The Replacements: The Greatest Band That Never Was

The Replacements were the most exciting rockers of the Eighties to not hit it big. Can they survive a reunion?

The Replacements at a South Minneapolis studio in August. Credit: Ackerman + Gruber

There are days when time can get a little abstract for Paul Westerberg, and his schedule gets squishy. The 54-year-old alternative-rock icon might wake up in his home in suburban Edina, Minnesota, rake wet leaves, then take some Percocet and lay on the couch to ease his bad back. He might change outfits a few times ("Prince is like that too," he jokes, "it comes with the craziness"). Or, just to avoid the anxiety of picking out clothes, he won't change at all (he claims to have worn the same socks for two weeks straight). If he has to make a trip to the local food co-op to stuff his Army backpack with groceries, he'll do it on a bike, even during the brutal Minnesota winters. Westerberg doesn't like to drive "Speaking as one of the five most nervous men in the world," he says, "I'd prefer not to die behind the wheel."

Today, however, Westerberg only had time to put on one outfit, because he has practice with the Replacements, who are playing a run of shows this fall. "It was good to wake up and go, 'God, I'm late,'" he says. "'I have somewhere to go.'"

Here, in a South Minneapolis rehearsal studio, Westerberg, wearing a black vest over a white T-shirt and black jeans, fiddles with guitars on a green sofa. Bassist Tommy Stinson, a very youthful 47, is pacing around the room, gabbing about the night before with Josh Freese, a Southern California session vet who is the band's third drummer. Stinson ducks into the kitchen off to the side of the room, pouring himself a "dose of courage." "Top of the morning!" he says, raising the cup.

After a couple of vague jokes about needing performance enhancers ("Want to freshen up? Step into my office!"), Freese counts in and they rip into one of their most beloved songs, "Alex Chilton," a tribute to the co-founder of Big Star, who died in 2010. Westerberg starts bouncing and swiveling at the mic, his thick, raspy voice straining at the chorus: "What's that song?/Yeah, I'm in love/With that song." Stinson wheels his low-slung bass; they end on a dime, surprising even themselves.

"Fuckin' great!" shouts Stinson.

"Fucking splendid!" counters Westerberg.

"Never sounded better!"

"Fucking fucker!"


From 1979, years before Nirvana, to 1991, the Replacements had the best shot at bringing the fury and values of punk to a mainstream audience. The four records they made for Minneapolis' Twin/Tone Records, culminating with the 1984 classic Let It Be, balanced trashy jokes and heart-splitting brilliance, chaotic thrash and aching melody – from the ranting hilarity of "I Hate Music" ("It's got too many notes") to the proud-underdog zip of "I Will Dare." They influenced a generation of rockers, from Kurt Cobain, who sang as though he had listened to their anthem "Bastards of Young" on a loop, to Jeff Tweedy and Billie Joe Armstrong, who said that "if it wasn't for [them] I might have spent my time playing in bad speed-metal bands."

Live, they careened toward the edge of self-destruction. "There were these really powerful and beautiful songs," says Craig Finn of the Hold Steady, who saw them half a dozen times while growing up in Minnesota, "but there was this other chaos always threatening to derail that." Some shows had Ramones-like velocity and reckless intensity; others were tragicomic affairs where they would drunkenly attempt Black Sabbath and Jackson 5 covers, rarely from start to finish.

Their self-sabotaging attitude didn't change when they got their first hints of stardom. At their only Saturday Night Live appearance, in 1986, the Replacements drank all day, swore onstage, swapped clothes between songs and fumbled through "Kiss Me on the Bus," earning the ire of Lorne Michaels, who, as legend has it, banned them for life from the show. "When they were good, they were very, very good, and when they were bad, they were awful," says Seymour Stein, who signed them to Sire Records. The band's partying "was scary then, and in retrospect it's even scarier now."

The embodiment of the band's genius and limitations was Tommy's older brother Bob Stinson, the original lead guitarist. Offhandedly virtuosic, the round-faced, balding Bob would play shows wearing a dress or a diaper or a garbage bag. "He would be onstage in a trench coat and nothing else," says Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum. According to R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, a friend, Bob seemed to barely know the names of the songs (Westerberg would just tell him to play "the fast one, or the sort-of-fast one"). Bob hung on through the band's excellent 1985 major-label debut, Tim. But his unreliability began to get in the way of Westerberg's ambitions, and he was kicked out of the group the following year. "It was the hardest fucking day of our lives," says Tommy. In 1995, Bob died at age 35 of organ failure related to years of substance abuse. He had been sober for two weeks. "When he was ready to stop, his body gave out," says Tommy. "That kind of sucked, didn't it?"

Westerberg asserted himself as the band's songwriting auteur on the Replacements' final albums – 1987's Pleased to Meet Me, 1989's Don't Tell a Soul and 1990's All Shook Down – but the band wasn't quite sure how to mature. All three had great moments, but they lacked the fire of the group's earlier punk records. "You're the young new thing," says Westerberg, "and then you're not. So you try to grow, in kind of a juvenile way – you think you're the Beatles or whatever."

