Why the Replacements' dreams remain unfulfilled

Every Replacement fan appreciates a different facet of their career.

For many years I liked the sonic grittiness of Tim and then moved back to the much more sloppy and raucous Hootenany and Let it Be’s mixture of slop and pop. Even though I liked the blues-infected Pleased to Meet Me, I don't think I understood how good it was until I grew older and saw that as a path for them to take, especially for their singer Paul Westerberg, who could of became a bluesy troubadour.

As Winona Ryder said, the Replacements appealed to people in the same way Catcher in the Rye did: As if they were speaking directly to you.

As people, there was something so human about them, not just fragile but also self-destructive and occasionally revolting.  Yes, they could treat their fans poorly, delivering drunken concerts full of cover songs and play nary an original. Yes, we find out, they could torture their managers, burning their per diem money in front of them and destroying busses beyond recognition. All this in a band that lived very much hand-to-mouth. 

But the music. Looking over their career from the vantage point of time, you see them as chameleons, never sticking very long with a single genre — but stamping each attempt with their own style. In Let It Be they performed a straight up Kiss cover; In Hootenany they recorded a pop song with a synthesizer and fake drum. Pleased to Meet Me had bar-band blues and jazz numbers. Many albums included at least one heartbreakingly raw acoustic song.   

We find out that the lawlessness in their behavior, perhaps even in their lives, bled over to the music. If we’re honest about it, we know the Replacements had some very good songs, but their albums could be uneven. They could be very good live, but they also could be embarrassingly bad. To hear them tell the story, it was the chaos that drove them to be such a good band.  

Reading Bob Mehr's Trouble Boys, the biography of the group, you get to hear the chaos first hand. The band mostly cooperated with the author, and Mehr doesn’t shy from the litany of personal problems: the alcohol abuse, of course, but also various mental health issues, sometimes stemming from terribly medieval upbringings or longer-release genetic time bombs. He showed how they morphed from troubled individuals to how their personalities changed when they came together, not too different from locusts. 

Mehr doesn't play shrink, but the book spends a lot of time illustrating these issues. The band members projected a disruptive atmosphere, and that's partly why the people who loved their music fell for it. As the book points out, this was also the band's crutch: It allowed them not to care, or give the air of caring. The problem is that deep down they were frightened — afraid of success as much as they were of failure. A band that celebrated the loser was deeply afraid of winning. When they were asked to get out of their comfort zone for the sake of their careers (playing a show for many record execs or performing on Saturday Night Live), they would purposely sabotage it (by playing only country covers) or flaunting their crudeness and purposely standing off camera or screaming into the mic about pills. The book’s most humiliating lines come as Mehr reports the band’s behavior meeting its long list of potential producers. 

From the band’s perspective there was something unconscious or subconscious about their playing, how they fed off and reacted to each other as musicians. Westerberg, the main writer, never wrote down his lyrics—rather he would memorize songs while preparing them. When the band prepared songs for recording, they never played it the same way twice.

Westerberg lamented in the later years that he could write lyrics and his bandmates would know exactly what to do with them. When it worked, the band and the song could be great. When it didn't work, it wasn't so good. They pretended not care one way or another. 

And then it stopped working. The people in power no longer gave the band the benefit of the doubt when the material became less combustible and there were thousands of other groups coming out. In their height, the Replacements stood tall among the legions of other great 80s bands: Husker Du, REM, etc. But the longer they continued, the more the Replacements fell back to crowd, bested by bands who’s DNA was so ingrained with their own.  

Perhaps like Holden Caulfield, the Replacements became no different than the rest of us.