Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Replacements

The Replacements
by Jake Kilroy

I saw the Replacements documentary Color Me Obsessed in Los Angeles on Friday with Lindsay. The "rockumentary" (one of my least favorite words ever actually) featured friends and fans, but no actual members or music of the Replacements. So, when someone mentioned a song or an album cover, you just had to know it. It was sort of a documentary made for serious fans, I guess.

The Replacements, for those (for whatever reason) who haven't discovered them, were incredible. Their career was basically the 1980s (1979-1991) and, to many, they were the last great rock 'n roll band. The four drunks from Minnesota were Paul Westerberg on vocals and rhythm guitar, Bob Stinson on lead guitar, Tommy Stinson on bass and Chris Mars on drums. Slim Dunlap and Steve Foley stepped in at the end, when the band was falling apart, but The Replacements, as in the legendary boozing goofs from Minneapolis, are those original four.

They were critic darlings, they influenced way too many bands to count and, yet, when you find a fellow Replacements fan, it's like acknowledging a member of your secret club. Shit, I was at a show last year when I was talking to the singer of a band called Whitman. I asked him what his band sounded like. He told me, "Well...my favorite band is The Replacements." I cut him off and said that I'd just buy his albums right then and there, as if supporting another Replacements fan is always the right thing to do.

The 'Mats (nicknamed that because of a misprint they found hilarious when promoted as The Placemats) are one of my all-time favorite bands, if not my actual favorite. Ok, they are my favorite band, but it's hard to say sometimes, because I think Bob Dylan was the best songwriter of the 20th Century and The Clash was easily the most talented (without getting into the whole Beatles debate). But The Replacements resonate with me like no other band out there. They were having more fun than anyone, they couldn't help but get famous, they played shows in the flannel or t-shirt they wore all day and they would get drunk in lawn chairs. They were so astoundingly talented without really giving a shit. While serious musicians would sit in a studio and craft a song for weeks, meticulously working towards perfect musical harmony or whatever, The Replacements recorded entire albums in a day, all while drinking cheap beer. And then critics would tell them how great they were.

When a magazine called The Replacements "the band of the year," pissed-off top-selling artist of the year Jon Bon Jovi infamously remarked, "If they're so famous, why haven't I ever heard of them?"

To which, I can only assume The Replacements laughed and said, "Who the hell gives a shit about Bon Jovi?"
Maybe the reason I have trouble naming them definitely as my favorite band is because I'm always kind of mad at them. I'm mad at them for never properly considering how great they were. I'm mad at them for kicking Bob out (as one dude in the documentary stated, "How much of a mess do you have to be...to be kicked out of The Replacements for being a drunk?"). I'm mad at them for wanting to leave the past behind. I'm mad at them for biting every hand that ever fed them. I'm mad at them for sentimentality getting the best of Westerberg's writing in the end. A lot of their friends in the documentary said it was hard to be a Replacements fan sometimes, because every time they had the opportunity to move on, they'd just blow it off most of the time.

But all of that shit is also why I adore them. And I didn't even discover them until a year after their Fourth of July on-stage break-up.

I was in second grade when I dug through my father's glovebox and rummaged through his music collection. I found cassettes for The Cure's Disintegration, Rickie Lee Jones's Traffic From Paradise, Los Lobos's Kiko and, most famously, The Replacements' Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash. And that album straight up changed my world. It was my first instance of finding new music and I technically did it on my own. My parents would've shown me them at one point or another, I figure, as my parents were responsible for getting me into really cool music: Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, The Sex Pistols, The Rolling Stones, Bob Marley & The Wailers, The Who, Fine Young Cannibals, Johnny Cash, et cetera. My dad was even the one who got me into The White Stripes and Outkast.
But what I found in that Replacements tape was overwhelming. At that young age, all music is polished. Everything you're exposed to is flawlessly done. But you're also not exposed to much music. So, it's very easy to assume, "oh, so this is music." To hear four guys play the shit out of what they called "power trash" probably shaped me right then and there. Everything was inconsistent. There were random yells and no chorus sounded the same. Songs tapered off, the guitar was lower in certain parts, there were mistakes everywhere. One woman in the documentary described the solos as "hitting all the wrong notes at the right time."

But that's what I love them for. Nobody could say, "hey, there's a lot of mistakes on this album," because The Replacements would smugly reply either, "Are there?" or, "Yeah, so?" They put out punk classic after punk classic before evolving into a complex alternative band, because, as Westerberg stated, "We write songs rather than riffs with statements." So, they got sick of the punk scene and moved on to acoustic songs and songs with horns.

