People often stop me on the street, and ask me this question: “Jim,” they ask me, “what is it like to be a Replacements fan?” Well, let me tell you . . .
In the most recent of Rolling Stone magazine’s forty zillion 40th Anniversary Editions, they had a section called “The Indie Rock Universe: An Illustrated Guide.”
This so-called “Guide” was essentially a gussied-up list of Indie Rock bands, broken into incredibly arbitrary distinctions surrounding the “Universe” theme. One of the sections was called “Ancestral Planets” — the pioneers of Indie Rock if you will — and it listed a bunch of worthies and honorables: Nirvana, Pixies, The Smiths, Hüsker Dü etc. These are some of my all-time favorites, and certainly worthy of inclusion on any list of great rock of any stripe.
Conspicuous by their absence: The Replacements. Whether it was an oversight or on purpose, it almost immediately jumped out at me, and ironically, this was a few pages away from where Billie Joe Armstrong was talking about how much he was influenced by “Answering Machine.”
This is what it’s like to be a Replacements fan.
To me, The Replacements were the absolutely perfect combination of balls, brains and heart — but the world at large never seemed to get what was perfectly obvious to those of us who loved every fucked-up moment that they were around.
There’s a book that just came out called The Replacements: All Over But The Shouting. It’s an oral history, collected by long-time ‘mats friend and fan (and Minneapolis writer) Jim Walsh. It basically traces their history in a series of stories, and while I loved it, it might be somewhat confusing to anybody who didn’t already know their basic history.
Not that anybody who is going to read the book isn’t going to know that basic story. And I am sure as shit not going to reiterate it here. Instead, I’m going to add some of my Replacements stories — many of which I’ve told before — to the mix.
This is what it’s like to be a Replacements fan.
It’s hard for me to know for sure anymore, but when all is said and done, they might — might — end up having been my all-time favorite rock and roll band. Their best songs are as good as anybody’s ever.
21 Replacements Songs That Are As Awesome As Any Rock ‘n’ Roll Song Ever Recorded (in order)
- “Answering Machine” – What does one say about what’s been his all-time favorite song for just about ever. I’ve deconstructed it so many times, wondering why. The way the guitar echos Paul? The lyrics about the futility of his long-distance commitment? (If it was a movie it would be called “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Caller” hee hee.) The way he sings “How do you say ‘I’m lonely’ to an answering machine?”
When I interviewed Paul, in addition to asking him about the “needs some ices” line, I asked him why nobody else played on it. He muttered something about being the only person to come into the studio that day. It’s more likely he didn’t want his band
anywhere near it to fuck it up. Not even having his band for support dramatizes his predicament, as his personal despair becomes universal: not just a answering machine–how do you say “I’m lonely” to ANYBODY? How come technology designed to enhance communication becomes just one more barrier? The song becomes larger than just his story.
Then, to really take the piss out of him, the phone lady barges in. At first, “if you’d like to make a call, please dial your operator” she’s being helpful. Near the end, she turns on him and taunts him “ifyouneedhelp ifyouneedhelp ifyouneedhelp, as the percussion comes up and Paul’s screams of frustration recede in the background. It’s a brilliant, brilliant recording. And yes, just once, only once, I used it for my answering machine message. Duh.
- “Left of The Dial” – Best song ever about college radio? And (sigh) “growin old in a bar/you grow old in a bar.” From the opening guitar to the final “Left of the dialllls” while Tommy is playing a bassline downloaded from Paul McCartney, this song is almost too perfect for words. Like “I Can See For Miles,” “Jumping Jack Flash,” “Safe European Home,” “Celebrated Summer,” or “Come As You Are,” it defines everything I’ve ever loved or ever will love about rock ‘n’ roll.
- “Unsatisfied” – Well, yeah, of course, we know what it is — an anthem, the only true answer song to “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” but without the outside annoyances that troubled ole Mick. Paul’s unsatisfied from within. And one of the all-time great sing-alongs. “Look me in the eye and tell me I’m satisfied.” As the song progresses he gets more and more desperate–will satisfaction never come? “I’m so I’m so UNsatisfied.” I don’t know how many times I’ve sang that coda at full volume with Paul, sometimes with tears streaming down my face until he finally collapses with that last, resigned “I’m so . . .”
- “Can’t Hardly Wait” – Would work for the riff alone. (In fact the Shit Hits The Fans version did.) So count the wonderful words as an extry special bonus: “hurry up hurry up, aintcha had enough of that stuff?/ashtray floors dirty clothes and filthy jokes.” Then the strings and horns kick in, driving by and overtaking that turning and churning riff. It doesn’t go away, it just bides its time and waits until Paul’s last “Can’t hardly wayyyeeeaaaiiiit” when even the horns (wait, can’t hardly) are compelled to play it, too.
