Perfect Sound Forever

The Replacements


A live remembrance
by Greg Gaston
(August 2009)


Without question, the Replacements, one of the best and most influential post-punk bands of the last twenty-five years, roared their way through the 1980's like kamikazes on stage--loaded on chutzpah, frustration, and beer. Led by Paul Westerberg, a brilliant ragamuffin singer/songwriter of the first order, this four-man ragtag gang crashed through gigs and records alike in their patented reckless-but-right swagger.

Between their heart-on-their-flannel-sleeve romanticism and their outcast/loser ethos, the Replacements embodied the pulse of rock and roll in that lost musical decade of synth-pop and formula radio. REM, their early '80s peers, spun gold in the platinum-pop sweepstakes world, but not the 'Mats, whose credo, "We didn't bite the hand that feeds us, we tore off the arm," defined their attitude as well as helped sabotage their opportunities. Maybe because of their outsider, Midwestern roots, lack of record sales, or perverse, couldn't-give-a-damn, self-destructive streak--take your pick--these Minnesota misfits never escaped underground, cult status.

Bittersweet irony underlies how the Replacements are now often called the "godfathers of alternative" because they helped pave the way for the alt-music scene as we know it today. Bands like Nirvana, Uncle Tupelo, Soul Asylum, and myriad others traced the 'Mats ragged shadow--and somehow eclipsed them in sales if not quality. Minneapolis, cold prairie town and home of the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, and the Jayhawks, trumped the Seattle grunge scene as one of the archetypal hotbeds of indie talent.

Like these brash, Minnesota upstarts, I came of age in the mid-'80's in the Midwest. The Replacements' music created the soundtrack for the youth of much of my generation--those of us stuck between Baby Boomers and Generation X--and mirrored my own angst, insecurity, and exuberance. I saw them perform live in their prime at least a dozen times in cities from Cincinnati to New York to London.

Someone once said that every person who ever saw the Velvet Underground play live eventually formed a band in silent homage. The same might be true of the Replacements and their audience. The Replacements' unique amalgam of bruised romanticism, passionate but doomed integrity, and Westerberg's songwriting brilliance have influenced contemporary bands from the pop-punk of Green Day to the alt-country roots of Wilco, the Drive-by Truckers, and Ryan Adams.

In listening to their classic record trinity-- Let It Be, Tim, and Pleased to Meet Me, which capture the 'Mats in their glory years--you grasp that the 'Mats didn't labor too much in the studio, to put it mildly. It was always less about making the perfect record with polished tracks than about just harnessing their energy and Westerberg's focus. You didn't listen to the 'Mats for a crafted, seamless experience; no, instead you strapped yourself in for a raucous ride back to the garage--complete with go-for-broke gusto, bruises, potholes, jarred expectations, and desperate, last-chance ache.

Pleased to Meet Me, their last true peak as a band, wed slabs of gutter guitar and white- riot noise with some of Westerberg's best songwriting. Like most 'Mats' records, it plays like a throwaway-treasure blend of lean, mighty rockers and heart-in-your-throat, gutbucket ballads. In spite of their best intentional or unintentional attempts at sabotage, this record somehow catches the 'Mats' reckless, chaotic sprawl on vinyl.

When you saw them on stage, you never expected anything less than a train wreck or some heroic flameout; their reputation preceded them, and in the end this too became a shackle of expectations. The 'Mats personal mythology was part of the reason we loved them, but in the final years the weight of all those drinkin' stories eventually dragged them down.

From their inception as the Impediments way back in 1979--when, legend has it, they played their first gig drunk at an AA show--the Replacements were notorious for the "either/or" proposition of their live shows: either transcendent or crap; either drunk or slightly less so; either inspired or just bored; either smartass punks or bratty misanthropes; either one of America's best bands or four boys from the Midwest out for a lark and a beer.

Paradox stabs at the core of the Replacements. Like the dinosaur poet Whitman, they contain multitudes of contradictions. Unlike Whitman, they achieved transcendence only through heavy medication. Nobody in the band had graduated from high school, but Westerberg's lyricism was not only witty and accomplished but steeped in bar-room profundity. His writing reveled in a kind of casually wrought artfulness. Anchoring his snappy one-liners and wicked putdowns were some of the most vulnerable confessions and poignant character sketches found on record.

Even the title and cover of Pleased to Meet Me illustrate the ambivalence that undercut every Replacements' decision. Divided in ugly green and orange, the album sleeve shows two hands shaking--one forearm dressed in a suit, while the other is covered in frayed flannel. The grunge look may very well have started here.

The Replacements played the Mean Fiddler club in London in the spring of '87, and I attended this rowdy scrum of a concert with some of my flatmates. All these years later, I still remember the Guinness-doused details of one of the best shows I've ever experienced.

