Going Down With the Replacements

“On a great night or on a shitty one (but not inbetween), the Replacements are the most exciting, soul-searching out there band around.”


Not a Bunch of Loads

“Go ahead RJ, get the notebook out,” Tommy cackles. A bubble of beer hangs from his chin, but he doesn’t know about it. Four nights into the Replacements’ road trip and already things are getting ugly. The Replacements, four miscreants from Minneapolis, are setting up their equipment in a cafeteria at the Universi­ty of Windsor. Ill-humored after a pro­tracted shakedown at the border and feeling confrontational, they can’t get past the soundcheck before a guy with “student patrol” on his T-shirt complains about the volume. The alcohol the pro­moter foolishly left for them in the dress­ing room before the soundcheck only for­tifies their hostility.

With me making eight (for a week) in their seats-six-comfortably Econoline, the Replacements are worming their way around the Midwest, out east, south to Georgia, and eventually to California, promoting their new album Let It Be. They figure they’ll come home broke as they left.

The ride from the cafeteria to the hotel is a crusade — we get lost and then turn around only to get lost some more. Everybody’s babbling, everybody’s experienc­ing preshow panic: how can we get away with it tonight? The manifold sprang a leak first night out of Minneapolis, and it fills up the van with a carbon monoxide cloud. But the band’s already addled, so it’s no big deal.

Guitarist Bob Stinson has hidden the scotch on singer Paul Westerberg. Not that there’s more than a trickle left to conceal. “You’re not going down on us tonight, are you?” shouts drummer Chris Mars, the only one keeping sober this trip, as he grabs Paul around the neck. “I am going down tonight without you if I have to,” Paul says, sounding a little sad at the prospect. “But it would be nice if we went down together.”

That night, Paul finds security in num­bers. Almost everyone in the band is crocked by the time the show starts. Af­ter putting on lipstick and eyeliner, vase­lining back their hair, and donning hippie overalls, they open with a heavy metal version of “The Marine’s Hymn” and close by passing around instruments to one another and more or less anybody who’s interested. Somewhere in between Paul says, “Fuck this rock shit, we’re a jazz band from now on,” and the band grinds out a few minutes of Holiday Inn lounge fusion. All this to a stupefied crowd, half of which has already split. After the show Westerberg is rueful that the Replacements hadn’t flopped more profoundly — if only they’d tried a little harder. That’s later on that night, though. Back in the van, still trying to find the crummy little hotel, Paul spits into the footwell of the van. In his lacon­ic, cartoon voice that seems to merge the sound of those two great Norsemen, Wal­ter Mondale and Lars the Janitor, he says, “I feel like I’m in another country.”

They like Hydrox bet­ter than Oreos, but good people won’t hold it against them. On a great night or on a shitty one (but not inbetween), the Replacements are the most exciting, soul-searching out there band around. Their newest record, Let It Be, encom­passes hot-blooded country and rockabil­ly, Randy Newman pop and the all-out white noise that was always hardcore’s deepest (and sometimes only) text. They’re as giddy as kids standing up in the front car of a roller-coaster; and yes, they toss their cookies routinely, getting down to disclosures — not just of bad nights on their knees, but of why they do this to themselves in the first place. And why anyone would do such miserable things. All of this told in the plainspeak of a high school dropout afraid he might die, or simply disappear, before he knew what to do with his life.

There’s no hurricane’s eye with the Re­placements, just four forces pulling in different directions. Bassist Tommy Stinson, 18, has an “I Love ET” sticker on his amp, proudly calls himself a John Waite fan, and is the only band member who passes for cute. Gaunt, mop-headed, he tries to look sharp on stage, with his scissor kicks and rock-star stances. But why he’s so lovable is that pretty soon he just looks like he’s hurting, as if he knows that posing for pictures isn’t going to save him from anything. He really is a kid growing up in a band, and when he screws up, the group’s usually paternal. In contrast to Tommy, his big brother Bob, 24, is pudgy and cheerfully non­-plussed most of the time. If he were a cartoon, his eyes might be asterisks; if a moose fell into his TV dinner, he’d just ask for another one.

