On the Replacements' long shadow, and achin' to be out of it
Artwork by Chris Strouth
Makes No Sense At All captures the visions, ramblings, and memories of Chris Strouth, a Twin Cities-bred master of music, film, and everything else.
The Catholic Church figured out something during the Middle Ages: If you build a church to look like a castle, the serfs will feel safe in its massive shadows. So churches moved from modest affairs to great sprialing towers so that the people would feel as comforted within the structure as they did with the royal overseers.
We hang out in shadows today still, but they tend to be more personal. Now, it's the shadow of the Longhorn Bar, of Hüsker Dü, and of the Replacements -- really, of the the generation that came before. We stay close enough to these artifacts to duck in if we're ever attacked by a new generation filled with ambivalence for our legacy.
What makes the Replacements difficult for me is that in the '90s I worked for the label that launched them: Twin/Tone, or as it was known, the TRG (Twin/Tone Records Group). I was there during the non-famous years: post-Suburbs, post-Soul Asylum, post-Babes in Toyland, and of course post-Replacements.
We did, however, have Lifter Puller, Colfax Abbey, Brother Sun Sister Moon, Ousia, the Vibro Champs, Marlee Mcleod, Savage Aural Hotbed, and a slew of other bands that make up the Current's Local '90s weekend marathon. I was the director of Artist and Product, so my task was to discover and develop bands and market them. We had amazing groups that put out some terrific albums, but the Replacements were like this big drunken god that all of our bands would get measured against, and they would all suffer in the comparison.
Guns N' Roses were at one time the biggest band in the world. Slash, at the time the world's most famous guitar player, quits and starts his own band, Slash's Snake Pit, and you're the bass player in his band. That is to some extent the definition of career suckitude. It doesn't matter if you're a great bass player, it will never be Guns N' Roses. Now you don't know this right away so you try, and then you try harder and you may get to be really good but it all gets lost, not because of what you are, but because of what you are not. (Strangely enough, Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson now plays in Guns N' Roses.)
Over the years, the Replacements became sort of the gold standard that "Mpls Indie Rock" was judged by -- well, them and Hüsker Dü, and Soul Asylum and the Jayhawks... Okay, so there are a lot of bands that fall into that category, but the 'Mats stand out a bit more today, if for no other reason than there are a number of books about them currently on the market.
I first heard about the Replacements from my friend Greg. He was the cool punk rock guy in Coon Rapids, complete with fin mohawk and Agnostic Front shirt. I was a token wannabe punk guy in carefully distressed clothes from Fridley. He started dating a girl from my school. She was very preppy and dated him mostly to annoy her parents. Greg had seen the Dead Kennedys, Black Flag ("before Rollins ruined it"), and turned me on to the wonders and joys that were the Circle Jerks. Even the guy at Sun's head shop knew him by name.
Greg became my guru. I thought he could help me leave my little private school life and discover the true punk rock me. He was the guy who showed me how to draw the perfect anarchy symbol on the left leg of my self-ripped jeans, he showed me where to buy the DK button that would go on the right side of my Sharpie-laden jean jacket, and he showed me how to be a nonconformist. All of which in 1984 meant looking like every other angry-at-their-parents 14-year-old. If only teenagers in youth movements could understand irony, but then I suppose we never would have gotten emo.
The entirety of my "hardcore phase" was six months. It was a short tenure mostly because I got bored with a three-chord vocabulary, and looking like a post-apocalyptic lumberjack. Soon enough I would jump on the much more embarrassing train of Goth, but for now, I was still searching and destroying.
One day while watching Repo Man for the sixty-trillionth time, Greg put on a cassette of a local punk band that he thought I would like, and also to stop me playing R.E.M. and Wall of Voodoo incessantly. The tape was Let It Be, and the band, the Replacements.
On first impression, I hated them. Not just dislike, mind you, but truly hated them. The record seemed sloppy, and downright silly. ("Gary's Got a Boner," eh?) Perhaps it was recorded while these fellas were drunk. It felt just so amateurish. The big question was, were they punk? This is the sort of thing we debated for hours, like some sort of hipster student council, at the Zantigo's downtown.
Teenage me was confused. Everyone called them punk. They weren't hardcore because these songs weren't political -- Reagan wasn't mentioned once. They weren't new wave -- there was none of that polish and sheen. And they sounded nothing like the Clash, Siousxie, or the Damned. That first listening experience left me with the very solid impression that they were the crappiest band in the world, and would never have the importance of a Jodie Foster's Army. I pushed the stop button on the tape, and put on a Die Kreuzen record.
Greg forgot the Replacements tape at my house, and it sat in the stereo cabinet of our suburban Fridley home for about two months. By this point I had discovered the Velvet Underground, and would literally listen to nothing else. It was during this period of time that I had a very bad reaction to far too many caffeine pills, which in turn convinced me that I had been dosed with speed. This led to me doing many stupid things, not the least of which was running around the block in my boxer shorts singing "Run Run Run Jig a Jag a Ju-Scared to death of you, Say what you do."
My friend John, who had convinced me to do this in the first place, coaxed me inside. He thought the best way to get me to stop running and jumping about was to put on some music that wasn't the Velvets. Of course he put in the Replacements cassette. This time however, I didn't hear it as the mess it originally seemed to be. This time "I Will Dare" made sense. This time I too would dare. It was a golden moment when the album was perfection. It was an epiphany that lasted until the pizza came, and was quietly forgotten in a post-speed haze.
Greg took the tape back later that week, but wanting to try to recapture that moment I went to the Wax Museum at the Northtown Mall and bought the Replacements' Hootenanny. I hated it. I didn't play it again till 1989.
Eventually I did come to understand their genius. It took a long road trip to Chicago during which the driver played the entire catalog. It was the right context, and I was now in possession of a much wider musical vocabulary. I was walking in the skyway, after being colored impressed. Hell, I even liked "Gary's Got a Boner."
Sometimes my favorite music takes the longest to like. Maybe because it's not about when it comes out, but rather when we are ready to hear it. In 1984 I just wasn't ready. In 1994, well that was a different story.
During the interviews for the job at Twin/Tone the owner asked me what my favorite Twin/Tone golden age release had been. I responded with the Wallets. I never brought up the Replacements once during any of our conversations, and when he asked me what I thought of them, I said they were my least favorite band, possibly of all time. Surprisingly they hired me.
Sacrificing bands to the shadow of long-gone gods was pretty much how I spent the '90s.
Not that we knew it at the time. We were just making records and playing shows and hoping to get some fans and make some scratch. It's only after the game that we know why the play didn't work, at the time you are far too busy to see the game for what it is.
I am not suggesting that this is a conscious effort on the Replacements' part, rather it's an influence woven into the subconscious culture of the Twin Cities. The bands today and even those of recent yesterdays don't necessarily consider those bands of yore, but the press does. As does the rest of the machinery that makes up a scene: the stores, the clerks, the clubs, the bookers, the elder statesmen scenesters (read: those who are over 30 and still go out).
This is how the new talent, and increasingly older talent, gets measured and judged -- will they add up? Sadly, the answer is almost always no. Even Paul Westerberg has said he doesn't like being compared to his 25-year-old self. No band starts out as a legend, but that is how they will always be compared. We will never have another Beatles, another Rolling Stones, a Hüsker, or Replacements, for the same reason we will never get another Einstein or Edison. They got to the field first, and have the benefit of history washing away their sins, and reinforcing their deeds, true or not.
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