The interwebz told me there was a “new” Replacements album out – that is, a new release of old material, a live show from 1986. I have a tape of that show somewhere amongst my stuff, but I wanted to support them and I figured the best way was to buy an actual thing of it – an object. A commodity. A relic.
I could have ordered it on Amazon. I could have downloaded an MP3. But just for the sake of old times, I decided I’d go whole hog down memory lane and go to a record store to purchase it.
Sadly, it wasn’t that easy. To begin, there isn’t a record store anywhere in my town. Luckily I work in San Francisco, where there are many. Still, in order to go to the record store, I had to leave for work a half hour early one Thursday, find a parking space near Haight Street, and put money in the meter…none of which are actually instantaneous, the way that downloading an MP3 is.
In addition to the sheer time consumption of that process, there is a mentally draining component. The record store I chose to go to – because close to my work – was Amoeba, on Haight and Stanyan. I am so old I remember when the building was a bowling alley, which was right around the same time that I saw the Replacements play across the street, upstairs at the I Beam, in a building which is now a large Goodwill. So there was a little bit of weltschmertz to be dealt with, going there: that sense of ‘you can’t go home again.’
I suppose that is the proper feeling to feel though when purchasing a live album. The whole point of live albums is to capture a long gone moment; to re-feel a feeling, to drown out the present. And the first feeling that I captured, even before I put on the record, was sadness that record stores are gone. Man, I spent a lot of time in them when I was young! In the town I grew up, there was one downtown, in an old Victorian house, and that’s where I learned most of what I knew about music: standing in the aisles, flipping through records, staring at their covers, memorizing song titles, absorbing whatever music they were playing at the time (usually prog rock or experimental fusion). Part of the reason I did it was my great love and interest in music, but part of it was that in my hometown, there was nothing else to do. Literally the only other retail shop of interest on the Main Street at that time was Douglas Fabrics, at which I sometimes bought felt and notions for my troll doll clothes. At the record store, I met people, heard good music, felt involved and like I belonged to the rock scene. It was almost like belonging to a club.
|douglas fabric. my home town.|
Later on my parents moved to San Francisco, corner of Filbert and Columbus, and after that I spent a lot of time at Tower Records there. Sometimes they had live performances outside, and I’d peep at “rock stars” like Pearl Harbor and Fee Waybill, through my fingers there. It was the Amoeba of its day. Later on, when I wrote a book about music scenes in America (Route 666) I postulated that all indie rock scenes of that era were built on the presence of a good independent record store -- like Oarfolkjokeopus, in Minneapolis, which was instrumental in how the ‘mats got their start.
But therein lies a tale you can read in places much more informed than here. And anyway, it turned out that Amoeba was sold out of the Replacements record, so I ordered it online, from their website. Then on the next Thursday afternoon I set out for work again, this time with the exciting prospect of a live show at Maxwell’s to enliven the journey to SF.
And the minute it began I was like…oh my god, am I a bad person? Because at first, I didn’t like it. And then I was like, wait, that’s not a thing. I love all things Replacements, those are the rules. Not only are those the rules, I am the one who made them! So love them I would.
|photo credit: Dan Corrigan (I think).|
First, let’s be clear: It wasn’t the music I didn’t like. Back in the day, I collected bootleg tapes; befriending soundmen, trading tapes, or otherwise figuring out ways to get nice people to send me stuff was practically half the point of becoming a writer, and there are a number of live albums, like Lou Reed’s “Take No Prisoners” and U2’s “Live at Red Rocks,” which I truly treasure. So there’s a whole treatise to be written about the point of listening to live albums, but this one sounded a little unreal. It was super clean. There was no patter at all, which didn’t sound right in my experience, and although there was a bit of heckling - - absolutely tons of idiot-calls for “Free Bird” calls (interspersed with ones for “September Gurls”) – it was very subdued. The whole concert felt subdued, in fact, and that’s also not a thing I recall from those days…so what I gather is that recording technology has really changed now, and the result was like the aural equivalent of a an instagram photo with many many filters – the ones that change the light values, sharpen the image, thin your face, and add different hues to the whole picture to give it a different feel.
Then there was the problem of the time-space continuum. Live albums are weird because they rip it apart. Hearing a concert 31 years ago in one of my favorite venues, transposed to a sunny fall afternoon in California while zipping down the freeway…it’s just hard. It’s hard to put yourself back into that mindset. But, unsurprisingly, after a little while, I did. And underneath the shininess of it all, there they were there; the band we loved, the sound we swallowed, the songs we sang along to, the je ne sais quois of an era and a place that is very difficult to articulate, that at the time to me was actually holy. “For Sale” does catch at some of those things, as on “Hold My Life” or “Bastards of Young,” or of course, on “Unsatisfied.” This may well be the best-sung version of that number I’ve heard, and it is still a dead-center shot to the absolute heart.