Most of what I learned about 23-year-­old drummer Chris Mars was from watching him work. Behind the drums he looks terrorized, teeth bared and eyes en­larged as if he were getting electroshock. He says even less than Bob, but his quiet isn’t puzzling — he’s clean-cut, almost in­visible. And then there’s singer Paul Westerberg, at 24 the most ambitious member of the band and the skinniest (there are fatter breadsticks around). “You should have seen him when I first met him,” his girlfriend says. “I thought he was going to die.” If Paul instigates a lot of the rabble-rousing, he doesn’t seem to enjoy it as much as his cohorts — he plays the sourpuss and the fool. Like the others, he never finished high school.

“Yeah, I went to Catholic school all the way — all the way and nowhere,” he says. “I was constantly drunk and stoned, just messed with drugs and stuff. I did that all through high school, that’s why I think I have a real bitter attitude toward it now. It was the worst four years of my life.

“It was also bad because they would send kids from [alcohol/drug] treatment there, supposedly getting a good atmosphere. So you would have like half these goody-goody rich kids and the other half were these fucking loads from the inner city. I mean, being drunk every day in typing class and by the time you get your paper out the drill’s over.”

Part of the thrill of any Replacements show is that at any moment they may fall apart — fall on their face, fall off the stage, fall as they try to fly. They have no idea what success might be like, or how to crawl away from what they don’t like about their lives. And they know a plan doesn’t mean much by itself, not the way the pop marketplace is currently orga­nized. So most of all they caterwaul for all the stuff they don’t have and proclaim themselves the kind of wrecks that denial produces in the end. In short, the Re­placements are always making spectacles of themselves. Bob appreciates a good tutu, or a go-go skirt with a paisley top, as much as the next man. When the band played an all-ages show in Minneapolis to kick off their tour, he honored the event by wearing just a diaper, which kept com­ing undone as he walked around Minne­apolis after the concert.

Why this is affecting, and why it’s a pisser, is that the Replacements never look more like themselves than when they’re trying to look like someone else. Painfully regular guys, they take the stage and totter in the direction of their idea of pop stars. The Replacements’ role models are the marginal refuse of late ’60s and early ’70s rock — acts reacting against rock’s newly arrived-at art status (T. Rex, Alice Cooper) or bands so natu­rally disposable (the Sweet, the Grass Roots) they went nowhere critically. Paul, the band’s principal writer, says watching the Raspberries on Rock Con­cert in 1974 made him want to play music in the first place. With nothing original to say — and knowing it — the Raspberries wanted to be big anyway. They weren’t going to lie about it, so they sang about like wanting a hit and feeling confused about their lives, and like how great all those bands in the ’60s were. The Re­placements weren’t the only fans to catch a dose of catscratch fever from Don Kirshner, but they’re one of the few bands who aren’t embarrassed about it. There’s another difference, too — Paul writes better than Eric Carmen.

But the Replacements’ love of ’70s grunge is veined with something more complicated, something less pleasant to think about, than fond remembrances. In the van the morning after a show featur­ing scads of covers, roadie Bill Sullivan mused, “Those people last night, they didn’t understand. They thought you were making fun of them.” To which Westerberg said, “Well, we kinda are.” True, but only inasmuch as the Replace­ments were making fun of themselves. Doing a soundcheck in Kent, Ohio, the band lashed into a vicious version of Golden Earring’s “Radar Love,” and af­ter it broke apart Tommy leaned over to manager Peter Jesperson and said happi­ly (not smugly as some might suppose), “That was when dogshit was real dog­shit.”

