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Replacements: rock for the wary generation

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I got this bizarre queasy feeling last week while driving down Highway 61 in Minnesota. The Replacements' sixth album, Pleased to Meet Me, was blasting through my sister's boom box, and like most of their recent sold-out show at the Riviera, it sounded just great--more than inspirational, a little over the edge, and neither larger nor smaller than life.

Pleased to Meet Me, an album's worth of tough and tender insights about self-authentication in an age of ambiguity, arrives in a boom year for false prophets peddling "feelings" for fun and profit. Christ, you know it ain't easy when the Ollie North Youth Brigade gets bigger than Jesus and threatens to overtake Madonna. Just as Sgt. Pepper has been turned into the latest Cuisinart accessory, the Nike shoe company and the Reagan administration have ensured that while the revolution will not be televised, the counterrevolution will dominate prime time.

In my most disturbing daydreams, like the one last week, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable subverts the idea of integrity itself by turning it into another marketing concept. Real people, my television tells me, eat real food, support real leaders, and listen to real music. In Miller Beer's lexicon, "real music" includes bands like the Del Fuegos, whose collective stupidity ensures their passionate pursuit of dumb fun, and the Long Ryders, whose collective smarts flirt with established country-rock traditions. "You don't have to be the greatest musician," a Long Ryder proclaims, "you just have to mean it."

I hear the Replacements snickering. Mean it? Mean what? "We mean it, maaan," scowled Johnny Rotten a decade ago, tearing down pillars with a single sneer. These days, with my skepticism starting to subvert my passionate pursuit of dumb fun, every burst of "sincerity" from Bonzo to Bono makes me wonder if we're just glossing over the nihilistic heart of the Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle. Even the "Draft Jesus" movements are going nowhere fast; would-be saviors like Paul Simon (either one, actually), Mario Cuomo, and Bruce Springsteen have wisely cautioned their flocks against blind hero worship.

Pleased to Meet Me captures why our world cannot reclaim the innocent hero worship that Meet the Beatles once inspired. In the blank generation, the kids have replaceable heads; they're substitutes for other guys; they're Everybody and Nobody, as interested in meeting themselves as they are in meeting us.

What's magical about the Replacements is that despite all the above, they sound like they mean it, man. They sound this way for two reasons. First, front man Paul Westerberg, whom I once considered an idiot savant, has become one of the most sensitive singer-songwriters talking about his generation. Second, if you said this to his face, he'd pour a beer in your lap.

How do they mean it? Let me count the ways.

1. New Sensations

One foot in the door, the other one in the gutter,

The sweet smell that they adore, I think I'd rather smother.

--"I Don't Know" (1987)

Like Robert Johnson and Mick Jagger before him, Paul Westerberg is going to stand there and yowl his gonads off until he gets satisfied. For Johnson this meant beating his woman; for Jagger it meant buying a condo in Malibu. For the underconfident Westerberg, equal parts cynic and romantic, there's the scary recognition that every imaginable way out just might be another swindle. Rock noises sound like an escape when you're 18 and don't know what you want, but what can a sound say years later, when you've gotten where you thought you wanted to be and still don't know what you really want?

The Replacements ought to know. Even as the Minneapolis teens who put out 1981's Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash, they were in love with the sound of songs, but suspicious of the power of music to falsify their feelings. On the first two albums, this meant piling on disposable thrash tunes out of fear that someone might actually take them seriously. That the Replacements were such an atrocious hardcore outfit may have saved them from becoming slaves to an attitude; it forced Westerberg to dig deeper and find the gentler, more disturbing harmonies in his head. By now, the Replacements have breathed new life into old rock riffs and myths, spotlighting the funny-sad-poignant musings of a mannish boy who can't decide whether he's queasy from terminal childishness or premature senility.

The Riviera show confirmed that this band still delights in driving past the Stop 'n' Shop with the radio on, in love with the modern world and afraid of it as well. The Replacements launched into pop ephemera ranging from Vanity Fair's "Hitchin' a Ride" to the Georgia Satellites' "Battleship Chains" as if the songs were three-minute epiphanies. But this is no dumbo covers band. Dissatisfied with both the stifling corporatism of mainstream radio (they seek refuge "left of the dial") and with the insular trendiness of indie alternatives ("Everybody's dressing funny, color me impressed!"), the Replacements stake out new territory whenever they dare. They want the airwaves, but only on their own terms--and they're still trying to figure out the terms.

The new album's "Alex Chilton," an irresistible three-minute epiphany that would win a Grammy if life were fair, rouses me out of my agnostic slump like nothing else this summer. Try to remember the moment after you first heard Motown or Buddy Holly or the Beatles or the Velvets. New sensations give you these queasy happy-sad feelings that fill the empty spaces between your thoughts. When you get them, a song becomes more than just a morass of words and chords; it becomes a sound track for part of your life. "Alex Chilton" is the theme song to my latest sound track. From the power-chorded opening through the dreamy midsection to the ecstatic ending, there's this mood of desperate yearning that makes me want to dance. So did most of the Riviera crowd, even though there really wasn't room.

