Since I'm on about The Replacements at the moment, I thought it would be fitting to talk about the night I touched the hem of the garment, and saw them live back in 1989...
In the liner notes for the reissue of Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash, Dave Ayers describes The Replacements live as 'art in the raw.' I'd have to say that, having been fortunate enough to see them live, I agree. Or perhaps more accurately, The Replacements live were like 'art in the nude.'
I was first introduced to them around 1985, just after Let It Be came out, via a cassette my best friend made for me; Let It Be was on one side, and The Smiths' ubiquitous Meat Is Murder on the other. I liked the first song, "I Will Dare" instantly. The singer's voice was pleasantly raspy, the guitars jangly yet crunchy, the drums tight, the playing precise.
Yet, the second song 'Favorite Thing' was a whirlwind. What happened to the nice, subdued, ordered rock and roll, the clearly-defined separation of instruments, the mandolin? My adolescent mind couldn't file it. The shouting. The disorder. The mess. What in the world was it? It was punk. I was 13.
Granted, finding your way to punk via The Replacements is like stumbling onto Christianity through Jesus Christ Superstar, but while The 'Mats were not the originators nor the perfecters of punk, they were successful and acceptable purveyors of its wares. Even Amy Ray, the rocky, punky half of Indigo Girls (who's solo work is brilliant, I'm not even kidding) has said, "When I heard The Replacements, everything changed."
I think I could say the same. I got through side A and turned the tape over (as we did in the days before 'auto-reverse' - only rich kids had that) to enter the trebly world of The Smiths. It was probably some sort of divine act that a young mind was opened to The Replacements and The Smiths in one cassette tape. I'm lucky I survived. I suppose I was boring enough to not be sucked too far into the overcoat wearing clans at school that worshipped The Smiths (I grew to worship them in other ways in following years). Yet, to favor The Mats left no clear path. There was no wardrobe, no patches you could have your mom sew on your jacket, no stickers (you could, of course, scrawl their moniker on your backpack in whiteout, an honor i reserved for Camper Van Beethoven). I didn't know anyone else, beside my friend who made the tape, and a couple of hip older sisters, who liked The Replacements. They were an anomaly.
Fast forward a few years to 1989. I'm a senior in high school. I can drive. I've been buying The Replacements' albums ever since fully digesting Let It Be. I'm a fan. They've had their major label moment in the sun, and Don't Tell A Soul has just come out--by all accounts really the last 'Mats record. Even in my young age I sense the end is near. Somehow, years before the internet, cell phones, and text messaging, this 17-year kid finds out that The Replacements are coming to Santa Clara, California.
I'll go into this in more detail later, but from 1985 to 1990 there was a club in Santa Clara called One Step Beyond, owned, I think, by a displaced Englishman named Stan Kent. The bands that came through One Step Beyond, and an utterly forgotten suburb of San Francisco, were unreal. How Stan Kent got Sonic Youth, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Ramones, The Untouchables, Fishbone, Jane's Addiction, PIL, and, er...Wang Chung to come to Santa Clara is beyond me, but all I can say is a heartfelt thanks. Most, if not all of the shows were all-ages, and on this particular night afforded my first and last chance to see The Replacements live.
Me and two friends got in my 1972 Chevy Vega (oh yes), and drove to a nondescript strip mall in an industrial area of Santa Clara. I can't remember what time of year it was, but in those days I had taken to wearing wool sweaters and turtlenecks, and was adorned as such that night. With no fake ID and no money even for a coke, we stood around, waiting. Whoever the opener was, they were missed entirely or forgotten immediately.
Then, the stage lights dim, and out walk four of the most shopworn people I'd ever seen. They looked like they'd just had a 'band meeting' and all was not good in the family. Plus, they were drunk already. I was shocked at their appearance. Since The Replacements were huge in my world, I figured they had been taken care of financially, bathed regularly, and fed at least a couple of times a day. They looked gaunt and tired, like they'd been performing in crappy rooms like this for the last 8 years. Westerberg's hair looked like a home for doves and other dumb birds, and his round sunglasses suggested John Lennon gone wrong.
And off we went.
The music was insane. The Who always claimed they were the 'loudest band on earth' or whatever. I've seen The Who twice (okay, I've seen three people who were in The Who...), and they were nowhere near as loud as The Replacements. In an instant, the room turned into a whirlpool of spinning, punching, slamming, jumping, falling, and trampling. Bodies were everywhere. My friend Ricky grabbed my sweater with both hands, as if hanging on for his life, and looked at me with eyes like saucers. He said something, probably 'O my God!'
We had never seen anything like it.
Naturally, fearing neither our lives nor our hearing at 17, we jumped into the fray. It was all limbs, sweat, and bones knocking together. A half hour in, my wool sweater was soaked with sweat and had shrunk to a size fit for a dachshund. We were pushed to the front. A stage dive was out of the question for me that evening, as I had lost one of my Birkenstocks running to the front door, but I saw both of my friends have a go, leaping from within The Replacements like flying lunatics. It was so loud there was a shrieking sound beyond the music, like an alien frequency screeching from within the brain, like something from a Star Trek episode.
I was so dehydrated I tried to lick my own eyeballs for moisture. Onstage, The Replacements were tearing through their material, and several perspiring bottles that I assumed contained ice cold beer. I was jealous of their talent, verve, and their refreshments. Paul, out of boredom, or some deep punk aesthetic, had begun to shout / scream the songs rather than sing them. This was emo ten years early, a primal bloodletting in art that could only be described as earthshaking by its sheer ferocity and frank dumbness.
By the end of the show, the members of the band were visibly making fun of each other onstage. During 'They're Blind,' the rhythm section was aping their now-sincere frontman--a guy singing soul-searching songs of angst from the point of view of outcast women, who used to write songs called 'Get On The Stick' or 'Gary's Got A Boner.' It was all unraveling. As the lights came on, Paul let his Gibson Melody Maker fall, ever so slightly, to the floor. The Replacements left the stage, and our lives, with a sad shuffle.
We made our way back to the Vega, probably legally deaf, and soaked through with sweat and the fluids of other people, now freezing in the night air. I started up the car and could tell by vibration alone that the ignition had caught. The ringing in my head was uncanny--an aircraft-grade puncturing of the eardrums reserved 'til that night for fighter pilots, astronauts, and MIchigan fans. When I tried to ask my friends if they wanted to stop at 7-Eleven for a Big Gulp, it sounded like a deaf person talking outside the car. They didn't hear a thing.
I had to watch the RPM gage to know when to shift gears, because I couldn't hear the engine. In 7-Eleven, I put my Big Gulp on the counter and asked the cashier how much. His lips moved, but it sounded like Hellen Keller with a bag over her head. The place was a silent film, the only noise pulsing from my brain, from 90 minutes of 'art in the nude.'
I was old enough, at 17, to know how music had shaped me, and how it would shape me in years to come. Lovers of music will go to many shows in their lifetime, but it always seems that the shows we hold closest to our hearts are the ones where we feel privileged to have been in the room. We never speak of the ticket price again. We're grateful for the hearing loss, the cuts, the torn clothing, and the beer that cost $8.00. For in those moments, we've witnessed history, and the opportunity costs are forgotten. To see The Mats in the 80's was to sidle up to the table of history and take a small piece of the pie, with a side dish of wit, sarcasm, punk, and mess.
The Replacements will always be 'the little engine that didn't quite' of rock and roll. Perhaps it's just as well. LIke a shrunken wool sweater and a Brikenstock sandal missing its mate, some things are best remembered with a tinge of regret.