- “Hold My Life” – What a way to jumpstart your Major Label Sellout album, by picking up where we had previously left off: Paul down on the floor, begging for whatever he can get. And dig the Tutor Turtle reference: “razzle dazzle drazzle drone/time for this one to come home.” Reminds me of Babe Ruth league in Jr. High–when a pitcher would get in trouble, the opposing dugout would yell “help me, Mr. Wizard!”
- “I Will Dare” – The story of every relationship I ever had. “If you will dare I will dare” sums it all up in a nutshell, as does “how smart are you?/how dumb am I?” A #1 hit single in some other part of the Metaverse.
- “Valentine” – “When you wish upon a star/And it turns into a plane” is one of my most favorite opening line ever. Tommy’s great bassline propels it along quite nicely.
- “Hayday” – Yeah!! “Goin’ to the party that we weren’t invited.” What does this song mean?? Who gives a fuck? Jeeze it’s got this much power and Chris’ really bad drumming. Cool.
- “Talent Show (Live)” – This version captures the rock n roll anarchy that compelled me to see them as much as I could -sometimes travelling a couple of hundred miles to do it. The “we won’t say nothing bad on TV” at the breakdown references not just their recent performance at the “Rock Awards Show,” (where they got around the censoring of “feeling good from the pills we took” lyric by changing the coda to “it’s too late to take pills, here we goooooo”) but also the infamous Saturday Night Live appearance, the beta of which we wore out watching over and over again.
- “Skyway” – Not much about anything really, just a series of observations. And some nice acoustic guitar.
- “Here Comes A Regular” – The real Cheers theme. The thinking man’s drinking song; or is it the drinking man’s thinking song? “I used to live at home/now I stay at their house.” The piano solo is one thing but the way the strings
swell up and envelope a weary Paul with their sweet sadness is quite another, isn’t it?
- “Wake Up” – More energy than you would have thought possible that late in the game, with “wake up and wonder where you are” a classic ‘Mats chorus. Too bad it wasn’t released until 1997, instead of 1989 when it would have added a real shot of punky energy to Don’t Tell a Soul.
- “Within Your Reach” – Drum Machine? Phased Guitar?
Synth?!!????? An unabashed love song?? Well, maybe.
Really, at this time, only Paul could have made it work without making it seem like some sort of sell-out. In 1983 we were incredibly synthophobic, and for “Within Your Reach” to be definitive was really due to its garage feel:
it was always on the verge of falling apart, which kept it from being slick and produced. And his singing. “Sun keeps rising in the west.” Resignation. “Die within your reeee-each.” When this showed up unannounced in “Say
Anything” I just about fell over. Much better of a love song than that lame-o “In Your Eyes.”
- “Nobody” – Shows Paul’s penchant for what my English teachers used to call “telling detail:” “still in love with nobody/and I won’t tell nobody/and I used to be nobody.” Also, note his classic song structure: verse chorus verse chorus bridge solo verse chorus.
- “Alex Chilton” – Another #1 hit single in that other dimension. What a superb chorus! “Children by the millions wait for Alex Chilton” just sounds good.
- “I’m In Trouble” – 1st single, and a very typical Paul Westerberg hook. At the time, they were lumped in the “hardcore” morass, but this shows the intelligence even through the drunkenness. What was that math property, you know: “IF you’re in love, THEN I’m in trouble?” The If/Then theory or something???
- “I’ll Be You” – Another massive hit single somewheres. Don’t know what any of it means, but he used “rebel without a clew” before Tom Petty, who I’ve always liked a lot, appropriated it. Nice call and response hook and of course: “bored right out of my skullllllllllllll.”
- “Androgynous” – Some serious genius at work here. For a band making its rep at being falling-down drunk, a piano ballad w/ inyourface words. And, oh god, that “mirror image/see no damage/see no evil at all” was light-years ahead on the maturity tip.
- “Color Me Impressed” – A punk-pop story about a really fun night where Paul musta been about 17 sheets to the wind.
- “If Only You Were Lonely” – Buried on the B-side of an obscure (supposedly) hardcore 7″ is this complete gem. An acoustic country goof studded with great line. “I ain’t very good/but I get practice by myself.”
- “The Ledge” – A deep dark powerful song about teen suicide. Probably one of the reasons the high school in “Heathers” is called Westerburg (sic!) High. A great touch. Thanks, Winona. Also, Paul’s guitar duet with himself and Chris’ drums is major in a Clash-like way.
I stole most of those song descriptions above from something that I sent to Matt Tomich’s Skyway mailing list — liner notes for an imaginary compilation — in 1994, when all of this was much fresher in my mind.
You see, when I first got online, in 1993, it was on Prodigy, and shortly thereafter, AOL. I almost immediately discovered The Replacements section on both services, and discovered all of these other people, who lived in places like Iowa, or Virginia, who had pretty much had the same experiences as I did in the 1980s — college radio, local bands, fanzines and road trips. Now with these online forums and mailing lists like the Skyway — which I’m still on — we were beginning to connect with each other.
