The Replacements were one of the most exciting bands to bubble up from the American underground in the Eighties. By the middle of the decade, their chaotic live shows were becoming the stuff of legend, and the band's resident genius, singer-guitarist Paul Westerberg, was writing raggedly heartfelt songs that suggested something resembling an actual commercial breakthrough.
In 1985, the band released their major label debut, Tim, and hired an established New York management company called High Noon — in the process moving longtime manager Peter Jesperson into a murkily defined role of "band advisor." But guitarist Bob Stinson's drug and mental health issues were spiraling out of control, internal tensions were ripping the band apart, and their legendary tendency towards self-immolation was about rear its ugly head at exactly the wrong time — their first national TV appearance ever. When Warner Bros. Records landed them a slot as musical guest on an episode of Saturday Night Live in early 1986, their performance enraged the show's producers and threatened to submarine the Replacements' chance at mainstream success.
Adapted from Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements by Bob Mehr (Da Capo Press), out March 1st.
In mid-December of 1985, the Replacements wrapped up a month-long tour with two triumphant nights at Hollywood's Roxy. The year-end accolades for Tim were starting to pour in: it would place second in the Village Voice's "Pazz & Jop" poll, just behind Sire labelmates Talking Heads. But the praise had done little for the album's commercial prospects: Tim had stalled at a modest 30,000 copies after three months, failing to crack the Billboard top 200. The label needed something to kick-start sales.
In California, Westerberg and Jesperson were summoned to Burbank to meet with Warner Bros. creative director Jeff Ayeroff, who wanted to change the band's hardline stance against making a video. Silver-haired and hulking, Ayeroff exuded a sort of Zen-hipster arrogance. He'd already overseen video campaigns for the Police's Synchronicity and Madonna's Like a Virgin.
"I don't wanna hear about the fact that you don't want to make a video," Ayeroff said. "I want to talk about the video that you will eventually make."
"Tell you what," said Westerberg, without missing a beat, "you get us on Hee-Haw and I'll lip-synch to 'Waitress in the Sky.'"
At this, Jesperson burst out laughing. Ayeroff wasn't amused. Nevertheless, a serious conversation began about Warner Bros. getting the band on television.
"The compromise was that we'd do live TV if they could swing it — thinking that they couldn't," said Westerberg. "Me and my big mouth."
First, Ayeroff sent a letter to Saturday Night Live music booker Michele Galfas touting the group. Then the 'Mats' product manager, Steven Baker, and Warner A&R head Lenny Waronker pressed label chairman Mo Ostin to put in a call to the show's creator/producer, Lorne Michaels. "Mo was the one who got them on Saturday Night Live, because he had such a strong relationship with Lorne," said Waronker. "There was an understanding how important they could be for the company."
Based on Warner Bros.'s faith, Galfas put the 'Mats on a shortlist of acts for the show — without having seen the band play live. "That," said Galfas, "may have been a mistake."
Having helped shift the comedic and cultural zeitgeist with his original group of Not Ready for Prime Time Players, Lorne Michaels left SNL in 1980. The program had continued — first, briefly and near-disastrously, under producer Jean Doumanian, then with the steadier guidance of network pro Dick Ebersol. Though Ebersol's SNL had showcased a stable of stars like Eddie Murphy and Billy Crystal, by 1985 its ratings were nearly half of Michaels' final season.
Michaels' own golden boy status had been severely damaged the previous year when his prime-time NBC program, The New Show, was canceled midseason. "I had won big and now I was losing," recalled Michaels. With NBC's president, Brandon Tartikoff, threatening to cancel Saturday Night Live, Michaels felt duty-bound to return and try to revive its fortunes.
