Why Vance McAllister is No David Vitter

April 11, 2014

The cheap and easy question goes something like this, “Why should Vance McAllister resign if David Vitter didn’t?”  The follow-up: “Where were the calls for David Vitter to step aside?”

The answer is just as easy and just as straightforward: Because Vance McAllister is not David Vitter. McAllister is a newly elected member of congress, elected in a special election, and facing reelection this fall. David Vitter had the good fortune to not to have to face voters right away and to have an established base of political support. He was subsequently able to mute any intra-party calls for his resignation.  Calls for resignation from the other side don’t matter a great deal in such scenarios. We expect Democrats to call for a Republican resignation (and vice versa), what really hurts is when your own party calls for your resignation. As an aside, for those complaining about hypocrisy, keep in mind that hypocrisy is a two-way street. [And yes Virginia, there is a double standard in politics].  

Several other factors work against McAllister. First, there was no video in the Vitter scandal (thank god), there was no angry friend speaking out on CNN, and there was no intrigue about how the information got released and why. This is an intriguing story, a curious mystery layered with betrayal and sexual infidelity. I personally continue to think one of the most fascinating story lines is how the video found its way on the pages of the Ouachita Citizen.  The intrigue works against McAllister as it likely extends the story line. How much coverage is devoted to the story is a critical variable in determining whether a politician can survive. The only way to effectively end the story line is to resign.

Second, David Vitter was masterful in shutting down press coverage of his scandal. He apologized, swore he would never speak about it again, and lived up to his promise.  Whatever one thinks of David Vitter, they should at least be willing to acknowledge that Vitter should teach a class in scandal management.  It continues to amaze and confound his Democratic opponents who can’t come to terms with the fact that David Vitter was (and is) a special case.

Third, we can also make a comparison to Bill Clinton. While Republicans called for Clinton’s resignation, most (but not all) Democrats circled the wagon. The same with David Vitter: Very few Republicans called for his resignation. The challenge McAllister faces is that his own party is turning against him and calling for his resignation. You can survive members of the other party coming after you, particularly if your fellow partisans rally the troops. It is much harder to defend your castle from the inside.  Given that McAllister defeated an establishment candidate and his noted streak of political independence, he lacks the political support of a more established party-line candidate.  It is impossible to say whether her would have been treated differently had he been the Governor Jindal’s endorsed candidate and/or had he not bucked the Republican Party on Medicaid expansion, but it is hard to imagine that this has played no role in the strategic calculation to pressure McAllister to resign. Remember party decisions on whether to push for resignation are not based on abstract principles but on strategic political calculations. 

As of this writing, there are signs that McAllister is resisting the calls to step down. As an aside, keep in mind that public calls for someone’s resignation tend to happen when the private conversations have already failed.  The fact the Governor Jindal, Speaker Boehner and others are calling for his resignation publicly suggests (I have not inside information) that the private calls have gone unheeded. Going public raises the stakes and increases the pressure on McAllister but it also raises the stakes for the Republican Party.  Running against McAllister will only elevate and prolong the scandal and the disarray. And, there is always the chance that he will turn party opposition into a strength and win yet again. After all, should he not take himself out of the running, it is the voters who will decide whether his actions were an embarrassment.  

The Things You Never Let Go: Life’s Lessons Learned at the Lake House

March 14, 2014

[Another non-political post. Hope you enjoy!]

When you drive away for the last time, you leave a part of your life behind. The part that camped in the woods at the top of the hill, that swam and fished In the lake’s green waters below, that floated for hours in its gentle waves.

This is a place that taught life’s lessons. Like how not to be afraid of the pitch black night or the summer storms with trees swaying and lightning cracking against a darkening sky. Or how to put the skis back on for one more try at gliding on top of the water: My dad the patient driver circling back after each fall; my mom treading water to help slip the skis back on my feet, imploring me to keep the skis up and my arms straight. “Let the boat pull you up.” You fall hardest when you fight the forces trying to guide you forward.

This was a place that grew with us, from an open camp with tents and an outhouse filled with snakes to a trailer, a cabin, and finally a home. My home. No matter where else I have gone or lived, this is the place that most comforted me, where I felt most relaxed and most at ease.

It became my kids favorite place too, better than the beach or Disneyland. We slept long hours and played all day, deep in the woods and far away from the things that keep you up at night or that worry you during the day. Here, there was only sun and water.

