Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Words I Thought I Brought I Left Behind

The Replacements – All Over But The Shouting: An Oral History, by Jim Walsh

It’s hard for me to articulate my feelings about The Replacements, in part because they make so little sense. There was a time, in the late 1980s, when the ‘Mats meant everything to me. I had loved rock and roll my whole life, but I had never been so immersed in a band. It wasn’t hero worship. It was something much more intimate. I felt like they knew me, and I knew them, and that I could see something of myself reflected in Paul Westerberg’s unspeakably glorious songs. Westerberg was possessed of many gifts: a knack for melody, an abundance of rock and roll spirit, a natural and devastating ease with language. But more than anything, he had the gift of empathy. Paul could make you feel his pain, and make you believe that he felt yours. More than that, he could blur the line between his feelings and yours to the point that there was no real distinction to be made.

The connection was all the more remarkable because we really were nothing alike. Both of us were Midwesterners, born in the 1960s, but the similarities ended there. Westerberg was a city kid; I was from a series of tiny towns. He was a chronic screw-up who barely finished high school; I was an achiever on my way to law school. He was a substance-gobbling maniac; other than enjoying the occasional beer, I was a straight arrow. Still, when he sang “the ones who love us least/are the ones we’ll die to please,” he seemed like the brother I never had.

Despite the connection I felt to the band, I never really wanted to know them. They had a reputation for being drunk, petty, dismissive, and belligerent. I once stood about five feet away from Tommy Stinson, the band’s bassist, in a nearly empty bar. But I declined the chance to introduce myself. It seemed a risk not worth taking.

The band has been gone nearly twenty years now, but rock journalist Jim Walsh, who was there from the beginning, explores their incandescent decade together in his excellent new book The Replacements – All Over But The Shouting: An Oral History. The portrait that emerges is one of a band you couldn’t know even if you wanted to, a group as elusive as they were brilliant.

When I first heard that the book would be presented as an oral history – snippets of interviews and previous writings edited and arranged by the author without a conventional narrative – my first thought was that it’s a lazy way to write a book (though I enjoyed the similarly-structured Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain). But it turns out that it was the perfect format to tell the tale of a band of contradictions – confident and insecure, ambitious and self-sabotaging – that was impossible to pin down during their time together. This isn’t a fact-by-fact recitation. It is often not revealed when or why things happened, which is appropriate; through their alcoholic haze, the Replacements probably couldn’t recall the when and the why themselves. Instead, Walsh recounts the impressions, sometimes contradictory, of people who knew the band along the way. Though Westerberg’s and Stinson’s voices are heard through archival interviews (they declined to give new ones), the story is mostly told through the eyes of others, those who saw the ‘Mats at their heart-stopping best and jaw-dropping worst.

The star witness is Peter Jesperson, the record store owner turned record biz exec who managed and recorded Paul, Tommy, Tommy’s brother Bob (lead guitar) and Chris Mars (drums) from the get-go, when Tommy was just thirteen years old and the others barely pushing twenty. Jesperson and others were floored the moment they first saw the scruffy south Minneapolis kids play. “They were playing the Longhorn [a local bar] one night,” says Jay Walsh, the author’s brother. “They were so ******* good I was plastered up against a wall watching them. Within ten seconds, I knew they were the best band in town.” The ‘Mats quick ascendance from nothing to something sparked jealousy from Twin Cities contemporaries Hüsker Dü, and fueled a rivalry between the groups. Hüsker Dü’s drummer/singer Grant Hart recalls that Bob Mould, the Dü’s guitarist/vocalist “was intimidated by Twin/Tone [Jesperson’s record label] liking them. There just seemed to be this all-or-nothing thing: We were going to get ****** by Twin/Tone because of the existence of this band.”

