The Replacements reunion tour hits Seattle tonight and seats are definitely not cheap. It may be ironic to pay $60 a ticket to catch your favorite underground icons, but perhaps also necessity if you’re old enough to recall a time when it was almost impossible to avoid Boy George, when “King of Pain” and “Billie Jean” alternated non-stop on every channel, when Captain Lou Albano was in heavy MTV rotation chasing Cyndi Lauper around the kitchen with a butcher knife.
Thing is, the Replacements pretty much owned the 80’s. Mostly by virtue of not giving a fuck. Yes, there was a time when petulant drunks rejecting slickness and artifice was in short supply. When three-chord thrash as indiscriminate middle finger was a necessary antidote to Ed Meese and Wall Street and Meg Ryan, Tipper Gore and Miami Vice, Pat Robertson and Ritchie Sambora, Duran and Duran and Duran. In the depths of the murky swamp that was all things Reagan, Paul Westerberg’s raggedy voice and Bob Stinson’s shitfaced leads were like mother’s milk, each missed chord and forgotten lyric a wild punch at something nameless, a gut-shot that connected just enough.
Back then I was just another whiteboy in a Kleenexy bedroom, regularly pushed against walls at parties filled with stoner metal thugs, holding court at my locker on the latest breakthroughs in high-speed dubbing. I bussed tables at night, watched arty movies until dawn, slept through early classes, failed to fail enough to get kicked out. Which would at least have granted me a certain rude cache. I also had a ’75 Saab with a Hüsker Dü sticker on the bumper. My parents were convinced Hüsker Dü was Norwegian for FUCK YOU. On the whole, our family didn’t communicate all that well. My older sister hadn’t come out of her bedroom in months. My mother began to ask if I wanted a grilled cheese less frequently than usual. Finally, my father cornered me by the kitchen table and demanded I take the sticker off.
I told him I was late for school.
He didn’t move.
I explained that Hüsker Dü was actually the name of a band named after an old board game, but he wasn’t buying it.
So I just said, “No.”
Our staring contest devolved into the mutual realization that we’d reached that point. Not the one from the year before, when I beat him in a backyard game of basketball for the first time. Not the one from a few months ago, when he found a condom under a chair. The one, here and now, when he realized I was actually an inch and a half taller, and not acting nearly as scared as I should be.
In the end, the sticker stayed, if only because I was sure that caving in would be the same as letting Paul Westerberg down (the Mats and the Hüskers were from Minneapolis and shared the same DNA, so I was standing up for both.) Also, my father, a prison psychiatrist, tended to avoid confrontation he wasn’t being paid for. Most days he came home, flopped on the couch in his rumpled suit, and stared at the ceiling bemoaning the follies of man.
Was he wrong? He was not wrong.
Still, we said maybe two words to each other the rest of junior year.
Which wasn’t nearly as big a problem as my car, which I’d bought from a very strict Born Again family down the street who, although devout followers of the carpenter of Nazareth, did not feel the need to inform me that the master cylinder leaked and the transmission was shot. So it mostly sat there collecting birdshit. Wounded. Like a dare. Don’t worry, I won’t let you down, it said. Come drive me, we’ll red-line around the S-curves in third gear all night long! I fell for it again and again, would zoom off with the Saab running great, right up until it died somewhere totally inconvenient. Like the time it seized up on the way to a formal dance. I leaned under the hood in my tux, while a line of traffic beeped and flipped us the bird, my date’s arms crossed, fuming. We finally managed to wheeze the rest of the way at twenty-per, classmates laughing at my greasy cuffs and her dusty butt. It got so bad that I would definitely have gotten into a fight if I knew how to fight and wasn’t scared. Instead, I hung out under the bleachers with my friend Grim, who brought a flask of vodka and an endless low-decibel rant about various skirts and the injustice of their not fucking him.