After a lifetime, we are letting go. Letting it go. Because it is time. Because we need to. Because we have to. There is more to the story that I will leave untold. For now, this is enough: I am sad but without regret. Thankful for the moments it gave, for the moments we shared.

Some people live their entire lives without a place that feels like home, that roots them in a landscape of forest, water, and trees. They grow without roots, like a vine climbing a wall without intent or purpose. We are lucky, our roots grew deep enough here that our branches were able to spread and grow.

On this our last visit, we are caught in a late winter storm. When we try to leave, we are unable to make it out of the driveway, tires spinning, the car unable to climb those last few feet of icy hill. Is this place holding on to us, asking us not to go? I imagine my grandfather at the end of the driveway, slicked back hair, dark glasses, khaki pants, plaid shirt and Florsheim shoes, standing arms crossed and foreboding. He bought the land and built the cabin. His life was (is) part of the foundation that still stands. “I built this for you. You can’t leave.”

Or is it a reminder of why we need to go? To stay too long is to become trapped, to be unable to leave when the time comes. Life pushes us forward in paths we never expect to go. Perhaps it is best experienced with an open mind and a packed suitcase, not holding on to the past, not clinging to the places we have been or the people we have known. We can always take them with us.

Maybe we only make it on top of the water when we keep our skis up and our arms straight and let the boat do the work. And maybe it is best when we follow along in the wake of a future we cannot know but must embrace.

When we pull on to Settles Road that last time, we leave part of our lives behind, but we take so much more with us. I am sad to leave my past but ready to meet my future, deeply thankful to the grandparents and parents who gave this place and these memories to me.

Grading Governor Jindal’s State of the State

March 10, 2014

Let me start with a clarification: I grade political speeches on the basis of the who the elected official is, what they have accomplished, and how they are strategically positioned for the future. Now in his seventh year, Governor Jindal’s influence is waning and we have likely seen the end of “major” legislative accomplishments. Instead, this is a time for defining one’s legacy and not leaving that definition to political opponents, journalists or others who may be less favorable.

This is especially true for Governor Jindal whose tenure has coincided with a relatively strong economic performance compared to national and regional averages but low approval rating. His challenge in this speech and in defining his legacy is to connect Louisiana’s economic outcomes with his policy choices.

On these grounds, the speech worked relatively well. Governor Jindal began by thanking the legislature for its support on ethics reform, tax cuts, and education reform. This allowed Governor Jindal to appear gracious while simultaneously claiming credit for a number of policy initiatives. He then moved into the numbers which fairly portray the Louisiana economy as doing relatively well over the past several years, and followed by personalizing the numbers with eight individual stories. Here is one fact worth keep in mind about effective political communication: Narratives resonate far more effectively than numbers.  Combining narratives and numbers helps to personalize what the statistics mean. While he might have overdone it a bit (do you really need eight stories one right after another?), this was good effort at personalizing his economic record and connecting past success to his current agenda: workforce training and tort reform.

Now the speech will unquestionably be criticized for what it didn’t do. He didn’t address a number of issues that will be important to the legislative session, including (but not limited to) the implementation of common core.  His Democratic detractors will point out the fault lines in the Louisiana economy (and there are plenty) and will take issue with his description of a more prosperous  “new Louisiana.”  Indeed, one might take a number of policy exceptions to the Jindal record and agenda, but as far as speeches go this was not a bad one, well delivered, and on message.


Governor Jindal and the CPAC Straw Poll

March 9, 2014

Given Governor Bobby Jindal’s efforts to garner national attention, his recent showing in the CPAC straw poll offered his political opponents and detractors a hearty bit of laughter. Just don’t laugh too hard, the poll means very little other than that Governor Jindal is mostly an unknown at the national level. Early primary polling – either in the form of straw polls or scientific polling – mostly reflects name recognition and says little more about who might eventually secure the nomination. To the extent that CPAC success is a predictor of the nomination, it is because better recognized candidates also do better in presidential primaries and caucuses and fundraising. 

If Governor Jindal is to emerge from the second tier of Republican presidential possibilities, he needs more time on the national stage. He can’t get there unless he stands out from the crowd which provides his incentive for his over-the-top criticisms of President Obama. This approach may  prove unsuccessful but Jindal is a long-shot for 2016 no matter what approach he takes. His goal is to stay in the mix and hope lightning strikes. If lightning doesn’t strike, he can hope to be in the VP conversation and remain viable for 2020 and beyond.


