See Tommy drink. Watch him grin. Hear him gush over the snapshot of his 8-year-old daughter, Ruby, who is far, far away. Observe the casual sips from his huge martini glass. The days of heavy drinking and drugging are behind him now. But Tommy sits happily tonight amid a great tobacco cloud, sharing this dark West Los Angeles tavern with scofflaws ignoring the state's new ban on smoking in bars. Fat cigars and slim cigarettes billow smoke into air already thick with the jukebox sounds of punk and swing and rockabilly. Tommy doesn't smoke, even if a cigarette comes free with every martini. He does get excited about the music blaring from a loudspeaker above his head, whether it's something by X or the Squirrel Nut Zippers. See Tommy run.
Young Tommy Stinson isn't so young anymore. At 31, he's already a two-decade veteran of the rock and roll life, a witness to endless infamy and misfortune as a member of the Replacements, the group of Minneapolis post-punk miscreants who were supposed to save rock from the '80s. It turned out they couldn't save themselves from rock. At its peak, the band stumbled onto a major label; by the end of the decade, it crawled off, less a band than a legacy with a few bruised egos. Stinson wound up in Los Angeles, chasing a girl, then a dream. He wrote songs. He formed a band. Both the band and its slipshod album disappeared. Ends stopped meeting. Before long, the hedonist rocker found himself with a budding career in telemarketing and a 5 a.m. wake-up call.
Stinson eventually quit the job, but he wouldn't quit music. Not yet. About two years ago, he formed his latest band. Always asking for trouble, he called it Perfect. And for probably the first time in his life, he's on the verge of putting it all together. Perfect has just finished recording its debut album, Seven Days a Week. It'll be out in July. And, like Perfect's frequent shows, it's damned good--basic, catchy, raucous pop songs. As if you'd expect anything else.
"I've been doing music since I was 11," says Stinson, trim and in spiky brown hair. "What I grew up with, what I turned into, and where my inspirations come from haven't changed. I don't aspire to be a whole lot different from what I am."
What he was with the Replacements was the bass player, the guitarist's little brother, the teenage freakshow. His brother Bob might have lit fireballs of angst and reckless hilarity onstage, Tommy and drummer Chris Mars might have contributed equally to the band's hedonist legend, but it was singer-guitarist Paul Westerberg's songs of deep romantic yearning and youthful dissatisfaction that made the band's antics ring true. A bunch of drunk guys onstage pinching each other's asses doesn't mean much, but coupled with such songs as "Color Me Impressed" or "Here Comes a Regular" or "Unsatisfied" or dozens of others, the mischief played like passion, like every note might be the last.
As ever, the hard living took its toll. Bob was kicked out in '87 when his bad habits became too much even for his bandmates. Westerberg's marriage eventually fell apart. So did Tommy's. And Westerberg's songs became contemplative, mellow, mature. The band's cult and legend had failed to turn into much commercial success; the broken expectations, the personal conflicts, and the lifestyle itself eventually caused the band to self-destruct in 1991. Tommy had spent his teenage years in a drunken rock cartoon, and, since he hadn't been the songwriter, had few tangibles to show for it--save the stories about stink bombs, trashed Winnebagos, pissing in ice machines, bouncer riots, and chemical intake.
"We did all that, no doubt about it," Stinson says. "At one point we were actually laughing at the stories we were reading about Guns N' Roses: 'You've got to be kidding! They're writing about this?' We were an emotionally fucked-up bunch of guys. We were a few fries short of a Happy Meal, for sure. But I get really tired of people coming up and going, 'Man, you guys were so great! I saw you when you guys couldn't even stand on stage!' But do you remember any of the songs?"
When he got to Los Angeles in 1993, Stinson was a cult music hero who'd released only one of his own songs (a Replacements B-side); he set out to change that. Still under the Replacements' contract with Sire/Warner Bros., he recorded an album under the name Bash and Pop. The result, '93's Friday Night is Killing Me, was frantic and earnest, containing such well-written pop nuggets as the title track and "Aim to Please." But the singing was thin, the arrangements sloppy. He now regrets not having received more guidance from the label or more time to pull a working band together.
