The Growing Pains and Pleasures of the Replacements

"We had a big dose of attitude in the early days"

The Replacements in 1989. Credit: Paul Natkin/Getty Images

Paul Westerberg has only been awake for about ten minutes, but it's time for him to go to work. Westerberg's job is to be the lead singer, songwriter and rhythm-guitar player for the Replacements, but these days that job involves more than just writing and singing and strumming: It also means shaking hands and small talking and signing autographs and discussing strategy and talking to reporters. In the dining room of a Holiday Inn in Rochester, in upstate New York, Westerberg struggles to wake himself up and act coherent for one more interview.

"This whole thing sucks," he says with a groan. "We left Maine at ten o'clock yesterday morning, got in the bus, drove here and got in about ten at night. It would have been ideal if we could have flown, but Warner Bros. is so cheap…." He looks over at the next table, where three Warners staffers are having a late breakfast. "This is a bad place to be sitting, with them right over there. But maybe it'll keep me from hanging myself."

The record-company folks, though, just grin and carry on the business of coordinating the Replacements' schedule for the day: First there's Westerberg's interview with Rolling Stone and, at the same time, bassist Tommy Stinson's phone interview with a local publication; then a visit to a nearby radio station; then an in-store appearance at a local record store; then tonight's concert; and afterward, the nightly get-together for the band and a few important radio DJs and execs. That's all in a day's work for a rock band on the verge of breaking big — and for everyone involved, the expectation is that the Replacements are on that verge.

After seven albums that earned them a stellar reputation in underground and American-independent circles, the Replacements' third album for the Warner Bros.-distributed Sire label, Don't Tell a Soul, is the one that's supposed to take these former college-radio darlings to the big time and sell considerably more than the 200,000 copies their last album did. Already the single "I'll Be You" has reached Billboard's Top 100 Singles chart, until now an unheard-of achievement for this band. In addition, the tour is taking them into medium-sized halls rather than the clubs they used to frequent, and Westerberg's reputation for writing subtle, moving rock & roll songs is beginning to overshadow the band's old rep as loudmouthed, drunken thrashers. The standard line is that the band has grown up, matured; maybe so, or maybe the audience and the business have.

At any rate, the band and the business are closer together now, because Westerberg, Stinson and their colleagues — drummer Chris Mars and guitarist Slim Dunlap — have been spending their days doing interviews and in-stores and the kind of promotional chores they used to avoid. "If I was a little more clearheaded, I could come up with a reason why we're doing all this," says Westerberg, weariness showing in his drawn face. "I guess I just don't want to give the record company an excuse for not getting behind the record.

"We wanted to show them good faith, we wanted to say, 'We're not a joke, take us seriously.' Before, it was always drilled into my mind — the underground mentality that they are the enemy. But that just defeats the purpose of making records, if you're gonna fight the people who are working for you to get your music out there."

Of course, that underground mentality is hard to shake: After all, the Replacements, like the other bands that sprang up in me wake of and were influenced by the Sex Pistols, are part of virtually the only genre in the history of rock & roll that considers it a shameful sellout to show any commercial aspirations.

"You're damn right," Westerberg says quickly. "It crosses my mind, what we would have been like if we were sitting around in 1965, when it was the hippest thing in the world to be huge. I don't know. We'd probably be like the Pretty Things or something."

He pushes aside his pot of tea and orders a Heineken. "You know," he says, "we've seen one side of the coin, the underground side, the lack of success. But we've never tasted big success, and I'm curious to see what it's like. I mean, I wonder why a million people like R.E.M., for instance, and only 200,000 like us. Are they better than us, or have the other 800,000 not had the chance to hear us? If this record doesn't sell, I wanna know that people heard it and decided, 'Piece of shit, I don't like it.' Then we can get back to the basement, where we belong."

* * *

Inside a Rochester radio station, people are waiting for the Replacements. Outside in the parking lot, Tommy Stinson is getting a few things off his chest. "Shit shit shit shit, fuck fuck fuck fuck, drunk drunk drunk drunk, tits tits tits tits." In the front seat of a parked jeep, the twenty-two-year-old, spiky-haired bassist erupts in laughter. "There," he says, with a grin. "I think I got it out of my system. Now I can go talk on the radio."