Denying that there’s more than dogshit in such a song, or in themselves, is a constant. I got on the van with the Replacements wanting to know how a band with no money provides for itself, and how this affects their attitude and performances. What I came away with — hell, it’s blatant every show, and it fills up the van faster than the carbon monoxide­ — was a penetrating sense of obstruction, of being blocked, that made them willing to gouge into themselves to remove what makes them feel like things. I learned to judge a Replacements show like a scary movie — chart the splatter.

And there’s plenty of splatter, because these guys just naturally act like they’ve been barfed out of a particle accelerator. They are within the tradition of trouble­makers like Wynonie Harris or Jerry Lee Lewis, musicians who might flop or might instigate a riot and who do both for the same reason — to wipe the features off your face. The Replacements are balled-­up boluses of high hopes and low feelings, wildcat growls and boredom, longings they try to beat down with a stick but never quite can. It’s an unstable mix, and sometimes it pulls a show together, when it’s not pulling their lives apart.

In 1979, the Stinson brothers were jamming with drummer Chris Mars at home — neighorhood kids, blammied and wailing on tunes by Ted Nugent and Aerosmith. (Tastes that haven’t disappeared by any means. Witness this exchange in the van, some­where between Boston and Providence. Bill Mack, driver/soundman, smirking while Elvis’s Sun Sessions blares from the box: “Aw, what is this shit?” Bob, “Yeah, turn it off. I’ve got this Johnny Winter tape.”) Paul Westerberg, a janitor at the time, would hear them through the basement window on his way back from work and hide in the bushes.

Before Paul, the band was happy with the singer it had — truth is, sometimes they say they’d be happier if they still had him. Paul was enlisted strictly as a guitar player. “I went in and I was the lead guitar player. Bob was rhythm, and we had another singer that they all want­ed to keep,” Paul recalls. “He was a friend of mine, and I told him that I loved him but the band hated him.” A few pep talks like this and the singer left. “To this day, I don’t think he knows,” Paul says.

The band started as the Impediments, and gig number one was in a halfway house for alcoholics. They came to the show pilled up and plowed and got thrown out. They were told they wouldn’t play again. The next day they became the Replacements.

They issued the splendidly entitled Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out the Trash in 1981, and though it’s brutal enough to harpoon a seaful of Moby Jacks (punk cut with Johnny Thunders’s Heartbreak­ers), it also reveals Paul’s knack for pop vernacular. “Shiftless When Idle,” if they’d taken the time, might have turned a few heads as a single, and the accompanying 45, the gruesomely blue “If Only You Were Lonely,” is as moving a honky­tonk tune as this decade has produced. A year later, there was The Replacements Stink, an appeal to hardcore’s troops; gratifying blare, it’s also the least of their records. And while last year’s all-u-can-­eat genre-smashing Hootenanny was mightily confusing at first, its pastiche of folk hokum, blues, and thrash-a-go-go serves both as a provocation to their fans and as an homage to the music the band likes.

After an all-night drive to Columbus, the Replacements are tired and jittery for their first show on the road. Stache’s, the club they’re playing, is tiny and covered with the green carpeting usually found on putt-putt courses. Westerberg discovered not too long ago that he has pleurisy, and tonight it’s dogging him, causing his chest muscles to bunch up like wire cables. Before the soundcheck, he calls his girlfriend — “I told her everything was fine, that we’re all okay,” he says. “Already lying to her,” Tommy responds.

Halfway through the show, when they lace into Let It Be‘s magisterial ”16 Blue,” and Paul is so excited he pushes Tommy out of the way to turn up his amp, the song crashes away. Soon they shred “Take Me Down to the Hospital,” about that first pleurisy attack, and it’s obvious everybody in the club is either a true believer or another candidate for the emergency room. Some nights the band won’t connect, and people stand around like they’re waiting for a pizza, and if you think about the R.E.M. song where the rank and file of clubdom are compared to pilgrims you’d laugh a black guffaw. But there’s no laughter tonight, unless you count the fun Tommy’s having shouting along on “Hospital.” There’s a shocked sound rolling around the four walls as the set ends. Nobody feels like a stranger.

