not a lot that sticks with you, sounds great, and you feel like it’s too short when it’s over and you go, “Oh, I wish that was a little longer.” So that’s sort of the sweet spot for me, hence the Marshall Crenshaw.

Rhino: The last Crenshaw track you picked is a Grant Hart cover. Were you a Husker Du fan?

MN: I wasn’t as much of one. I tried. [Laughs.] It’s not that I don’t like them. I just don’t know much about them compared to, say, the Replacements. But I’ll tell you a short anecdote about Grant Hart, who I met once. A high school kid called me who was going to do a concert for charity, and he said, “Would you emcee it?” And he said some of the other names who’ll be there, and one of them was Grant Hart, and I’m, like, “Oh, yeah, this guy’s landing the big fish, so I’ll do it.” Well, it turned out that he had bungled everything, and no one showed up. Like, no one. So Grant Hart and I, we did our things to the three people who were there – the organizers, basically! – but then Grant insisted that we helped clean up, so he and I were doing, like, garbage detail for two hours at this thing! But I was oddly touched by how insistent he was. “We can’t just let this poor kid empty the garbage! We’ve got to help!” I just thought that was pretty cool that this rock ‘n’ roll guy was concerned about the garbage pickup.

20. Lemonheads, “It’s a Shame About Ray” (It’s a Shame About Ray)

MN: I just like those guys, and this has always seemed like just a great rainy day pop song. I really thought this album was going to be monstrous, but it ultimately only left kind of a small trail, which I found odd. I thought it was going to make a bigger impact.

21. The Pretenders, “Don’t Get Me Wrong” (Get Close)

MN: Yeah, again, there could’ve been a number of songs by them. They write such perfect pop, great hooks, music that makes you happy. You don’t care if it’s played on the radio eight million times, you’re still happy to hear it.