Sunday, April 20, 2008

Peter Jesperson: The Teenage Kicks Interview (Part Two)

In the second installment of our interview, Teenage Kicks and Peter talk about The Replacements in their incandescent prime.

Teenage Kicks: The Replacements seemed to want to be Rod Stewart and The Faces. The drinking, the attitude, the haircuts, the rock star outfits, the vocal style, the incredible songwriting. Did you sense that? Even though they marched to their own drummer, they certainly seemed like they wanted to conquer the world.

Peter: Well… yeah. That brings to mind a couple of things. One thing is I have a note on my desk to remind myself of something David Fricke wrote about The Faces in their box set where he referred to them as “happy, roaring imprecision,” and I thought that could really apply to The Replacements. So yeah, The Faces were a major influence, but also, one of those sets of liner notes I was just re-reading for the first batch [of reissues], which I just got finished copies of yesterday. I was on the edge of my chair for a couple of hours waiting for the messenger to arrive, because I was so excited to see them – I felt like a 12 year old. The liner notes for Sorry Ma were written by our old friend Dave Ayers. Dave was a music fan in Minneapolis who wrote about The Replacements early on and I think was the first person to review Sorry Ma for the Minnesota Daily, which was the University of Minnesota paper. He also did the very first in-depth, kind of serious interview with Paul. He was part of the scene in Minneapolis, hung around our record store a lot, and then we eventually hired him to work at Twin/Tone. He’s now at Chrysalis publishing in New York and is just a fantastic guy, one of the truly great people in the record business. He wrote in his liner notes for Sorry Ma that this is a band that wanted as badly to be The Raspberries as Johnny Thunders’ Heartbreakers. So I think if you mention The Faces, The Raspberries and Johnny Thunder’s Heartbreakers, you really do have the essence of what drove The Replacements, or what The Replacements admired collectively as a group at the beginning. Of course, that doesn’t take into account Bob [Stinson, the band’s founding guitarist, who died in 1995] loving Johnny Winter and Yes. In a very general way that’s what you heard in the root of The Replacements.

Those are important ones, especially The Raspberries [which] points out one thing that a lot of people miss about Westerberg, and that’s that he loved Top 40 radio and he wanted to have hits. He wasn’t a guy that just wanted to be a cool underground rock singer. Riding with him in the van, he was a button pusher. He was always just looking for the song.

TK: That segues nicely into my next question. Westerberg was/is a complex character who rarely gave a straight answer, but he has always been forthright about his affection for fluffy Top 40 fare from the 1960s and 70s. Listed among the bonus material for the Let It Be reissue is a cover of “Heartbeat (It’s a Lovebeat).” First, is that as great as we imagine? And second, is it possible that Paul actually is Tony DeFranco, and that he made a Chilton-esque Box Tops-to-Big Star career move when he formed the ‘Mats?

PJ: Let’s take the second part first – maybe that’s best left a mystery… I don’t know. As for “Heartbeat,” they did it live a lot, but this is a studio recording and yeah it’s great. I think this is one where the recording maybe isn’t as great as some of the live versions that I remember, whereas say “Rock Around The Clock,” which is a bonus track on Stink, they really captured something, a crazy, wild performance. It’s one of those ones that’s got, like eight finales, where they keep ending and coming back in with a different ending. It’s really quite dramatic and funny. So anyway, it’s a great “Heartbeat (It’s A Lovebeat).”

TK: The first record has moments of incredible transcendence and also a lot of calamity, both of which endeared The Replacements to fans. When I first heard the record, I had no idea there was this all-time great band in there waiting to bust out. You seemed to know that. Was that instinct, having faith when others may have not?