After the show, there’s time for anoth­er drink while the money is counted and the equipment gets put in the van. Tom­my’s made a friend he’ll have contempt for in the morning. Bill Sullivan’s got an electric cord in one hand, the other in a woman’s ass pocket. Paul’s nursing a carton of milk and just wants to get to sleep. Somebody passes out a fanzine, and somebody says the bar is closing.

And always pressing some flesh, maybe in the back of his mind counting the drinks everybody’s having, is manager Peter Jesperson. The band’s relationship with their label, Twin/Tone, and with Jesperson, has evolved from accidental beginnings. Trying to get a gig at a Minne­apolis club, Paul took a tape to Jesperson, the club’s booker who was also part owner of Twin/T0ne, a local compa­ny the band had never heard of. After playing the demo, Jesperson offered to record them. He became their manager at their second show, Paul says, “because we didn’t want to talk to the asshole at the bar.”

Late one night on the tour, outside a gyro joint, Bob complains about Jesper­son. He’s unhappy about how little the band makes, about Jesperson’s co-pro­duction on the new album. He says, “I just don’t know why he’s here.” “Because he liked us when nobody else did,” Paul replies.

The support’s been important, but the band’s antsy for change. They have what Jesperson describes as a “loose but perpetual” contract with Twin/Tone (he re­fuses to say whether they have a written agreement). By the band’s account, they haven’t seen any money from their rec­ords. “You know, none of us are whizzes at math or anything,” Paul says. “And they say to us, ‘You’re welcome any time you want to come look at the books.’ Well, Christ, I don’t want to see a page full of figures. We say, ‘Where’s our mon­ey?’ Twin/Tone doesn’t spend enough money to make money. They spend enough to get it out, the smallest amount necessary. It’s all they have, they say. I don’t know where the money is.”

Everyone on the tour collects a per diem, usually $15, though either a packed house or an empty one the night before can alter that. Twin/Tone fronted the group $500 to get out of town, which, along with the take from each show, is what the Replacements are rolling on. A band like the Replacements can expect to make anywhere from $200 to $1250 a gig. Once in a while — a single time in the week I traveled — Jesperson sends money home, to pay off the studio time, the pressing and mastering of the record, the van. But after springing for hotel rooms (this is the first tour the Replacements have not depended on the kindness of strangers for lodging) and gas and instru­ment and van repairs, there isn’t much scratch left. What they save up from their per diem is what the band members will take home. Out of this is born vari­ous strategies for economizing. Bob will politely ask anyone to buy him a drink. Paul sometimes eats about three bites a day. Occasionally there’s a splurge — a band-buy of food, say, or a case — which comes out of what Jesperson’s been holding.

Which isn’t to say that the Replacements don’t make things hard for themselves. First, there’s the volume to consider, a prime reason some clubs decline to book them. Besides being one of the few acts to bring the cops to Maxwell’s for disturbing Hobo­ken’s nappytime, the Replacements have had a number of club managers yank the plug on them. Once in Oshkosh they were playing at 128 decibals, over the legal limit and as loud as the sound board could register, when an amp gave up with a column of smoke. The show ended, and they got extended applause. “The guy there keeps calling us to play there again,” Jesperson says with an amused look. Not always is the management so sensitive. At a Minneapolis show a man­ager came up to the front of the stage with a bouncer and shouted at Paul to either turn it down or get off. “Do we still get paid if we leave?” he asked, as the purple hose in the manager’s forehead throbbed a little more, and the band launched into “Shut Up,” only with Wes­terberg shouting, “Fuck you.”

Other tales of terror: the Cleveland jinx (thrown out of two clubs, one because Bob pissed on stage); a show in Virginia, where a crowd of hardcore kids, mad be­cause the band delivered their patented “pussy” set (country covers and slow stuff served up to knee-jerk thrashers), took it out on the van; an Ann Arbor date, er, performance art piece, consist­ing basically of tuning up, falling down, and starting maybe 20 songs without completing a one.

