October 1, 2017 by Darren Clarke
“If only you were lonely, I’d go home with you.”
(The Replacements, “If Only You Were Lonely”)
Let’s start this right. Let’s start with the music.
I discovered the Replacements in 1989 in the form of their video, “I’ll be You,” playing on a tube TV in the Men’s section of Robinson’s department store. Robinson’s was in its’ death throes at the time and desperate to connect with young people (though at the point I think they would have taken any age group) they had TV’s situated throughout the store tuned in to, “The Nations Music Station,” Much Music. It was there, on the brink of making yet another poor fashion choice, I discovered the Replacements, “If, it’s a temporary lull, while I’m bored right out of my skull/Man I’m dressing sharp and feeling dull.”
What it was about the song in the context of that time would be hard to quantify now. It was a bit looser than what I’d generally hear on rock radio, had a great hook and a musical swagger that was different from the bands at the time. Visually it was rock without the requisite big hair of the period and while they were posturing it was a different kind of posturing. The Replacements appeared to me a whacky assemblage of skinny white guys, from Slim Dunlap’s awkward, pale, introversion, to Tommy Stinson’s impish smile, his bow tie and pinstriped, rainbow coloured, suit, to drummer Chris Mars’ shaggy A.V. club chill to Paul Westerberg, holding his guitar like lightning in a bottle, the pop in his step betraying the energy teeming within as he seemed to aim his chest up towards the microphone, heart first, like he was heaving his part ragged, part soulful, all glorious, voice out into the world.
There was an uncool-cool about the band and it appeared to emanate most decisively from Westerberg. Many have held a gun, few are John Wayne, many of held a guitar, few are Paul Westerberg.
So I stood in Robinson’s department store, surrounded by the tragic fashion of the 80’s, in front of the tiny TV, happy to have found something unanticipated, something wonderful. I continued to watch as the song chugged along on a sea of backbeat and trebly guitars. The video had a faux broken lens appearance against which the band provided purposely half-hearted lip-sycnching, randomly alternating instruments, cross-dressing and an ass over tea kettle attempted climb over the drum kit by the singer.
I needed more.
“I’m in love, what’s that song?”
(Alex Chilton, The Replacements)
Later that week, in my last excursion into taping to cassette from the radio (which I think was kind of an act of nostalgia even at the time) I managed to capture I’ll be You off 97.7 HTZ FM so I could listen to it at will. Soon after that I ventured down to Sam the Record Man and purchased a cassette copy of the, “Don’t Tell a Soul,” album.
The great thing about falling in love with the Replacements at the Don’t Tell a Soul album was that the best was yet to come. Soon I discovered the solid gold contained in the albums that preceded it: The bursting to bust, stomping on the gas pedal, heart pounding giddyup, spilling out of, Sorry Ma’ Forgot to Take out the Trash, the lost Minnesota flea market at sunset lurch and lumber, the romanticism, the hangover, the what the fuck ever, of Hootenanny, albums that foreshadowed the sweet spot of the Replacements creativity that began with Let it Be.
Two of the signature documents of the Replacements history to come out recently are Gorman Bechard’s 2011 documentary, “Colour Me Obsessed,” and Bob Mehr’s 2016 biography, “Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements.” I don’t think it’s anyone’s responsibility to create art that is comprehensive of its’ subject matter or that appeals specifically to me, so I’m not here to give you an objective breakdown of the the documentary or the book (particularly the book as I made it mere pages in) but I’ll tell you this- neither appeared to focus on what I find extraordinary about the band: The Music.
In the summer of 1993 I saw Paul Westerberg at Lee’s Palace in Toronto on the tour for his solo album 14 Songs. It was a brilliant show. My friends and I stood a few feet in front of the stage bouncing up and down arms around each other, arms around random people, singing every word of the songs, bolting up into the air when songs would climax, and slowing down to raise our voices up with the more gentle songs. It was hot, it was loud, I had lost my cigarettes in the mosh pit, was coated in sweat and was pretty much deaf by the time we wandered out into the summer evening. It was awesome. (I was also determined that Winona Ryder was in our little mosh pit for a good chunk of the night but now, at some distance, stone cold sober, I doubt myself a bit).