Stinson and the band's gangly guitarist, Slim Dunlap, are handling the radio-station chores this afternoon, and the first item of business is to behave themselves and let this radio station know that the Replacements' music is tuneful, commercial rock & roll, rather than thrashy protopunk, and that the band members are nice guys, rather than the hard-drinking, rowdy punks that their legend suggests. Dunlap, the newest Replacement, says he gets the question all the time: "Are Paul and Tommy really complete assholes, like everybody says?"

"They are," he says. "But they're the nicest assholes I've ever known."

So the band members head across the parking lot to try and get themselves on the radio. "When I listen to the radio I think, 'We ought to be on here and this shit shouldn't be,'" says Stinson. "Because face it, no one needs to hear Jethro Tull on the radio anymore. I don't want to dog AOR radio, because they're giving us support now and they never did in the past, but this is the fucking Eighties, and they're still playing the worst shit of the Seventies and calling that classic rock. Boy, if 'Aqualung' is a classic, then fucking 'I'll Be You' is history."

The interview itself is short and uneventful, coming to life only when the DJ dredges up the Replacements' reputation as sloppy, undisciplined live performers and says she's heard they're liable to cover everything from Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" to R.E.M.'s "Radio Free Europe." At this, Stinson leans forward. "We haven't done that crap," he says, exaggerating, "in seven years."

Afterward they pile back into the jeep and find a college station on the dial. The station broadcasts an ad for tonight's concert, then segues into "They're Blind," a lush midtempo song from the new album. Dunlap beams. "You know," he says with a big, crooked grin, "there's nothing wrong with being appreciative of the fact that they're playing us on the radio. To me, it's important that Paul's songs be on the radio. If it helps for me to go make a fool out of myself at a radio station, I'll do it. There's nothing wrong with this band, and Paul Westerberg, seeking a larger audience. Because he deserves it."

* * *

After enough time to park at the hotel, gather up Westerberg and Chris Mars and drive across town, the four Replacements walk through a light snowfall into a huge, cluttered and crowded record-store-T-shirt-emporium-guitar-shop. A line of more than 100 fans is waiting for them, and the routine is simple: The band sits at a table, and the fans file past slowly, pausing long enough to have the four members sign records or posters or fliers or whatever they have on hand.

Most of the fans look like the kind who've been following the band for some time, but every so often you'll see a few obvious newcomers: the two teenage girls who stand off to the side pointing at Tommy Stinson and giggling, "He's so cute" or the young Oriental girl who has her brother ask Paul if he'll kiss her — and who, when Paul complies, looks like she's about to faint.

The band members gamely put up with the ritual, but after about an hour they're getting antsy. One by one, they wander away from the table for short spells; finally, by the time the last few customers have reached the front of the line, Dunlap has wandered next door to look at guitars and Stinson is thumbing through stacks of records. "It kinda takes the fun out of it for the fans, to meet the band first and then see the show later," says Westerberg, who adds, "After a gig, the people who are dying to say hello, those are the people I wanna talk to. But the people who are there in a structured environment like that, I don't like it at all. I would never have done that, even if it was fucking Dylan or somebody."

But then, the Replacements formed at a time when rock & roll bands were trying to tell the audience that anybody could play the game. Things started in New York with the Ramones and in London with the Sex Pistols, and before long, untutored kids with loud guitars were insisting that they could be rockers in towns across America - including Minneapolis, where a teenaged Paul Westerberg wormed his way into a local garage band whose members included twelve-year-old Tommy Stinson, his older brother Bob and Chris Mars. They were punks even if they weren't skinheads, and they made punk records: 1981's Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash and the following year's EP Stink were fast and hard and mean, close to hardcore but a little too smart and sentimental. (They don't like those records anymore.) They opened for lots of punk bands, pissed off the skinheads by doing country covers and began to change tempo on Hootenanny, the real watershed, though, was 1984's Let It Be, a mixture of thrashy rock and heart-on-your-sleeve sensitivity.

"We had a big dose of attitude in the early days," says Westerberg, "and it's kinda hard to put attitude down on tape. But we tried for, like, three records. And kinda gave up the ghost on Let It Be, and let a little bit of music happen, too. And that was me right mixture."

