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Band out of time: Are the Replacements too late to be rock stars?



The Replacements' finest moment came on TV--Saturday Night Live in 1986. They were appearing to promote their fourth album, Tim, which was their first for a major label (their previous albums--Hootenanny; Stink; Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash; and Let It Be--were released on an indie label, Twin-Tone, out of their hometown, Minneapolis). Besides frontman-heartthrob-genius Paul Westerberg, the band at that time included drummer Chris Mars, a waiflike thumper; Bob Stinson, an absurd, drunken lout; and Tommy Stinson, Bob's younger brother, a Replacement from age 13 who appeared that night, if not so much anymore, to worship the stage Paul Westerberg walked on.

On TV, the group was tense and giddy. Westerberg was a mop-headed gamin; he had his microphone jacked up high so he had to lift his chin way up to sing into it. The Stinson brothers were bouncing around from the first notes of "Kiss Me on the Bus," one of the best of Westerberg's lightweight charmers. The sound was trebly and distorted, but Westerberg's throaty, heart-tugging pleas came through perfectly. The evening's main business was the second number they played, "Bastards of Young," a deliberately written anthem whose rather confused intents don't detract from its enthusiastic indignation: "Income tax deductions / What a hell of a function." During an instrumental break, Tommy Stinson sidled over to the main microphone and shouted out a word: I couldn't quite hear it, but it sure sounded like "Darn!" On the lines "The ones that love us least / Are the ones we try to please," Westerberg, his face caught magnificently by the camera, gave us a wink that was a mile broad. And on the last chord of the song, Westerberg and the younger Stinson caught each other's eyes, reached out, and shook hands with satisfaction. In the meantime Bob Stinson heaved his guitar over his head and let it crash to the floor; he advanced to the front of the stage, one arm thrown back in a gesture of leering pride. Mercifully, the camera quickly faded.

And there you had 'em, folks: the Replacements, a heady brew of adolescent drama and reluctant professionalism. The real surprise that night was that things didn't collapse. No one was shnockered (at least to the point of being incapacitated), no song was ruined by an unexpected fit of the giggles, the whole evening did not descend into aborted covers of "Roundabout" and "Takin' Care of Business." The Replacements, before our eyes, had grown up.

Bob Stinson, it turned out, wasn't long for the group; soon after that appearance he was kicked out for excessive drunkenness, an impressive achievement given the Replacements' history. Stinson's, um, replacement is one Slim Dunlap, a band pal from the Minneapolis club scene. Now, two years later, the group's critical rep, always exceedingly high, has gone through the roof. Hailed by Musician magazine as "the last, best band of the eighties," the Replacements have seen their latest album, Don't Tell a Soul, gain an unprecedented amount of airplay and almost become a hit. Their exceedingly loud, transporting show at the Aragon a couple weeks ago had to be in front of one of the biggest crowds the group had ever seen; certainly it was the first time I'd seen them play in front of more than a few hundred people. Unlike other college-radio darlings who've begun to hit the big time--R.E.M., for example, and U2--the Replacements aren't solicitous about adjusting their show to bigger crowds. Eight-year veterans of the thrashy, noisy punk circuits, they want stardom now but haven't quite lost their affection for what they're giving up. Call 'em young adults.

In his latest book, Music for Pleasure, Simon Frith begins his introduction with this provocative sentence: "I am now quite sure that the rock era is over." The music business, he continues, "is no longer organized around rock--around the selling of records of a particular sort of musical event to young people. . . . The rock era . . . turned out to be a byway in the development of twentieth century popular music, rather than, as we thought at the time, any kind of mass-cultural revolution." Frith is a sociologist first and foremost, and his point, disproved though it is every six months by the latest Guns N' Roses or Replacements, has to be taken in that light: he's saying that the music industry has been restructured to meet the growing fragmentation of the rock audience and the (ever-quickening, it sometimes seems) aging of the baby boomers.

No group demonstrates this situation more than the Replacements. They want to be Rock Stars in an age that allows only rock stars. They matured as the great American postpunk band. Where the British--groups like Gang of Four and Joy Division--were entranced by the philosophical implications of the period, kids like Paul Westerberg, who never finished high school, only understood the pull of the emotions and energy involved. These he filtered through the pop-rock glories of his preadolescent days (everyone from Big Star and the Raspberries to Aerosmith and Kiss), and, working them over with a songwriting talent that's turned out to be one of the greats of the decade, produced something uniquely American.

Six or eight years later, however, we find the Replacements in a bind. Indie stardom doesn't mean much when you're still almost broke at the end of the year, and neither does having a bunch of critics telling you how great you are. Hardcore's strict code of conduct--be fast, loud, and obnoxious--enforced in the Replacements then as now by punker Tommy Stinson, must seem an ever-sillier constraint to Westerberg, clashing as it does with the heartfelt romanticism that produces those one-per-album acoustic numbers: "Here Comes a Regular," "Skyway," and "Rock 'n' Roll Ghost." "Why shouldn't we be popular?" he says now, defensively, in interviews. Why not indeed?