After the show we were walking past a fence along the side of the bar and noticed the band behind the bar smoking. My friends and I briefly considered hopping the fence but then it occurred to me that I really didn’t want to meet Paul Westerberg. He’d done more than enough that night for me, he’d done more than enough with his music over the years for me. I didn’t need that, he didn’t need that.
Plus, I’m crap at hopping fences.
When I conceive of a documentary about the Replacements I want at its’ heart the stuff that makes the Replacements special to me, their music. That infectious music that seems to know exactly what moves me, what comforts me, what excites me. But there isn’t a single song in the documentary, Color Me Obsessed. Not one. That fabulous, entirely unique energy that the Replacements had that was most evident in the wanton thrill that resides in Paul Westerberg’s voice, the souped up wayward charm of Bob Stinson’s bumper car guitar and simply the whole unit’s reckless joy, that leap of energy that had me at so many points in my life stomping my foot, playing air guitar, immersed in the calamitous emancipation that is the Replacements when they are on. None of that is in the movie. Likewise, when I wade into Trouble Boys I find the author choosing to begin with not the music but instead the challenges and traumas the band members faced growing up. I can respect that choice, it’s just not my choice.
I would love for you to check out the 90 minutes of Replacements music contained here and experience why I love it so much. The primal energy of the music which appeared so simple at first blush continues to surprise me with its’ richness and complexity. The reckless romanticism articulated in the lyrics and channeled so compellingly in Westerberg’s voice has an earthy sincerity to it. Throughout the three-minute stories of love and loss, the confessions of indulgence and recklessness, the revelations of irony and commonality, Paul Westerberg continues to be the most charismatic crooner in my ever growing music library. No band more generously provides the immense amount of nutrient rich sound for my ears to hear, my brain to chew and my chest to feel.
“If being afraid is a crime we hang side by side at the swinging party down the line?”
Given that the Replacements music, like that of all great bands, provided something greater than the sum of its’ parts I am always reluctant to break their work down from its’ purest form. But man, there are some great lyrics that I can’t resist sharing. So, before I embark on conveying some of the Replacements poetry robbed from its’ natural habitat within the songs, I have to say that if you are only going to do half of something while you are here today, read half the article, listen to all the music.
While I started my Replacements fandom entirely alone I soon would do my best to convert pretty much anyone who would listen. My greatest success was with my girlfriend Debbie and my friends at my second job at a local gas station, Sears Gas. There’s likely no more natural a Replacements fan than a gas bar attendant. My friends, Jay, Mark and I were comrades in arms. We were young, we were decent people trying to navigate our way through the first vestiges of adult hood with all the usual challenges. We were teeming with with unrealized potential, with love, fear, with general goofball-ishness.
We played baseball at work, we constantly pranked one another, we painted The Replacements in white paint on the kiosk roof, we smoked, we joked, we drank tea and coffee, we became great friends and with the kiosk door forever open we cranked the 90-minutes Replacements cassette I had made for everyone to hear, “Get me outta this stinking fresh air!”
The first time I saw the Replacements was in 1991 at the Concert Hall in Toronto with Mark. It was cold, super cold, Toronto cement and Lake Ontario winds straight into your bones cold. Coming out of the eighties I’d predominately attended classic rock shows: Rush, Triumph, George Thorogood, Stevie Ray Vaughan. The Replacements would be an education for me. There would be no grand ceremony, no lasers or giant inflatable rabbits (see: Rush, Presto tour). Instead they ambled on stage as if they had taken a wrong turn and someone had handed them instruments. Where most bands I saw started the show showering the crowd with love, “HELLO TORONTO!!!!! WE LOVE TORONTO!!!! etc.” the Replacements shuffled listlessly around the stage seemingly without a plan until Paul Westerberg interrupted some Tommy Stinson Gong Show-esque humour (If memory serves the joke was, Q- “What are four one syllable words for too small?” A-“Is it in yet?”) and nonchalantly approached the microphone, “Okay, we’re gonna’ play some tunes…”
With that the band launched into, “I Don’t Know,” a song which is largely Westerberg shouting questions for the band to answer with, “I Don’t Know….”