The show's eleventh season team included a mix of first-generation SNL writers and producers, hot young actors (Anthony Michael Hall, Robert Downey Jr.), veteran performers (Academy Award nominee Randy Quaid), and rising stand-ups (Dennis Miller, Damon Wayans). The opener had featured Sire Records supernova Madonna as host and musical guest. The premiere was a ratings winner, but a critical loser: "This was comedy the way Hiroshima was comedy," jibed a reviewer. By December, ratings were plummeting again, and NBC was hinting at canceling the show once and for all. "Everyone was on pins and needles, every week," said Galfas.
In early January, NBC chairman Grant Tinker was asked for his assessment of Saturday Night Live. "It's a hard job to keep a show like that fresh and alive. ... I'd like to give it the benefit of the doubt," said Tinker ominously, "for a little while."
As 1986 dawned Bob Stinson's drinking escalated, and his involvement with the Replacements became even more strained. The band had effectively recorded Tim as a trio. Now Westerberg, bassist Tommy Stinson and drummer Chris Mars were rehearsing without him on a regular basis.
With Bob in tow, they did return to the stage on January 11 at Chicago's Cabaret Metro. The one-off gig was a tune-up for an East Coast tour scheduled to commence later in the month. When the group arrived back home from Chicago, they got word that a last-minute slot had opened up on Saturday Night Live. The Pointer Sisters, scheduled for that week's show, had to cancel. The band was going to make their national television debut, fittingly, as replacements.
Harry Dean Stanton would host the January 18 edition of SNL. One of the more offbeat choices in the program's history, the fifty-nine-year-old character actor was enjoying a late-career surge thanks to hip directors like Wim Wenders and John Hughes. The episode would also feature controversial stand-up comic Sam Kinison as a special guest, as well as the Replacements — a potential powder keg of a lineup.
The 'Mats arrived in New York on Wednesday and did a run-through at NBC's studio 8H Thursday morning. It was clear from the outset that this was not the wild-and-crazy SNL of the seventies. "They'd stocked the dressing room with breakfast stuff — fruits and juices," recalled Peter Jesperson. "Bob wanted beer. And the people at SNL were really, really appalled by this. I had to go down and find a store in Rockefeller Plaza and get a six-pack."
"They didn't like us too much down there," Bob Stinson would recall. "They pretty much ignored us, thinking we would probably crumble — when, in fact, it was quite the opposite."
The show's uncertain status was palpable even to outsiders. "We could feel that the show wasn't funny and wasn't popular at the time," said Jesperson. As it turned out, a number of NBC affiliates had already committed to preempting Saturday Night Live that week in order to air a syndicated cerebral palsy telethon. (The episode was shown on late-night tape delay in numerous markets, including the band's hometown of Minneapolis.)
Oddly, the 'Mats toyed with performing "Answering Machine" on the show. Warner Bros. was understandably miffed that the group would use the SNL spot they'd lobbied for to play a number released on the band's former label, Twin/Tone. Finally, the band settled on "Bastards of Young" and Tim's putative single, "Kiss Me on the Bus."
During rehearsal, Westerberg recalled SNL's soundman working on a crossword puzzle. He'd occasionally glance at the decibel meter, then yell at the band to turn it down. "They told us the scream at the beginning of 'Bastards of Young' wouldn't come across on TV," said Paul.
The 'Mats' lawyers and label benefactors showed up Saturday to wish them luck. The band members' significant others had flown out for the occasion; even Twin/Tone's Paul Stark made the trip. Coincidentally, Stark had attended prep school in Minnesota with SNL writer-producers Tom Davis and Al Franken, and he spent time catching up with them on set.
By that evening the band's reputation as a handful was clear to everyone on the show's staff. None of the Replacements realized they'd be trapped on the eighteenth-floor set from sound check till showtime. When Warner Bros. publicist Mary Melia arrived to look in on them, Tommy, Paul, and Chris were on a dressing room couch, watching uncomfortably as Bob paced like a caged animal. "He was out of his mind to leave," said Melia. "Bob was scary."