Louisiana Colleges and Universities in the Public Mind

March 8, 2014

[Koran Addo provided a nice write up in The Advocate of a panel I participated in at the Conference of Louisiana Colleges and Universities on Friday, March 7, 2014. I thought I'd offer the full set of notes here for anyone who might be interested]. 

Presentation Notes for the Conference of Louisiana Colleges and Universities

First, thanks for inviting me here today. My job on the panel is to offer an assessment of how the public thinks about Louisiana colleges and universities, and then offer some guidance on how we might use this information to craft policies and political strategies in support of higher education.  This is a topic that I have given a great deal of thought to but have never fully sketched out. What I offer you today remains a sketch but the forms are beginning to take shape and a picture is beginning to emerge (at least in my head).

Let me start with an assumption that guides nearly everything I do. “In a democracy, we get the government we deserve.”  We can quibble over how democratic we really are later, but for now let’s apply this to Louisiana colleges and universities – and twist the logic around just a little. “We get the universities and colleges we ask for” OR perhaps better stated “we get the colleges and universities we demand.”  The outcomes we live with on a daily basis are not accidental, they reflect a set of political forces, including public opinion, elite political calculations and interest group activity that set boundaries around what is allowable and what is desirable.

With that as the backdrop, let me turn to a puzzle. Since 2002, the Public Policy Research Lab at LSU has been conducting the annual Louisiana Survey.  Each year, we include questions about higher education and each year we find strong support for increasing spending on higher education and/or protecting higher education from budget cuts.  This year, we tied the question to support for a small sales tax increase provided the money went specifically to higher education.

Seventy-two percent of our respondents said yes they would support such a proposal, only 27 percent were opposed.  This is not a partisan issue.  Sixty-six percent of Republicans and Independents also support this proposal.  Now if you are skeptical – and I hope you are – you might be inclined to dismiss this finding as the result of a single biased question in a single survey.  This is decidedly not the case.

In previous years, we have asked different questions but the results are almost always the same. The public wants more – not less – spending on higher education. And when budgets are shrinking, they want higher education protected from cuts.  But don’t believe me, here are some numbers.

  • From the 2013 Louisiana Survey, 82 percent of residents agreed or strongly agreed that the goal of tax reform should offset cuts to health care and higher education
  • From the 2012 survey, 72 percent said improving graduation rates at state universities and colleges are “very important” for economic development
  • From 2011,

–     61 percent wanted no cuts to Louisiana colleges and universities to balance the state budget, only 10% supported “major cuts.”

–     88 percent expressed concern budget cuts would affect quality of academic programs, including 52 percent who said they were very concerned.

–     72 percent supported changing state constitution to protect health care and higher education from cuts

If necessary, we could go back to the 2002. The message would be the same. By and large, the public shows strong and consistent support for higher education that crosses region, partisan affiliation, and ideology.

So if this is true (and I promise that it is) how can policy be so far afield from what the public actually wants? The simplest explanation but one that misses a far more interesting story line is to say the public will is being ignored. That elected officials, especially Governor Bobby Jindal, are willfully disregarding public opinion. But if elected officials are actively disregarding public opinion, where is the outrage? Where is the growing public demand for more funding?

The answer – as unsatisfying as it may be for a university professor – is that while the public supports higher education other issues are generally considered more important.  When we ask the public “what is the most important issue” facing the state, education and the economy top the list while “higher education” barely merits a mention. In this year’s survey, one person identified higher education as the state’s most important issue. And while the public supports more funding for higher education, it generally finishes third (or lower) on a list of public priorities behind education and health care. When it comes to budget cuts, the public generally wants K-12 and health care protected first.

In the language of public opinion research, we would say that while there is strong directional support for increased funding, it is neither highly salient nor especially intense. In everyday language, we would say support is wide but not very deep. Or perhaps stated even more plainly, despite occasional protests, no mob is storming the state capitol gates for increased funding for higher education.


There is another dimension to this puzzle that is perplexing. Despite the cuts and despite the best efforts of many of the people in this room, the public largely thinks colleges and universities are doing OK, or at least better than other areas of state government service.  When we have we have asked citizens to grade state government services across a number of different areas, Louisiana’s colleges and universities rate either at the very top or near the top of various state government activities. In the data shown here, more than two-thirds of Louisiana residents (66.8 percent) gave Louisiana universities and colleges an A or B in our 2011 survey. Overall, this is an area of state government service that people believe is doing fairly well.  So why worry about funding in area that is at least doing OK?