So if I ever wanted to drive somewhere further than the end of the street, Grim would have to pick me up in his lavender Reliant K. It was the diametric opposite of a cool ride, but boasted the undeniable advantage of always starting.
Grim didn’t get high. He drank Bud Light and chewed tobacco.
I did get high, and tried not to be nauseated by his constant spit.
Twice a week we’d cruise down I-84 to Brass City Records, which hunkered in a huge, crumbling warehouse in the center of industrial Waterbury. During WWII, Waterbury was a bustling hub that made millions of brass fittings for various weapons, but then the war ended and technology changed with it, Waterbury certain a demand for barrel housings for the M-1 rifle would one day rise again. They were wrong. Now there was nothing left except Archie Bunker-style row houses, package stores, and check cashing places.
Plus a kick-ass record shop.
I bought my first Chrome album at Brass City Records. Also, Suicide, D.O.A., Sonic Youth, GBH, Government Issue, Stooges, and MC5. But also Rock For Light, a mind-bending and random purchase that completely detonated my sixteen-year-old brain, and still largely informs my personality. Not to mention Projects in the Jungle and Here Come the Warm Jets and Lark’s Tongue in Aspic and Funkentelechy Vs. the Placebo Syndrome.
The clerks at Brass City had all somehow reached thirty without a regular job, girlfriend, or apartment, but still managed to cobble together fifty grand in high-end stereo equipment. Not to mention a killer pair of Stax SR-Lambdas, the entire run of Creem, and a hidden box of reel-to-reel German porn. Alternately snide and sympathetic, they enjoyed toying with young know-nothings like myself. It’s hard to remember why I so desperately wanted to curry their favor, but I would have done nearly anything to have them pronounce me cool.
Especially Fud, who had a greasy mullet and wore T-shirts that failed to contain his belly, but also haunted the local punk shows, for some reason revered as an O.G. of the scene. He’d bring a portable record player and a bunch of synth-pop vinyl and spin it between bands. Then, by mysterious preordained Fud-signal, one lucky punk would run up, tear the disc from the needle, and smash it against the wall. Despite my girlish, pleading eyes, I was never once chosen for this honor.
At the store, Fud was alternately full of praise and ridicule for me, a shy smile and nod of approval when I’d bring Edgar Varese vol. 2 or Mingus Mingus Mingus to the register, a cutting sigh of disbelief when I’d chosen Desolation Boulevard or For Your Pleasure. Not a big fan of glam, Fud. Even worse was when he’d make a suggestion I deigned to hesitate at. (“Oh, you don’t want this VG/VG- third pressing of Metal Machine Music? That’s cool, I know a collector in Danbury who would kill for it.”) In the end, Fud talked me into buying stacks of Moondog and Albert Ayler and the Monks and Can and Budgie and Flipper and Coltrane and Birthday Party albums, fully aware that it would be years before I understood them, that for now all they would do was make my young ears bleed.
And so they did.
To this day, I still owe him a great debt.
Although it’s one I will never pay off, because there’s almost no chance he didn’t quietly overdose on his mom’s couch from a lethal mix of Arby’s, Romilar, and Labatts decades ago.
Grim thought I was out of my mind for buying all the jazzy shit, berated me every ride home. He was partial to Fud-despairing new wave bands like Modern English and XTC, Psychedelic Furs and the Cult. He hated school and his parents and our town, bitter from being dumped by a girl in ninth grade he claimed to still be in love with. Grim eventually dropped out and started painting houses, but in the meantime, we cruised up and down I-84, a cassette of Sorry Ma, I Forgot To Take Out The Trash blaring from the boom box on the floor.
Did I mention that the only reason we hung out, or really put up with each other at all, was a deep and abiding mutual love for the Replacements?
’87 turned into ’88. I’d blown off college and moved to Washington D.C., cruising down the highway in a different car with a different person, this time a girl named Eva I’d been dating for a month. We were on our way to see the Replacements again, which just so happened to be their second-to-last gig before breaking up for good (ha).
