It’s been a good year to be a Replacements fan. Better than any since 1987 or so. First, the long dormant Minneapolis band-who-saved-your-life reconvened in the studio to record a few covers to benefit their ailing guitarist Slim Dunlap (a couple of which were really good), and then, earlier this month the group–or what’s left of it: singer/songwriter Paul Westerberg and bassist Tommy Stinson–announced their first shows together since 1991. The news is especially pertinent in a week when we’ve talked so much about failure, as there are no better poster-boys for “unrealized potential” than The Replacements. “The Mats”, as they are affectionately known, never quite made that one masterpiece or had that one smash hit. They are not household names. And they mainly have themselves to blame. As talented as these guys were at writing amazing songs and playing transcendent shows, they were equally talented at shooting themselves in the foot. Their story is full of botched opportunities and coulda-woulda-shoulda scenarios. Which is a large part of why they were and are so lovable, i.e. the huge amounts of empathy flowing both toward and from the band. Long before Brene Brown got millions of views on youtube for talking about vulnerability and weakness as the starting points of love (but long after a certain foot-washing), Westerberg said the same thing to Magnet back in 2002:

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 this strange conglomeration of opposing forces that felt like it could self-destruct at any moment, which made the whole thing 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). They 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 them described it 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 The Replacements. Which is simply another way of saying that 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, in turns 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 weren’t afraid to show it–or you might say, they were more afraid of not showing it. Their image was that they had no image, or at least that they didn’t take such things seriously. It was all a game they were happy to lose. And yet not everything was a joke, either. The feelings were incredibly sincere. I defy you to find a more empathetic song than “Here Comes A Regular” 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. 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 The Replacements were never a band that masses of people casually admired but instead one that a select group deeply identified with. In other words, “I’ll Be You” is more than the name 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 call recklessness–in “breaking the fourth wall”. It didn’t hurt that he also possessed one of the most archetypally awesome and uncontrived rock voices in existence, or that behind all the noise a true American poet was at work.

This past May, just before the announcement was made, 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 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’s honest. As long as heart is on sleeve. In fact, speaking about 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 flawed songs but they’re all from the heart and they feel really good.”

But let’s be clear–the Mats’ honesty extended to the ugly corners of life just as much as the sympathetic ones. Westerberg refused to camoflauge his less savory motives; I’m not sure he could’ve if he tried. The last thing these guys would want to be seen as is noble–which is part of what makes them such.

This brings me to their relationship with, you guessed it, the Law. You couldn’t expect me not to go there, 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 even 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. Here’s how Paul explained it an interview with Pitchfork a few years ago:

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.”

The reactivity doesn’t mean that Westerberg didn’t/doesn’t have 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” kind of says it all. 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, The 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 it’s as outrageous or extreme as theirs could be, the record-buying public tends to favor entertainment and escape over truth and sympathy.

Of course, 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 what laws they rebelled against. I have to believe that Paul understood instinctively 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. Case in point:

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. Meaning, references to heaven and angels and prayer 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-off ever (“Never Mind”), for example. “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. For his own part, 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, as the two albums that he’s recorded since 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 “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. You might think that would imply a lack of love, but it turns out it was the opposite. As Westerberg said in 2004:

I’ve always maintained – and I still to this day – I’m perfectly fine that [my father] never came to my office 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.

It sounds as though his father loved him apart from his celebrity or his achievements, that there was some real grace at work, which may explain why the man’s death inspired Paul not to turn away from Christianity but toward it–at least if the next record (if it can be called such), the whole-new-meaning-to-the-word shambolic 49:00, is any indication.

You have to listen carefully or you’ll miss the most arresting religious imagery of his career. In the middle of a second, more aching tribute to his father, “Goodbye Sweet Prince”, a different song starts playing in the background. What could easily be mistaken for another example of Westerberg self-sabotage (i.e. lest things get too earnest, let’s completely throw everyone off by having two songs play simultaneously) is actually a deepening of the sentiment and profundity. This other song that plays has no title but is clearly about Christ: “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 and distracting at first. The more I listen, though, the more it hits me right where I’m sure Paul meant it to: the guts. And in the spirit all of the Mats bootlegs I’ve heard, that seems like as good a place to end as any:

P.S. The Replacements catalog has been fairly well covered elsewhere, but if you’re looking for some off-the-beaten path Westerberg solo gems, my personal playlist would look like this:

  1. Things
  2. Bored of Edukation
  3. 2 Days Til Tomorrow
  4. Stain Yer Blood
  5. Self Defense
  6. I Belong
  7. Boring Enormous
  8. Fugitive Kind
  9. (Terry) Who You Going to Marry?
  10. Actor in the Street
  11. Born For Me
  12. World Class Fad
  13. Silent Film Star
  14. Crackle and Drag [alt.]
  15. Let the Bad Times Roll
  16. My Dad
  17. Only Excuses
  18. Message to the Boys
  19. Good Day
  20. Lush and Green