After the band split up in 1991, many expected Westerberg to find success as a kind of alt-rock elder statesman. He had a modest splash with the song "Dyslexic Heart," which appeared on the 1992 soundtrack to Cameron Crowe's movie Singles. But his 1993 solo debut, 14 Songs, sold poorly, and subsequent releases continued the trajectory.

Westerberg says he thought about working as a producer or trying his hand as a Nashville songwriter, but he has learned over the years that he "doesn't work well with others." "He was doing stuff in the basement by himself, instead of making records with other people," says Stinson about Westerberg. "The artistic palette just kinda dries up. But I think he's gotten around that corner."

Last summer after watching bands from Pavement to the Pixies re-form, and after turning down some "ridiculous" offers, the Replacements became one of the last of the great indie-rock titans to reunite. That turned into a series of high-profile (and lucrative) gigs with Freese and guitarist Dave Minehan, including two headlining shows at Coachella in April. Westerberg says it hasn't been a huge windfall, because the band had some old financial obligations. "We owe the Mob," he says. "Dead rats in the mail."

Certain performances have been excellent, others less so. ("If I could remember every song and how to play them, I would choose to do that," says Westerberg, who often forgets lyrics onstage. "When I forget, it's fun to have the crowd continue the song with the proper lyrics.") The first Coachella show was indifferently attended, and between that appearance and their second performance a week later, a recurring problem with Westerberg's back flared up. He played lounging on a couch onstage with longtime fan Armstrong adding vocals and a third guitar. "He kept saying it was a dream come true and all of that," says Westerberg. "We were glad to have him around." (Armstrong stayed with the Replacements for the next few shows, and suggested working together in the future.)

Playing the shows themselves has been a thrill, but Westerberg hasn't relished life back on the road. "We spent four days in Seattle," he says, "and by the second day I was gripped with a sort of agoraphobia, afraid to go do anything."

Before practice, Westerberg is hanging out smoking cigarettes on a small ground-level deck behind the rehearsal space. We're surrounded by a small-city urban idyll of modest homes and sleepy streets. Stinson strolls up, cutting quite a figure amid this tableau, wearing a dark coat, a red shirt, a fedora, black jeans and bright-green socks with black polka dots, a Mean Streets look accentuated by the trace of Bronx-Irish grittiness that seems to have slipped into his Midwestern accent.

"Dapper Dan!" Westerberg shouts as Stinson plops down next to him. After 35 years, the two have a buddy-comedy chemistry: Westerberg is the grumbly wiseacre, and Stinson, who joined the band at age 13, is the eternal punk-rock kid. Last night, Stinson stayed up reading the Bible. "A lady friend gave it to me," he says. "I've been meaning to read it. It's sort of the Dr. Seuss version."

"Many is the time I've been like, 'I'm going to open the Bible, and this pertains to me!' " says Westerberg. "And, instead, it's 'Aesop's sandal was pointing to the seventh donkey.' It's like, 'Fuck!' You know? You want it to say, 'Turn down thine amp!'"

In the Nineties, after the split, there were a couple of years when the two were barely in touch. Since 1998, Stinson has been a full-time bass player in Guns N' Roses; after living in L.A. for years, he moved to Hudson, New York, "a great little sort of gay art community," where he lives with his six-year-old daughter. (Westerberg, who is recently divorced, has a 16-year-old son.)

For years, Westerberg seemed set against a reunion, as a point of pride. But in 2012, Slim Dunlap, who played guitar in the Replacements from 1987 to 1991, suffered a severe stroke. Dunlap had been essential in stabilizing the band after the split with Bob Stinson, and is a beloved figure in the Minnesota music scene. Westerberg and Tommy Stinson came together in Minneapolis to record Songs for Slim, a five-song covers EP that included two of Dunlap's songs, with sales going toward raising money for their former bandmate's medical care. "He's been in and out of the hospital maybe 40 times," says Westerberg. After that, the reemergence of the Replacements didn't seem so crazy. "We were talking to Slim when he was in the hospital," says Westerberg. "And I was like, 'Should we play?' And he said, 'Yeah, play.'"

Now, the Replacements say they'll likely make an album at some point in the future. Westerberg, who often writes on piano as well as guitar, has plenty of songs in the hopper. One candidate for inclusion might be called "Are You in It for the Money?"; another is titled "Dead Guitar Player" (which he says was written before Dunlap's illness). This fall they'll play their first show in New York since 1991, at Forest Hills Stadium in Queens, and their first Minnesota gig too, which will happen at a minor-league baseball park.

And unlike many rock reunions, which are pure business, this one has actually brought two far-flung old friends back together, perhaps for good. "We'll call each other up when things go south, because we know we can get a laugh out of each other," says Westerberg. "How many people do you know that you can call up and get a guaranteed gut-wrenching laugh? Sometimes it's worth all the money and kissing and hugging in the world."

And then, on cue, Westerberg and Stinson let out a simultaneous "awwww" and throw themselves at each other in an over-the-top hug that looks like a wrestling hold. "I think," says Stinson, "we got to realize we might need each other a bit."