Taken from A Mess of Help.

There are no better poster-boys for “unrealized potential” than The Replacements. The Minneapolis band, affectionately known as The Mats, never quite made that one masterpiece or had that one smash hit. Their legend has only grown since they called it a day in the early 90s, but they are far from household names. And they mainly have themselves to blame. As talented as these guys were at writing classic songs and playing transcendent shows, they were equally talented at shooting themselves in the foot.

This story of the quintessential band-who-saved-your life is full of botched opportunities and shoulda-been scenarios. Which is a large part of why they were and are so lovable. Enormous amounts of empathy continue to ow both toward and from the group. Long before ‘vulnerability’ became the cultural and spiritual watchword it is today (but long after a certain foot-washing), head Mat Paul Westerberg was talking about failure as the starting-point of connection. In 2002, he told Magnet magazine:

ColorMeObsessed-TheReplacements-sm-989x1024“For us, it was all or nothing. We were either going to be the greatest band on earth or the worst. Settling for just being a good band was not an option. People like to see human error when it’s honest. When people see you swing and miss, they start to root for you.”

With all due respect to Mr. Westerberg, “all or nothing” is actually a bit of a misnomer when it comes to his once and future group. “All and nothing” is more like it. The Mats were pure rock n’ roll: a strange conglomeration of opposing forces that felt like it could self-destruct at any moment, making them all the more exciting and gloriously alive. “Awfully powerful or powerfully awful” is how one writer described them. Smart guys acting dumb or dumb guys acting smart, you never knew which you were going to get, and that tension was, er, intoxicating (you can’t talk about the Mats without talking about alco-mo-hol). ey couldn’t care less what anyone thought, but at the same time, no one cared more. They were both, simultaneously. Sound familiar?

One of the A&R guys who worked with The Mats described their appeal this way:

“Those guys played both ends against the middle: they laughed in the face of stardom, yet got really pissed off at you if you didn’t treat them like a star. Westerberg really set the tone for the rest of them, and carried it even further to his audience: if you like me, you’re a fool. But if you don’t like me, you’re equally a fool. There was incredible self-regard and very low self-esteem issues going on at the same time.”

Oh, the humanity…! But the description holds: if ever there was a band that embraced its contradictions, it was e Replacements. You might say they were in touch with their nature to an absurdly unfiltered degree. Capable of both incredible beauty and embarrassing laziness (sometimes in the same song), they could be nasty and crude one minute, sweet and thoughtful the next, raucous and quiet, juvenile and poetic, defiant and resigned. Like you and me, they were consistent only in their inconsistency, but unlike you and me, by some miracle of heaven, they were not afraid to show it. Or maybe they were more afraid of not showing it. In any case, their image was that they had no image and didn’t take such things seriously. Their “career” was a game they were happy to lose.

But not everything was a joke, either. e feelings were incredibly sincere. I defy you to find a more empathetic song than “Here Comes A Regular” (“A person can work up a mean mean thirst / after a hard day of nothin’ much at all”) or a more touching eulogy than “Sadly Beautiful”. How do you write an anthem that is piercing in both its indignation and self-deprecation? You listen to “Bastards of Young”, and then you try to copy it. “God, what a mess, on the ladder of success / where you take one step and miss the whole first rung”, belts Paul at the outset of that tune, summing everything up. Indeed, one of the many things that distinguished these guys from their punk rock progenitors is that even their angriest songs were never self-righteous.

To wit, this clip from what has to be the coolest host/musical guest pairing in the history of Saturday Night Live:


What a mess by mmr421

Perhaps this is why e Replacements were never a band that masses of people casually admired but instead one that a select group deeply identified with. Meaning, “you be me for a while and I’ll be you” is more than the chorus of their biggest “hit”; it was their unconscious calling card. Connection is what these guys excelled at, and they excelled at it because of Westerberg’s courage, both liquid and otherwise—what some might justifiably call recklessness—in “breaking the fourth wall”. It didn’t hurt that Paul also possessed one of the most archetypal and uncontrived rock voices of all time, or that behind all the noise a true American poet was at work.

