The first time I saw The Replacements was autumn 1983 at Stache & Little Brothers – a 170-capacity hole-in-the-wall club in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio – that everybody here called Stache’s. (I also later saw Richard Thompson, Joe Ely, Lucinda Williams, Soul Asylum, Dave Alvin and a fuckload of other acts there, but today we’re talkin’ Replacements.)
I know Hootenanny was already out, but I don’t know if Let It Be was. I do know that Westerberg & company were being touted as The Next Big Thing in “alternative rock” after REM, so I wanted to check ‘em out. The Replacements staggered up onto Stache’s “stage” – literally one step up from the floor – and lurched into some kinda unholy din that I think was supposed to resemble a song. Bob & Tommy Stinson were cutting huge ragged swaths of guitar & bass noise through the Stache’s PA, but nobody was anywhere close to being in tune, nobody was changing chords at the same time (if indeed those WERE chords being played) and Westerberg was so drunk you couldn’t understand a single word he was singing – it was a MAJOR fucking train-wreck of a set. The only person even close to being on the ball was drummer Chris Mars, who was striving manfully, single-handedly, to hold the songs together, and he was failing, badly.
I was standing at the back of Stache’s by the soundboard with local scenester Ron House that night, surveying the carnage that was The Replacements, and I shouted over the din, “These guys are supposed to be The Next Big Thing? This is HORRIBLE.” Ron, yelling back in my ear, concurred and Ron and I seldom agreed on ANYTHING. Just at that moment – fully a half-hour into the set – the band launched into “Take Me Down To The Hospital” from Hootenanny and it was fucking FANTASTIC! They were AMAZING. It was really quite unbelievable. From “Hospital” they went into the yet-to-be-released “Unsatisfied” and it was even better than “Hospital.” They went from total indeterminate, out-of-time, out-of-tune noise to one of the greatest rock & roll bands I’d ever seen in the course of three songs. “Can you believe this? They must just have been getting warmed up before.” I yelled to Ron, unable to take my eyes off of them.
And then, after “Unsatisfied” they went right back to sucking. Right. Directly. Back to sucking. Ron and I just stared at the stage and then at each other as the band veered off-course back into The Rock & Roll Wasteland. They did that at least two more times in the course of an hour & ten minute set. They would be world-beaters for a song or two, and then go completely off-the-rails for four or five more. It was the weirdest, most off-kilter set of rock & roll I have ever witnessed.
I’ve said ad infinitum for years that all of my standards of rock & roll professionalism are based on the 1969 Who – nature’s most perfect rock & roll organism – and in all the times I saw The Replacements (four or five more shows, at least) they never even managed a competent live show, let alone the lofty heights of Townshend & Moon and company in 1969. (Plus, it’s not like I don’t understand loose, sloppy & fun in rock & roll. I saw Rod Stewart & the Faces a number of times and they were great. The Replacements weren’t loose, sloppy & fun, they were just drunk & shambolic.)
The last Replacements show I saw – in 1991, with Slim Dunlap on lead guitar, at the Riverbend outdoor venue in Cincinnati, opening for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – the band was a defeated, downcast, worn-out, ghostly echo of its former self. That show was just tough to watch. Until his first solo tour, promoting 14 Songs in 1993 at Peabody’s Down Under in Cleveland, I never saw a Paul Westerberg song played competently. (That first solo tour backing band, by the way, included David Minehan – drafted in from Boston’s superlative pop-punk assemblage The Neighborhoods – on lead guitar and Josh Freese on drums, who now reprise their roles as Bob Stinson & Chris Mars’ substitutes in the new Replacements.) (Notice how I avoided an obvious bad pun, there?)
The long and the short of it is; I should not have had to wait a full TEN YEARS – from 1983 to 1993 – to see justice done to the songs of The Replacements. I should have seen it the first time I saw The Replacements. I wish I could go along to see it this Saturday. - Ricki C. / September 7th, 2014.
Next time: In 1985, Ricki C. turns down a job as a roadie for The Replacements.