The Return of the Replacements: Here Comes a Regular
They weren’t easy, and Paul Westerberg is just difficult. Elizabeth Wurtzel on the cult band’s comeback.
I kind of believe that every song I love is written about me. Novels, too. And who could prove me wrong? It is, of course, an unlikely proposition, but since I am making an undeniable argument, I win by default. So there. Welcome to the place where rock lives.
If the Replacements are reuniting for a three-city tour of second cities—Toronto, Chicago, and Denver—then anything I believe might as well be true. If I tell you that the Beatles’ “Michelle” is a song about how great I am, why not? The Replacements, who were always kind of like Linus if he did not just drag around a blanket but also sucked his thumb, are having a reunion that they mean to be as underwhelming as their underachiever career. With any luck it will be loud and tons of fun, and the band won’t vomit onstage. With any luck, it will have any luck. I can’t hardly wait to miss it, but you know, if it expands and comes to Manhattan or even Staten Island, that would be great. Maybe some people have been waiting since 1991 to hear Paul Westerberg syncopate his way through “Unsatisfied” in Denver among the cattle. Maybe so. Yes, times are tough so: maybe so.
Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash, the first Replacements album, from 1981, is probably my favorite. It’s not that I enjoy listening to it: a schizophrenic that’s a few days off Haldol and deep in ROYGBIV colorful hallucinations would not enjoy Sorry Ma. But the liner notes, hand-scrawled by Paul, song by song, are something special. One track was “written 20 minutes after we recorded it.” Another is “proof that Chris Mars is one of the best drummers we could find at the time.” A self-review of “Shiftless When Idle”: title—good; song—kinda. Paul admits he “stole a mess of these words from a guy who’s never gonna listen to this record.” Probably true. In another case, “We wanted to put car horns over the mistake, but none of us own [sic] a car.” The final disclaimer: “We were drunk.”
Of course, the Replacements were permanently banned from performing on Saturday Night Live after a 1986 appearance, when they were so obviously past midnight and way past inebriated that viewers in the same condition were shocked and awed. Was there really a reason to mention this in 1981?
If you were in college in the ’80s, there was certain music you could not avoid. Of course, if you were alive in the ’80s, there was stuff you were stuck with, like Slippery When Wet, the Bon Jovi album with the hit single “Livin’ on a Prayer.” Also: many bands with the word white in the name, like Whitesnake and White Lion. But on campus, one was mostly shielded from music made of a mixture of terrible hairspray and worse guitar solos. The one band that blasted out of dormitory windows onto grassy quadrangles in the snooty Northeast, no matter what, was REM. Rapid eye movement? The discussion of what it stands for ended in 1988. It’s just REM.
To this day, I hear “Begin the Begin” and I am sure the party is about to start and that it is going to be ridiculous: Rolling Rock bottles in a bucket of ice and greyhounds made of Stoli and Minute Maid. Maybe someday I will know why Driver 8 had to take a break. Perhaps it will make sense eventually that anything or everything ought to fall on me. Why swans? Why hummingbirds? Until Out of Time in 1992, REM had the most incoherent lyrics this side of Led Zeppelin. REM was the catchiest band to come out of an alternative scene. “(I Am) Superman” is a cover song. Anyone have any idea who the original artist is? That’s what I thought: Me neither. Doesn’t matter. It’s an REM song. Life’s Rich Pageant is the sound of awesome.
But the Replacements is the sound of two self-important hipster nerds in Buddy Holly glasses arguing about whether the band’s 1985 album Tim is important or very important. Or maybe only one, arguing with himself. Again. Still. (Both? And is arguing a form of masturbation?) This is unfortunate, because the Replacements are a great band, or a great thing.
As a musical matter, the Replacements’ high points are as transcendent as a four-minute song gets. This shows up finally on the 1984 album Let It Be, which is as uneven as the whole moody mess was. But it opens with the amazing “I Will Dare,” which sounds and feels like its title, and includes a solo from Peter Buck, who must have been in it for the headache. Coming in at 3:59, the album’s masterpiece is “Unsatisfied,” a deflated answer to “Satisfaction”: all the energy and fight in Mick Jagger comes back to him nearly two decades later as a demoralized sneer from the Rust Belt in Reagan’s America. No one will ever be satisfied again, as far as Paul Westerberg is concerned.