To soothe the band's nerves, soundman Monty Lee Wilkes smuggled some alcohol into the studio in a little road case. As the 'Mats began to dip in, the show's host said hello. When "Harry Dean stuck his head in, we asked him to have a snort," recalled Westerberg. "He slammed the door behind him and proceeded to gulp." Word began to circulate that the host was getting drunk mere hours before the live show. Panic ensued until a production assistant dragged Stanton out of the band's dressing room.
Sufficiently lubricated, the 'Mats' dress rehearsal set went off smoothly. Bob had wowed everyone by donning a striped lady's unitard. The only hitch occurred during "Bastards of Young" — Bob was late coming in on the solo. Westerberg would make sure he didn't miss his cue during the live broadcast.
Episode seven of SNL's new season was yet another dog: weak commercial spoofs, a one-joke send-up of Miami Vice set in Cleveland, a hackneyed Western gunfighter skit. Stanton was still wearing his frontier finery when he introduced the band just after midnight.
As the group blasted the opening notes of "Bastards of Young," the cameras practically recoiled at the volume. Following the dress rehearsal, the 'Mats had secretly turned up their amps; it took a few seconds for the engineers to turn the sound down.
Mars, looking pale and antic in denim overalls, bared his teeth as he played; Tommy bounced around vigorously, ignoring any notion of camera blocking, and was mostly out of frame; Bob hunkered down to wrestle manfully with his guitar, a comic counterpoint to his flowing, feminine outfit.
Westerberg performed in a state of drunken insouciance. Several times during the song he walked away from the mic in the middle of a verse and casually strolled around the stage as if they were jamming in Ma Stinson's basement and not to a television audience of eight million. "We just pretended we weren't on camera," he recalled.
As the solo break approached, Westerberg shouted toward Bob, just off mic: "Come on, fucker." The epithet, delivered as he turned his head, slipped past the censors. "It wasn't really something I planned," he said. "It was more me saying to Bob, 'Let's give it to 'em with everything we got.'"
Quickly, however, the show's producers realized that an obscenity had gone out live on the air. Producer Al Franken, standing in front of the band and gripping a clipboard, began to frown. Westerberg gave him an exaggerated vaudeville wink.
After Mars bashed out the climactic machine-gun coda, "Bastards" careened to a halt. Tommy and Paul bowed comically. Bob followed with a backward somersault, revealing a tear in the seat of his outfit — his bare ass flashed briefly on-screen. The crowd, packed with 'Mats partisans, cheered wildly. Most people in the studio audience had missed Westerberg's obscenity. But Lorne Michaels hadn't.
SNL had a troubled history with the F-word. In 1981 cast member Charles Rocket had said it during a Dallas spoof; the slip led to Rocket's firing and loads of bad press for the program. "The whole deal with the network, in my mind, is that we operate on a level of trust," said Michaels. "We have live air." The producer was already on edge about SNL's precarious position with NBC. Any kind of controversy, especially now, could be a fatal blow to the show.
Jubilation followed the 'Mats to the dressing room. Everyone agreed they'd delivered a momentous performance. Newly minted Replacements co-managers Russ Rieger and Gary Hobbib were busy shaking hands and slapping backs when there was a knock at the door. "An assistant told me, 'Lorne Michaels wants to see you in the hall,'" said Rieger. "I'm thinking he wants to congratulate us."
Instead, Michaels stormed up and began to berate Rieger loudly: "How dare you do this? Do you know what you just did to this show? Your band will never perform on television again!"
Rieger was genuinely perplexed as to the cause of Michaels' anger. "Finally, I figured out that Paul had said 'fuck' on the air," said Rieger. "I immediately started apologizing. Michaels wouldn't hear of it. Since we were a new band and young, and a favor for Warner Bros., he could unleash. And he did." Mid-tirade, Michaels caught a glimpse of the dressing room — the band had "redecorated" it. "He saw that and reamed them a new asshole," said Hobbib. "It was horrible."
