Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Once More, With Subtitles

On Saturday night, in a dusty field, off a two-lane road, across a vast expanse of time, I saw the greatest rock and roll show ever played. You might want to disagree, but you weren't there. You're going to have to trust me.

Of course, you might also have to let me translate. If you don't speak the language of The Replacements, you'll never understand.

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8,143 days. That's how much time passed between when I last saw The Replacements (June 6, 1991, Columbia, Missouri) and when I next did (September 21, 2013, middle of nowhere). That might seem like an eternity, but I could hardly have done better. The boys themselves took 8,088 days off.

In that span, Bob Stinson died, and Steve Foley died, and Alex Chilton died, and Slim Dunlap suffered an incapacitating stroke, and Chris Mars shut the door on a career in music. I graduated law school, got married, had one kid, then another, quit the practice, buried four grandparents and an aunt and an uncle, wrote a couple of books (one of which features Replacements' leader Paul Westerberg in a pivotal moment; if you're reading this, and I suspect you are, you'll love it, trust me), saw my dad drink himself to divorce and near-death, watched my mom persevere like a titan, welcomed three nieces to the family, became the PTA president, and went to my law school twenty-year reunion.

I also listened to the music they left behind more times than I could ever count.

For the uninitiated, a thumbnail sketch: Toward the end of the Carter administration, four guttersnipes from Minneapolis formed a band that was equal parts punk rock, cheap beer, A.M. radio and amphetamines. They were Paul, the singer, songwriter, rhythm guitar player, and accidental genius; Bob, the manic guitarist whose leads were "hotter than a urinary tract infection," as Paul once described them; Bob's thirteen-year-old bass-playing brother Tommy; and drummer Chris, the misfit elf who wanted to be a painter.

They made a string of indie-label albums that culminated in the classic Let It Be, then got signed to a major and released the equally transcendent Tim. Then Bob got kicked out of The Replacements for excessive drunkenness (which is akin to being booted from Duran Duran for excessive stylishness) and the band recorded one last great album as a trio (Pleased To Meet Me), before the affable and understated Slim Dunlap took Bob's place. After two more good-not-great records, they handed their gear to roadies on a Chicago stage on July 4, 1991, and walked out of our lives while the crew continued to play.

During those waning years of their existence, I felt closer to The Replacements than any band before or since. To be honest, I felt closer to them than I often felt to my family. It's not rational or reasonable, but it's true. Paul's songs didn't just speak to me, they spoke for me, articulating all the young-adult angst and anticipation that I felt but couldn't say, and it all sat atop a Stones-meets-Pistols buzz that hit me where I lived. "The words I thought I brought I left behind," he sang, "so never mind, all over but the shouting, just a waste of time." Even when he professed to be unable to say anything, he managed to say everything.

And he said those things in the nuanced way of reality, churning out songs that were, by turns, touching, terrifying, harrowing and hilarious. But -- and this is the thing -- no matter how often he evoked isolation or despair ("Within Your Reach," "Unsatisfied," "Answering Machine"), the note that always lingered was hope. I can't hardly wait.

In January 1991, my friend Scott pried me out of the law library and stuffed me into a car and drove us to St. Louis, where the band was playing at the American Theater. We knew it was almost over. They were touring on an album that had started as a Westerberg solo project before the label intervened, and Chris had just been relieved of his post, replaced by Steve Foley. The Iraq War was underway, and I was feeling unsettled. I am old enough only to remember Vietnam as some vague thing that was happening when I was very young. I thought there would only be peace in our time.

Inside the theater, I expected to be disappointed, but proceeded to be amazed. They were like a champion athlete in twilight, summoning one last great performance. Paul snarled like he hated Steve, hated himself, hated everything, but he poured it all into the songs and gave them a shimmering, lingering resonance that I can still feel. After they finished the encore with a raging and poignant version of "I'm In Trouble," their very first single, we walked into the cold night grateful to have been there. We listened for echoes of that show when we saw them again, one last time, less than six months later, but we couldn't hear them. The Replacements were done.

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But it turns out that I wasn't done with The Replacements. When I was twenty-two, I thought those songs were about what it was like to be young. But as I got older, I realized that they were about what it was like to be alive. Those feelings may diminish in intensity, may become less acute, but they never go away. Two decades down the line, I have a life that's far better than I deserve, with no good reason ever to be unhappy. But sometimes I still am. Even though I'm loved, sometimes I feel alone. Even after a success, I fear the next failure.

In late 1993, Paul appeared on Saturday Night Live to promote his first solo album. And for reasons I still don't understand, the second song he played wasn't from that record, but instead was "Can't Hardly Wait," one of The Replacements' very best songs, achingly gorgeous and wistful. Paul seemed triumphant, about to experience the kind of success that he had managed to sabotage at every turn with the band. That night, that song was a lifeline to me. I was newly married and beginning my career, beginning my life as an adult, and I was overwhelmed. I felt down deep that this was not the life for me (the professional one, that is; the personal life still flourishes). The performance left me reeling for days, but I still felt the hope implicit in it.