The point in running down this bad behavior isn’t in the details. I had heard many of these stories before, but it wasn’t until I was on the road with the Replace­ments that I began to see how depressing their untenable heap of ambitions and energy can get. Hootenanny sold only about 6000 copies, and they’re deep in the hole financing Let It Be. The record industry isn’t going to look at this band and see a stack of Krugerrands. When the Replacements came to New York and played for some a&r people at CBGB, they flopped. To me it seemed meaningful.

New York was where they figured they’d be heard by some big label repre­sentatives — Warner Bros.’ Michael Hill was coming out and, because he was a fan, he had set up a meeting with the band once they got to town. According to Paul, nothing in particular happened. “I wasn’t expecting to sign a deal or noth­ing, at all. Basically we’re talking ‘in a few years.’ He didn’t say anything specif­ic at all. He just wanted to know if we had half a brain or if we were a bunch of loads. At this point he’d be embarrassed, it would be too much of a risk to bring some bigwig down and see these guys who could possibly fall on their face.

“Last night [at CBGB] was a classic example. We went up there and did what we wanted to do, and they [the record industry] wanted us to play our best songs as best we could. And we didn’t feel like it. And so they figure, ‘They’re a small-time bunch of amateurs.’ That’s one way to look at it, and that’s partly true. But I think it’s also the spirit that makes rock exciting and immediate.”

But if Paul and Jesperson say there were no big hopes for the meeting, I re­member the argument outside the gyro restaurant. Bob was complaining about the size of Twin/Tone’s operation. And I remember Paul saying, “Well, just wait until we get to New York. We’re going to talk to somebody from Warner Bros. there.” He wasn’t just placating an angry Bob. And then there was the show the night of the meeting with Hill. Shortly into the set Paul babbled, “You may have guessed tonight that we don’t want to play any of our own songs.” This was big­-league self-abuse: not the rocket ride that can make their covers go bang, more like an extended submarine fart. The audi­ence was howling at them, and the band couldn’t come up with anything to shout back. Finally, they stumbled into the Stones’ “Start Me Up,” with shit-eating grins I would swear were slapped over some raw feelings. And then Paul said into the mike, “Do we get a record con­tract now?” No, but Hill did say he had tried to get Rod Stewart to cover “16 Blue.”

In the end, to be hon­est, the Replace­ments have to dis­tinguish what they want from what they want. They have folks on their side like R.E.M. and X, bands who talk them up in interviews. The last time the Replacements opened for X, the headlin­er added part of their own take to the Replacements’ cut. There is support for the band, and in their calmer moments they think they just have to find a way to stick together and keep on sucking car­bon mono before they start generating cash from it all. Except that there’s a song on Let It Be called “Unsatisfied” that questions what success will mean. When Paul sings “Everything you ever dream of, it’s right in front of you,” he’s not even teenage-miserable. He feels cleaned out like a fish, worrying that fans or money or some such shit won’t make him feel any better about himself — that his depression will last a long time, may­be until the permanent vacation.

Still, the Replacements deserve every consumer good they can cram down their cakehole, and it will be a more just world which will give them merely some of that. And an even juster one that will ease the vacancy that bunches up their chest mus­cles. But for now they have to contend with the fear of defeat that one way or another works its way to the surface of any great Replacements show and that sometimes gets broken in their effort.

And sometimes that fear just lays low, nibbles away at the band until they feel there’s nothing to do but get fucked up. That’s the way it was for the great trek through Canada. Driving from Windsor to Rochester through Ontario was the longest time I spent in the van with them. Fortified with more alcoholic Ca­nadian beer, they were mostly wrecked. There was tag team wrestling in the back — when we got to Rochester the proper response belonged to Bob, who lobbed a smoke bomb into the van and might have burned it down.

