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2014/02/16

The Replacements

by Dave Gourdoux


In the late 70s, one of the great cultural explosions shook rock and roll at its very foundation and changed it forever.  The emergence of punk rock was a true revolution. Bands like the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, and the Clash made raw and angry and uncompromising music that was a direct response and declaration of war against "slick" superstars like The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac.  Even though the movement lasted only about three years, it changed the musical landscape forever. Through the punks, rock and roll rediscovered the rebellion that it lost in the bloated and narcissistic days and glittering nights of the me-decade.

Out of the rubble of this war, in the unlikely middle of the country, far removed from the coastal epicenters of the exploding culture, four unexceptional teenage boys, self described “dirt bags,” were finding each other at the same time they were discovering the joys of drugs and alcohol.  The Replacements were born.

Self-described "dirt bags," the original lineup
Starting out as just another unassuming garage band getting local gigs playing covers of Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, and Yes, the Replacements quickly discovered punk, and added covers of songs by the Clash and The Jam to their act.  Soon they signed a contract with a small record label, with guitarist and lead singer Paul Westerberg emerging as a talented songwriter with a knack for catchy hooks and melodies.

Their first album, “Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash” was well received, if not broadly distributed.  What critical attention it did receive praised Westerberg’s songwriting and the band’s distinctive sound.  An EP titled “Stink” shortly followed.  They were beginning to gain a following that stretched beyond the borders of their hometown Minneapolis/Saint Paul, and establishing themselves as either the greatest or the worst live act ever, depending on how much alcohol they’d consumed on any given night.

“Hootenanny” followed, showing a more mature sound and further growth in Westerberg’s songwriting.  In 1984, they released “Let it Be,” which, in my humble opinion, is their masterpiece; musically a Midwest American equivalent of the Rolling Stones “Exile on Main Street,” while lyrically and thematically the best and most profound articulation of what it means to be an adolescent male ever recorded.  It showcases "the mats," as they referred to themselves, outgrowing the limited emotional range of their punk influences, while staying true to the punk aesthetics of raw honesty.

Westerberg’s songwriting range had almost exponentially expanded overnight.  Musically, the songs on “Let it Be” cover an extraordinary range, and with his razor sharp lyrics and his voice that cracked at all the right moments, he demonstrates a confidence in his own gifts that was previously shaky, at best.  The band sounds great on “Let it Be,” tight and loud on the rockers, and emotive and feeling on the ballads, but always with an edge.

The album opens with “I Will Dare,” a jaunty Westerberg composition featuring a guest shot from Peter Buck of R.E.M. on guitar.  It begins with the lyric “How young are you / how old am I / let’s count the rings behind my eyes” introducing a theme that would dominate the album, the confusing and tormenting passage from adolescence to adulthood.  Next is a tight rocker called “My Favorite Thing” that includes a great bass line from Tommy Stinson, followed by the raucous rocker “We’re Coming Out,” its furious pace suddenly shifting tempo as Westerberg sings, “One more chance to get it all wrong,” as the song gradually builds back to its frenetic finish.  Next up is another rocker, “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out,” another fast paced but ultimately forgettable rocker.

Up to this point, it’s been a good, unassuming rock and roll record, with some good guitar riffs and amusing lyrics.  It’s the next song , “Androgynous,” that takes “Let it Be” to the stratosphere.  Nothing in the mats' catalog to this point hinted that they were capable of such sophistication and sensitivity and brilliance.


The song opens with Westerberg on piano playing (or trying to play - part of the charm of the song are the frequent mistakes he makes) an infectious little melody.  Then his voice sings the lines:

                                 Here comes Dick, he's wearing a skirt
                                 Here comes Jane, she's sporting a chain

At this point, you’re thinking, Westerberg is setting us up for another of his caustically funny songs. That’s when he takes a sudden and surprising turn, getting to the chorus:

                                  And they love each other so
                                  Androgynous
                                  Closer than you know, love each other so
                                  Androgynous

It’s a love song!  Westerberg sees, in his cross dressing couple, real love, and shows sincere empathy for the pain and suffering they must endure:

                                  Don’t get him wrong and don’t get him mad
                                  He might be a father but he sure ain’t a dad
                                  And she don’t need advice that’ll center her
                                  She’s happy with the way she looks
                                  She's happy with her gender