I wonder if these experiences amplified my love for The Replacements in such a way that they’ve stayed one of my all-time favorites in a way that The Smiths or the Hüskers haven’t. I did try other forums, but nothing ever clicked in the same way.
My guess is that yes, the swapping of stories and comparison of lists and even meeting face to face did amplify that love. It was sitting in your friend’s room and listening to Tim for the first time with a bunch of people (which was how it happened) writ large. Which is why what seemed so exotic to us is now a basic marketing strategy.
On these primitive forums and mailing lists, we swapped stories about our experiences with The Replacements back in the day, like for example, when I interviewed Paul Westerberg for KFSR on April 19, 1985. Nearly a decade later, here’s the version I sent into The Skyway:
Paul was nice. He was sober and respectful of my questions and gave (what I remember) intelligent and thoughtful answers. He spoke quietly and chain-smoked (even though I was a militant non-smoker and there was no smoking allowed in the studio I didn’t even say a word) throughout. I think he knew he was in the presence of someone who loved his music, and not some MTV VJ wanna-be. Later on, two or three different people told me that he thought the interview was “cool.” No higher praise I could have received.
By the way, I recorded that interview. And then accidentally erased it.
This is what it’s like to be a Replacements fan.
And that night? They totally killed. They played Fresno three times: that night at the Star Palace, a couple of years later at the Old Town Saloon and Dining Emporium; and in 1989 at CSUF’s Satellite College Union.
In 1987, I got to interview Tommy, not Paul, and he was, er, much less co-operative than Paul. Though he did offer to buy my girlfriend’s purse. In 1989, nobody was interviewed, but the girl I was with then was thrown out of the venue for crowd surfing, because she ended up on stage and the security goons gave her the bum’s rush.
All in all, I saw them five times — road trip! — but I never did see one of their legendary meltdowns. They always had the reputation as total and utter fuck-ups, but every single time that I saw them, I saw one of the greatest live bands you could possibly imagine. Every single time — well, maybe not in 1991 in Hollywood, when even Chris Mars had flown the coup. But for whatever reason, they were on their best — musical — behavior in Fresno.
Maybe that was because our dinky college station was able to fill a 500 seat club the first time they showed up.
Here’s the other thing I remember: at the time, AOL didn’t have enough bandwidth, or something for all of their music forums. So they actually had people vote whether or not to get rid of The Replacements forum, or the forum of another band. That other band? Duran Duran. I think that the Replacements have always been kind of an enemy of and antidote to Duran Duran.
In the end, I think that AOL ended up keeping both forums, which was where I was when I wrote this about Bob Stinson’s death:
I saw them with Bob and I saw them without Bob, and I loved them every time.
Of course, I was drunk . . .
And because of Pleased to Meet Me and the rock and roll balls of the post Bob shows I witness, I cannot join the knee-jerk “they were cooler with him” brigade. They were cool either way. We shouldn’t lose sight of that because Bob was the first to succumb to the lifestyle many of us loved them for leading.
I loved them cos they were me up there — real, frail, wasted, human, and drawn to the power and beauty of rock and roll. Maybe Bob was the epitome of that — if so, that also means something. That MY life was saved by rock and roll, I’ve never been in any doubt. Hell, my ‘mats compilation tapes are titled “Why The Replacements Saved My Life.” But sometimes I wonder if it was also ruined by rock and roll, that my attraction to its primal, steamy, seamy and brainless side is a bottomless hole I’ve dug for myself.
I fell in love with The Replacements instantly. It happened like this: as you might remember, R.E.M. pretty much ruled the world of college radio from almost the moment Chronic Town came out, and one of our DJs had joined the R.E.M. Fan Club. Because they were as much evangelists as anything in those days, she got a mailing that said “hey, if you like us, you should try these bands.”
One of those bands was The Replacements. I had missed Sorry Ma, and Stink — probably because they were considered “hardcore” at the time, and I wasn’t really into it.
As it turns out, we had an extra promo copy of Hootenanny floating around the radio station, so I snagged it, (thanks, Kirk!) and instantly swooned over its raggedy eclecticism.
Then the “I’ll Will Dare” 12″ showed up, and it was better than anything on Hootenanny, whetting my appetite for what was to come: some of the greatest albums of the 1980’s, and, actually, ever.
The 1980’s get slagged a lot, but there were a few bands — X (at the beginning), Sonic Youth (at the end), R.E.M., The Smiths, U2, and the ungodly prolific Hüsker Dü (where are our Hüsker Dü reissues?!?!) — who had runs of three or four or five albums that were all-time greats.