PJ: This is sort of a two part question. When one listens to the album, I think there is a lot of calamity, but also, in the middle of it all, there’s “Johnny’s Gonna Die,” which I think is pretty undeniable as something that’s not just a loud, fast teen angst sort of song. For whatever reason, it was instant for me. I guess I’ve said this before, if I’ve ever had a magical moment in music, and I feel like I’ve had many and I have them almost weekly, but one of the great ones in my life was putting that Replacements cassette in for the first time and it was just like being struck by lightning. I was just floored and the first thing I did, after barely finishing the first song, was I got on the phone and called my three best music buddies at the time – a girl I was dating and two other guys. I said you gotta come down here right away, because either I’m nuts or this is the greatest thing since the Rolling Stones, or something like that. I had a very visceral, immediate reaction. I’ve listened carefully for a long time, so maybe I have a little of, I don’t know, without trying to sound like I’m patting myself on the back, I’m a specialist, I’m sort of an expert in these things, it’s what I’ve done all my life. I don’t know much about anything else, but rock and roll’s my thing. I definitely heard something immediately. I think the other thing that was astounding to me was that I felt that all the ingredients were there. This isn’t like, hey, if they work on this and this and this, they’re gonna be really good someday. It was “Oh my god!” it’s all there – the singing, the songs, the playing, the attitude, the sense of humor… I mean it was all there. And of course, some of it was developed and got stronger as time went on, but that’s what was so astounding. I really did feel like - is somebody playing a joke on me? I kept thinking somebody was going to jump out of the bushes and say “ha, ha, ha, just kidding, you can’t work with these guys, they’re already signed to Warner Brothers. We were trying to test you or pull your leg.” It was absolutely astounding to me. I think that anybody who listened closely and was a rock and roll fan would have heard it … Again, it’s in the liner notes of Sorry Ma, I think the first thing that really leapt out at me was in that version of the first song which was “Raised in The City” (it’s the first bonus track on Sorry Ma) and you can hear Paul sing a line that didn’t end up on the final version of the cut on Sorry Ma, but he’s saying “I got a honey with a nice tight rear, she gets rubber in all four gears.” It just flipped me out. I thought “oh my god, this is like a dirty, updated version of Chuck Berry.” And the other funny thing, and I remember this so distinctly, ‘cause I had been listening to a bunch of stuff the day that I played this Replacements tape. I had a box of submissions and at that time, the Twin/Tone label was two years old and I also DJ’d at The Longhorn and I was kind of a quasi booking advisor as well, so I was getting tapes for both. The lines got blurred to what were people giving me tapes for, so I didn’t always know and I remember sitting in the office at the record store that day and popping in tapes – because I had a bunch of stuff pile up on me and I was feeling guilty, I thought I gotta listen to a bunch of stuff while I was doing paperwork for the store. So I was listening to one cassette after another, and most of them you listen to for a couple of minutes, make your decision and move on one way or the other. I have this distinct sensation that there were so many things that sounded like The Stooges and I thought, why is it that in May of 1980 a bunch of people are sounding like The Stooges? Of course, it’s not a bad thing to sound like, but it was very derivative and maybe it could have just been the scene centered around Minneapolis and our store at the time because we were obviously big Stooges/Iggy fans, but anyway, I thought that was kind of funny. The first thing I thought of when I heard The Replacements was Chuck Berry and I think that’s significant. It wasn’t like they sounded like The Sex Pistols or REM or The Soft Boys. It reminded me of Chuck Berry and there’s something very iconic about what The Replacements do that they share with Chuck Berry. It’s primal, it’s basic and it’s universal.

TK: Yet it’s so hard to be good at that simplicity and if anyone can ever figure out that equation they’ll make a million dollars.

PJ: It’s like that great John Lennon quote where they asked “To what do you attribute your enormous success?” and he said “Well if I knew I’d form another group and be a manager.”

TK: It was certainly different, looking backwards and forwards at the same time.

PJ: I’m not saying that they just sounded like Chuck Berry, but there was that element that was the first thing that got its hooks in me. There was also all kinds of very contemporary elements, because in some ways they wanted to play the game a little bit. Or not play the game, but ‘OK how do we fit in.?’ And you fit in by sort of being punk or hardcore at that time.

TK: Talk about playing the game… it seemed like The Replacements didn’t care about anything, yet cared about everything. It was the thing that made them great, but also what may have prevented them from reaching the Tom Petty fans and the folks that didn’t hear a lot of underground music.

PJ: And that right there might be why they weren’t able to reach the Tom Petty fans because they were uncompromising and I think that they frequently shot themselves in the foot. There’s something that was written once that I can’t ever articulate, that I would just refer you to, and I imagine you have that Warner compilation from 1997 called All For Nothing, Nothing For All. In the liner notes in the booklet, the second to last of the notes is written by Gina Arnold and she wrote about how The Replacements were a perfect model of integrity, but how is it that somebody could be filled with integrity when they had a guitar player playing in a diaper and they were frequently falling down drunk? She explains it there better than I can and I’d just refer you to that. So you can read that and that says something that I can’t quite articulate about how they refused to play the game and yet they wanted to have big hits.

TK: As the guy running the label trying to sell these guys, how did you feel about that?