Just listen:

Halfway through the night's set, the 'Mats break into "I Don't Know," one of the pivotal songs on Pleased to Meet Me. Westerberg's boyish rasp fires off the opening salvo, and I see him spit the words into the bullet mic with gusto: "Should we give it up?" And both the lead guitarist, Slim Dunlap, and the bassist, Tommy Stinson, shout their answer, "I don't know," like derelict Catholic choirboys. All of us on the floor join in the call-and-response; our voices slur together like those of a foolhardy brigade of zealots. We know this religion.

In just a few lines, Westerberg sketches out his band's dilemma: "One foot in the door / The other one in the gutter / The sweet smell of success / I think I'd rather smother." Today, many bands pay lip service to the idea of resisting commercial success because it might somehow infect their self-avowed integrity, but the Replacements lived out this struggle more than most. Consider the old Dylan adage "There's no success like failure / and failure is no success at all."

It's like when you fall in love with someone despite your better judgment--maybe you can already sense the arc of your love affair and how it will eventually end, maybe in six months or five years, maybe in bitterness or regret--but you can't resist that sweet amphetamine rush to your heart, those electric surges of hope, bliss, and surrender that overwhelm your reality and ambush you with delight. This is what it means to be a 'Mats fan: we see their tragic flaws--how can we not? They wear them like tin badges of pride, of identity. But like the Replacements, we can't help ourselves.

When Westerberg sings in the last verse, "What are you going to do with your life?" and Stinson delivers the punch line, "Nothing," in an exuberant echo, every one of us hoarsely agrees. And it's not that we desire little or nothing in life; it's more about the inherent defiance in that word, and how it sums up what it means to be young and already starting to choke on dreams and so many options, the future flagging us down with its fears and lockstep responsibilities, and it's enough right now to know that we're in this together for the moment, my angst-filled generation exhaling in sync with this band before us, the Replacements.

The 'Mats pile-drive their way into "Bastards of Young," an anthem that mirrors this crisis of youth. As the power-chord intro rings out, Westerberg rips out a guttural cry in the mic and shouts the opening lines, "God, what a mess / on the ladder of success / You take one step and miss the whole first rung." This resounds as a battle charge, and it's the kind of song that makes you want to quit a crappy job or seize an enemy hill--either way it's kinetic, and you feel you have to do something right now, even if it is only pumping your arms like a spastic monkey. Soon the chorus hooks in, and all of us squashed together on the floor take over for Westerberg and sing, "We are the sons of no one / Bastards of young." And this enraged clarion call of defeat takes root and somehow finds its measure in us, three hundred voices echoing this forlorn mantra in unison. And in this moment it feels like anything but surrender.

It's a strange kind of wisdom that comes with being young, and it's so easy to forget years later, but it smacks of vulnerability, of wonder, and of not wanting to sell yourself short before fate calls. Do we dare risk failure, success? How does it feel? "Graduate unskilled / It beats picking cotton / Waiting to be forgotten."

Well, it feels like Westerberg's voice sounds: cracked around the edges, shaky and young in its adenoidal gasp, nicotine and tar corroded, and open-throated deep in its rage and bewilderment. His bourbon croak recalls the giddiness of the early Rod Stewart and Stewart's sandpaper-lined pipes, but Westerberg's tone conveys more holes and less velvet padding; his precocious, world-weary ache burnishes his phrasing until his lyrics burrow under your skin and enter your blood like shards of poetry pulsing to the heart.

Maybe his voice affirms what the Midwest really sounds like: flat, unaffected, yearning in the isolation of the frozen prairie towns like Minneapolis, cut off from the coasts and their hip cultural cachet, and so far inside the country's interior they've somehow become outsiders. The English equivalent would be Sheffield or Manchester, these industrial, tundra towns that groups like the Smiths or Joy Division call home as well as write about in songs that reflect their dead-end but questing worldview.

If Morrissey is Westerberg's '80s English foil in terms of subject matter, background, and anxiety, the parallel stops there. After all, in their prime the Smiths became one of England's most beloved bands--like a new Kinks, commercially and critically.

What separates the Replacements from so many of their peers is their openhearted bravado, their willingness to whistle into the abyss. Catcalls beckon on the edge of disaster. The 'Mats soon tumble down, one by one. Songs start and jerk to a stop. Westerberg mumbles something to Dunlap, takes a drag on a crinkled Marlboro, while Stinson heckles the English punters calling out for the band's indie hit "I Will Dare," from Let It Be. The drummer, Chris Mars, looks impatient--What's the next song?--and pounds his toms for emphasis. Westerberg counts off, one, two, three, and then strums an open chord, but no one follows. Fucked that one up--his mea culpa lost in the din and the chuckles.

I instinctively wait for the shimmer of guitar arpeggios that opens my favorite 'Mats song, and the band doesn't disappoint. Westerberg's spider fingers glide from F to G7 to C, the chords cascading in razor reverb until the crowd takes a collective breath, anticipating what is to follow. Paul sidles over to the mic with eyes closed, and begins singing the holy screed that defines the Replacements. "Look me in the eye / and tell me I'm satisfied."

