The Replacements: The Greatest Band That Never Was
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!”
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.”