Wednesday, April 18, 2012


(On this site you will notice we spend an awful lot of time talking about, among others,  The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, REM and the Replacements. Just ‘cause. Here’s one about the latter. Because we care.)

“Shocking how nothing shocks anymore…”

Paul Westerberg, The Replacements, “We’ll Inherit The Earth” (1988)

One band the two of us tend to spend an inordinate amount of time talking about, and have for 20 years now, is the Replacements. Personal favorites of both of us and, sadly, precious few others. At least among people we know.         
The Replacements. Those lovable, reckless Minneapolis ne’er-do-wells who broke up just around the time that the musical style they helped to create took off into the mainstream. The irony is not lost on the hardcore fans, or even on those with a passing appreciation of the band. 

To wit: Goo Goo Dolls, Pearl Jam, Dinosaur Jr., Limp Bizkit, the dreaded Bush, the brilliant and erstwhile Nirvana? They all got rich off the sound that the ‘Mats laid down for them. The Replacements? All they got was drunk. 

So will history, in effect, treat them more kindly than the public did during their stay here on Earth? Hmm. Perhaps we should examine. In fact, let’s do so. I’ve got nothing better to do. And neither do you—quit kidding yourselves. Geez. 

The short answer is easy: Of course it will. It has to. There was just too much depth, too much weary honesty, too much sad beauty to the work they left behind (8 albums from 1981-1991) for it not to. And even though the masses never caught on to their music, even as they devoured everything disciples such as Johnny Reznikck put out, the years have indeed been kind to The Replacements' legacy since they checked out 21 years ago. A well-thought out and executed compilation of their Sire Records years—All For Nothing, Nothing For All –began the process of righting the band with history, as have other compilations and recent re-releases of the group’s first four records on the small Twin/Tone label. All show what the band could do,  the chops and goods these boys brought to the table with them. 

Who were the Replacements, and why should we care? They began as singer/guitarist Paul Westerberg, guitarist Bob Stinson, bassist Tommy Stinson (who was 12 when the band formed in 1979) and drummer Chris Mars. Bob Stinson, a searing, edgy, strung-out lead man who died in 1995, was sacked in 1986 and gave way to the calmer, straighter Slim Dunlop, while Mars was replaced by Steve Foley in the band’s final year. They hailed from music hotbed Minneapolis, MN (which at the same time was producing Prince, Husker Du, the Rainmakers, and Soul Asylum). That’s who they were. Now, why does it matter?

The legacy of the Replacements centers around Westerberg, their founder; the frontman, the peerless songwriter, the fearless leader. Westerberg’s status in the modern music world has grown enormously in the years since the band ambled off into the sunset, and deservedly so. He was the premier songwriter of his generation, seizing on a style that was trademarked by a leather-tough exterior but a soft, vulnerable inside. It was part Leonard Cohen, part Flannery O’Connor, part Charlie Bukowski that made Westerberg what he was (and in many ways still is): The once-drunken hoodlum with the soul of the poet.

The talent of Westerberg’s writing began to shine on the earliest B-side they ever released, the lost and lovely “If Only You Were Lonely,” the flip-side to non-hit “I’m In Trouble” and the first chapter in a career’s worth of beautifully ragged, wry word-game poetics he would come to offer. The lines could break your heart—“There was liquor on my breath, you were on my mind…And I’ll be dreaming of that smile without a care in the world…”—even as you got as drunk listening to them as the band likely did recording them.

The first two offerings the ‘Mats gave the world were rich with goofy, drunken studio excess—the equivalent of giving four 16-year-olds loaded on malt liquor free run of an adult video store for a night—with chestnuts of sheer brilliance occasionally poking a weary head through. Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash and Stink were not pretty, but they sure as hell were memorable. And they sure were fun to listen to.

It was on the band’s third studio release, though—1983’s Hootenanny—where the lightning fast, “power trash” sound began to morph into something deeper. Balladry was introduced in the do-it-all-Paul form of “Within Your Reach,” another tale of loneliness and hopeful longing (“I could live without your touch, die within your reach”). Not to disparage a fun and talented band whom I do like, but can you imagine the Red Hot Chili Peppers ever writing such a delicate and pretty line? And when the band reverted to its loud-n-fast bread-n-butter, the results (like fan-favorite “Color Me Impressed”) had more meat on them; they weren’t just goofing around and clanging it out anymore. It was loud, but it had a great big beating heart.

The feeling pervaded even more of 1984’s Let It Be with quieter, wrenching numbers like “Sixteen Blue,” “Unsatisfied,” and the anthemic “I Will Dare” and by the time 1985’s Tim was released, it was no longer a secret: these boys, led by Westerberg, could rock with the best of them, but they could also invade your heart with some of the sweetest, most heartfelt sounds of their era. In 1987 the brilliant Pleased To Meet Me came out — the first album fully without Bob Stinson— and the band now had a three-record run that rivaled anyone’s, and debate was on as to which one was the best. Did you prefer the shattered-glass rawness of Let It Be or the power-chord drenched anger of Tim? Or was the genre-bending ride of Pleased To Meet Me more your cuppa tea?