On Let It Be, there's a soft, tortured piano tune about laying off gender benders ("Androgynous") alongside a loose punk jam called "Gary's Got A Boner." Respected music critic Robert Christgau gave the album an A+. Also, it was named Let It Be, because their producer was a huge Beatles fan. The Replacements joked about naming the album Let It Be and their producer told them they couldn't. Ever the dissenters, the 'Mats decided on the spot to name it Let It Be, because, hey, why the hell couldn't they?
When I recorded my four-song project last year, I kept trying to fix it up and make it sound like a professionally recorded album, which was clearly stupid. Then I thought of Sorry Ma and wondered, "Aren't all the mistakes, like, half the reason I love The Replacements?"

I love them for their shrug-off-everything spirit, because it makes them impossible to criticize without them getting in the last word. They're like those brilliant kids in school who don't fully apply themselves. They may be slackers, but everyone knows what they're capable of, if only they really tried. Who knows what The Replacements would've become if they sobered up and started really putting in efforts with the fame machine? Now, sure, that may absolutely appear to be a cop-out, but I like that they existed during an era of hair metal bands and new wave groups being way too into themselves, with everyone tripping over themselves to be a one-hit wonder. All the while, The Replacements scored critical praise and just sort of laughed about it. And it wasn't like they "just wanted to be artists" or "ignored the fame in order to create." They seemed like they just wanted to do whatever made them happy, which was just being a band.

So, instead, they showed up drunk to their shows. They even showed up drunk to their 1986 performance on Saturday Night Live, which got them banned forever, as one reviewer noted that they were "mouthing profanities into the camera, stumbling into each other, falling down, dropping their instruments and generally behaving like the apathetic drunks they were." Rumor has it that NBC had to rebuild the green room because The Replacements got into a food fight and destroyed the whole thing.

Fans would arrive at their shows without knowing what the hell would happen. They were deemed "the greatest live band ever" by someone once with a tongue in cheek, because either they played harder than anyone else or they got too hammered to really care how things went. No show was ever the same. And everyone's favorite shows, it seems, were usually the ones when The Replacements also became "the world's greatest cover band." Realizing the band was too drunk to correctly do their own songs, fans at their shows would yell out random songs they wanted to hear. If one of the members knew how to play it, he'd try and the rest of the band would follow, everything from the Defranco Family's "Lovebeat - It's A Heartbeat" to "Summer of '69" by Bryan Adams. One fan remembered a show where they were too drunk to play anything but The Beach Boys' "Help Me, Ronda."

When a teacher found out I liked The Replacements in high school, he burned me copies of their bootlegs (as well as The Shit Hits The Fans), just so we could talk about their live shows.
Some memories that fans shared:
- A guy went to a Replacements show with his cousin, who was a huge fan of the four-piece. While playing pinball, a dude asks him for a spare quarter to play the machine next to him. Guy gives the dude a quarter. They played pinball. The Replacements come on stage and start playing. Guy notices there's only three people on stage and wonders what happened to the fourth one. After two songs, guy turns to the dude and says, "Hey, I'm gonna go watch the band." Dude grabs his arm and says, "No, man, we started this together. We have to finish it." They keep playing pinball until the dude's last ball drops. Dude smiles and says, "Thanks! Gotta go!" Turns out that the dude who bummed a quarter is Bob Stinson. He tries to climb on stage, but Westerberg keeps kicking him.

-The Replacements opened for Tom Petty following the release of Pleased To Meet Me. At a music festival on their tour, they showed up on stage in drag (clothes they stole from Petty's wife). Westerberg then yelled into the microphone, "Tom Petty said he'd fire us if we fucked up again. But you know what? Fuck you, Tom Petty! And fuck you too, Nashville!" The band then played four or five songs before launching into a ten-minute instrumental version of Lou Reed's "Walk On The Wild Side."

- A show was over, but Paul Westerberg was drunk and wanted to keep playing, so he did solo songs until hardcore kids started heckling him. He said, "Hey, come up here and play if you think you can do better." So, he took his spot behind the drums and the two hardcore kids played guitar and bass, and the three of them played "Louie, Louie" for half an hour.

That last one might be The Replacements in a nutshell: anyone can play music. They started off as a drunk (Bob), a janitor (Paul), an artist (Chris) and a 14-year-old little brother (Tommy). They were a crew of misfits who kind of gave a hard time to anybody who complimented them. They wanted to play music, but it seems like nobody could ever tell if they really wanted to leave the garages and basements. When they found commercial success, they would shoot themselves in the foot to keep from going mainstream. And it's hard to tell if it was systematic or they really just couldn't help themselves, like they had to self-destruct to live up to their own reputation. So it's funny that when they were self-destructing, they put out two pretty, well-constructed and polished-sounding records (which I, as well as most fans, actually like the least).