Michaels's fit cast a pall over the band, but there was still another song to do. After Kinison's stand-up set and several more sketches — including one called "Barroom Drunk" — the 'Mats went back out to play "Kiss Me on the Bus." Perhaps a bit unnerved, the band botched the count-off and had to start the song twice. They quickly recovered, though, and played a gleeful, grooving version.
They were quite a sight too: during the break, Paul, Tommy, and Chris had all changed clothes with one another. "I was in the bathroom getting high," said Bob. "I had no idea those three had switched clothes, I didn't even know until I saw the playback."
During the guitar solo, Michaels and the network censors held their collective breaths as Tommy sauntered toward Westerberg's microphone. Grinning, he sarcastically whined, "Darn it!" The performance ended with Bob shouting, "Thank you!" and hurling his Les Paul behind his head — the guitar crashed in a heap of feedback. "Rock-and-roll doesn't always make for great television," said Westerberg. "But we were trying to do whatever possible to make sure that was a memorable evening."
The 'Mats returned to the stage for the end-of-show good-night. Aside from Bob, mugging behind cast member Joan Cusack, the rest of the band joked among themselves on the fringes, departing before the credits finished. Afterwards, band and entourage headed to the post-show wrap party at Café Luxembourg. When Michaels saw Rieger, he summoned him over to his table. "He proceeded to dress me down a second time in front of a bunch of people. I looked at him like, 'Are you getting great pleasure out of this?' But there was nothing I could do. All I could think about was him calling Mo Ostin." Michaels may have been running hot, but the rest of the cast was decidedly cold. "We were ignored by everybody," said Michael Hill. As Bob Stinson put it: "They put their noses up at us, and we spit up their nose hole."
Later that night, Bob Stinson returned to the Berkshire Hotel and, in a chemical-fueled rage, proceeded to tear up his room, breaking a door, smashing a window, and shattering a pair of phones. He then got into a violent argument with his fiancée Carleen Krietler, who emerged the following day visibly battered. "She came out all bruised up," recalled Tommy. "It was troubling how much they fought. It was really dark and fucked-up."
Westerberg had been shielded from Bob's previous assault incident and the extent of his mental and emotional troubles. But now everyone — including the label — was becoming aware just how deep his problems ran.
On Monday, when Michaels got the $1,100 bill for the hotel damages, he hit the roof again. He was threatening to ban not just the 'Mats but any Warner Bros. act from appearing on SNL. In one night, the Replacements had managed to destroy a decade of cozy relations between the show and the label. "After that, we had to start over with half the executives at [Warner Bros.]," said Gary Hobbib.
"I didn't get it," said Steven Baker. "I saw the performance and thought the Replacements were great." Eventually, the hotel damages were paid for, the label issued apologies, and Michaels was soothed. "He was willing to let it go because of Mo," said Baker.
A couple of weeks later, Baker was invited to dinner with Ostin and Michaels at the Ivy Restaurant in Los Angeles. SNL cast members Jon Lovitz and A. Whitney Brown joined them. When they found out about Baker's role in the Replacements' booking, the table began to tear into him. "They were being jerks," said Baker. "I remember saying to them, 'If John Belushi was on the show, he probably would've been up there playing with the Replacements.' They had no sense of humor about it."
A couple months later, NBC's brass decided to cancel Saturday Night Live; only a last-minute reprieve gave Michaels another year to right the ship. SNL would soon return to ratings glory and cultural prominence.
The Replacements wouldn't appear on American television for another three years.
Bennetts, Leslie. "Struggles at the New 'Saturday Night.'" New York Times, December 12th, 1985.
Heibutzki, Ralph. "Brats in Babylon." Goldmine, October 29th, 1993.
Shales, Tom, and James Andrew Miller. Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, as Told by Its Stars, Writers, and Guests. New York: Little, Brown, & Co., 2002.
Sharbutt, Jay. "NBC's Grant Tinker Looks Ahead with Optimism for 1986." Los Angeles Times, January 7th, 1986.