And what made the Replacements great is that for the decade they recorded and toured and barely made soda fizz, they managed to get their annoyed feeling about how dumb it all was out there to whoever cared. Both people and their few friends, and maybe more than that in 1987, but not a lot of people. But the Replacements did it with the full support of the music industry. Those were the days of money money money—and no billionaires. OK, truthfully: 13 billionaires. In the first Forbes 400 list in 1982, when the high marginal tax rate was still 69 percent, there were 13 billionaires in the whole world, there was no Internet, there was a functioning entertainment industry, there was a functioning economy, and Warner Brothers could support the disreputable activities of the Replacements, because it was the Christian thing to do. Or maybe it was the Jewish thing to do. Or maybe in the year 2000, the band would have a surprise hit, maybe when Danger Mouse sampled them in a remix of a Nas track. Or maybe it was just that someone felt like it. In any case, life was good.
There are now more than 1,426 billionaires, and life is terrible. But the Replacements have reunited—with replacement players.
In 1999, I received a CD from a Los Angeles management company, with an accompanying note that read: Paul Westerberg wanted you to hear his new album, Suicaine Gratifaction. Please accept this with his compliments.
At the time, I owned Let It Be on vinyl, because I’d grabbed it from the Rolling Stone offices years before, along with a 12” 45 of “I Will Dare” that had a cover of the T. Rex song “20th Century Boy” on the b-side and was surely collectible. I was not a Replacements fan. I was not a nerd; I looked like a cheerleader in high school. The band was not inevitable, like REM—although over time, as Nirvana and grunge rose into the world of precious metals and fancy homes, one got the feeling that more people listened to the Replacements than ever actually did. Many people in loud bands, maybe. In 1997, Jeff Tweedy introduced “Color Me Impressed” by saying, “Everything we do is based on the Replacements.” Wilco is not a loud band. I love Wilco. But I never quite got the Replacements.
But I once asked a publicist at Warner Brothers whom she worked with who was really hot. She didn’t miss a beat: If she were not married, she would be all over Paul Westerberg, for sure. For sure.
I called the number on the note, and told the nice woman who sent the CD to me that Paul could call me if he wanted to. Later that night, I came home to a message on my answering machine in one of those voices that you have to describe as being affected by liquor and cigarettes even though it’s trite, because there is no other way that throaty sound happens. In any case, Paul said he was calling to say hello from Minnesota and, by the way, he was trouble.
That message was like catnip and I am the worst kind of kitten: I love trouble.
This seems like a good time to mention that Suicaine Gratifaction is a great album. You should buy it. Paul made a bunch of great solo albums—actually, they are all good. The last Replacements album, All Shook Down, is really his first effort alone, and it will break your heart. This also seems like a good time to say that lots happened next, and it is a great story. I will have to tell it some time. Maybe I will, maybe I won’t. But I have lots to tell.
Here is the main thing I remember about Paul Westerberg, all these years later: he is a very difficult man. I am not an easy person, and I have come across some men over the years who made me cry for no reason and said no when they meant yes, and every variation on being left in tears on a corner after midnight where the odds of a bad thing happening to me were pretty high, and even still. But Paul Westerberg is a special kind of difficult: he is so difficult that after a while you just want to send him to Leavenworth. Paul Westerberg is difficult in a way that is meant to hurt other people, but it’s the secret of his failure. When they were making a movie of my first book, I wanted Paul to do the music for it, which would have been good for all involved. Before he could meet the music supervisor in New York City, Paul flew back to Minneapolis without telling anyone, which we only figured out when security at the hotel went into his room to make sure he was not dead.
Paul wrote a song after that with the refrain: I have enjoyed looking at your face/ I hear your voice and hit erase.
By this time, the 21st century had begun. So much for 20th-century boys.