When sound engineers would tell them to play songs slower or faster, they'd just say, "Oh, I forgot the chords...so we'll just have to keep it the way it is." They'd draw marker lines on the clothes of studio representatives. They'd drink their weight at the bar with fans before a show.
But they never became charity cases. They never started doing heroin with groupies. They never trashed a million dollar hotel room. They never made personal regrets or public apologies. They were just drunks, for the most part (but, I mean, seriously reckless drunks). They weren't going to after-parties or big bashes in their honor. Someone once described them as "one of the most famous bands that never really left the garage." They could play a show in a basement or a stadium and it would've been the same. They would've gotten hammered, worn whatever they felt like (including tutus) and then played their music however they wanted, no matter what other people wanted them to do. If somebody told them to play their old songs, they'd either play all the old songs to be really true to their fans or they'd only play new songs just to piss them off. They even covered a Kiss song on one of their albums because they knew how many their fans hated Kiss. I suppose that's why being a fan of The Replacements in the '80s was a complicated ordeal, because you never knew if The Replacements were really on your side.

When the just-starting-out Goo Goo Dolls opened for The Replacements on what would be the Mats' last tour, the four drunks ripped apart all of their backstage passes and slapped them to the stage, so when the Goo Goo Dolls (who were too poor to afford shoes at the time) would walk on stage, their feet would get stuck. Meanwhile, The Replacements sat off to the side, howling with laughter and drinking cheap beer from a cooler they brought from home.
After the movie, it was midnight and I didn't feel like going home. The movie put me in a weird mood. So I just sped along the Southern California coastline. I ended up in San Pedro, cruising around the port and listening to "Within Your Reach." Pretty soon, I was in Redondo Beach listening to "Careless." And then I was atop Signal Hill blasting "Buck Hill." It took me more than two hours to get home, just from aimless meandering. Apart from what I learned on the drive (like how this state has way too many CVS stores), I acknowledged some curious feelings about the band that's always, always, always been closest to my heart.

The fans of The Replacements can be like the actual band. Towards the end of the documentary, a drunken couple kept heckling the lead singer of the Goo Goo Dolls whenever he came on the screen. As much as it bothered me, I wondered, "Isn't that what The Replacements would've done anyway?" I mean, The Replacements didn't respect anybody. This is the same band that drunkenly broke into their studio and stole what they thought were the master copies of their previous four albums and threw them into the Mississippi River. The band knew what they were doing, but they either got too drunk or played dumb all the time. And I figure they did it so nobody would ever make them into something they didn't want to be. Hell, when they got the chance to make their own professional music video, everyone gave them a million ideas. Do this, do that, said everyone. So, just to be dicks, The Replacements shot their entire music video for "Bastards Of Young" with a speaker playing. That's it. Seriously. The entire music video for "Bastards Of Young" is just one, long black-and-white shot of a speaker.

So, as I made my way home at the slowest of rates, I recognized landmarks from past times of getting lost. I ended up at the San Pedro bridge that Jeff and I reluctantly went over after getting lost trying to find a record store in Long Beach in my Deathmobile, I passed a coffee shop where I caught up with an old flame one summer after a playhouse flooded and we were left with nothing to do and I finally found my way back to the freeway because of a round-about Non and I circled when trying to find Cal State Long Beach.

But, because I've been listening to The Replacements for practically my whole life, a whole lot of their songs carry weight with memories too. I remember Bret, Rex and I myself dancing around Chase to "Can't Hardly Wait" in my old backyard, I remember dissecting "Customer" with Jeff and Nick on our way to Mission Viejo to spend the summer as punks in foreign territory and I recall driving fast every time "Hayday" comes on.

The Replacements is my band. They're the most personal band I listen to, since I discovered them by myself and they've been with me since I was a kid. And nothing they did ever felt forced. They weren't trying to be big stars or punks. They acted like they didn't care because they legitimately didn't care. And, because music history is all sorts of screwy, not enough people listen to The Replacements, so I actually get to tell people about them. I don't show very many people bands they haven't heard before. I'm very often on the receiving end of it. But The Replacements is the band that I get to show to people and it's, like, crazy exciting to do. It's amazing that I get to be the one who says, "Holy shit, you've never heard The Replacements? Ok, I'm going to give you The Replacements."

So, anyway, if you've never listened to Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash or Stink or Hootenanny or Let It Be or Tim or Pleased To Meet Me or Don't Tell A Soul or All Shook Down...well, then...I give you The Replacements.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Leaves of Grass v the Cobblestone Address.

Jake Kilroy said...

The ever-intense battles rages on. Take that, Walt Shitman and your Leaves of Ass! Hi-yah!

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