I'd have bet that the Replacements' show at the Aragon would have begun with "Talent Show," the lead track and first single from Don't Tell a Soul. Like that title, and the title of their previous record, Pleased to Meet Me, and its cover photo of a raggedy rock-star's arm shaking hands with a bejeweled businessman's, "Talent Show" is a spoof on selling out. "We ain't much to look at so / Close your eyes and here we go." The song starts off bouncy and quiet, but quickly slams into a timeless Replacements number, complete with sliding guitar, drummer Mars's very cool double-time whomping, and a hysterical midsong break that functions as a graphic reminder of what a talent show including the Replacements used to be like. Such touches are genuine marks of brilliance: if you care at all about the Replacements, you thrill vicariously to the drama of their quest for stardom. Like Springsteen, Westerberg has masterfully finessed a dicey issue and turned it into a facet of his mythmaking.

The show started instead with Westerberg's bruising critique of trendies, "Color Me Impressed." From the start, the volume was amazingly loud, so loud that any aspiring hipsters in the audience (who of course would not be familiar with 1983's Hootenanny) wouldn't have got the joke. But the point was made, leaving Westerberg's conscience free to explode into "Talent Show."

It took a long time to accustom oneself to the volume and the density of the sound mix. The band was clearly enjoying itself from the first moments (Westerberg ostentatiously patted himself on the back after "I Don't Know"); word had been that a couple of earlier midwest shows had been terrible, and there was a weird rumor that Westerberg had hit someone, or someone had hit him, or he had got into a fight of some sort, two nights previous. Still, the sound was quite undifferentiated (it reminded me at times of the Headbangers Ball show, with Anthrax, at the Aragon a couple of months ago), and you couldn't hear a word of what the band were saying between songs. Less than astute song choices--"I Don't Know," for one, and also "Favorite Thing," both anonymous rockers--didn't help.

Of the first dozen songs, only "The Ledge" stood out. No other song so well illustrates how erratic is Westerberg's talent. Don't get me wrong: "The Ledge" is an amazing piece of work. But its subject--teen suicide--is of a piece with a lot of Westerberg's worst. Those "soft" songs--"Skyway," particularly--deal in sentimentality the way Stinson plays his bass: without a great deal of subtlety. It's difficult to call the Replacements on this, because any complaint about the quiet stuff tends to sound like those "sellout" charges. But I don't have any problems with the Replacements doing soft songs: I just have a problem with bad soft songs. Ditties like "Here Comes a Regular," a morose, bathetic song about barflies, don't even warrant the jeering "James Taylor" label Stinson gives them.

"The Ledge," however, is dangerous material explored faultlessly. On record, the song was among other things a demonstration of Westerberg's guitar prowess. (With Bob Stinson gone, Westerberg played almost all the solos on Pleased to Meet Me, making a convincing case for himself as a great guitar primitive, again a la Springsteen.) Westerberg's native idiom is the teen language of desperation, heartbreak, loneliness, and sardonicism. All of these meet in "The Ledge." "I'm the boy they can't ignore," wails Westerberg. Live, the song was stratospheric, marred only by Stinson's high harmony on the last words, which were sung in a key from some other planet.

Forty-five minutes into the set, the band seemed finally to find its footing. On "I Will Dare," his career-making triumph from Let It Be, Westerberg let Dunlap play Stinson's guitar solo, but on "I'll Be You" he proprietarily pounded out the grand grunge chords himself. After a cover of the Only Ones' "Another Girl, Another Planet," the band reclaimed "Can't Hardly Wait"--another "sellout" tune that appeared on Pleased to Meet Me complete with a lousy horn track--as an arena rocker. They finished the set with their cover of Kiss's "Black Diamond" from Let It Be and Westerberg's striking "Unsatisfied."

An extraordinary encore--"Darlin' One," "Bastards of Young," an edgy "Here Comes a Regular," "Valentine," and finally, at earsplitting volume, Westerberg's two masterpieces from Pleased, "Never Mind" and "Alex Chilton"--ended the show. Westerberg's musical roots, of course, lean more to the Raspberries than Kiss: he's always attempted on record to re-create that dense, wistful, early-70s sound that winds leisurely up from the 60s through the work of the Left Banke into Big Star, Todd Rundgren, and of course the Raspberries. "Darlin' One" and "Never Mind" are two of his later efforts. "Darlin' One," from the new album, is a nice attempt on record, an opening swirl right out of the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows"; surprisingly, the live version beat it all to hell. "Never Mind," Westerberg's epic statement of lost energy (or nerve), may be (along with "Left of the Dial" from Tim) his definitive recorded achievement: it's a dreamy, melodic thriller with a flawless vocal track. At the Aragon it was followed perfectly by "Alex Chilton," Westerberg's impossibly conceived ode to the former leader of the Box Tops and Big Star. Beginning with a concussive slam, the song takes its ludicrous conceit ("Children by the millions / Wait for Alex Chilton / To come around") and sends it up to heaven--and at the volume the Replacements did it at this show, I'm sure God heard every word.

Me, I wonder what kind of stardom Paul Westerberg wants. The show was too noisy to be considered a sell-out, too safe not to be. It uncharacteristically featured only three covers--the two already mentioned and "Cruella De Ville" from 101 Dalmatians, the Replacements' contribution to the Stay Awake compilation--none of them new. The band seems to be groping its way toward a sort of stardom that may not exist anymore. More than R.E.M. or even U2, both of which turned out to be extremely conventional rock bands, the Replacements are throwbacks. Westerberg's a mythmaker, not a pop star: if the rock era, whatever that was, is indeed over, the Replacements, instead of being the last, best band of the 80s, may turn out to be the last rock 'n' roll band, period. Westerberg must have an inkling of this: on the new record, he sings, "Take me by the hand and raise a toast / To a rock 'n' roll ghost." I'll buy.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Natkin--Photo Reserve.

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