In May of 2012, Westerberg penned a short column for The NY Times about songwriting and inspiration. The title, “Simple or Impossible”, which also happens to be his personal songwriting creed, is a giveaway. Preachers should take note:

Every day a songwriter rows out into the deep waters in search of his own personal Loch Ness monster… Nobody gets married to a clever song, let alone falls in love to one… Aim for the audience’s pockets and you’ll miss their hearts by a mile.

Emotional truth is what Paul has always been after—the ridiculous, the profound and anything in between—it doesn’t matter as long as it is honest, as long as heart is on sleeve. Speaking about the Mats’ so-so swansong All Shook Down in 1991, he put it like this: “We didn’t use a lot of brain power this time. If it felt good we did it. And if it didn’t, I’d write another song. So you have thirteen awed songs but they’re all from the heart and they feel really good.”

The Mats’ honesty extended to the ugly corners of life just as much as to the sympathetic ones. Westerberg refused to camouflage his less savory motives; I’m not sure he could have if he tried. “One foot in the door, the other in the gutter” is how he described his group in “I Don’t Know”. The last thing these guys would want to be seen as is noble—which is part of what makes them such.

No discussion of the band, however fleeting, is complete without reference to their relationship with Demand and Law—not when it was writ so large over everything they did and were. It went deeper than adolescent reactance. The second Westerberg and his bandmates caught a whiff of an expectation, they did a 180, whether it be in terms of conventional things like Professionalism and Sobriety or less conventional things like MTV Coolness or Punk Credibility or even Mats mythology. Who else, when pressured to make a video for one of their catchiest anthems (the one named after their hero “Alex Chilton”), would have filmed long shots of the group members’ feet? Bold, to say the least.

Here’s how Paul has explained it interviews:

Pitchfork: There’s some unspoken rule that you’re not supposed to cover Kiss and write a song like “Unsatisfied”. But why not?

PW: Exactly. We wore plaid and stripes, tutus and sneakers. Everything was almost. There would always be an addition to the outrageousness that made it comical.

If it said ‘black blanket of rain,’ I would read ‘white sheet of sun,’” he says. “It became my nature to do the opposite of what I was told. It still haunts me to this day the time I was asked to name an animal that gives milk, and I said, ‘A goat,’ because a cow was too obvious. The teacher chastised me in front of the whole class. I got slapped down for not giving the obvious answer.” (Magnet, 2002)

The reactivity does not mean that Westerberg didn’t harbor enormous compassion for those who were imprisoned by conformity and fear (what we might call ‘captives to the law’). His classic couplet “the ones who love us best are the ones we’ll lay to rest / the ones who love us least are the ones we’ll die to please” says it all: we run ourselves into the ground trying to placate those who, by definition, will never be placated, while hurting those who treat us kindly. Or there’s the first verse of “ They’re Blind”, namely, “the demands made up on you / are hard to live up to / it’s futile to try to deny”.

As cheesy as it might sound, Thee Mats stood for and with outcasts as outcasts. They weren’t interested in changing anyone or setting up a new counter-culture. And the cost was commercial crucifixion. Emotional honesty rarely sells as well as fantasy or idealism; even when the honesty is as outrageous or extreme as theirs could be, the record-buying public tends to favor escape over sympathy.

Of course, for The Replacements, commercial ambition was just one more thing to be conflicted about, their ridiculously underrated Don’t Tell a Soul being a bonafide attempt at a blockbuster (recorded, one suspects, at least in part as a response to the indie-piety that forbid them from doing so). Again, The Replacements were equal-opportunity in which laws they rebelled against. Paul seems to have instinctively understood that the Law was more than its specific content that day/month/year; it was the “Ought” behind the “ought” that stuck in his craw. In the middle of their hardcore punk phase, they put out a beautiful, dead-serious country song (“If Only You Were Lonely”). Later, when Paul’s solo records got too polished, he pulled the plug and began releasing demos, willy-nilly, many of which would take shoddiness to a whole new level.

