For me, growing up, there was lots of music, and especially lots of punk rock. I loved it all. I loved early and mid-80s DC and LA hardcore, UK82, crust, Swedish d-beat, ’77 English stuff. But the Big Question has always been between the Big Two: The Clash and The Replacements. On one side of the pond, you have the ultra-heroic, almost comic-book intensity of Strummer and his associates. The power, the ferocity, is jaw dropping. The Clash, the conviction, it’s unmatched.
But the Mats were different. They were like me, they were the guys smoking butts beside the 7-11, the types of kids with snot on their shirts, whose front wheel flew off the bike when they went off a jump. The beauty of the Replacements lies in this impossible paradox that normal guys in normal clothes with normal lives could emit music so beautiful and inspiring and connect with me on such a deep level. There’s absolutely nothing cathartic about their swagger or image or wardrobe–compared to the political slogans of the Clash emblazoned across stylized red and black leather–but for me, there’s no other band that can conjure up any kind of feelings or emotions or memories that you’d describe as anything close to cathartic.
When the Replacements reunited on August 25 I couldn’t believe that I’d finally get the chance to test my theory. I was going to see these guys in person: for me, it was the first time ever, and for others in the crowd, it was the first time in 22 years. The legendary tumultuous breakup of the best American band of the 80s, their rise to the top of the college-rock heap from their humble basement beginnings, the stories dripping with liquor and drug abuse, the tragic final days of Bob Stinson and his rock’n’roll-riddled body ceasing on his apartment floor, the murmurings of Paul Westerberg’s maniacal artistic decisions at the end of the band’s career, and most of all, the records; those fucking amazing, amazing, amazing records.
Going into a Replacements show in 2013 as a 24-year old kid is a strange, tingling feeling. The anticipation was suffocating. The tension in the air, but in a contagiously positive sense, was as stifling as the humid Toronto summer heat. Friends from all across the USA and Canada were reunited in one afternoon. It was like Woodstock for Mats fans. Iggy Pop took the stage and you could barely notice him, with the excitement to see Westerberg don that black and yellow faded Les Paul, to see Tommy have that bass swinging between his knees like an eternal adolescent, to see with my own eyes and hear with my own ears those chords beaming through those massive speaker stands so thick in the air. . .
But, they could bomb. They could potentially not even show up. They could forget everything. They could play two songs and leave. They could throw a set’s worth of covers at you. You just didn’t know. For a band who was notoriously hit and miss in their heyday, and who over the years has become sort of loved for it, it was a nervous feeling as a fan to find out exactly what would happen. It was like getting to the climax of a great, classic novel, inching closer towards the end and the story unraveling before you. I was so nervous and excited to see how it would unfold. And then it happened?
The lights go down, the crowd’s hands go up. The Replacements walk onstage. Westerberg: “For the past 25 years, we’ve been a having a wardrobe debate.” And then? “Takin’ A Ride.” It explodes. In my head, after about four measures, I knew it. We’d caught them on an on night.
The band ripped through all of it, a greatest hits package that wasn’t without its own subtle Mats-style sense of deliberate irony: “Left Of the Dial”, “Androgynous”, “Swingin’ Party”, all got played, except for “Unsatisfied”: probably omitted with a nice Westerberg-ian poetic shithead chuckle.
That forgotten, mid-80s era of rock and roll was thrown like a fastball into the present: no reliance on stage lights, or click tracks, or any other magical, theatrical, or just plain stupid element of showmanship was displayed, other than a great rock band playing great rock songs, loud and fast and meaningful. Absolutely zero bullshit. All the myths of that, that you rarely see anymore, were proven to be possible. You can get by on your guitar alone. You can get by being ferocious, sweaty, and loud.
Tonally perfect. Bob Stinson’s, ur, Replacement, Boston-based Neighbourhoods guitarist Dave Minehan, mimicked Bob’s lead lines to the point where it was almost robotic. He leapt around the stage like a fourteen year old kid who’d heard punk rock for the first time. Minehan was the envy of everyone who’s ever been in a band who was standing in that audience that night and he knew it: every air-guitar moment in that guy’s life–during that sun-through-the-clouds moment on “Left of the Dial” at the end, or the intro of “Bastards of Young”, or the solo on “Kiss Me On the Bus”–came to a screeching reality that night. Minehan’s teenage daydreams came true that day. He’s probably known those parts for fifteen years, learning Stinson solos alone in his room.
Four regular guys, happy as hell to be on that stage. In fact, at times, it was harder to tell who was happier: us, or them? Tommy and Paul looked like they were over the moon to be able to play this stuff again. And the other two, Minehan, and drummer Josh Freese, were as giddy as you can be, playing those chords and singing those lines… Paul seemed so happily distracted by the reality of what was happening at points, like in the middle of “Androgynous”, where he went into the second verse too early, and drew a lyrical blank on the third: “We don’t have a piano up here…” Paul said, “But you guys probably wanna hear it anyway?”
It’s a force of nature that the kind of power and fury in the music of the Mats can trigger in people the kind of emotions that it does. Sure, Paul fucked up the odd word, Tommy fucked up the odd note. But what else would you expect from the Mats? They’re not superheroes. They never were. And you’d never want them to be. It’s the fact that you can look at them on a stage together, and feel like you relate to them so deeply as people, that makes their music so otherworldly. It’s the fact that they’re so human that makes them so close to gods. The Replacements gave me the courage to not be perfect. And for that I owe them a lifetime.