A bottle of Jack Daniels; a notorious local groupie; a chipmunk with candy; a rock ‘n’ roll train wreck known as the Replacements: just another night down at the punk rock club, circa 1985.
BY FRED MILLS
Ed. note: Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, dear readers! What follows is a tale I’ve spun innumerable times over beers, and on at least three occasions—with slight variations, depending on the Replacements anniversary or reissue being marked—in print. But much like other members of the media who lived to bear witness, in 2013, to one of the most improbable reunions of our adult lives, I’ve recently become nostalgic for The ‘mats, and since I couldn’t travel to Toronto, Chicago or Denver to see them headline this year’s Riot Fests, I’ve settled for scratching my itch by spinning the old records and watching Gorman Bechard’s mash note to the band and its fans, the Color Me Obsessed documentary. (Read the BLURT interview with Bechard elsewhere on our website.) So in that spirit, I hope you’ll forgive me for recounting my ‘mats story one more time (to get it all wrong, natch). Not only is it absolutely true—and before you ask, yes, I still have a tape of the gig described below—it seems to capture a moment for the band, right between innocence and acclaim, that existed oh-so-briefly. —FM
January 31, 1985, Charlotte, NC: I’m standing in the parking lot of local punk dive the Milestone Club as the Replacements come wheeling in, late for soundcheck. On hand to get some records autographed and maybe score an interview for one of the rock rags I scribble for, I offer to help the guys—singer/guitarist Paul Westerberg, drummer Chris Mars, guitar/bass siblings Bob and Tommy Stinson—with the load-in. Westerberg eyes me with suspicion and doesn’t say a word. Mars, clearly the most easy-going and approachable ‘mat, thanks me and nods in the direction of some boxes he’s been stacking at the curb.
Judging from the actual check itself, which basically consists of Westerberg strumming a chord or two and gurgling “Yer myyyyy fave-rut thaaaaannnggg!” into the mic, timeliness is neither a priority nor a necessity in Replacements Land. Indeed, about all that seems to be on that agenda is: (a) go find some booze; and (b) make sure guitarist Bob Stinson doesn’t disappear, as the gifted but notoriously unhinged guitarist has been known to go pre-show walkabout. Through a complicated negotiation that involves a cranky Westerberg initially refusing to sign my records (“That’s so lame…”), turning me down cold for an interview (“No time for that stuff”) and turning livid when I innocently ask if I can tape the show on my Walkman (“No goddam way. Our road guy’s gonna be watching you, man!”), followed by my striking a truce by providing E-Z directions to the liquor store, I’m eventually appointed the somewhat dubious title of Bob’s Babysitter.
Much to my relief this turns out to be an easy enough assignment, for tonight Stinson appears a man of modest vices. Despite the hovering presence of several notorious groupies (one is known around Charlotte as the Dragon Lady, and she reportedly lives up to her nickname) he remains oblivious to these distractions, instead asking me to take him to find some “candy.”
There’s some initial semantic confusion on my part: “What, coke?” “No, candy.” “You don’t mean smack do you?” “No, candy!” That cleared up, we make a run to a nearby convenience store. Soon, Stinson’s happy as a clam with his paper sack of jawbreakers, lemon balls and candy cigarettes—the latter would be visible later during the concert, poking from his ears.
Oh yeah, the concert. The ‘mats’ fourth record Let It Be had come out the previous October, going on to scale year-end critics’ lists worldwide, while a week prior to the show a Rolling Stone profile hailed the band as among music’s hottest up-and-comers. (Nowadays, in the era of Web 2.0 networking for bands, the whole notion of breaking out via touring hard, coming up through the rock fanzine ranks, and receiving college radio’s blessing may seem quaint, but that’s exactly what signature American acts of the ‘80s such as the ‘mats, R.E.M. and Husker Du had to do, so to receive the Stone’s holy blessing was no mean feat.)
On the strength of that article alone, by 11:30 the venue is stuffed to the gills with fans, satin-jacketed promoters and their trophy girlfriends, local radio DJs, the aforementioned groupies and sundry other slumming hipsters. Even the daily newspaper’s pop music critic, who rarely if ever comes out to the Milestone (it’s situated in the proverbial “rough” section of town, working-class and mostly African-American), is on hand for what’s presumed to be an “event” gig.
Within a half hour the venue will be two-thirds empty.
At no huge surprise to those of us already in the know regarding the band’s roster of eccentricities, Westerberg has decided that tonight might be a good night to derail the ‘mats train. After about ten minutes of “real” songs, the singer takes a sizable swig from a bottle of Jack Daniels, passes it to Bob Stinson (who gulps it while a huge jawbreaker remains lodged firmly in one cheek—he looks like an autistic chipmunk), nods at drummer Mars, and they’re off.
Hey kids, welcome to the Replacements’ Rolling Thunder Jukebox Revue! Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades,” T.Rex’s “20th Century Boy,” R.E.M.’s “Radio Free Europe,” Big Star’s “September Gurls,” Hank Williams’ “Hey Good Lookin’” and Kiss’ “Black Diamond” all zip past in a blur, the band frequently downshifting and skidding into a drunken lope before revving back up to hardcore velocity. Covers and originals are begun then discarded, sometimes making it to the final chorus and sometimes collapsing in under 30 seconds.
Things go on like this for the better portion of an hour. Meanwhile, more than a few concertgoers are arguing with the club owner, demanding their money back. But this isn’t about their expectations or their entertainment dollar. This is about a go-for-it group with more at stake in divining for itself where the heart and soul of rock resides than in giving a crowd what it wants.
As journalist Michael Azerrad will later point out in his 2001 book about the Amerindie rock underground, Our Band Could Be Your Life, “If indie rock was becoming predictable… this band was nothing if not spontaneous. They’d screw up a gig at the drop of a beer can… And yet on a good night, they were one of the best rock ‘n’ roll bands one could ever hope to hear.”
This is a good night. Sure, by some (most) accounts, the band is deliberately screwing things up; Westerberg’s bullshit meter quickly gauged the audience’s hipster quotient and he instinctively knows what buttons to push. But out of the din of drunken chaos emerges a whiff of rock ‘n’ roll transcendence that’s hard to miss. Since my teenage years I’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of rock concerts and by now I can tell when a band is jaded or faking it or just on hand to do “the show” in order to collect a paycheck and move on to the next town. This one is real. It’s pure.
Afterwards, I walk up to Bob Stinson, who’s unsteadily balancing the bottle of Jack in the crook of his arm while pawing his candy bag. I tell him how great the gig was.
“Brmppgggsnkkish,” he slurs, which I take to be “Thanks, bro.” He wanders away in a fog; I don’t think he even recognizes me from earlier.
Looking around for the rest of the band, I spot Westerberg surrounded by fans and the younger Stinson huddled in a corner with the Dragon Lady, so I go over to chat with Mars a bit before taking off. I’m happy. I’ve got my autographed records, some used candy wrappers and a fresh tape of the concert.
Sorry about that last part, Paul. A fan’s gotta do what a fan’s gotta do.
One more chance/ To get it all wrong/ One more time/ To do it all wrong/ One more night/ To get it half-right . . . —“We’re Comin’ Out,” the Replacements