To answer that question, you have to go back to where he's been--Minneapolis in May of 1980. It was then that a 19-year-old Paul Westerberg gave a four-song demo to Peter Jesperson, who was then working at a local record store and running a Minneapolis record label, Twin/Tone. Jesperson has told the story so often it's become myth, a tale too good to be even a fraction of the truth, but he repeats it once more: Peter didn't even get halfway through the first song on the cassette, "Raised in the City," before he stopped the tape, phoned three friends, and begged them to come down and listen to the damned thing. He told them he was either crazy, or this brand-new band called the Replacements was the best thing he'd heard since the Rolling Stones.
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").