"That record's raw," Stinson says happily. "It's just me and my guitar and my guts basically, and you can hear that. It's crappy in a good way to me. Because I don't mind growing up in public. I've been doing it all my life: OK, here I am, my pants down to my ankles."
The record came and went with little notice and less acclaim. Bash & Pop's membership became a revolving door, one that would eventually evolve into Perfect. But there were hurdles. His past had meant some career doors were open to him, and the crowded Los Angeles club scene offered a large talent pool to draw from. And yet he found too many possible collaborators attracted less to Stinson's music and more to the potential profitability of his reputation as a survivor of the mighty Replacements. His daughter Ruby remained with his ex-wife in Minneapolis. His brother Bob died in 1995. (Even now, Tommy doesn't talk about it.) Tommy's money ran out. Reality hit: He took a job selling computer supplies over the phone.
"For two months I felt like 'worm-boy,'" he says. "But then I got kind of good at it. As hard as it was getting up at five in the morning to do that gig, it's the best thing that ever happened to me in my life. It made everything make a lot more sense. It was the first job I ever had. It did a lot for me and made me a lot stronger person."
The job also took pressure off of Stinson to write songs with profits in mind. When he finally got Perfect together with drummer Gersh and guitarists Marc Solomon (born and raised in Dallas) and Dave Philips, the difference was audible. You can hear it on Seven Days a Week, which reunited Stinson with producer Jim Dickinson at Ardent Studios in Memphis, where they had worked together on the Replacements' 1987 album Pleased to Meet Me: It's a collection of bristling, taunting pop-rock. No ballads necessary. And Stinson sounds revitalized.
"I have more invested in the Perfect record than I did in the 'Mats, because I'm writing the songs," Stinson says. "I can understand what Paul felt a lot now, freakin' out a lot of the time from having his soul on the line, and having it just come back as a piece of coal."
His own soul is up for grabs once again as Perfect gathers a few weeks later at Spaceland in the hipper-than-thou area of L.A. known as Silver Lake, the part of town where the Dust Brothers and Beck and the Beastie Boys rule as honorary mayors. It's Oscar night all across town, but this is just another warm-up gig for the Stinson quartet, so he's working the crowd, greeting friends and acquaintances in a slick black suit, the collars of his silky shirt folded across the lapels. The show is already an hour behind schedule, and the opening band hasn't even plugged in yet, though one of its members tells the crowd: "We know you're here to see Tommy, so we'll play fast."
Perfect is still wheeling its equipment onstage nearly an hour later when the club DJ spins a Black Sabbath track. Solomon plugs in his silver guitar and bangs out some appropriately edgy, sludgy riffs, and Stinson gives him a hug like a long-lost friend: "Hey, Marc! Howya doin'?" In minutes, the band is deep into its pure anthemic pop, tough and tender amid all the fuzzing and buzzing guitars. Stinson is almost wistful as he shouts: "Do you laugh, do you shove? There's so many ways to love/Do you smother, leave them hanging? Are you abusive or demanding?" The voice is ragged but strong, bathed in energy and charm. Any cracks in the vocals are unintentional, or might as well be.
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Stinson's now retired from telemarketing, determined to get back into the music game full time, and he's discovered another way to pay the rent: performing his songs solo, with an acoustic. He's proven himself an unlikely and endearing presence alone with his guitar, standing beneath his pineapple haircut, the wallet chain hanging against his thigh, and exposing himself in an altogether different way than he's used to.
"I haven't been very good at it, but that's sorta why I keep doing it," Stinson says. "Damn it, one day I'm going to be all right at it, and it'll be fine. It's a challenge. It's more about the words and emotion. That's a hard bit."
It sounds almost adult from a guy who's spent most of his life as the perennial youth. Some of the Replacements faithful still come to his every show, discuss his every career move across the Internet, and trade bootleg cassettes. But Restless Records, which will release Perfect's Seven Days a Week this summer, also plans to have a Stinson solo EP next year. Somehow, the teenage bassist from Fuckup, Minnesota, is turning into a thoughtful singer-songwriter. With perspective.
"My band is the first priority," Stinson says, "but it doesn't take up the whole day either.