Of course, the dark underside of "Alex Chilton" is that it's a paean to a master of three-minute epiphanies whose most magic moments have never graced pop radio. Chilton's trademark band, the ironically named Big Star, recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis. Big Star played the only sort of desperate, yearning pop left open to a band willing to stare down the modernist void. On their strongest works, like the baffling Third, Big Star serenaded the Age of Deconstruction like Beach Boys sinking into quicksand.

Chilton devotees from way back, the Replacements tracked down Jim Dickinson, who coproduced Third, and went to Ardent Studios to record Pleased to Meet Me. If it's a shade more disciplined than previous Replacements outings, this only accentuates the band's chaotic heart by stripping away the superfluous dreck. From the rock 'em, sock 'em speed rock of "I.O.U." to the Memphis soul of "Can't Hardly Wait," the band really sounds like it can't wait.

I'm not trying to turn the Replacements into the Jesuses of anything, or even to say that they have more on the ball than certain other precocious shlubs from Minneapolis who've given me manic pop thrills this year. Westerberg's not a visceral virtuoso like Husker Du's Bob Mould or an exotic perfectionist like Prince or a cosmic intellectualoid like those Harvard-types in Trip Shakespeare. Nor does he try to be like any of these.

When the chips are counted, the Replacements' saving graces are empathy and humor, especially in tandem. Over and over, Westerberg has nursed his open wounds by keeping us in stitches. "Hold my life until I'm ready to use it--because I just might lose it." "Brag about things you don't understand; girl a woman, boy a man." "If you were a pill, I'd take a handful at my will." "How do you say "I'm lonely' to an answering machine?" Now, those quips are clever enough to deserve comparison to professional Witty Guys such as Cole Porter or Elvis Costello, but Westerberg never sounds as if he's trying to dazzle us with wordplay. In the best Jagger-Johnson tradition, the words come out because he just can't help it. Depression leavened with humor is simply his way of having the blues.

2. Taking Out the Trash

I'll write you a letter tomorrow,

Tonight I can't hold a pen.

--"Can't Hardly Wait" (1987)

Ever since the first Elvis exhorted the boys to "get real, real gone for a change," most musicians haven't known what to make of the contradiction between rock and roll. How gone is gone, and when you're gone, where do you go? Is there a difference between being gone and being lost?

Too often in the past, the live Replacements got so far gone that they were totally lost. Goaded on by the recently fired lead guitarist Bob Stinson, a self-destructive jokester, the band sometimes became a walking, stumbling advertisement for any detox center you can imagine. The first replacement Replacement is Slim Dunlap, a comparatively (and only comparatively) sober team player. Slim probably won't show up naked for encores or insist on playing the Green Acres theme song.

Those who expected a PMRC-approved version of the Replacements to show up at the Riviera were asking too much. The band still blew a few chord changes, and they still took long enough between songs to become honorary Deadheads. Westerberg's slurred delivery sometimes made R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe sound like Edwin Newman, and nobody was really sure if he sang new lyrics to old songs out of inspiration or because he forgot the words (a bit of both, I suspect). The PA system kept fading in and out. Where would a Replacements show be without technical problems?

But don't jump to conclusions. Without Bob there to keep things fast, loud, and stoopid, the band was free to play the mid-tempo classics and affecting ballads that have been their best efforts for years. Most of the show rocked like crazy, but when Westerberg cut the tempo for the slow, sad ones, only a few head-banging lunkheads seemed disappointed. By the time two triumphant encores were over, the concert had gotten real, real gone. Not far gone, but real gone.

3. Someday They'll Be Dignified and Old

I don't wanna die before my time--

I've already used eight of my lives.

--"Take Me Down to the Hospital" (1983)

As with many great rockers, the Replacements wonder what--and whether--they're going to be when they grow up. If you're Paul McCartney, you dream of becoming a sappy 64-year-old middlebrow with a house on Penny Lane. If you're Pete Townshend or Iggy Pop or Neil Young, you preach about epic endings while in practice you go write novels or play golf or wander aimlessly in the desert.

Like some of his most memorable characters--a deserted mother, a suicidal teen--Westerberg worries all the time about what might happen when the jokes run out. With so many of popular culture's would-be heroes either dead or dying a living death, he's understandably wary when Warner Brothers wants his band to become the next Rolling Stones. They've been in that league for at least three years, but maybe they bungle a chord or two just to avoid the confrontation. Sure, they nodded (out?) to the Stones at the Riviera show, but only to warn that "if you don't gimme shelter, I'm gonna fade away."

For now, the Replacements have postponed their own self-destruction with a strong dose of humility. But I don't know how long they can keep it up. To paraphrase T-Bone Burnett, the funny thing about humility is that as soon as you know you're being humble, you're no longer humble.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Greg Helgeson.

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