I can’t think of a more succinct and powerful way to articulate the anguish that must be felt and the ridicule that has to be tolerated as the couple struggles to forge an identity.
The song continues, building to an emotional peak:

                                Now something meets Boy, and something meets Girl
                                They both look the same
                                They're overjoyed in this world
                                Same hair, revolution
                                Unisex, evolution
                                Tomorrow who's gonna fuss
                                And tomorrow Dick is wearing pants
                                And tomorrow Janie's wearing a dress
                                Future outcasts and they don't last
                                And today, the people dress the way that they please
                                The way they tried to do in the last centuries

There is so much going on in this verse, it's hard to believe it's all part of a three minute song on a Replacements album.  With the lyric "tomorrow who's gonna fuss," Westerberg is hinting of a future with greater tolerance of sexual identity.   But then he says "tomorrow Dick is wearing pants" and "Janie's wearing  a dress," hinting that they'll resign to their traditional roles.  Yet you never get the impression that this is just a phase Dick and Jane are going through; it's defeat, it's resignation.

Westerberg's piano playing, the flawed playing of a guy who is a guitar player first, is as rough and raw as his voice, and both are perfect for the song.  Listen to the song and compare it to one of the Boston songs; "More Than a Feeling," for example.  While the Boston song is perfectly played and sung, "Androgynous" is as raw as an open wound.  Where Boston puts a wall of sound between the listener and the song, "Androgynous" is intimate and personal.  Boston puts you in the stadium at one of their concerts, while Westerberg puts the listener in the same room with him.   It sounds like he is discovering the song at the same time the listener is.  It's this intimacy and immediacy that separates The Replacements from not only Boston, but all but a handful of other acts.
Paul Westerberg
This is followed by another unlikely track, the mats’ cover of the Kiss song, “Black Diamond”.  It's quite a contrast to "Androgynous", and serves its purpose of reestablishing the hard rock feel of most of the album. It’s high energy and tightly played, but also forgettable, a bit of a throw away.

Next up is the achingly emotional "Unsatisfied."  It begins with acoustic 12 string guitar and then soars with Westerberg’s voice, crackling and popping more frequently than a bowl of Rice Krispies.  The song is about dissatisfaction in general, about growing older and realizing dreams and desires yet remaining unsatisfied. The lyrics are simple and uncomplicated, but Westerberg's voice as he sings "I’m so, I’m so , I’m so unsatisfied" contains such emotional depth that you can feel the emptiness he is experiencing.  It's one of  the greatest vocal performances by one of the all time great rock and roll voices.


"Seen Your Video” is next, largely an instrumental with some great guitar riffs playing off of each other.  The Replacements were famous for their hatred of videos, this in the heyday of MTV.  The only lyrics are:                              
               All day, all night, all music video
               Seen your video, the phony rock 'n' roll
               We don't want to know, seen your video
               Your phony rock 'n' roll
               We don't want to know

The next song, “Gary’s Got a Boner,” serves as testimony that the Replacements could still be as crude and immature as ever.  All I can say about this one is that it rocks and that the band makes a good noise.
Westerberg’s sensitive side reappears on the next track.  “Sixteen Blue” is about another misfit, this one a sixteen year old boy who doesn't understand any of the sexuality swirling about around and within him, and his fear in admitting he’s not getting it:

             Drive yourself right up the wall
             No one hears and no one calls
             It's a boring state
             It's a useless wait, I know

             
Brag about things you don't understand
             A girl and a woman, a boy and a man
             Everything is sexually vague
             Now you're wondering to yourself
             If you might be gay

            Your age is the hardest age
            Everything drags and drags
            One day, baby, maybe help you through
            Sixteen blue
            Sixteen blue
            Drive your ma to the bank
            Tell your pa you got a date
            You're lying, now you're lying on your back

            Try to figure out, they wonder what next you'll pull
            You don't understand anything sexual
            I don't understand
            Tell my friends I'm doing fine

            Your age is the hardest age
            Everything drags and drags
            You're looking funny
            You ain't laughing, are you?
            Sixteen blue
            Sixteen blue

A song for sixteen year old boys that expresses doubt and confusion about sex and identity?  Just listen to a few Kiss songs to see how radical a concept this was.  It serves as testimony to a musical integrity that the Replacements held on to beneath their drunken, hard rocking dirt bag exterior.  When it came to their music, they remained relentlessly and surprisingly true and honest, and while they may have been willing to compromise the quality of their live performances with alcohol and drugs, their recordings reveal a different perspective.