Simply put, this was the era where the Replacements made their bones. 1984-87 marked, for them, a creative peak similar to one enjoyed by the 1968-72 Rolling Stones. Just nowhere near as commercially successful.

And it was all intended to be one giant working body, one functioning circulatory system that kept the blood pumping despite the band’s paralyzing insecurities. On Let It Be’s “Unsatisfied,” the most wrenching and pain-filled song Westerberg ever wrote, we are brought in by a gorgeous 12-string guitar before he offers the simple and plaintively depressing truth—“Look me in the eye and tell me I’m satisfied. Was you satisified?” But by the end of the record, the hurt is still there and dripping out of him as he wails “How do you say goodnight to an answering machine?” And three years later, awash in the gorgeous pop-horn augmentation on Pleased To Meet Me’s closer, “Can’t Hardly Wait,” he’s still lying there in the gutter, ever-beaten and ever-hopeful. “I’ll write you a letter tomorrow; tonight, I can’t hold a pen.” In between, on Tim’s anthem-for-the-ages, “Bastards of Young,” the hurt is palpable but the reality almost seems to act as a salve: “The ones who love us best are the ones we’ll lay to rest, and visit their graves on holidays at best.”

To be sure, this was their time. Only R.E.M. was churning out records with such dizzying consistency and delivery of the goods. The Replacements had the material, and all they needed was the stage. Sadly, they never got it. The band had too much of a self-destructive edge (fueled by alcoholism, drug use, and a lack of foresight that the increasingly successful R.E.M. had) to see any long-range success. It was the Replacements moniker to grab the post-punk generation by the lapels and scream in its face. Problem was, once they had people’s attention, instead of following through, they were more apt to pass out.

The run would continue, albeit not quite as dramatically. 1988’s Don’t Tell A Soul still had that wretched beating heart and gutter poetry that only enhanced Westerberg’s rep as a songwriter without equal, but the layers and layers of studio polish added just a little too much water to the whiskey. And 1991’s finale, All Shook Down, was a terrific collection of wordsy, worldly tunes, but it read much more like a Paul Westerberg solo album, and in fact that Westerberg-Stinson-Dunlop-Mars lineup only appeared together on one track.

Still, for those who did notice, those 10 years when they were around had it all to offer. From the lonely, rebellious anthems (the magnificent one-two punch of “Bastards of Young” and “Left of the Dial” from Tim, the statement-of-purpose “I Will Dare” from Let It Be) to the tributes (they canonized punk godfather Alex Chilton in an eponymous Pleased To Meet Me track, and they spotlighted themselves in Don’t Tell A Soul’s “Talent Show” and “I’ll Be You”) to Westerberg’s trump card, the self-searching ballads (“Achin’ To Be,” “Here Comes A Regular,” “Skyway,” “Sixteen Blue,” and “Sadly Beautiful”).

It is by no means my intention to sell the bandmates short—after all, Chris Mars was a talented and risk-taking drummer, Tommy Stinson’s is to me the finest post-punk bassist ever and moved things along at a breakneck pace, and Bob’s guitar defined an era to come—but it was Paul Westerberg’s writing that set the band apart from any in their era. Just examine, for a minute, a quick sampling of Westerberg’s style—word-trickery blended in perfectly forlorn whimsy and hangdog longing: 

·      “Dressing sharp and feeling dull…”—“I’ll Be You” (Don’t Tell A Soul)
·      “If he was from Venus, would he meet us on the moon? If he died in Memphis, that’d be cool.”—“Alex Chilton” (Pleased To Meet Me)
·      “When you wish upon a star, it turns into a plane.”—“Valentine” (Pleased To Meet Me)
·      “It beats pickin’ cotton, or waiting to be forgotten”—“Bastards of Young” (Tim)
·      “Try and free a slave of ignorance, try and teach a whore about romance.”—“Answering Machine” (Let It Be)
·      “If you say nothing, well that’s something I understand.”—When It Began (All Shook Down)
·       “She’s kind of like a poet, who finds it hard to speak; The poems run so slowly, like the colors down a sheet”—“Achin’ To Be” (Don’t Tell A Soul)

It’s been more than 20 years since the final incarnation of the Mats played its final show on July 4, 1991. They lived with a scream and a wail, yet died with a whisper that hardly anyone noticed. Yet they live on in the music of their descendants. They live on amid  the continuing post-punk trails they helped to blaze. They live, thankfully. Irreplaceable after all.

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