To make matters worse, it is not clear that citizens believe that Louisiana’s colleges and universities can get much better. In Spring 2008 just as Governor Bobby Jindal was beginning his first term, we asked citizens whether the state could make major improvements over the next four years, whether the state could make some improvements but that major improvements would be difficult, or whether it would be hard to any real improvements across thirteen separate issue areas. Citizens expressed the least optimism about the possibility of improving the national rankings of Louisiana state colleges and universities. Only sixteen percent thought major improvements were possible.  Translation: State colleges and universities are doing OK, and we can’t do much to improve them anyway.  My interpretation: There is no great public demand for a higher level of performance.

So what do residents value about Louisiana colleges and universities? Affordability and access. Let’s start with access. For years we have heard that Louisiana has too many four year colleges and universities and not enough technical and community colleges. In several previous studies, we tested the statements together and found mixed support.  When we finally wised up and tested the items separately, we found out the public only buys into half of the equation. Sixty-three percent of residents agree that we do not have enough technical and community colleges while sixty-eight percent disagree that we have too many four year institutions.  We want more of everything. Rather than read this as specific policy agreement, however, I would argue the results reflect the value the public places on access to higher education opportunities. We want access.

And we want that access to be affordable. The evidence here is indirect but to my mind convincing. When given the choice in the 2012 survey between allowing “colleges and universities to increase tuition to offset budget cuts” OR limiting “tuition increases to assure colleges remain affordable,” an overwhelming majority – 85 percent – want to limit tuition increases. In this year’s survey, when asked whether they would support or oppose a proposal allowing colleges and universities to set tuition without state legislative approval, 59 percent said they were opposed.

Similarly, the public rejects the idea that the total amount of TOPS award should be limited. Nearly three-quarters of residents opposed “reducing the total amount of money qualified students receive from the TOPS program.” There is more support for increasing the academic requirements or providing a flat monetary award not tied to tuition but in both these instances there is also substantial opposition.  Let me make two related points here. First, the findings reinforce the value the public places on access and affordability. Second, the findings illustrate the importance of citizen demand on policy outcomes. We will cut higher education funding despite what looks like overwhelming public opposition but we have not yet been willing to alter the TOPS funding formula. The reasoning is very simple the public uproar should TOPS be cut would be much louder.

Before I wrap, I want to return to an important point. The value of college education  – not just for the individual but for community. First, a recent report by the Pew Research Center shows a growing disparity between median annual incomes of high school and college graduates by generation. For each generation, the gap has grown. We all know this. Second, and more importantly, is the effect on local communities. The percent of residents with a college education is the most reliable predictor of a community’s economic success. You might have known this as well, but here is what I think is most interesting. People with less education do better in more educated communities. We have to think about our impact not just at an individual level but at a community level and not just in the communities our institutions are located in – but in every community in the state.

Now let me wrap it up with these conclusions.

  1. We get the colleges and university we demand, so we have created a system based on access and affordability.
  2. If we want to change that system, changing leadership is not enough. We have to change the conversation. To do this, we need a public education campaign to convince the public to think differently about Louisiana’s university and colleges.
  3. This starts with economic development and moving away from the tagline that going to college is important to individual economic success. It is, but it is also important for a community’s economic success.  
  4. We have to extend to this to community engagement because – if we are doing our jobs – we are also creating community leaders and the consequences are not just better and higher paying jobs but stronger communities with better, more engaged citizens. Imagine a map of Louisiana showing every college graduate from LSU or from the University of Louisiana system and their level of political and civic engagement. How powerful would that be?  
  5. Finally, we need to demonstrate need in a way that connects to citizens and we need to show them how investing in higher education can yield a payoff. Over the past several years as we have watched our state funding shrink, I have had countless conversations with people outside of academics who say “bet you are glad, they saved you on the budget this year.” It is easy to say the public doesn’t get it, it is much harder to figure out how to convince them that it does matter and that it matters to them in a very personal way. This, to me, is the fundamental challenge in creating a more vibrant and sustainable system of colleges and universities.


The Jindal Play

February 25, 2014

I am more forgiving of politicians than most people. They are not the arm chair quarterbacks but the players in the game. They risk derision on a regular basis and live with public contempt toward politics and politicians.