After that, I followed each of the band members for a while, from albums that went from really good to not particularly, with a frequency that went from every few months to every so often. And then, each of The Replacements seemed to recede from my life. Nobody played those songs anymore. It's like they ceased to exist.

But it turns out that those songs were just crammed into a closet like precariously-stacked toys. And then a few weeks ago, someone opened the door and they all came tumbling out along with Paul Westerberg, who performed a perfectly-executed forward roll and stuck the landing on the downbeat in front of the microphone just in time to sing "Stay right there/Go no further/Don't call a doctor/Don't call my mother!"

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And now, the show, with subtitles.

In their typical why-succeed-when-failure-is-an-option? style, after years of turning down offers to reunite, Paul and Tommy decided they would get back together for three shows only (at least to date), headlining a low-key, predominantly punk rock festival with stops in Toronto, Chicago and a place hilariously inaccurately billed as Denver. No New York or Los Angeles, or even hometown Minneapolis. No Bonnaroo or Coachella or Lollapalooza. Nope, just Riot Fest in god-forsaken Byers, Colorado, an hour east of Denver, smack in the dusty, rusty pre-mountain flats (to the Chamber of Commerce: I'm sure Byers has its charms; no need to write).

Scott, my companion at those 1991 shows, has lived in Denver for two decades. This, friends, is what we call fate. We would attend the third and final Replacements reunion show.

The rest of what happened on Saturday is largely irrelevant, but just know that it was a hot, windy, dusty, grueling day. We had been there for ten hours before our heroes took the stage, and we are, ahem, older than we used to be. We were going to need the band to carry us to the finish. Little did we know.

Three stages were set up more or less in a row, and The Replacements were set to cap the day on the far left. After the Creed-meets-Cure outfit AFI finished playing there, and the crowd moved over to the next stage to see Iggy and The Stooges (who I would have crawled to see on any other day), we made our way down front, three bodies from the rail, just off center, and held our ground for the next seventy minutes, chatting with pilgrims who had traveled from as far as Eugene, Oregon and Seattle, Washington, while waiting for The Stooges to wrap up their set.

This is what happened next, in roughly chronological order.

What happened: The house lights fell, Frank Sinatra sang "That's Life," and Paul and Tommy emerged from the wings with new members Josh Freese and David Minehan. Each wore a day-glo orange cowboy hat and garish western shirt, with Paul and Tommy sporting long pink skirts.

What this means: (1) It's on; and (2) the spirit of Bob is in the house. Curious sartorial choices were a staple of the band at its wild-eyed best, including the infamous 1986 Saturday Night Live appearance in which the four original members exchanged clothes between songs and earned a temporary ban from NBC for their offstage behavior. Bob Stinson possessed an especially quirky sense of fashion, sometimes performing in a dress or a diaper.

When Paul and Tommy show up in skirts, that's your cue to hold on tight.

What happened: The band launched into a thunderous, gnat's-ass-tight version of "Takin' A Ride," a snot-caked slab of punk pop, and the first song on their first album.

What this means: We're going back to the beginning, back to when no one knew us or cared, to an album no one bought, and you're going to love it. We did. In fact, four of the first five tunes will come from their debut, Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash, including "Shiftless When Idle," which they apparently had neither played nor practiced since getting back together.

It certainly sounded like it, but in the best possible way.

What happened: Early in the set, between songs, Paul looked at his bass player and said "Hey Tommy, you know where you are? You're in the jungle, baby," eliciting a laugh from the forty-six-year-old man who helped found the band as a thirteen-year-old kid. Then Paul added "Far be it from me to give you shit for being in Van Halen."

What this means: The hatchet has been buried. Since 1998, Tommy has been Axl's chief lieutenant in the current incarnation of Guns N' Roses. At one point, this appeared to cause some friction between the two, as Paul publicly carped about Tommy's career choice as hired gun in the Big Rock Machine. It may have been jealousy or insecurity or lead-balloon humor, but it seemed to sour the relationship. That's over now.

As an aside, Paul, now fifty-three, looks better than he ever has, handsome even. Sober, fit, refreshed. He has also clearly been itching to plug in and turn up. These are all good things.

What happened: Ten songs into the set, the band plays "Androgynous," and Paul forgets some of the words.

What this means: Sing-along! In truth, the whole show was a sing-along. I was astonished at how all of those words poured out across the gulf of time, deeply imbedded memories surging to the surface. On the quietest song of the night, it was especially evident. This is the only video I shot (notice how close we were), and you can hear it clearly. Those aren't just words going back to the stage. That's love.

What happened:  The band played "Love You Till Friday," interspersed with Chuck Berry's "Maybelline."

What this means: There's nothing new here. This is some primal, primordial shit. This is the Beatles in Hamburg, tapping into the most elemental, exciting thing that has ever been created, making it scream like a symphony for chainsaws, and imbuing it with a majesty that three chords should not possibly possess. "Love You Till Friday" is the second least-consequential original song played all night (only the outtake "Wake Up" will be more obscure), but, good lord, is it spectacular.