The show was at Merriweather Post Pavilion, a big open-air clamshell set into a grassy hill best designed for wine tastings and hippie/Phish spin-athons. The Mats opened for Tom Petty (??) in front of a surly redneck crowd. It was the height of Just Say No and the usual black market concert provisions were scarce. Packs of men with leather vests and buck knives were forced to subsist on $9 cups of Coors Lite alone. It was also hot as hell, ragged punks melting in their leather and scuffed Docs, fights everywhere, an ugly scene. Some dude knocked Eva over from behind, and then disappeared into the crowd. I helped her up and brushed the dead grass from her knees. She had curly black hair and braces and looked almost exactly like the lead singer of the Bangles, which is why I’d approached her in the first place. The only difference was that her eyes were grey, not brown, and were so flat they seemed to have no expression at all. She swore a lot and claimed to give a fuck about almost nothing, except Paul Westerberg and cheap bourbon.
“Are you okay?”
She pulled her arm away.
“C’mon, we’re gonna miss the show.”
We elbowed down to the front just as the Mats came on, all of them completely hammered. They ran through a clumsy, indifferent set during which Westerberg wheeled out a canister of helium and a balloon and kept singing in a chipmunk voice that wasn’t even funny the first time. After a few songs, there were widespread boos. The Petty faithful began to throw hot dogs and backwash. Stinson flipped them the bird. Full beers rained down around their ankles. The Mats just stopped playing in the middle of “Careless” and stumbled off-stage.
We left before Petty even came out. The security guard at the fence warned “You can’t come back in, you know.” We knew. I was like “Man, if I needed to hang out with fifty-thousand rednecks, I could have driven to Charleston for free.” The guard, a huge dude with a shaved head, broke up. He repeated what I said to his pal, and they both gave me a fist bump. I asked if they wanted to get high. They did. While looking around all paranoid for their supervisor, as we tore through a roach I’d been saving. When it was done, they acted like they’d never seen us before. I understood. There was professional, and there was stoned professionalism. Those guys could have protected two presidents and stopped a riot with just a little Visine and some snacks.
Of course, we couldn’t find the car, Eve’s shitty little Toyota truck lost in a vast wasteland of other shitty little Toyota trucks, all parked at a weird angle up on a hill where every hot transmission was begging to start a grass fire. In the end it turned out it was right where we left it, in the first row. Eve kicked a dent in the door, lit a smoke. The whole way home we talked about how the Replacement’s performance was emblematic of the end of something: a cycle, a siècle, an era. The death of art, not caring, The death of punk, being blown by consumerism. The lack of drugs, the fallacy that everyone didn’t needed their own particular high no matter what it was. It was an oblivious and cynical time in America, and nothing would ever change. We were barely employed. The world was falling apart, and, most damningly, our musical heroes had just imploded in front of us. It was a big fuck-you moment. One of those mirror-deals where you realize that the “I’m an artist” and “I’m alternative” routine that sustained you though high school and college and made you think you were smart and different was just as much a con as anything else.
You pay for your ticket, see a lousy show, realize the people you admire are just people, and then drive home to ruminate in Crown Royal.
Plus, our relationship sucked.
We’d been staying mostly at her place, shared a soup pan and a toilet and each other in the most intimate of ways, but really had no idea who we really were, or even wanted to be.
I ended up leaving Eva a few months later, and then D.C. entirely.
Maybe a decade later, I saw her on a bus in San Francisco. She was a few rows up, looked haggard and bored, her chin set against the foggy glass.
I did not say hello.
