Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Replacement

Got on the computer this morning, fired up this here page, and learned from Trip’s post that Steve Foley had died (at Teenage Kicks, we break the news; others will have to fix it). I won’t pretend that Foley was an important figure in my life, but he was behind the kit for two of the most memorable shows I’ve seen.

In January 1991, I was a first-year law student, more tightly strung than a tennis racket. My routine was not short on clarity: eat, sleep, study (drink on Friday and Saturday nights). You know the night time (night and day) was the right time (night and day) to be in the library. And while I could be pried away to see a band that stopped in Columbia, the idea of foregoing an evening with my civil procedure casebook to make the four-hour round trip to St. Louis to catch a show on a weeknight was beyond consideration. But my friend Scott worked me over until I relented, his line of reasoning impossible to deny: Dude, it’s the Replacements – what the %$#@ is wrong with you?

The show should have been a disaster. The band was fading to black, supporting its second straight sub-standard (well, at least, below their standard) album. But the worst of it was that they were playing without Chris Mars, their drummer since the band formed more than a decade earlier. Founding guitarist Bob Stinson had been dismissed in 1986 for the basic inability to stand up; Chris left because of the guys’ basic inability to stand each other. That’s when you know it’s over.

When the ‘Mats hit the stage, it was Steve Foley and his black, thick-framed glasses providing the beat. He was in the band, but not really, like the guy I saw on TV the other day standing in for Lou Gramm in the reconfigured Foreigner (sure, dude, it’s urgent). But that night, Foley belonged. Paul Westerberg was in his finest fettle; pissy, belligerent, sober. And he was also the mean-spirited ass-munch that he could always be, reminding Foley that he wasn’t a real Replacement. “Hit that *&^%$#@ thing, Steve!” he snarled derisively at one point, and Steve responded, cracking the head of his snare like lightning all show long. It was the last gasp of a dying band, like a great athlete in twilight – they couldn’t do it every night anymore, but on any given night, they were as good as anyone had ever been. Steve Foley was a footnote in Replacements history, but that night he bathed in their full glory.

A year or so later, I saw Foley in his more natural element, a journeyman just trying to get by. Tommy Stinson brought Bash & Pop, his first post-Mats band to town, and Foley again was on drums. I’ve mentioned this show before. There couldn’t have been many more than twenty people in a place that could have held a thousand, but they played like the joint was full. And that’s really the essence of rock and roll for that vast majority that never makes it big. You play because there’s a stage and an audience and because it’s what you live to do. I was more alive that night than I have ever been inside a stadium with the Rolling Stones.

Godspeed, Steve.

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