PJ: It went with the territory and also, I’ve learned some great lessons, going from Twin/Tone to New West. I think I’ve been fortunate to have those two experiences, because at Twin/Tone, I was the third owner and my two partners pretty much gave me carte blanche as far as what artists to bring in, and so I was allowed to follow my heart, and because of it nearly put the company out of business 15 or 20 times. Whereas now, at New West, we have an actual business to mind and it’s part of my job to find artists that are artistically strong but also function as a real business which involves trying to make money for the artist and the label. But, yeah, when I was at Twin/Tone with The Replacements, there was a lot of stuff that would be frustrating for a minute but then I would stand back and look at it and laugh and say “But this is so utterly Replacements-esque.” If they didn’t do some of this dumbass shit… it was just the whole package that was so fascinating.

TK: The Replacements went through a remarkable progression, from “Dope Smoking Moron” (from Stink) to “Within Your Reach” (Hootenanny) in a span of just twelve months. What was the song where you knew the band was something special?

PJ: I think it happened several times, but the song where I really knew this was a monumental situation was when Paul handed me the tape of “You’re Getting Married.” It cemented everything I thought and hoped was true about this band and this artist. I thought these guys are so amazing, and then he gave me that song, and my brain couldn’t even comprehend how great that song was. And we get to put that on the Stink reissue. When I put the tracks out there, I practically held my breath for a couple of weeks waiting to find out if Paul was gonna allow that one to see the light of day. It’s one of those things that’s very personal, very raw and yet it’s one of the greatest things he ever did both in terms of composition and in terms of performance. When he green-lighted that, I might have screamed out loud. That was the one. To me, it’s the holy grail of unreleased Paul Westerberg songs.

TK: Was “Answering Machine” always intended to be Paul alone or a killer demo that you couldn’t improve on?

PJ: He always saw that as a solo song. And, in fact, it was one of those things that the band didn’t perform for a long time. [At first, it] was a solo Paul thing, then little by little they attempted it at soundchecks and then they threw it out there at a show where there wasn’t a lot of people in the audience, and finally it ended up being a live favorite later on. Initially it was a very private solo song and I think that Paul thought that it just might be that way forever. It ended being something they started playing live because so many loved the song.

TK: What’s the story behind “Black Diamond”? It seems like a brilliant but unlikely cover.

PJ: There’s a couple things about that – I remember very clearly driving in the van to play a show at a place called The Cabooze in Minneapolis, which had been sort of a biker bar to some extent on the West Bank of the Mississippi. We were driving over there one night and I remember Tommy kind of tittering in the back as I was driving the van saying “We learned a new song at practice and you don’t know what it is.” He was sort of taunting me with “I know something you don’t know,” and he was clearly very excited about it. And then they performed the song, and I knew their material inside and out, so when they did something I hadn’t heard, it really stuck out. So I went “Oh here’s the song Tommy’s talking about” and I listened to the whole song but I didn’t know what it was. I just didn’t know Kiss that well, but it was fantastic. It was bombastic, kind of a huge arena rock type of song and I loved it, but afterwards I had to say “So that was really cool – what was it?” And Paul or Tommy said that was a song by Kiss and I just laughed and said “Well you sure did make it your own.” And then, when we went into the studio to record what became Let It Be, we threw down a lot of ideas and then you work on what sounds best when you play it back. They had thrown down a number of covers – there was “Heartbeat (It’s A Love Beat),” there was “Temptation Eyes,” there was “20th Century Boy” and there was “Black Diamond” – there might have been one or two more that I’m forgetting or some that were erased. I remember when we were starting to select the songs for the album, the two strongest things were “20th Century Boy” and “Black Diamond” and I remember suggesting to the band that “20th Century Boy” is great but it’s hip and it’s expected, while “Black Diamond” is great and it’s completely unhip and totally unexpected and I think this is the one that should go on the album and everybody agreed. At the time, it hadn’t come around to where it was cool to play Kiss songs. I remember around that same time, being in New York and playing Irving Plaza and being up in the VIP section and there was some super hipsters up there. I remember the band walking on stage and I was always thinking “OK, are they gonna come on and flip the audience the bird or are they gonna come on and knock their socks off?” And they walked on stage, and of course I didn’t know what they were going to start with, and they opened with “Rock and Roll All Nite” and it was a fucking amazing ballbuster of a version and I remember looking at people’s faces and everybody knew what it was, it took a few seconds to register, people figured out what it was and then it was sort of like, “wait, this is Kiss, is this cool to like?” Then they just got caught up in how spirited and wonderful a version it was, and everybody just got into it, big grins across the VIP section and everybody dug it.

In Monday’s third and final installment, Peter and Teenage Kicks talk about The Replacements’ reissues, which will hit stores this Tuesday.

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