Was there any God in their songs? About as much as you might expect from guys who had been raised in churchgoing Catholic families and had all attended parochial high schools. That is to say, references to heaven and angels and prayer in their music were as frequent as they were tossed off and non-serious. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t memorable: “Absolution is out of the question” has to be one of the greatest opening lines of any kiss-o ever (“Never Mind”). “We’ll Inherit the Earth” is a fairly clever take on the Sermon on the Mount. “Date to Church” cracks wise. And so on and so forth.

The religious references would become slightly more deliberate in Westerberg’s solo career, Suicaine Gratifaction’s cruciform “Actor in the Street” being just one particularly baffling and affecting example. Westerberg has let it slip in interviews that he goes to church occasionally and considers himself a religious person, which, if you think about it, is very much in keeping with his iconoclastic instincts.

The birth of his son in 1998 and the death of his father in 2003 seem to have buoyed his faith. The two solo albums he recorded immediately following his father’s passing are especially poignant on the matter. Folker may not be much of a creative highpoint, but it is certainly a spiritual one, containing the cautiously hopeful “Lookin’ Up In Heaven”, the genuinely prayerful “When Will We Arrive?”, and the wistful “My Dad”. In that last one Paul recalls an image of his elderly father with “a Bible on the floor / Next to the baseball box score”. He also decided to include a telling bit of trivia in that song: the fact that his father never saw him play. Such an admission might imply a lack of love, but to the man himself, it was the opposite:

“I’ve always maintained—and I still to this day—I’m perfectly fine that [my father] never came to my offce and watched me work, you know? It kept it pure that I was his son, that I was no more than the little boy he played catch with, who now plays catch with his son.” (2004 interview)

What an incredible thing to say. So many father-son relationships, even the good ones, contain some element of ‘proving’. Theirs, it would appear, did not. Paul’s father loved him apart from his celebrity or his achievements, and Paul knew it. He couldn’t possibly be more to his father than he already was. Such grace might explain why his father’s death inspired Paul not to turn away from Christianity but toward it, as evidenced on the whole-new-meaning-to-the-word-shambolic 49:00. You have to listen carefully, or you’ll miss the most arresting religious imagery of his career.

In the middle of an aching tribute to his father, “Goodbye Sweet Prince”, a second song starts playing in the background. What could be mistaken for another example of Westerbergian self-sabotage— lest things get too earnest, let’s throw everyone o by having two songs play simultaneously—may actually be a deepening of the sentiment. This second song has no title but is clearly about a certain Nazarene carpenter:

“It’s a rough night my head hurt so deep
Do me a favor don’t fall asleep
And when they woke
The guards had pinched the actor in the street
He said rise and they rose
And tried to hide by the stone
A rat on a sinking ship
They left him all alone…

He stood quiet with his carpenter’s hands
He was born in a barn
He was born in a barn”

The juxtaposition is disorienting at first. Are we supposed to be tracking the singer’s intimate farewell to his father or puzzling out the words to a song about the Passion? Is Paul just messing with us (again)? Perhaps. Or perhaps the two compositions are not disjointed but mirror-imaged. “Goodnight Sweet Prince” takes us into the hospital room itself where his father breathes his last, the moment when Paul tells his mother ‘daddy’s gone’ and she kneels down to pray at the foot of her dead husband’s bed. The air of last rites still lingers as Paul bids goodnight to his Bible-reading, baseball-watching prince of a dad. That he would connect this heart-wrenching scene to that of the Son who ‘was acquainted with grief ’ makes sense, as does the discombobulation with which the connection is presented.

Then again, it could be that a flood of grief resists parsing or organization. Such things exist ‘left of the dial’ and as such, cannot be controlled, only felt and expressed. Which might mean that hope is not present apart from grief, but in its midst—that lights do indeed ash in the evening, through the crack in page. Or something like that.