"Unsatisfied" is the song that first pulled me into the 'Mats magic, when I was all of twenty-one. It's an existential cry from some teenage wasteland--in Minneapolis, Cincinnati, or London--and when you hear it, you can't help but twitch. It works simultaneously as a call to arms, a prayer, and a howl from the depths of some uncharted pain.

Westerberg flays his lyrics to the bone here, until the song becomes a haiku of rage, of disillusion, of resignation. When you have wanted so much, and reality falls so short of your expectation, these are the words to repeat. "Look me in the eye / and tell me I'm satisfied"--this phrase seizes you by the collar and makes you stand up. But more than his words, it is Westerberg's wracked voice that gives you the chills; his naked need for deliverance so transparent, whether on record or live. With his vulnerability exposed like a torn jugular, he bleeds and all of us are moved by this scalawag of a soul singer standing at the lip of the stage.

Because that's what he becomes here, and that's what soul singing embodies: shedding your blood on the tracks, on the stage, and on an endless search for transcendence, no matter what the personal cost.

What makes the Replacements special is the way they tear down the walls between the audience and themselves. All their drinking, their drugging, their wild-eyed, scattershot behavior, and their uneven performances allow them to feel less self-conscious, less positioned above their fans. It's their charm as well as their Achilles heel. It's why you could rarely find Replacements' merchandise being sold at their shows. It's why you couldn't imagine them signing autographs, making pop videos, or taking themselves too seriously. It's why you could often find Westerberg or Stinson having a drink out on the club floor with a few fans before the show. It's also one of the reasons they never became as big as they deserved to.

And almost to prove the point, as "Unsatisfied" winds down into its dissolute coda and finally ends, leaving some shattered in its wake, they break into "Black Diamond" for an encore. It's a good song, but it's a Kiss cover from Let It Be, and on the heels of what just came before, it makes me laugh. Only these guys could go from the sublime to the goofy in eight measures. But the best thing is, they don't play the song for irony's sake, for the wink-wink quotient. Instead they play it straight--just for what it is--a thuggish, Led Zep of a riff stomping the shit out of all below like some Blitzkrieg air raid. It's a swagger of a song: Dunlap's thick, Gibson tone riding roughshod over Mars' snare crashes, and Westerberg's voice shredding the distance between stage and floor. "Out on the streets for a living / They've got me under their thumb." Hell, yeah.

This cover song speeds by in a belligerent blur. And to show that there's no stopping their flow, this melee-inducing, punk-with-soul-and-a-melody vibe, Westerberg calls out a few words over his shoulder to Mars, and the band struts into another absurd but fitting choice for an encore. It's hard to make out at first as the distorted volume smears the opening bars, but the house lights blink on and we're still dizzy with the flush of the 'Mats as we follow their bringing-it-all-back- home finale.

Westerberg drops his guitar, grabs the mic with both hands, and rasps, "Well, Hello Dolly." His mates are right behind him, swinging their guitars in front of Cheshire grins. Melody with crunch and a crooked smile. Vegas trash burlesque with a heart flashes London town, and most of us can't believe what we're hearing: this ol' Fanny Bryce/Barbra Streisand show tune filtered through Marshall stacks set to stun behind a shredded voice. With the amped-up sound, the 'Mats gusto, the drink, England's charms, and the romance of it all, it could take your breath away. Cough.

As feedback spears us in the last bars of the song, a group of guys from the floor surge onto the stage, not meaning harm but bowling ahead to get closer to the 'Mats. A roadie pops up to help push them back as Westerberg backs away from the fray. There's a tussle on stage, and suddenly the mic stand falls onto the floor amidst the rumble of people. The house lights come on, and the show is over. Chaos reigns for a few minutes, and as people move away I can see all the debris--bottles, glass, a few ragtag shirts, shoes, and towels--left behind, and all the exhausted smiles. I am a raggedy man: soaked, tattered, wasted, ears ringing, but grinning in the blue light and leftover fumes of what took place for the last hour and a half.

People float out of the Mean Fiddler's haze onto the sidewalk, inhale the cooler air, and wait for friends. My friends file out in twos and threes as I stand by the curb; black taxis cruise by. My buddy Ed slaps me on the back, reaches down into his pants, and pulls out--triumphantly--Westerberg's microphone. Somehow, in the scuffle, he found this on the gummy floor. He thinks about returning it, but I know he won't. We can argue about it, but he feels he's earned this keepsake. And maybe he has.

Twenty-some years later, the microphone is buried in Ed's sock drawer. The Replacements imploded way back in 1991. Two ex-Replacements, Bob Stinson and Steve Foley, are now dead of overdoses. Tommy Stinson moonlights with Axl Rose in LA land. Chris Mars traded the musician's life for an artist's life in Minneapolis. Paul Westerberg still records, and occasionally tours, with equal doses of bravado and anxiety. Regardless of anything else, anyone who ever heard them or saw them play back in the day won't soon forget these guys, renegade legends that they are, the late, great Replacements.

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