It got them a major-label deal with Sire. "My guess is they signed us to keep us off another label in case we might get good, and also because we were a cool thing to sign," says Westerberg. For Sire, the band made Tim, bigger sounding but still rough. Live, the group was alternately great and appalling; behind the scenes, Bob Stinson was so drunk and out of control that the others finally had to fire him. Despite their good reasons for giving Stinson the boot, the move angered longtime fans. Two years later it's still a sore spot: "I don't want to talk about my brother," announces Tommy Stinson out of the blue at one point. They made Pleased to Meet Me as a three-piece group, moving between full-bore raveups and soft Westerberg ballads, then integrated the two more fully on Don't Tell a Soul.

"Writing the record," says Westerberg, "I wasn't feeling like the Replacements, the mighty rock band. I was just feeling like myself, and very casually just writing pop songs. And when I played them for the band, it was like Tommy would say, "Where are the rockers, man?' So we compromised: I went back and kicked out a couple more rockers, and he came around and kind of understood what was going on." ("I was worried that it was gonna be a really dull, wimpy record," admits Stinson, the brashest and youngest Replacement, and the one who says that he's responsible for "keeping the spirit intact" in the band.)

The record they finally made, Don't Tell a Soul, keeps playing in the background as the Rochester in-store appearance nears an end. On the store's sound system, it sounds tough, tuneful and intelligent: The jagged edges that goosed previous Replacements records may be missing from much of this one, but the craftsmanship has reached a new level and there's an inescapable emotional lack to songs like "We'll Inherit the Earth" and "Rock 'n' Roll Ghost."

The record plays on as the band members edge toward the front door while the store's staff and some record-company employees try to round them up so they can pose for pictures and autograph the store's signature-laden back wall. Westerberg offers to sign the heretofore bare front wall instead, and when the store manager demurs, he mutters, "We sign this wall or we don't sign at all," then walks out to the jeep. Finally, though, all four band members are coaxed back inside, where they pose for pictures and sign the back wall and smile for the right people. You wouldn't exactly call them enthusiastic — but they are cooperative, which with these guys ought to count for something.

* * *

A few hours later, the Replacements are back on their home turf. Onstage at the Renaissance Theater, they blast their way through a set that bears little resemblance to the "mature" craftsmanship of Don't Tell a Soul. Mixing new songs with a selection of tunes from the past few albums — none of the early hardcore tunes, though — they play just about everything faster and harder than the recorded versions, Stinson and Westerberg and Dunlap staggering about a makeshift stage that's been erected on the dance floor.

The emphasis is on rock, flash and the band's brand of early-Stones-style decadence; fed up with rumors that he's going to do a solo album soon, Westerberg doesn't perform any of the ballads he includes on albums. The songs from the new album are revved up far beyond the recorded versions: On record, he says, he wanted "We'll Inherit the Earth" to sound like it was coming from a meek, timid voice, but onstage the song roars to life as a call-to-arms anthem. The Replacements slow down long enough to play their version of the 101 Dalmatians song "Cruella De Ville," their oldie "Waitress in the Sky" and the occasional midtempo tune, like "Achin' to Be," but more typical are tuneful hard rockers like "Alex Chilton" and thunderers like "Bastards of Young."

"On the last tour," says Dunlap, "you could kinda feel that everyone in the room had seen the band before and they knew what to expect. But now you look in people's eyes, and some of them have this look, like "What the hell am I doing here?' It's kinda made it fun."

After the show, Westerberg parks himself at the bar so that fans can stop by and say hello. There, he meets one who tells him that she really liked the show — but that to be honest, she preferred the show a few days before in Syracuse. That was the show the band considers to be the worst of this young tour: They were drunk, they were sloppy, they screwed around onstage.

"There aren't as many people who come to see us fuck up anymore," says Westerberg later. "It's not like last time or the time before, when it seemed like eighty percent of the people came to see the circus. And if you fucking writers would stop writing about that stuff, no one would come to see it." He grins. "Hint hint."

* * *

An hour after the show ends, Paul Westerberg is sitting in the Holiday Inn bar with a gin and tonic, talking about his two bands. It's easy, he says, to tell them apart: The Replacements are the guys who make the increasingly accessible records, the adults who are all married and settled down and respectable, and the Mats — an old nickname that's short for Placemats — are the rockers who have a few beers, get up onstage and tear it up.