To begin with, I admit I was a sucker going in. And that my expectations were minimal. I spent the 90’s seeing my aging heroes wheeze through their horns, Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders and Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman barely able to keep up with themselves, Bernard Purdie dropping beats and Dr. Lonnie Smith forgetting B-3 lines and Maceo Parker handing it off to his white back-up band while he mopped the sweat beneath his polyester suit. Maybe most damning of all, the slashing badass that was once John Lee Hooker playing a few desultory notes before leaning back and sipping off a sippy cup of lean while the hippie teenage drummer tried to entertain a festival crowd. So I know the perils of nostalgia. Still, I really believed the Replacements could do no worse than hit a few of my pubescent endorphins, run through the classics, and then walk off stage leaving the crowd happy. But I was wrong. Sure, I’m a hyper-critical and difficult personality who probably needs to be immediately medicated if not admitted to a stern but caring recovery facility. It’s no doubt genetic. Or just the result of having been born with a thoroughly black heart. But take it from me when I say that with even the mildest of expectations, the Mats at the Paramount in Seattle on April 9th, 2015 for $62.50 a ticket was a thoroughly depressing mess. And this is after we first sat in the nosebleed seats, which were essentially like upper deck at a Seahawks game, but my boy Aaron kept texting his boy Ned. Apparently Ned worked sound. It had all the hallmarks of the usual bullshit no-connections story until Ned texted back like, “Meet me at the merch table in five minutes.” We were faced with a crucial choice–leave our shit sits and be forced into even worse ones, or take a flyer on a text. It was unanimous that we hop the flyer. Ned, who starts early setting up equipment and then has the night off after sound check, was shitfaced. I thought for sure the dude was leading us to ruin when he started laying a totally inexplicable line on the unamused VIP security gorilla. But the gorilla finally rolled his eyes and swung open a side door, depositing us dead center on the floor and ten rows back. We were amped! It was hot and sweaty and exciting and 40-year-old nerds pogo’d all around as we stood front and center like important real estate developers with $1000 dollar cigars. Hey, Tommy Stinson was fine. Westerberg sounded exactly like himself. Josh Freese hit his marks. But the lead, some person called Dave Minehan, was brutal. Even to those weird fannypack dads who just wanted to stroke their molly-soaked hair and sweat to the radio hits, it was obvious that he was way out of tune and often seemed–as impossible as it sounds since they’ve been touring for a while–that he simply didn’t know the chords. Hit them too soon or came in too late or missed them entirely. Westerberg glanced over and bitched and swore and apologized. Stinson stared at his shoes and repeatedly apologized. Too stoned or too drunk or both or neither? Who knows? He was a butcher. And it was a valve disease that seeped, damningly, through the heart of almost every song. Verdict: the Replacements sucked. Hard. Like your roommate’s little sister’s Mats cover band first practice. Even for an outfit notorious for not giving a shit (two bars of “Maybellene” here, one of “Iron Man” there, an execrable T. Rex cover) this one was an unforgivably cynical mess. We went and had a steak and a martini after. Q: Who has a steak and a martini after a Replacements show? A: Someone who hasn’t seen the Replacements at all.
Hey, I know they cashed their checks and went to the next city and couldn’t give a fuck less what I thought about the guitar player or the show. In fact, that might be the whole point of the tour, a big ironic screw into the tatted arm of fans who have no idea what they’re actually fans of, an injection of decades-long hate finally mainlined into a system that had no right to contain them in the first place. You pay for the nose through nostalgia, and you get paid off in a month of wistful sighs. Maybe the entire purpose of the Replacements all along was to warn me against the fallacy of falling in love with someone else’s assessment of the world.
Twenty-five years later, I lay in bed that night, alone but not alone, bored and resigned all at once, my ears ringing and gullet full of fatty meat. If the existential dream was to be transported on Westerberg’s genius melody, I was actually delivered on a three-speed to a corner where pot still tasted good and my knees were made for leaping, and the odd jangly chord combined with a perfectly sarcastic lyric made me feel like there was a hummm that ran under all things, that we would one day understand the ridiculousness of everything in unison, that eventually someone would write the perfect song and then we’d all freeze in space, solidified in the back-beat, in poses of self knowledge and a total lack of regard for the idea that we knew anything at all.