What happened: They did not play "Unsatisfied."

What this means: They are no longer unsatisfied.

What happened: The band hit the home stretch.

What this means: The most undeniable string of songs any current band on the planet can play. It starts with "Little Mascara," a gem from side two (remember sides?) of Tim that hums like an American muscle car. During this stretch, Paul will (among other things), try to sing while eating, attempt to play guitar while holding a cigarette, and nearly drown while holding a water bottle upside down in his teeth while trying to simultaneously hydrate and play. Miraculously, he survives.

What happened: "Left of the Dial," that's what happened.

What this means: I didn't know how I was going to react to the show. When it was first announced, I was excited but also wary. The Replacements were great, but that was a long time ago. Might it not be better to just leave it alone? Then I thought I might get overwhelmed. I am not a man prone to emotion, but when I saw YouTube clips of the first reunion show in Toronto, I'll confess to a tear welling in the eye. But from the first note of "Takin' A Ride," all I felt was joy until we got to "Left of the Dial." If you want to hear one song that represents The Replacements, this is it. It's loud, lovely, wistful, sad and hopeful. But then comes the final verse, with Paul signing "pretty girl keep growing up/playing makeup/wearing guitar/growing old in the bar/you grow old in the bar," and it hits me just like it does every time, an arrow through the heart. The song came out in 1985, but Paul saw the future. We did grow old, and I know it, and I can feel the constriction in my chest and the cold rush through my face, all of the stuff the band has represented to me over time (and, let's face it, they have represented my life) comes to the surface. I keep it together, but just barely.

What happened: "Can't Hardly Wait."

What this means: I was at a dinner party a few months back, and all the guests were asked to provide three songs, one that represented childhood, one for the coming-of-age years, and one for the married-with-kids period, and "Can't Hardly Wait" was my coming-of-age tune. It was there for me in that crisis time of transition to adulthood, it was there at the center of my novel, and it showed up here again, just where it belonged.

What happened: The set ended with "Bastards of Young."

What this means: This is their "Born to Run," their full-throated, big-hearted anthem. It opens with a guitar figure that is a musical battle cry, and a first line that neatly encapsulates the band's career: "God, what a mess, on the ladder of success." It is relentless and raging. Paul, again for reasons unknown, decides to bang on his guitar with his shoe while Minehan plays the solo (see below at 1:59), to Tommy's great delight. The song, as always, ends in cacophony, and the band exits the stage.

What happened: While the lights were down, I saw the flash of Paul's pink skirt dart behind the drum kit.

What this means: "Hootenanny" is coming.

Hootenanny, the band's third album, was the great leap forward. It's not exactly professional, but it's focused and brilliant. "Hootenanny," the song that gives the album its name, is a glorious mess that features the members of the band playing each other's instruments. Paul pounds the skins like a caveman and shouts "it's a hootenanny!" over and over again. On this night, with Paul behind the drums, drummer Josh Freese takes the bass, and bassist Tommy Stinson takes Paul's guitar and then leans Paul's microphone stand across the drum kit at an angle that results in Paul singing into his crotch.

It is magical.

What happened: Well, it's hard to explain, but let's give it a shot, augmented by the video below. When Josh Freese makes a move to retake his drum kit, Paul waves him off so he can continue to sit. This is the segment of the show where they start making stuff up. By the time I was old enough to see the band the first time around, they were an intermittently professional unit. I never saw one of the legendary drunken shows, but I've heard the recordings of several. This was a little like that. Our pal Pete would call it shambolic, and he would be right. As the band fumbles for something to play, Tommy fishes out the riff to "Detroit Rock City" and the others join in. Sort of. And when that falls apart, he plays the intro to The Who's "Substitute" (at least one online recap lists them as playing "Ace of Spades" in between, but that's more than a stretch; judge for yourself). Paul does a spastic Keith Moon imitation and nearly falls off the stool, then jumps off the riser, grabs his microphone from the stand, and attempts a Roger Daltrey mic-twirl. But on the first spin, the microphone flies off the cord and slams into the stage, Paul's big rock and roll move having gone appropriately, spectacularly wrong. Tommy laughs uncontrollably, while a bemused Paul picks up the mic and tosses it into the crowd. The band then walks off the stage, never to return. In Toronto and Chicago, they wrapped up with "I.O.U.," but here they skip it, which seems fitting. They owed us nothing.

Scott and I then walk out into the night like we did in St. Louis more than twenty-two years ago, just as awestruck as then, but somehow wiser and happier.

What this means: The Replacements live on.

What this means to me: More than you could ever know.

(Michael's novel XL is available at Amazon and all the familiar places)


Pat said...

I bow down. Tremendous piece!
I enjoyed this almost as much as XL......and I loved XL!

Duperelli said...

Michael, having seen the Replacements at the Toronto show (as with your experience in Colorado, my favourite concert of all time) and you've hit the nail on the head on every count. Like The Replacements themselves, your piece on the concert left a tear in my eye.