No mere replacement

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

For several months, rumors have circulated throughout the music industry and among die-hard Replacements fans that the band would reunite--for a show, perhaps even for an entire album. A reunion only made sense, reasoned some: each member's solo albums sold poorly, some failing to live up to the potential and legacy one expected from a band hailed as one of the greatest of the 1980s. Talk of a reunion escalated to such a frenzy that recently, former 'Mats bass player Tommy Stinson was forced to go into a Replacements message board on America OnLine and inform fans that the rumors were just that--unsubstantiated, unwarranted, unlikely.

Chris Mars, the Replacements' founding drummer who himself was replaced before the band broke up four years ago, similarly shrugs off the talk. There is too much bitterness there, too many steps taken forward to ever go back.

And besides, he explains, a Replacements reunion already took place just a couple of months ago.

There they were, just like in the old days when the 'Mats garnered their legend as rock's hardest drinking band on and off stage, a band that was both excruciatingly sloppy and exhilaratingly brilliant whether performing their own material celebrating the pathetic loneliness of the alcoholic or destroying the Jackson 5's "I'll Be There" or Thin Lizzy's "Jailbreak." All four original Replacements were, for the first time in more than a decade, in the same place at the same time--Paul Westerberg, Tommy Stinson, Chris Mars, and Bob Stinson. And, as usual, Bob Stinson--the man often known for his affinity for drink and drugs, who often took the stage wearing a dress--was the center of attention.

Bob lay in a coffin, dead at the age of 35 by "natural causes" (so said the coroner) on February 18--discovered in his Minneapolis apartment, a syringe next to the couch, gone from the Replacements for nine years and now gone from this world. The three remaining original Replacements stood around Bob's grave and said farewell to their old friend, and even bid a half-heard goodbye to the acrimony and backbiting that had turned bandmate against bandmate, old friend against old friend.

"It was good," Mars says of the experience. "The band got together. They say death brings you together. Not that we all have any dislike for each other, but it was good to see everyone again. I hadn't seen Tommy for a long time, and I hadn't really seen Paul for a long time. We were talkin', shootin' the shit for a bit. But it was just bathed in this really sad, sad thing. It was tough, it was tough. I don't want to go through that again, man. Anytime someone that young dies that tragically, it's hard. It is not good."

Of his old friend Bob, with whom he was in a band even before Westerberg and Tommy Stinson joined, Mars is anxious to set the record straight. Bob had been kicked out of the band after the release of Tim in 1985, his drug habit so out of control he had become unwilling and unable to perform; the incident would forever follow him, and he became known as the unstable junkie too insane to remain in a band filled with men almost as out-of-control. Mars points to an article in Spin magazine two years ago--in which Bob was painted as a pathetic fool who suffered from an incurable madness--as proof that Bob was, to the end, tragically misunderstood.

"Bob lived two of our lives," Mars says. "He lived to the fullest and he had a lot of good times, and he was a pretty happy-go-lucky guy through it all. That Spin article was a bunch of bullshit. Bob is the kind of guy who wears his heart on his sleeve. He'll just blurt out anything, ya know? So who knows what people said about him? Obviously we all had problems with drugs and drinking, and we all went through that phase, and Bob might have continued that.

"But I know he had a lot of good times, and I think it's just at the very end when it got bad. I didn't even know he was that bad. When I read stuff about Bob, I would just go, 'That's Bob and his antics.' At his funeral, there were so many people who had known him up until the end, in the last three years, where I hadn't known him at all. I hadn't been around him, and just some of the stories they told were just Bob being Bob, pulling funny shit all the time. It was just hilarious. Everyone was in stitches. It was fun. I mean, it wasn't fun, but at least it lightened things up."

Sometimes, Mars half jokes, he wakes up in a cold sweat, still finding it hard to believe all the shit he pulled when he was a 17-year-old--riding half-drunk down the freeway on a motorcycle, sitting down every night behind his drum kit as the room spun around him, sharing the stage with a grown man who wore women's clothing. "It's kind of scary to think of some of the stuff I did and made it through, ya know?" he says now, 14 years after the Replacements formed.

