First a romanticized view of the Replacements show Friday night at Queens’ Forest Hills Stadium, which is an appropriate starting point for a band that throughout its 30-plus-year history has been romanticized for all the right reasons (visionary songs kissed by soul and fraught with crud) and the wrong reasons (their need to throw up in your lap so you didn’t mistake them for your soulmate):
Two adult women – a mother and a daughter who had never seen the band before – in the front row next to the stage, hugging each other tightly and then flinging their arms to the sky, fingers seemingly sending trembling beams of breathless devotion arcing toward singer-guitarist Paul Westerberg during the melodic, starburst “Kiss me!” moment on the chorus of “Kiss Me on the Bus,” then turning to shake their fists at the burly mosh bros who kept careening into them from behind. I mean…
This is lovely and heartening and not nostalgic at all and shot up and down with the generation-collapsing essence of gifted bands and sacred songs. And many times during the Mats’ 29-song set (like during “Alex Chilton,” the still-stirring and necessary petition-of-the-heart for the genius Big Star songwriter), this connection happened for couples and old friends, most of whom who had never seen the band during its live heyday – which basically lasted from, like, 1981 to 1983, if we’re being generous, so the term “heyday” is fairly meaningless, unless you use the Replacements definition, from their song of the same name: “Geniuses act like idiots/Idiots act like geniuses.”
For instance, “Bastards of Young,” which Westerberg actually elevated to its rightful height anthemic angst and gush. That one had all of us – mothers, daughters, fathers, sons, sisters, brothers, boyfriends, girlfriends, awkward dates, old roommates, drunken beefy men with arms curled around each others’ necks, generally stoic members of the media – pogoing off each others’ shoulders and screaming, “It beats pickin’ cotton and waiting to be forgotten!” Has there ever been a better rock lyric about America’s quintessentially homegrown brand of savagely self-aware and privileged boredom and regret? So Eighties and Nineties, you might say, and you might be missing the whole fucking point of this country.
But, forgive me, I meant to digress, because this is the Replacements, OK, and their entire career has been a goddamned digression from the topic, since the topic was invariably rock & roll as some sort of populist salvation, when the Replacements idea of populist salvation was setting a bag of dogshit ablaze on your front porch. Or, as Westerberg put it after a particularly cathartic version of the antihero plea “Take Me Down to the Hospital”: “That’s show bidness, baby.”
Sooooooo, here’s an unromanticized view of the show Friday night, from someone who saw the band quite a few times before they broke up in the mid-1980s. And for me, someone who has claimed repeatedly that his favorite Replacement was now-deceased founding guitarist Bob Stinson (because I’ve always been perched atop the Grumpy Self-Destructo Button like that), these were the two most Replacements-like moments in the show by a band billed as “the Replacements,” which featuring Paul Westerberg and bassist Tommy Stinson, plus two competent sidemen (guitarist Dave Minehan and drummer Josh Freese), performing Replacements songs Queens’ Forest Hills Tennis Stadium, 20-plus years after the band broke up:
1) The speedy cover of Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” that flew out of “Love You Till Friday” and energized Westerberg like no other song all night and had a convulsive tightness almost by accident and then totally fell apart as Westerberg wandered around in his red high-water clown pants and ill-fitting bowling shirt advertising some lumber yard and stirruped baseball socks (Paul, gawd, really?), totally adrift yet apparently unphased, and then finally found the mike, croaked, “Fuck it,” and snapped right back into the let’s-motor chorus. Fucking alchemy, ya know?
2) During “Left of the Dial,” the Eighties-era summing-up-of-our-way-of-life-as-Replacements-fans anthem that has the specificity and off-the-cuffness that only the unconsciously blessed artists can produce, Westerberg couldn’t begin to puff himself up to the challenge and sang the same verse twice and generally looked overwhelmed and just happy to be upright onstage. It was exactly the 50-something version of how he used to smirk his way through radio-gold Seventies throwaways like “Hitchin’ a Ride.” And oh yeah, the band’s cover of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” has improved, though it’s still a drunk-punk shitshow.
Yes, most of the guitar solos throughout the night were hamfisted at worst and blowsy at best. Yes, they played “Unsatisfied” as the encore and it was a shell of its record self, but all of us in the crowd were basically singing it to each other anyway, so fuck it. And no, I don’t know if Paul was drunk – he was drinking tea at one point and seemed in pretty decent shape. He’s Paul Westerberg, leave him alone.
My favorite snide gibe about the Replacements reunion came from stalwart music writer and underground publisher Mike McGonigal, who has perhaps sincerely supported more great music that needed support over the past 30 years than anyone you could name. McGonigal cracked: “If a band can still be the same band with just half its original members, then I’m going to recreate my first (OK, only) marriage with a different person.” That’s some funny truth.
But this Replacements show wasn’t for him or me or anybody who saw the original band and is protective of those memories and what the band meant then, because it means something else now, to a whole new different group of people, and that’s remarkable considering that these guys were so devoted to shooting themselves not just in the foot but in every single toe on both feet during the time when their legacy was being built. Basically, what I’m saying is, these Replacements were whoever you wanted them to be. And if you were let down for some reason, just take my advice, and shine it on. On this night, the romance was more real.