With this in mind, I try not to react to events with a partisan lens but with a series of questions. What was the politician trying to accomplish? Were they successful? To draw on the sports analogy, I don’t find it useful to ask why a running team isn’t throwing the ball when they are clearly trying to establish the run.

Governor Jindal’s latest foray onto the national seen has drawn its usual jeers, but such reactions miss the better questions. What was he trying to accomplish? And did he succeed?

To understand Governor Jindal, you must start with ambition. Whether he runs in 2016 or not, he wants to be in the list of possibilities. Even if they go realized, he has presidential ambitions. To get there, he must find a way to separate himself from a pack of Republicans that includes better known and more seasoned politicians. The Jindal “cheap shot” serves two purposes: (1) It attracts media attention from journalists who can’t resist conflict; and (2) It feeds red meat to partisan Republicans who want someone to stand up and fight harder.

Does it get Governor Jindal any closer to the presidency? Probably not, but it does make him the subject of the conversation. The media covering the story and the Democrats denouncing him are playing into his hands. Don’t expect any thank you notes but he does appreciate you.

How Not To Become What You Never Wanted to Be (Seeing The Replacements @RiotFest)

February 21, 2014

[Editor's Note: This is a different type of blog. A first-hand account of trip I took to Chicago in September 2013 to see the Replacements with my son, Spencer. I tried submitting to several music publications but no avail. Perhaps obscurity makes it a more fitting tribute to the band and what they have meant to Spencer and me] .


Beauty is never lasting. Not because beauty is only youthful but it because it is fleeting, the glimmer of something greater, the possibility of something transcendent.

I can think of a million things wrong with that passage. The beauty of art is that it speaks across the ages. Michelangelo’s David endures rather than fades. The poeticism of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s prose resonates beyond the moments they were written in and speaks to us today. Real art endures because it captures something timeless.

And yet, none of this makes those first words any less true. Truth is almost always a contradiction.  There are moments not captured in a photograph, art created only to fall apart. If the test of art is that it endures, true beauty often resides in impermanence, the recognition that a beautiful moment cannot last.

I was born into a world of disbelief. The idealism of the 1960s unraveled during the Nixon Administration and the Vietnam War, replaced by an entrenched cynicism about everyone and everything. It defines me today. It is the calling card of my generation.

The year was 1967, the year before Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were shot. My childhood impressions were formed by the television imagery of Watergate unfolding, Saigon failing. The mythology that defined America’s greatness for my parents fell apart before my eyes. We were left in the shadows of a myth of American greatness.

Sixties radicals grew up to become Reagan Republicans; or, even worse, self-righteous yuppies who dropped back in and sold out. “Peace, love and understanding” became a corporate mantra, a tool for selling Coca Cola and clothes made in sweatshops. In a world of disbelief, no one holds on to their convictions for very long.

As a generation, we had no great aspirations. We defined ourselves by what we were not, by what we did not want to become.  We searched frantically for the authentic, the unscripted moment that just happened, that felt real.  The Replacements captured the zeitgeist perfectly in their self-defeating and reckless imperfection. They were so badly, so beautifully flawed.

They knew what we did not want to become.


Cut Corner Records sat alone above a bar, just across the street from the University of Kentucky.  A narrow stairway led the way, walls covered with fliers and posters advertising local bands and local shows.  My best friend and I spent hours there during high school, poring through music magazines, shifting through album covers one at time, all part of a search for a sound or a lyric, something we’d only recognize when we heard it that first time.

I regret deeply that my kids, weaned on digital music and i-tunes, never get this experience. In their world, music is too easy to find, preferences on display, sorted and analyzed, and spit out in suggested likes that narrow the range of who they might become.  Then, it was a search for just the right song, just the right meaning. Mistakes, like buying the Pet Shop Boys, had real world consequences. Everything depended on that first listen, head phones on, deep meditative trance, a darkened room, not moving. Would this be a record that changed your life?

And we all wanted our lives changed.

I don’t know when we decided the mix of Top 40, classic rock and country that dominated our radios was no longer acceptable, or how we first made our way to Cut Corner Records. But, once there, it was impossible to turn back. You can only hear “Free Bird” so many times before you want to stick a fork into your ear drums. And, if Michael Jackson was the King of Pop, you do anything to migrate to a musical kingdom not ruined by the toxic waste of “Thriller” and “Billie Jean,” where music could strike an authentic chord, and lyrics could capture the anger, uncertainty, and longing of “Sixteen Blue” and “Unsatisfied.”