“Answering Machine” closes the album out, and again it’s just Westerberg’s electric guitar and tormented vocals, with some answering machine tapes thrown in for good measure.  Westerberg’s guitar playing is as extraordinary and emotive as his voice, as he asks, “How do you say I miss you to an answering machine?” and “How do you say good night to an answering machine?”  and “How do you say I’m lonely to an answering machine?”  “Answering Machine” is another example of Westerberg willing to lay himself bare.   His lyrics and his voice reveal a vulnerability that the punk rock sensibility was incapable of expressing and that the big acts were unwilling to admit.   At a time when everyone else seemed more interested in perpetuating their own mythology, Westerberg and the Replacements were just regular jerks like you and I, trying to make some sense of the world and our own insecurities and anxieties.



With “Let It Be,” the Replacements found their place in the world.  It was in their fans' mirrors, looking back at the confused and lonely Midwestern boys who stared in at them. 

By expanding the emotional range of punk, the Replacements are considered to be one of the first and most important of the “alternative” bands that would become so big in the late 80s and 90s.  It could also be argued that they were the first “grunge” band, pre-dating Nirvana by approximately a decade.

The Replacments released a lot more great music in the 80s, but “Let it Be” is not only the best, it’s the last with the original lineup of Westerberg, Bob and Tommy Stinson, and Chris Mars.  After gong through several lineup changes, the Replacements famously split up during a concert broadcast by WXRT in Chicago on July 4th, 1991, one by one handing their instruments to roadies who took their place, until the Replacements were replaced by their replacements. 

Westerberg has gone on to a mildly successful solo career, never achieving the popularity his brilliance as a songwriter and performer always promised.  Tommy Stinson went on to become the bass player for the post-Slash lineup of Guns N’ Roses.  Bob Stinson died in 1995 at the age of 34 years old after years of drug and alcohol abuse.

The Replacements have reformed from time to time, in various lineups, recording two new songs in 2006 for a greatest hits collection, and playing a few gigs in 2013.  Rumors about a new studio album persist.  

Stinson’s death is an important reminder of the role drugs and alcohol played in the legend of the Replacements.  Their exploits while under the influence are a part of rock and roll mythology, and there is no doubt that most of the legends are true.  Without the abuse of chemicals, the Replacements wouldn't have been the Replacements.

Westerberg quit drinking around the time the mats were breaking up.  His entire solo career has seen him as a recovering alcoholic, and there is much speculation amongst critics if this is the reason his solo work hasn't been as successful as expected. The theory is that by giving up the bottle he lost his edge.  In fact, one critic, while panning one of his solo albums, went so far as to write that he wished Westerberg would fall off the wagon.

This strikes me as irresponsible and lazy thinking.   While it may be true that Westerberg's solo work hasn't been as edgy as his work with the mats, there's no denying that he's continued to produce some great songs ("Runaway Wind," "Love Untold," and "Lush and Green" immediately come to mind as favorites).  If Westerberg's solo work doesn't have the same impact, there are several other explanations.  For starters, the role the other band members played in creating the distinctive sound and the magic of The Replacements cannot be underestimated.  One needs to look no further than the solo careers of the Beatles as a comparison. Finally, Westerberg and the Replacements burned bright for a short time, a time when they were all young men singing about things that mattered to young men.  It's to his credit that in his solo work, Westerberg has tried to move on and not attempt to recreate what he isn't anymore.

We all seem to love recounting the legends of wild behavior and excess that defines the relationship between rock and roll and chemical abuse.  But anyone who has experienced addiction, or been put through the anguish of having a friend or family member afflicted, knows the truth; that while the stories of drunken excess may on the surface seem amusing and iconoclastic, the reality is the pain and agony addiction inflicts is hideous and destructive to everyone within its reach.  Perpetuators of the rock and roll mythology need to remember this, that while Keith Moon of the Who may have once driven a car into an empty Holiday Inn swimming pool, that same Keith Moon, just like Bob Stinson of the Replacements, and Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix and an insanely long list of others, is dead now.  The world is a lesser place without their gifts.  “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” Neil Young famously wrote, but those aren't the only two options available.  It’s better to recover and continue to burn bright.

For more information, visit the Replacements' official web site:  http://thereplacementsofficial.com/pages/home

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