"I do see a clear division between the Replacements and the Mats," Westerberg says, while at a nearby table Stinson and Dunlap chat with a group of local radio bigwigs. (As usual, Mars is nowhere to be found: An avid artist who says "drumming is second all the way to art," he's probably up in his room with a sketch pad.) "We tried to capture what you saw tonight on record, and we never get there," says Westerberg. "You always lack a little spirit and spunk in the studio, and I guess we've realized that, well, let's make up the difference with maybe a little musicianship and thoughtfulness and intellect — and then throw all that crap out the window and fucking rock. I mean, that's what I love to do."

So the Mats are more fun than the Replacements?

"Yeah," he says. "But the Replacements are more gratifying. If you create something in the studio that's good, you can be proud of it. I wasn't proud of what we did tonight. I had fun and felt good that people enjoyed themselves and got their money's worth, but I didn't get any sense of 'Whew, we really did something there.'"

Westerberg is making a list of the recordings he's proud of — from the new album's "Achin' to Be," "I'll Be You" and "Rock 'n' Roll Ghost" to the older "Skyway," "Ledge," "Alex Chilton," "Nightclub Jitters" and "Hootenanny" — when a pair of local DJs stop at his table.

"Sorry we missed the show," says one. "He was on the air until ten."

"Too bad," says Westerberg, good-naturedly. "We were actually good tonight."

"That's what I hear, man," says the other. "That's what I hear."

"So are you playing us, a little bit?" asks Westerberg.

"Not yet, we're not playing you yet," says the first guy, pointing to his pal. "It's up to him, he's the music director."

The music director laughs nervously. "Yeah, we gotta...," he begins, and then stops. "We gotta...…check out, and ..."

"Well," says his colleague, interrupting. "Good luck on the tour."

"Thanks a lot, guys," says Westerberg, as they retreat. "See you again, I guess." Then he turns away — and under his breath, he mutters, "Kiss my fuckin' ass sideways."

* * *

The bar is almost closed and all the radio dudes have gone home, but Paul Westerberg is still sitting across the room from the table where he had breakfast and began doing business fourteen hours earlier. One more time, he's trying to answer the Replacements question: What's happened to this independent band turned big-league contender, and what does it all mean?

"In a nutshell, we've gotten better," he says. "We've lost a little bit of what we used to have, in terms of the old kamikaze spirit. But we can't do what we used to do, and we don't wanna. We don't want to be a joke, or a young rising band, forever. It's like, we're a good band, period. Not a great one, but a good one."

Earlier, Westerberg had told a local college DJ that he wanted a gold record with Don't Tell a Soul; now, though, he begins to pull back from that ambition. "I kinda said that just to say something," he admits quietly. "A coupla weeks ago I thought the album might really get big, but now it doesn't seem like it's gonna. I don't think it'll sell a million records, and I guess I don't care — but if it went through the fucking roof, I'd be ready for it, and I'd like it to."

In the meantime, he'll make do with a steady living and a few other consolations. "I think about this sometimes," he says. "Whatever happened to all the punk bands? All the bands that we opened for and played with: Black Flag, Minutemen, Youth Brigade, Seven Seconds, Hüsker Dü, Effigies, all the fucking hardcore bands. There isn't a damn one of them left. We fucking outlasted the whole stinking lot of posers, and all the time they gave us shit for having plaid shirts and hair."

Westerberg shrugs. "There were some good ones, I can't lump 'em all together," he says. "But I gotta say that R.E.M. is the only band that we've ever opened for that has stayed bigger than us. Every other band — X, everyone else — at the time we opened, they were like rock gods and we were nothing, and R.E.M. is the only band that has continued to grow and get bigger. So there's our goal: We want R.E.M. to open for us."

He breaks up laughing; in the world of regional American rock, he knows, R.E.M. and the Replacements are seen as the two titans, even if one of them is still fighting to be heard by most people. "A lotta people," he says, "try to push it as, you know, we'll be the Stones to R.E.M.'s Beatles. But, you know, we're better than R.E.M. Hey, we're better than the Stones. No, I'm kinda bullshitting you…...."

Westerberg's in midretraction when Tommy Stinson walks by the table, sees the tape recorder and grimaces. "Did you bury yourself yet?" he asks.

"Gimme a fuckin' lily," says Westerberg, "and I'm home."