Tommy Boy

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.

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Steve Appleford
Contact: Steve Appleford