[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.