Like most young kids who join rock and roll bands, Mars hooked up with Bob--then Paul and Tommy--because he wanted to be famous, because he wanted some measure of respect and recognition, because he just wanted to be in a band. And for the first five or so years the band was around--through such albums as Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take out the Trash, The Replacements Stink, Hootenanny, Let it Be, and Tim--he was completely satisfied; he loved touring, loved the ecstatic crowd response even when the band was incoherent and sloppy.

But Mars looks back now on those days with equal measures of nostalgia and remorse, unable to recognize the kid whose goofy and weary face still stares back at him from old band photos. He is a different guy now, he will explain--a man who paints these amazingly detailed grotesques, a husband, a solo artist who rarely records and performs with even one other musician. He does not even tour now, claiming to loathe the drudgery of driving from city to city; he doesn't care about the applause anymore, doesn't crave the adoration.

Chris Mars today is indeed a very different guy--less bitter about having been driven from the band he founded, more secure with the Replacements' legacy, but a solo artist nonetheless who'd rather look ahead than glance behind. He is three albums into a career where Westerberg and Tommy Stinson are only one deep. He now owns his own $20,000 home studio (thanks to a new record deal with Bar/None out of New Jersey) and has taken to hit-and-miss experimentation, bounding from straight rock and roll to '70s-styled mock-disco to white-boy rap parody to lush string arrangements on his third album, the newly released Tenterhooks--which both recalls his Replacements heyday and severs the ties.

"I think about myself in the early days of the Replacements, and I'm not even that person anymore," Mars says. "The reasons I got into a band in the first place was a recognition thing, and just wanting to be seen doin' something and being involved with a band. But as you get older, I don't require it at all. That's why I don't tour. I don't get anything out of playing live anymore. I don't care about the immediate feedback.

"Now, I think it's more of an exercise, if you will, of the creative process, and I think if it changed at all, it homes in more on that--just the fact you're stimulating yourself creatively, and you don't really want anything beyond that. It's like doing a painting and putting it in the closet and making a record and not listening to it. You're done with it.

"It was more of a surface thing early on. Now it comes straight from me. It's more from the heart now. I'm not in it for the money or fame. I don't want recognition as much as I just want to express myself."

Q: What is the last thing a drummer ever says to his band?
A: Hey, guys...how 'bout we try one of my songs?
--from Chris Mars' drummer joke collection

To longtime Replacements fans--who, truth be told, are a bit like Star Trek fans, arguing who was the most important member or which was the best or worst song, memorizing the most arcane bit of minutiae--Mars' departure from the band in 1990 still remains something of a mystery. One always wondered did he jump or was he pushed--did Paul Westerberg force the drummer from the band, or did Mars leave of his own accord?

The answer, it turns out, is yes to both: Mars became frustrated each time Westerberg shot down his songs, and he felt he had no choice but to cut himself free of the stifling situation. When the band went in to record 1990's All Shook Down--essentially a Westerberg solo album, at that point, with various "guest" spots by Replacements and other musicians (John Cale, Johnette Napolitano)--Mars brought in a cassette of material he had recorded on a four-track. Westerberg dismissed the stuff out of hand. If there had ever been any doubt that one man ran the band, it was dispelled then and there.

"There are some bands that are democratic," Mars says in retrospect. "I think R.E.M. is a good example of that--they write together, they're still friends, they're still runnin' with the same manager. There's some sort of constant democratic theme goin' through the band, and I think that's cool. That's probably more the exception than the rule, though.

"In the early days of the Replacements, we wrote together because we were young, we were friends, we practiced a lot more often together and would hang out. It was more of a group effort, sort of a team. And that changed. We became fragmented toward the end, and Paul wanted to do more of his songs his way, and likewise, we all got the idea we wanted to do other things, too. If we were that kind of band where we could sit down and say, 'Hey, let's get a song goin' like we used to,' that would have been great, but it just didn't happen. And I think that's what happens in most bands. Maybe, maybe not. I certainly have a skewed point of view.

"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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