In the middle of the song the music came to a sudden halt and, in the context of 1991 and the United States involvement in Iraq a.k.a. Desert Storm, Westerberg asked, “So you all for peace!?!!?!!?!?”
The crowd cheered, peace signs held up towards the stage.
Weterberg in a T. Rex t-shirt waited a beat then leaned back into the microphone, “Good, that’s what we’re here for, to get a piece.”
And the music resumed.
Quickly though the band seemed to lose its’ way. Guitarist Slim Dunlap moseyed around, fiddled with his speaker for four or five songs while the band struggled to find its’ mojo. I watched in confusion, untouched by the stumbling musical convulsion I was immersed in. It appeared so amateurish really, but after all those lasers, all the being patronized, all the pre-fabricated storylines, this was actually happening, right in that moment the Replacements came out seemingly void of the will to play. It wasn’t good.
Until it was.
I believe it was somewhere in the modified, funked up, version of, “Waitress in the Sky,” where the band finally found its’ legs, where they found the switch, where they tripped the light fantastic and their collective beauty hummed mischievously to life to shake, rattle and roll, all of us Concert Hall occupants into a bounding mass of joy locked in a moment of grace.
And it was just so real, the music, the moment, me.
I guess that’s the thing about the Replacements- the energy, the music, good or bad, was just so real. Maybe I should want to know more about the personal lives of the people that created the music but about three pages into Bob Mehr’s well reviewed book I realized I simply didn’t want to. Maybe one day I will. But for now I’ll take the music. I was never good at hopping fences.
Here’s a little stream of consciousness play-by-play for the playlist-
Left of the Dial– “Sweet Georgia breezes, safe cool and warm.” This is the Replacements at their most ambiguous and most contagious, “Passing through this late, the station started to fade.” The urgency of the rhythm guitar conjuring the loneliness of being adrift in middle of nowhere along with the warm discontentedness of being hopelessly in love with all that is rare, with all that is fleeting.
Bastards of the Young– The motherlode of brilliant lyrics overflow in this anthem for the ages, “We are the sons of no one, Bastards of the Young.” In the 80’s land of compromise and conformity, where greed and vanity were elevated to noble pursuits, The Replacements shouted, “Take it it’s yours! Take it it’s yours!”
Kiss Me On the Bus– Chugging along on the Bus. “Everyone’s looking forward/I ain’t looking forward.” You’ve never really loved until you’ve fallen into unrequited love with a stranger on the bus.
Androgynous– While Androgynous’s message was ahead of its’ time the song itself is timeless. A late night walk through a dimly lit, smokey, bar after closing time that finds jangly piano escorting Westerberg’s belting-it-out-while-not-spilling-a-drop-of- whiskey voice letting it all out while commenting on cruelty, convention, love.
Unsatisfied– The tune. Unsatisfied demands you stop everything you are doing, crank it up and listen. Let this song fill your room. It is cathartic, it is redemptive, it is sad, it is rewarding. The guitar sound is gritty, staticky, it is wandering, it is mortal until it suddenly flickers with the transcendent, when it abruptly chimes its’ way off the ground and soars towards the heavens. This is music to swoon to, this is music to glimpse that something greater than that hovers so elusively around all our mortal coils.
Skyway– When I am feeling kind of super mellow and chill. When I pick up my acoustic guitar and just kind of gently rummage around its’ musical possibilities, this is the song I long to write but never will, “In my stupid hat and gloves, at night I lie awake/Wonderin’ if I’ll sleep/wonderin’ if we’ll meet out in the street.”
Can’t Hardly Wait– What a riff, what a perfect simple riff. A riff for everybody regardless of time or place. The riff in Can’t Hardly Wait is equally for someone listening to their newly purchased CD Walkman on an empty, late night, subway train in 1982, for someone enjoying a cup of Ovaltine before going out to the library in the winter of 1957, to someone unhurriedly riding their horse home in the middle of the night, in the middle of Nevada, in the middle of 1874.
Seen Your Video– Once you get past the cartoon-ishness of the times there was plenty going on under the surface in the 80’s. At times though the ugliness, the tackiness, on its’s surface could be overwhelming. “Seen your video, your phoney rock’n roll, We Don’t Wanna’ Know,” is plain and simple a protest song that not only conjures the appropriate level of anger and frustration for the horrors inflicted by pop culture but provides an antidote. It is the ultimate, “You suck but I don’t!” statement lead by the Bob Stinson’s taunting, frolicking, sizzling, lead guitar. This song is just another strong reminder that while many could have been the Replacements nobody else was.