Mostly, this recording is just this reminder – a sonic Madeleine, rather than a revelation, of just how good good can be. Few bands have more than three great songs in whole career, but in 1986, I had only been listening to the Replacements for two years, and even if you account for personal taste (i.e. I never liked Gary’s Got a Boner or Fuck School), there are a minimum of twelve great originals – “great” being an utterly inadequate word, as there were actually no better rock songs written in that era than the afore mentioned ones and a whole bunch of others: “I Will Dare,” “Can’t Hardly Wait,” “Go.” None. Nil. At their best, the Replacements were so good that even some of their songs that sounded like throwaways at the time, like “Kiss Me On the Bus” and “Color Me Impressed” hold up really well.
It’s weird how some things are so dated, and yet so not. Can any kid today really understand why or what it means to hate your answering machine? And fucking don’t even get me started on ‘Left of the Dial.” The import of that phrase, the tag line and title, which describes the imaginary place where we would all meet, the Replacements and you and me, back in 1986, would be completely meaningless to kids today, but on the tape, in the show, it is simply everything. It’s so important that Paul Westerberg leaves it unspoken and the audience kind of thinks it outloud. “I’ll try to find you,” he sings, and the sound comes to a halt.
Left of the dial.
You can hear, feel, intuit, the audience chanting it to themselves. It is a whisper on the tape, but a scream in my mind. I did it myself, in my car, in the daytime, thirty-one years after the fact.
That the ‘mats had that many great songs at that time is really remarkable, and even more remarkable is that at that moment there were a bunch of already extant great songs (“Sixteen Blue,” for example) they didn't even play -- as well as songs like “Alex Chilton,” “Skyway,” “Merry Go Round,” “The Ledge” that are hovering around or in the near, near future. This recording captures what a live show was like so well. I recall at the time we absolutely loved it when they played covers like “Nowhere Man” and “Baby Strange” and “Fox on the Run” but actually playing those things were a big waste of time compared to playing their own work. They were too humble by half.
Anyway, one thing this recording hints at (though does not really delve into), is that most of the time the Replacements played like shit. Over the years, I saw way more bad shows than good ones, and yet, there was something about the experience that captured what it was like to be alive and human, something about them that was just so poignant and true. Do you know, I think that in the modern world, it takes an incredible amount of courage, and is almost unbelievably honorable, to actually suck a little bit. To take a chance. To not care. That’s what the mats did; that singular thing that we all envied so much. They really didn’t care. Paul Westerberg, he just burns talent. He drips it off him in great globs and then he squanders it in front of your face. But that is all he does with it; he lets it go. At the time, and even now, it seemed like a positively noble gesture, a grandiose ‘fuck you’ to a world of expectations and aspirations and responsibilities and tension: a giant sigh of relief. Loving the Replacements was like that too: it was a way to just let go of desire and doubt. To be OK with what you got, whatever the hell that was.
Anyway, to suck a little bit as part of your brand; if you think about it, that’s not such a bad strategy. That was what I’d forgotten, and it is what you need to remember to enter into the spirit of this record. In 1986, six months or so after this show was recorded, I flew to Paris (but only from London, where I was hanging out at the time) to see the Replacements play a tiny club in the Marais. There were about 20 people there, and the ‘mats were just terrible. After it was over, Bob Stinson followed us down the street to ask if we knew where he could score any drugs; we had to positively shoo him away. Then, on the opposite side of the spectrum, many, many years later, I was sitting glumly in a crowded movie theater with a bunch of tiny children surrounded by wails and the small of fake buttered popcorn, watching a dumb movie about animated grizzly bears when Paul Westerberg’s voice burst onto the screen and briefly turned me into a puddle of glop. It was like finding a nugget of gold at the bottom of a porto-potty. It shook me up to hear it then, and it shakes me up now:
Well, what can I say? Life is very long, and very strange, and it takes you to so many places, and so is, and so does, music. F Scott Fitzgerald (who grew up in St. Paul) once said that American lives have no second acts, but actually I think he was wrong as hell. Always what I loved about the Mats was their downhome-ness, the way they tied country music to punk and saw the beauty in cheesy top forty tunes, and took minute pleasure in the most manufactured and daunting aspects of life in these United States. The Replacements couldn’t help themselves out of a paper bag, but they’ve always had the power to help me through rough times.