My first record outside the mainstream was U2’s War. The initial draw was their New Year’s Day video and Bono’s haunting vocals. It is easy to forget after all of U2’s success, how beautiful, raw, and different those early records were. If there was a single record that changed everything, War was it, not because it was singularly great but because it opened the door to possibility. There was another world of music out there waiting to be discovered.

When I stumbled across Heaven Up Here by Echo & the Bunnymen, I was gone forever. I thought the world would surely follow. How could anyone listen to Ian McCulloch’s vocals and ever want to hear “Walk Like an Egyptian” again? How could anyone hear “Show of Strength” and think Bon Jovi was an acceptable alternative? How could you listen to “Turquoise Days” and not listen to the entire album over and over again, until every word was memorized, Will Sergeant’s jagged guitar burned into your skin like a cheap tattoo.

In the battle of record sales, Bon Jovi prevailed. Much to my surprise, forcing people to listen to Echo & the Bunnymen didn’t change their world view. It didn’t even improve their musical tastes.  Some would nod, pretending appreciation, before trying to convince you that Bruce Hornsby and the Range really weren’t so bad. Others would show immediate disgust, thrown off by the weirdness of difference, the displeasure of the unfamiliar.

Maybe all missionaries eventually have to eventually accept my simple truth: Not everyone gets it. Some seeds fall on to stones, others into the thorns.

Music was the acid test of our friendships, the glue that bound us. When I heard REM’s Murmur floating in from across the hall of my freshman dorm, I knew I had a friend. Carl Bell had an enviable record collection, and great taste in music. Through Carl, I discovered The Fall, Sonic Youth, and countless others. In return I introduced him to Jesus and the Mary Chain and tried getting under his skin by telling him REM had sold out, even if they never did. In our world, being a sellout was the unforgivable sin.

I missed the early Replacements, stumbling accidentally onto Let It Be with its recklessness and longing tied neatly into a bow. “Meet me anyplace at any time or anywhere” and “look me in the eye and tell that I’m satisfied.” The manic joy and deep reflection, simultaneously sad and carefree, looking for something lost, something that could never be found. The somber and sobering recognition that what you want will never make you happy.

I first heard the album Tim echoing down the hallway of my freshman dorm. I borrowed the album and never gave it back. I played it until the grooves wore too thin and I had to buy a second copy. There were those songs you always find on Replacement albums – “Dose of Thunder” and “Lay It Down Clown” – that underwhelmed, but their mere existence made “Here Comes a Regular,” “Swinging Party,” “Left of the Dial,” “Little Mascara,” and “Bastards of the Young” that much better.

Pleased to Meet Me and Don’t Tell a Soul were icing on a cake I already couldn’t get enough of.  Musically, maybe they were never that great, but their songs always struck the right chord, desperation and loneliness made better by the realization that you were lonely but not alone.

When my 16 year old son, Spencer, found my records stored away in a hallway closet, he laughed at the odd assemblage of Echo & the Bunnymen, The Chameleons, The Jam, U2, Joy Division, Jesus and the Mary Chain, REM, and the Replacements.

But later he bought a record player, he listened, and he fell in love.

There is a badge of honor in standing outside the mainstream, but I wouldn’t have wished my musical tastes on anyone. If my son had asked, I probably would have told him to just enjoy Bruno Mars and let it go. Being too reflective is a joy and a curse. But I would be lying if I told you I wasn’t filled with pride when he found The Replacements and when he got it.

“Dad, I just can’t stop listening to them.”

“Dad, Let It Be may be the greatest album ever made. Why don’t more people listen to this?”

When the announcement came that the Replacements would reunite to play at this year’s Riot Fest, we didn’t wait long to jump up in. Jason Pinneri, another college friend, set the tone. “I don’t care if you go. I don’t care if I go alone. I am going.” I bought my tickets the morning they went on sale. Five other college friends, including Carl Bell, followed suit.

The die was cast. Spencer and I would take a father and son trip to Chicago to see the show we thought would never happen by a band that no longer existed but would reunite for three shows.

More than a year past the day he found my records, Spencer is nearing his college decision. This trip, this concert, takes on even more significance, a shared moment, just before he walks out the door and takes life’s next step.