Kick Your Door Down– The great ones are always able to channel and convey more than they appear to even be intending. To give us something that they are in whole or part unaware of. This is Westerberg’s voice to me. This is the band to me. There’s more to their cumulative efforts than even they are aware. Kick Your Door Down is the heart of the band pounding in the world’s chest. This is the song is the divine sound of a special group of people unable to wholly contain themselves. Thankfully.
Alex Chilton– “Paul Westerberg needs more cowbell.” Beyond the great use of cowbell, the Pleased to Meet Me album may have been Westerberg’s peak, his final brilliant final chapter, in the Replacements, “first we take Manahatten, then we take Duluth,” under-appreciated pillaging of lost 80’s Americana. This ode to Alex Chilton was Westerberg churning out deliciously contagious rock’n roll, contorting man and myth into the stuff thousands of Rock Band players, plastic buttoned guitars hung on their shoulders, would fall deeply in love with decades later. “I’m in love, what’s that song,” indeed.
Sixteen Blue– The song that should have been played at every high school dance ever. Listen to this song and imagine your sixteen year old self dancing with the girl or guy you should have liked if you were smart but didn’t, because you were dumb, at a high school dance. Picture you both dancing slowly, in a barely lit gym, beneath the spinning disco globe above you, nervous as hell and unsure what to say, while Paul and the band jam out filling the gym with angst, with awkward beauty, with truth.
I Will Dare– “How smart are you, how dumb am I.” Another timeless riff pogo sticks about the room leading the song on its’ merry way while Westerberg declares, “Meet me any place or anywhere or anytime, I don’t care/if you will dare, I will dare.”
Nowhere is Near My Home– “Nowhere that’s my home.” Exhibit A in my, “God Built The Most Beautiful Parts of Our Possibilities out of Garage Rock,” master thesis.
Lovelines– The Hootenanny album was my long overdue introduction to the fact that music could be crafted with the same amount of tender loving care that you placed into choosing the things you tossed into the glove box of your car when you were seventeen. The Replacements could talk to you about the meaning of life, they could provide insight into the profound and they could be the silliest fucker you knew, eternally mere moments away from forcing someone to say, “Seriously guy, you have to stop.”
Buck Hill– More randomness from the Hootenanny glove box Buck Hill is Surf Music for (warning, Purple Rain reference) Lake Minnetonka. If you ever want to have some fun check out the raft of Replacements live shows available online and the absurdly eclectic group of covers the band did. Some of those shows are horrible. Drunken forays into, well, drunkenness, with all the usual spectacularly over ripe results. But other times it’s amazing. The covers wander all over the place from Chuck Berry’s Maybeline, to Heartbeat, It’s a Lovebeat by the Defranco family, to If I Only Had a Brain from the Wizard of Oz. What I love about it is the disregard of time and place, the disregard of who’s who and what’s what. I love that sense of whimsy. Such a big part of the Replacements greatness is that even at their most serious whimsy was lurking just below the surface making sure you knew that the sad and the tragic, the ridiculous and joyful, were equally true.
I Don’t Know– That’s some sax’ Jack. A little bit of saxophone jonesing (“jonesing,” by the way not a word according to spellcheck) up the joint while the band celebrates its’ mortal reality and its’ mortal myth.
Photo (Studio Demo)– As Gang Starr once proposed it’s, “Mostly the voice.” This tune is proof that a certain point in time Paul Westerberg could wake up and sing off the ingredients off a cereal box and be completely riveting. Photo is the souped up Replacements rock’n roll dune buggy excitedly delivering the mail to the wrong house but in the right way.
Never Mind– “The words I thought I brought I left behind sooooooooo, never mind.”
