Bastard of middle age

Paul Westerberg digs intoa deep, dark place and makes a brilliant, horrible record

Perhaps no one can tell the Replacements story better than Jesperson, who immediately booked the band at the Longhorn Club in Minneapolis, where Jesperson worked as a DJ, and signed the band to Twin/Tone. It was Jesperson who took the band into the studio to record Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash, released on Twin/Tone in 1981. It was Jesperson who pissed off half the Twin Cities' other punk bands by jumping the Replacements to the head of the line, in front of so many other groups who had been biding their time for the shot he'd promised them.

In 1980, the Replacements were nothing more than a band fronted by a teenaged ex-janitor with broken-glass vocals, a lead guitarist whose main influences were Johnny Winter and Steve Howe, a drummer who adored Aerosmith, and a 12-year-old bass player who signed on with his brother. Their song titles included "Shut Up!" and "More Cigarettes" and "I Hate Music" (because "it's got too many notes!"); their sound was crap by way of shit, garage hardcore played by dudes who were convinced their junk-rock was arena-ready. They were first-rate screw-ups, bastards of young who bragged about writing songs "20 minutes after we recorded" Sorry Ma. And Jesperson, who was so often told they were a waste of time, insisted the Replacements were worth the small amount of agony.

"It was such an incredible rush," he says of those early days recording and managing the Replacements. "We were lucky to have found each other. I don't know who was luckier. I had been in the Minneapolis scene for a long time when they came along, and people made fun of me for the Replacements. I remember people saying, 'A 12-year-old bass player? Real cool, Peter.' The Replacements didn't come into the scene being friendly to the other groups. They made their own space and weren't real sociable. People resented how quickly they made their claim."

But there would never be any disputing how compellingly they did so: On 1982's The Replacements Stink, recorded just months after the debut, Westerberg was writing short, sharp anthems for every "White and Lazy" "Dope Smokin Moron" in the audience who had said "Fuck School" and still needed a "God Damn Job." The music was hardcore with a furtive melody, a joke with a point, a punch line with a serious purpose. It was as though the 'Mats were performing an entire album's worth of responses and follow-ups to "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" and "My Generation." Westerberg's songs were nothing more than snippets of conversations overheard and borrowed, everyday dialogue set to a train-wreck beat for dancing and drinking. But they seemed enormous at the time, even bigger today.

In retrospect, it's quite possible that later records--1983's Hootenanny, '84's Let it Be, and the next year's Tim--have been overrated by the fanatics. They are not the perfect gems they're often portrayed as, not the sloppy masterpieces of a band known for drinking itself into oblivion before going into the studio or onto a stage. They contain too many half-assed moments to be considered truly great, too many songs easily skipped over once they were transferred to CD. And Let it Be, considered by the disciples to be the most perfect Replacements album, is a complete mess, full of cheap throwaway jokes ("Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out," "Gary's Got a Boner") and a horrible cover of a horrible KISS song ("Black Diamond") and at least one unlistenable song about cross-dressing ("Androgynous").

But there were a handful of songs on Hootenanny and Let it Be that seemed to mask all the flaws, that made them essential albums for the lost and lovelorn who found solace in electric guitars and drunken howls. "Within Your Reach" off Hootenanny revealed for the first time the softer, lonelier side of Westerberg: "I can live without your touch," he sang, the drum-machine-and-slide-guitar music sparse and empty behind him, "but I could die within your reach." That it was sandwiched between "Mr. Whirly" (which mutated the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields" into a punk-rock rant) and the surf-rocky instrumental "Buck Hill" only made it seem that much more an anomaly--The Geek hanging out with all The Jocks.

Certainly the transcendent moments remain on Let it Be: "I Will Dare," "Answering Machine," and "Unsatisfied," three songs that could--and did--cover a multitude of sins. The first track on the record was this weird little pop song, so catchy and inviting, so desperate and real: "Meet me any place or any time or anywhere / If you will dare meet me tonight / If you will dare, I will dare." And the last was so utterly pathetic, the sound of a coward trying to proclaim his love for a woman and finding only her answering machine to talk to--and "how do you say I love you to an answering machine?" Westerberg wondered over nothing more than the sound of a furiously strummed electric guitar, his voice ripped in half. But it was "Unsatisfied" that remains Westerberg's gilt-edged moment, and it's nothing more than a ripped-off KISS riff ("Hard-Luck Woman," actually) and a man yelling over and over again: "I'm so...unsatisfieeeeeeeeeed." You could feel the song in your bones.

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