It was fun. But better than fun was the larger-than-life wrestling with boredom that went down a few nights before in Kent, Ohio. We were at JB’s, a large, hops-soaked basement where, the band was told, Alice Cooper had played 15 years earlier. There was no sign for the place outside. The show wobbled at first, the band playing material from Let It Be not particularly well. Then something like the hootch and something like panic began to lay a finger on them. Songs started crumbling after a few bars; there was no agreement about what to play. “Hey, let’s pick a chord, guys,” Paul said. Nobody did. And then, to Bob, “Hey, you’re the guitar player,” trying to make him pick a song. So they tuned up for a few minutes instead.

Plink, plink. “We’d talk to you be­tween songs, but we’re not any good at it.” And then Paul cackled out of the side of his mouth, “Bob will start this next one for you right now. Watch him. Now … ” The audience had long ago stopped laughing at the patter. Now they’re yell­ing things like “Bark my hole” and “Fuck you.” Finally Chris kicked into the drum intro to “Billion Dollar Babies,” which made it nearly to the part where the vo­cal was supposed to come in before every­body in the band started cracking up too much to play. Plink. “We can do this all night,” Paul hooted. No shit.

There was an empty dance floor in front of the band. And suddenly the rest of the place was thinning out, too. What Paul once said on another stage must be running through his mind: “I can see some of you are still here. That means our work is not finished.” What followed, at a glance, was family-sized loathing — ­for themselves and for the audience, need it be said. But as they fell down the cis­tern, something pretty strange was also happening. The band essayed Bad Com­pany’s “Can’t Get Enough,” and the crowd wasn’t articulating too much any­more, they were making crueler animal-­like sounds. Next up was “Taking Care of Business,” only the real joke was it was a monster, and all at once the band wasn’t laughing exactly. They were … smiling. Hell, beaming. This was suddenly, unex­pectedly, really fun.

And for as long as they kept officious­ness at bay, they were not even precisely the Replacements, they were just fans. When they took on “Roundabout,” Bob was smiling as much as he had the whole week, and he glowed throughout the Jose Feliciano, the DeFranco Family. I think they may have played some of their own stuff here, oh, and “Walk on the Wild Side.” Greil Marcus writes approvingly about Sonic Youth making rock so crude it was almost noise, but at JB’s the Replacements made Sonic Youth sound like the Dillards. This was gap-toothed noise laughing at music. It had been a while since the people who had thrown lit ciga­rettes and cans of soup and toilet paper had left, and everybody else now was ei­ther just tired, or, I think, subtly paci­fied. And happy, too.

“My Sharona” came then, and when I looked over, I saw the bartender shaking a tambourine and bopping from one end of the bar to the other. Eventually they got to “Breakdown,” and Jesperson sang every word from the back of the room. And then, pretty quickly, they found a way back, maybe found a new way, to being Replacements once again. And when they wailed on “Johnny’s Gonna Die,” it was maybe more fucked-up, and more moving, than ever. A friend in Ann Arbor a night later would tell me the Replacements were great because they had so many “objective correlatives” poking out of every song, like shrapnel in some Vili nail fetish, and maybe here was the biggest example of all. Westerberg at 20 writing about role-model Johnny Thunders, how his update of Hank Wil­liams’s life was appealing, and terminal. Built on the chords to “So You Want To Be a Rock and Roll Star,” “Johnny” is a kid meditating on what’s not a kid’s theme: that what he loves — and it’s not really junk, it’s speed, wide-eyed and no pauses — may kill him. The Replacements are crucial because they proclaim their hunger, and they don’t shut up. From the mournful din of “Johnny” to Let It Be‘s expansive, calamitous variety, they’ve been even smarter than they have been stoopid.

Nobody else left once things got inter­esting at JB’s, but the band was getting tired. Still, the set never really “ended.” Somebody left the stage, Tommy and Bob sat down on the edge, and roadie Bill Sullivan took the mike to say, “Once again we’d like to thank you for that big Ohio welcome.” It cleared out briskly after that. ❖

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 12, 2020