Swinging Party and Here Comes A Regular– Of the many seductive qualities the Replacements music hold none is more contentious that its’ knack for managing to say what you feel better than you despite seeming far less interested in knowing it. It reminds me of the movie Amadeus wherein Mozart was portrayed as a bit of a goof who could nonetheless awe his musical contemporaries with his ability to tap into avenues of musical expression they would have killed to have found first. Fellow composer Salieri seethed with both jealousy and admiration as he marvelled at Mozart’s works. And that’s just it, Greatness is not always defined by devotion. On Swinging Party the band gets dressed up to play a wedding and in the face of concerns of drunken damnation the band instead instead leaves us in awe as they play it straight, nursing the song to lounge and catchily linger as the back drop to Westerberg’s confession of the fact we quite often don’t know what we’re doing or why we are doing it.
Here Comes a Regular is another full plate from the heartbreaking feast of half sober reminisces on the topic of what goes up must come down. Here Comes a Regular is Westerberg tapping into the ebb and flow of life and death, the bittersweet passage of time and design and the reckoning of fallibility and mortality.
Answering Machine– The production of Replacements’ albums often comes under criticism and I think unfairly so. One of the things the band seemed tuned into more than some of its’ contemporaries is in evidence here on Answering Machine: that the simple buzz of feedback and the electric promise it contains is exciting in and of itself. Answering Machine is the ultimate, why doesn’t anybody understand? anthem for the tragically nineteen year old in all of us. It’s raw, it’s direct, it’s contagious.
Raised in the City– The Replacements first album is a band dying to be heard painting the town red and painting it fast. However cool, in whole or part, the Replacements might have been at various points in their career it’s worthy of note that they arrived completely void of any pretense beyond getting your heart to beat a little faster of getting the joint to bounce. Sorry Ma Forgot to Take Out the Trash was pure, perfect, rock’n roll contagion.
Color Me Impressed– (Dear Fellow Canadians, I know the word colour should have a “u” in it but, America disagrees and it is after all their band, All Apologies, Darren) Hard to resist the sirens call of your favourite band saying, “It’s not you it’s them.” Particularly when they are doing it in a way that ‘s reminiscent of Puff the Magic Dragon on speed.
Johnny’s Gonna Die– Tommy Stinson’s big, fat, bass line, slinks through the post last-call city-scape accompanied by his brother’s sweet and sour guitar licks and Westerberg’s sobering reminder about the inevitability of certain things.
Hootenanny– “… in E.”
Go– The Replacements second album Stink is not one of my favourites. But there are moments. Go is a warning, “Go, while you can.” The bass line carries the tune and invokes the threat, the guitar rips it up as if seeking salvation in riff it cannot locate, furtively trying on run after run before discarding the pursuit for a plaintive wail and finally there is Westerberg pummelling his message, “I said GO, GO, while you can.”
Customer– So much of the music I listened to prior the Replacements was about massive moments in life- Hope, Good vs. Evil, Love, Dreams, etc. The Replacements wrote about going to the corner store, “… where are the twinkies?” They elevated the routine into the compelling and were all the more genuine for it.
We’re Comin’ Out– This song is a glorious mess. It comes out way too fast, way too sloppy, and careens around at a hyperactive pace until it suddenly lurches to a slow stagger of snapping fingers, Westerberg threatening/promising, “One more time to get it all wrong, one more chance to get it all wrong… We’re coming out…” and the song picks up with Bob Stinson’s guitar burning rubber on downtown tar, Chris Mars banging the drums with all his might and the Replacements taking everything down with them into complete collapse.
If Only You Were Lonely– “Somewhere there’s somebody throwing up…” This is a gem from the early days of the Replacements and to me an accidental homage to what often makes us fall in love whether it be with men or women or simply music. And this ends it. 90 minutes of my favourite music from the Replacements ends with If Only You Were Lonely containing more lyrical gold-
But I get practice by myself
Forgot my one line
So I just said what I felt
If only you was lonely too,
If only you was lonely
I’d go home with you.”
(Note: The attached 90-Minute Playlist contains music from The Replacements first album, “Sorry ‘Ma Forgot to Take out the Trash,” through, “Pleased to Meet Me.” There are two albums after that which contain solid music but for me at least the energy is very different. I’m not here to criticize those albums but they were created, “after the gold rush,” so to speak. But if you are interested in hearing more Don’t Tell a Soul, All Shook Down and the most recent Songs for Slim await you)