No mere replacement

Chris Mars looks back at the 'Mats even as he runs forward

"At that point in the band, it was just sort of a closed door. Tommy wanted songs on the record, I had some songs. But it was a shut door."

And so Mars left to pursue a solo career, taking the cassette with him; he would be replaced by Steve Foley, who would later join Tommy Stinson's band Bash and Pop. He would find it hard, though, to quickly leave behind the band he had helped form when just a teenager. Shortly after he was kicked out--or left, same either way--Mars went to see the Replacements with Foley behind the drum kit. "Out of curiosity," he says now.

Mars sat close, on the 10th row, and watched from the front what he had, for almost a decade, always witnessed from behind. And he got bored.

"But then," he says, laughing, "I got bored on stage when I was playing, too. I think we all got bored. I think that's why we all did so much crazy shit--because we were all bored."

Surprisingly, Mars became first Replacement to release a solo album, 1992's Horseshoes and Hand Grenades. More surprisingly, it was a wonderful album--a cross between the Replacements' frenzied, without-a-net rock and roll and Ray Davies' wry vocals and observations. Horseshoes was an album of release for Mars, jubilantly cathartic and painfully bitter all at once. "Nobody likes an egomaniac," he sang on one song; another, he titled "Popular Creeps." There was little doubt who the egomaniac was, or who the popular creep could have been--Paul Westerberg, of course.

The following year's 75% Less Fat was likewise a fine record--better than Tommy Stinson's no-fat 'Mats, Bash and Pop, and at least comparable to Westerberg's own 14 Songs, a very bad album with very good songs done in by lifeless performances (by contrast, the songs were reborn live, infused with an energy lacking from the album). If nothing else, Stinson and Westerberg proved how inseparable they were--the heart and head of the Replacements, useless when disconnected--just as Mars proved how easily he could cut the cord. Without Paul, Tommy was sloppy and thoughtless, the drunken buffoon without a straight man; without Tommy, Paul was stiff and self-serious.

Mars, who was playing almost every instrument and singing, turned out to be the lost Replacement, a witty songwriter and great singer stuck forever behind the drum kit. And, again, the song titles seemed to express his still-lingering unhappiness: "No Bands," "Weasel," "Public Opinion," "Bullshit Detector." And the album's title spelled it out--75% Less Fat, Mars shed the three other band members who shut him up for so long.

And now, there is Tenterhooks, the best Kinks album the Kinks haven't made in two decades and one on which the hooks are played on piano and violin. It's a dense record, layers upon layers, and it splits the difference between hilarious ("White Patty Rap," "Water Biscuits") and heartbreaking ("Brother Song," the implications of which are quite sad); but most of all, it's the sound of a man who has only now begun to find his voice and tap into his potential--not as the son of Paul Westerberg or Ray Davies, but as Chris Mars.

"When I was in the Replacements, I was disillusioned by everything. I wasn't content anymore in just being a drummer. I wanted to reach out a little more, and my creative mind started working, and I couldn't express myself within that framework. I think everybody in the band went through that. Paul, obviously, was able to exercise that throughout the years more than us because he was writing the bulk of the songs. But I know Tommy went through that. It's an evolutionary thing with getting older and wanting to express something you have inside you.

"I think that's maybe why I record on my own now because I'm still so constipated, and I just want to let it out. Although I still like playing with people. But as far as a band situation, I'm not too anxious to get into that situation again. It's not any sort of ego thing, it's just a good time.

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