Why The Replacements (still) Matter

As I went up to pay I heard an all too familiar tune. A song that caused my heart to almost stop. Could it be really playing here? Was I in some way to hip independent film? Did I break the time space continuum? As I walked up, playing just loud enough for those who knew to know was “I’m In Trouble” by The Replacements, from their first album Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash.

Trying to deconstruct why The Replacements are one of the most important bands in rock and roll is an exercise in futility. If you don’t understand them by now, you never will. That’s not an indictment against you or your taste (OK, maybe against your taste). It’s not that their music or lyrics are in the same esoteric zip code of Frank Zappa or The Grateful Dead. They’re not like that at all. In fact, the ‘mats are as welcoming a band as you could hope for . . . as long as you can stomach alienation, sarcasm, snark, love and rebellion.

I chuckled and said to the clerk “It’s not every day I get to hear the ‘mats in a store.” Truth is, even when they were a full-time working band you seldom heard them . . . anywhere. I used to get in trouble for playing the piss out of Don’t Tell A Soul when I worked in a record store during my Rob Gordon days. Since their break up almost 22 years ago, you hear them even less than seldom . . . if that’s possible.

Nonetheless, hear they were playing a live version of “I’m In Trouble” . . . in some tiny paper product store in Rockefeller Plaza. The kid, barely 25 if I had to guess, and I looked at each other and smiled. He said “Yea, this is from this weekends show in Toronto.”
“Oh, yea, that’s right they are doing those three festival dates this year.”

To a Replacements fan, a reunion seemed always likely to happen, but we just never knew when. They had reunited for a couple new tracks for a Best Of album a few years ago. And the new songs were pretty disposable. They weren’t bad, they just didn’t seem into it.

But then they reunited last year to record some material for their former guitar player Slim Dunlap, called Songs for Slim, who suffered a serious stroke awhile back. Songs for Slim is an ongoing project where artists cover some of Slims songs and release special packages to help pay for his care. The first in that series was a reunited Replacements. And on this EP they sounded reinvigorated.

I said to my new-found kindred spirit “I wanted to go to the show in Chicago, but it didn’t work out. I guess I will have to hope for a full-fledged tour.” He handed me my change smiling and without gloating said “Yea, I’m going to the Chicago show.” I about fell to my shoes. The lineup for the upcoming Riot Fest in Chicago is a Gen X’ers wet dream: Bob Mould, Public Enemy, The Pixies, Mission of Burma, et. al. “You bastard” I replied jokingly. I took my changed, shook my head and smiled, “Enjoy the show.”

The Replacements are more than just the folklore of drunken debauchery. They’re more than Tommy Stinson playing bass for the current incarnation of Guns-n-Roses.
They’re more than Paul Westerberg’s self imposed exile in the basement of his home in the suburbs of the Twin Cities.
They’re more than Chris Mars paintings and art work.
They’re more than Bob Stinson’s death.
They’re more than Slim Dunlap’s stroke.
They’re more than their history, real or embellished.
They’re more than their music.
They’re hard to explain, you either get them or you don’t.

Purists might argue that it’s not the Replacements without Chris Mars and there is some legitimacy to that. Purists might also argue that they were never the same after they kicked Bob Stinson out. To that I would say, with all due respect to the memory of Bob Stinson, that’s probably a good thing. The soul of the band has always been Tommy and Paul. So as long as it’s them, it is really the ‘mats. Is it perfect? No, absolutely not, but The Replacements were never about being perfect.

Obviously what makes The Replacements significant is the music. The names of bands they have influenced is ridiculously long and ever-growing, thankfully. Listening to Paul Westerberg grow from wise ass punk to pure pop powerhouse is one of the greatest rewards in music. Seriously.
From the start, their songs straddle the fence between brilliant and tragic. Their songs, their music and their career are probably best summed up by Westerberg’s own song “I Don’t Know”, off Pleased to Meet Me. The line from that song “One foot in the door, the other on in the gutter” about sums them up personally and professionally.

What makes The Replacements matter is their connection with the fans. I mean, the fans. When you find someone listening to The Replacements you know, you just know, it’s a kindred spirit. Whatever walls you may have up immediately come crumbling down. There is a calmness that comes over you when you run across someone listening to them, it’s like an auditory Xanax. For some reason, and it’s hard to explain, when you meet a fan you just know your connection will transcend the music.

I’m not entirely convinced this is something any band can set out to do, but it’s something The Replacements were able to do. They accomplished what every band dies to do. They really connected with their audience. And they still do. Sure, they embraced the beer swilling jock and the angry punks, albeit begrudgingly, but longed to talk to the kid in the back shouting out to hear “Skyway”. Those where the people they played to.

No, they never got the huge record sales they deserved, but somehow, that seems fitting. It’s not like they didn’t try, they did. Kind of. Once. In their own way.

A video of just a speaker as your first video, for your first single, off your major label debut . . . at the height of MTV . . . and at the dawn of the college rock movement in the mid 80’s was probably not the smartest career move.

But it was uniquely, and brilliantly, The Replacements.

Watching that video you can almost hear the record company snarling, pissing and moaning because they knew what they had. They had a band, the band, that could have defined a generation . . . and they were watching it piss it away, in addition to their money.

You can almost hear the band sitting off to the side drinking their Mickey’s saying “Fuck you fellas, we’re doing it our way.” The Replacements were the epitome of rebellion when we needed rebels the most.

And maybe they didn’t come to define a generation. They did something better. They influenced generations.

Why do The Replacements matter? They’re not good-looking, they have a reputation for being prickly, they’re not a perfect live act (Westerberg always forgets lyrics), they’re not super stars, they’ve never shied away from their foibles and missteps and often times, embraced them.

So, what makes them matter?
They’re real.
They’re honest.
They’re not Gods.
They’re human.
They’re me.
And they’re you.

They’re also just The Replacements.