It is a Paul Westerberg moment even if no Westerberg lyric comes easily to mind. “Sadly Beautiful” comes to mind but I was always there to watch him grow.


Memories are the lies we construct to live with our past.

I remember seeing the Replacements twice before. Frenzied sets in crowded barrooms, one the stuff of legends; the other in a bar called the Bottom Line, a quick and forced disappointment, foreshadowing their pending breakup.  I remember seeing Paul Westerberg, pre-show sitting at a cast iron table, smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer. I didn’t speak, didn’t know what to say. Most people disappoint me in real life and I needed him to be deep and soulful. It was easier to live with the myth I had created in my own mind than the person he might have been.

What were the words I might have said? “Your music saved and ruined my life.”

Having seen those two shows and Westerberg sitting alone, I wasn’t surprised when I heard they walked off the stage in Chicago in 1991, handed their instruments to their roadies, and declared they would never play again. What else could they do? They weren’t meant to last. They had no choice but to run the train off the tracks.  I have to admit a part of me was glad. They could hold that space in my memory, unspoiled by what they might do in the future. They wouldn’t be the band that held on too long, that made a song or record I couldn’t stand, or that sold out.

But I never stopped listening. No true ‘Mats fan ever could.


I would be lying if I told you, I arrived in Chicago free of apprehension and fear. Could the moment live up to my memories and expectations? Could this concert be the moment I needed it to be? A moment that connected past and the future, that weaved them together into a lyric that is at once authentic and real?

Days 1 & 2 of Riot Fest were a beautiful prelude. Perfect weather and great sounds. With no disrespect to any of the other great bands, Dinosaur Jr set the tone. A great set with the songs at a machine gun’s pace, the music over far too soon, and lead singer J. Mascis antithetical to everything that might be described as popular.

Public Enemy followed with a reminder that music should mean something, that it should challenge the status quo and “fight the power.” I walked away on an adrenaline rush.

Sunday greeted us with rain, like a pop quiz we didn’t want to take, given to test our resolve. It never really mattered. We found Peter Hook early in the day playing a Joy Division set. I had my apprehensions going in: Joy Division was an early favorite and Unknown Pleasures is one of the greatest albums ever made. How would Peter Hook handle the set? My apprehensions were entirely misplaced. He commanded the stage and the music was nearly perfect, as close to Joy Division as you could ever get.

Bob Mould was similarly impressive, racing through a 45 minute set that reminded you that the Replacements weren’t the only great band to emerge out of the Twin Cities. Like the Replacements, Husker Du’s influence outpaced its record sales.

As great as they were though, they weren’t the reason we made the trip. We skipped the Pixies to make sure we were near the front of the stage. We didn’t drink any fluids for more than an hour before the show so we wouldn’t have to pee.  We weren’t the only ones. With the Pixies playing in the background, we waited 20-30 deep an hour beforehand for the Replacements to take the stage. The crowd swelled and pushed forward as the moment drew near. Looking back moments before the show revealed an ocean of people that seemed to have no end.

They walked onto stage to Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life,” with Westerberg quipping that the song describes their life. They quickly bounded into “Taking Ride” and worked frantically through “”I’m in Trouble” and “Favorite Thing.” The crowd surged forward, bounced frantically (dancing would be the wrong word), and sang along word for word, derailed only by Paul Westerberg forgetting his own lyrics. The set didn’t cover every song I would have wanted to hear. It couldn’t have, not without them playing for days, but it sent the right message. The Replacements may have lost members, but they are still there, occupying that place in my memory.

Only now that place is even better. I am there with my son and we are singing along together to “Little Mascara,” “Left of the Dial,” “Hold My Life,” “I Won’t’” “Androgynous,” “I Will Dare,” and “I.O.U.” Our lives are lived in these moments, fleeting and beautiful. Everything else is forgotten in between.

But there is something else. There is Paul Westerberg seemingly happy and bemused by how things turned out. They were never REM or U2. They imploded and fell apart. They resisted success as though it were a disease. And yet, they grew in influence as people like me told our friends and our daughters and our sons, this is the band you need to listen to.

And something took hold.

Maybe in this life we don’t have to aspire to greatness. Maybe it is enough to know what you aren’t. Maybe it is enough to fight like hell not to become that person you never wanted to be, not to become the thing you never wanted to be.

And maybe if you fight hard and long enough, the world will change around you.

And you will endure.

Despite being you.