There are also tales of disastrous shows marked by incoherence and indifference, the nights they might start thirty songs but drunkenly fail to finish any of them, or sets chock full of songs by Chuck Berry, Alice Cooper and the DeFranco Family, but not one by the Replacements. Scott McCaughey, leader of the Young Fresh Fellows, tells of a night in Providence when his band watched the ‘Mats play from right in front of the stage. “After about an hour,” he says, “as it became apparent that the band was reaching the point of complete incapability, Paul suddenly announced, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, the Young Fresh Fellows!’ Instruments were abandoned, and we clambered onstage and claimed them. I was amazed at the volume and sheer monumental rock sound when I hit an A-chord through Paul’s Marshall. We staggered into some medley of our song ‘Big House’ and Mott the Hoople’s ‘Walkin’ with a Mountain’ and god knows what else. After about ten minutes we gave up, too. At that point I think the perplexed crowd readied itself for the Replacements’ triumphant return to the stage. There wasn’t a chance in hell that was going to happen.”

Notwithstanding the band’s constant courting of disaster, they were able to make the major-label leap, thanks largely to their final indie effort, 1984’s monumental Let It Be, a classic of the form. Too often, though, the bigger stage only allowed the band to derail its career in grander ways, from tanking a tour in support of Tom Petty, to getting themselves permanently uninvited from playing on Saturday Night Live, to their unconventional approach to radio interviews:

DJ: Why do you write songs?
Westerberg: I do it to make Tommy and Chris look bad. [pause] No, I do it because I’m gay.
DJ: What can you tell us about the new single, “The Ledge”?
Westerberg: Well, it’s in E minor, and – if you’re following along at home – E minor, C major seventh, D suspended with a B seven turnaround.

The book’s emotional core, though, is in the long slow fade of Bob Stinson, the Replacements’ founding guitarist, a scorching, instinctive player as famous for his outfits (a tutu, a garbage bag, large-print dresses) as his axe-slinging. The book is vague at best about why he was kicked out of the group in 1986. It is understood that his abuse of drink and drugs was the reason, but it’s not clear how that made him any different than anyone else in the band. Bob is presented as credulous and naïve, a good-hearted goof who loved people, the guitar, and getting high, though not always in that order. Once fired, it’s plain to see his fate coming, which makes his death in 1995 all the more tragic. It plays out in slow motion, heartbreaking and inevitable.

In many ways, Bob’s departure started the band’s decline. But if the book has any shortcoming, it’s in failing to capture how sensational the Replacements could still be in their later years, when Slim Dunlap replaced the elder Stinson on guitar (though one of the book’s warmest moments deals with Emily Dunlap, Slim’s daughter, reacting to the change in personnel: “It’s never a good thing when your dad joins your favorite band,” Slim says. “That should not happen.”). They never again hit the towering heights, but they also rarely explored the withering depths. Good shows outnumbered bad as the 1990s came.

In fact, the best I ever saw them (the best I ever saw anyone) was in the days when they were falling apart for good. It was January 1991. Chris Mars had just departed, leaving only two original members, and it was clear that the ride was coming to an end. The first Iraq war was ongoing, and I was feeling unsettled with my country at war for the first time in real memory (Vietnam was only vague recollection for me). The foursome (including temporary drummer Steve Foley) hit the stage at the American Theater in St. Louis and played a ferocious, mesmerizing set that closed with their first single, “I’m in Trouble,” ending it where it began. Nothing about it was political, but given the context, it somehow seemed even more poignant, and became a long-treasured memory. That is, until seventeen years later when I got to page 159 and read this Westerberg quote from late 1990: “The war in Kuwait or a zit on my cheek? Which worries me more? You know, my ******’ cheek! My hair or global warming? It’s like, yeah – that **** is all bad, but I’m not gonna talk about something I don’t know about.”

The Replacements. Gone nearly two decades, and still screwing it up for the rest of us.


-tom said...

You made the right move not talking to Tommy Stinson. I've talked to him a few times and to keep it family safe let's just say he lives up to the reputation.

Anonymous said...

I was at that show in STL. The 1st and last time I saw the 'Mats, although I did see Westerberg at Mississippi Nights in 1993. It's funny, I don't remember much about the 1991 show but was completely blown away at the solo show. Probably had to do with BAC and proximity to the stage. Anyway, this book has me digging back into the old albums, bootlegs, magazines that I saved.

One last thing, there is a video from the 1991 STL show on YouTube. Can't remember what song, but I saw it the other day.

Unknown said...

You might enjoy this exclusive audio interview with LEGS McNEIL, in which he talks about his books, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk and The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry ; and much, much more.