And, of course, The Replacements were one of those bands with a run of amazing albums. If I was forced, this is how I would rank their records:
- Let it Be – A+
- Pleased to Meet Me – A
- Tim – A
- Hootenanny! – A-
- Nothing for All – A-
- Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out The Trash – B+
- Don’t Tell a Soul – B+
- All Shook Down – B+
- Stink – B
You, of course, would probably rank them differently. After Let it Be, I mean, which pretty much sits pitch-perfect in between their noisy, crazy youth and the more polished (relatively) records that followed.
That record, whew, was nearly dizzying in its contradictions and tossed-away depth. It is almost impossible to overstate how much it has meant to me over the years, so I can’t even try. I’ll say this: it is still my all-time favorite album by anybody.
Of course, had Let it Be been a one-shot, their The Days of Wine Roses or Strangers Almanac, things would be totally different, but it followed a two great records and preceded two records that were nearly as great as it was.
Both of those records came after the ‘mats signed to a major label, and if you want to make a case for either one being as good as Let it Be, I can’t argue too much.
Tim was one of those albums that got me through a rough patch during the mid-1980s, where l had no idea who I was or where I was going. The deeply personal words in songs like “Hold My Life” or “Here Comes a Regular” resonated deeply, and made me feel less sad or alone or whatever long-gone early-20s feelings I was feeling at the time. That’s probably where the overly dramatic “Why The Replacements Saved My Life” name for my best-of cassettes and CDs comes from: my third-favorite Replacements album.
This is what it’s like to be a Replacements fan.
When Pleased to Meet Me came out, it just solidified how I felt about Paul’s songs:
Just in case anyone was wondering, this should cast aside all doubts about just whom the best and most personal songwriter is in the world today.
Paul Westerberg, more than any rock songwriter since Pete Townshend, writes “I” songs, the most vulnerable and hardest type of all. That, plus his attention to telling details, is what makes him such a fantastic songwriter. Things like “When you wish upon a star/and it turns into a plane” (from “Valentine”) pop up constantly. And in “I Don’t Know,” he defines his stance — “One foot in the door/the other one in the gutter” — as the eternal pessimist who is paradoxically cocky at the same time.
This tension has been threatening to pull his songs apart at the seam ever since he asked a girl “How smart are you/How dumb am I?” then asked her to “Meet me anyplace or anywhere or anytime” on Let It Be’s “I Will Dare.”
And that’s a good reference point, because with Westerberg’s raspy emoting up top and the rhythm team of Chris Mars and Tommy Stinson underneath, at the very least, The Replacements would be just another fine Stonesish rock and roll band. But with Westerberg’s songwriting spurring them, The Replacements are turning out to be one of the best and most important groups the ’80’s have to offer.
It is, BTW, a travesty how fucking awful Pleased to Meet Me and Tim have always sounded on CD.
This is what it’s like to be a Replacements fan.
After that, of course, it went downhill. Don’t Tell a Soul was a disappointment — better a thousand “Gary’s Got a Boners” than a single “Rock ‘n’ Roll Ghost — and All Shook Down was a Paul Westerberg solo album in all but name.
By the way, I love both of those records: the disappointment of Don’t Tell a Soul was relative, and I’ve remained a fan of Paul Westerberg throughout his entire solo career.
As a matter of fact, I’ve followed all of them through their solo careers: not only did I buy both of Chris Mars’ first solo albums, I even bought Slim Dunlap’s first solo album. I say “first” in both of these cases, because for all I know, they’re still making records, but the returns on those records were so instantly diminishing that I’m not really worried about missing anything.
Tommy Stinson’s post-‘mats career has been a bit more interesting: you could do a lot worse to pick up the Bash n Pop album, Friday Night is Killing Me — the title track along shows how much he was paying attention to Paul’s songwriting. However, after that, it was pretty much downhill, and then he got stuck in the black hole of Chinese Democracy.
But Paul keeps plugging along. In the 1990s, each solo album was worse than the others, but early this decade, he went lo-fi, and recorded a couple of albums that were nearly as good as what he did with the Replacements. If a song like “AAA,” didn’t get as deep into my brain as “Hold My Life,” I’m going to put that on me being older, not him losing his touch.
And of course, for a recent complation album, Paul and Tommy and Chris even went into a studio and recorded a couple of pretty good songs , spurring the inevitable reunion rumours. I’m of two minds about this: would I go? Hell yeah! Would it be much more than The Paul Westerberg Band With Special Guest Tommy Stinson Plays The Replacements For Aging Gen-Xers? Hell no!
At this point, I think it would be like that Velvet Underground reunion: the music was unimpeachable, but Lou Reed had been working in the vein for such a long time that it kinda came off as a Velvets-centric solo thing, as opposed to a true reunion. My guess is that a ‘mats reunion would be the same thing.
But maybe they would surprise me. They’ve done it before.
This what it’s like to be a Replacements fan.