Rock and roll is a business largely founded on a kind of voyeuristic cannibalism: Take the most vulnerable, volatile performers you can find, place them in the most intense circumstances imaginable, and watch what happens next. A lot of times what happens next is grim, sometimes lethal. By rock and roll’s demented logic, that can be kind of OK too, as those artists failing to survive the crucible achieve a sort of special martyrdom, and also become reliable commodities in perpetuity. To term this attitude exploitative would be an understatement, but from Eddie Cochran to Elliot Smith, that’s a big part of how the game has been played.
Paul Westerberg always seemed to understand that for the kind of band he was going to run, danger was a part of deal. Indeed, the Replacements seemed to revel in it. One of their very first songs was a tribute to Westerberg’s great hero and soon-to-be inevitable heroin casualty Johnny Thunders. On “Johnny’s Gonna Die,” Westerberg sings with an offhand casualness: “Johnny always takes more then he needs / knows a couple chords / knows a couple leads / and Johnny’s gonna die.” The sentiment is decidedly not, “Hey, we should probably do something before Thunders finally kicks it!” It’s more like he’s noting the weather outside, an absolutely prosaic dispatch. Westerberg even ends the song with a sort of cheerful refrain of “bye, bye” — it was 10 years before Thunders would finally leave the building, but the Replacements had already skipped ahead to the eulogy.
For all of the tremendous hilarity surrounding the band’s legendary antics, the Replacements’ story is far more tragedy then comedy. The band wasn’t a suicide pact, but they were a sort of four-man Russian Roulette game. Excess bordered on mandatory. A much-repeated (and unconfirmed) story tells of Westerberg confronting the deeply troubled and dependent founding lead guitarist Bob Stinson before a show when Stinson had just finished 30 days in a detox clinic. Westerberg brings him a bottle of champagne and tells him: “Either take a drink, motherfucker, or get off my stage.” It doesn’t matter so much if this is true or not, simply because it is plausible. Being wasted was Bob Stinson’s brief in the Replacements — he really wasn’t good enough a technical player to keep around sober and levelheaded. The fact that he was eventually fired for being overly erratic is an unamusing irony.
The Replacements may have played Russian Roulette, but on some level everyone always knew who was going to lose. There is no prevailing evidence to suggest things would have turned out differently for Bob Stinson had he remained in the band. What happened was no one’s fault. For fans of the Replacements who came to the band after Bob’s position had been handed over to the excellent Slim Dunlap, the former guitarist was already a ghostly seeming figure. Old fans raved and rhapsodized about him, his younger brother Tommy was still there on bass, the protégé and obviously first lieutenant to Westerberg. Bob’s own playing on the older records was lively and inimitable, alternately ridiculous and moving. The Replacements were still great, still humming along on their zip wire to God knows where. But whatever happened to Bob? Understandably, the band preferred not to discuss him in interviews after his firing. The reports, few and far between, were never promising: Bob was back in Minneapolis, there were health problems, mental illness, drug and drinking binges. Bob was gonna die.
Every Replacements album is great (particularly recommended are the terrific 2008 expanded reissues, which all contain outtakes ranging from the amusing to the indispensable, and great liner notes from original manager fifth-Beatle figure Peter Jesperson). More than being great, every album plays a separate, important role in elucidating the near-mythic Joseph Campbell-like journey they had embarked upon. The story went inextricably like this: A ragtag band of misfits from an unfashionable outpost emerge from the punk-rock underground to become the unlikely practitioners of a great, raunchy, intelligent, and vulnerable sound that qualifies them for a time as nothing less than the American Stones. As their talents grow, so do their ambitions, but a fundamental contrariness and diffidence prevents them from behaving in even the semi-professional manner that the mainstream industry can trust with their investment dollars. As they chart a torturous one-step-forward, two-steps-back trajectory toward the grand mansion of rock stardom, there are (to quote Craig Finn) some massive highs and some crushing lows. There are casualties of every sort. And then, when the Replacements finally reach the doorstep of the grand mansion, they realize that the invitation was always illusory — they were never really getting in. And so, in a final series of disastrous concerts opening for the hugely popular commercial stalwarts Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, they essentially ring the doorbell and run away.
Since its release in the fall of 1990, it has been common to criticize the final Replacements release All Shook Down, a dour and dispirited affair which is nevertheless a masterpiece in the view of these writers. It’s not hard to understand what people find disagreeable about the album. Westerberg sounds utterly exhausted, even on the rock songs. The pervasive sense of fatigue, loneliness, and regret underscores even the numbers that try for a kind of forced conviviality. Music business allegories blur into heartbroken laments, and as often can be the case with the Replacements, it’s difficult to know where one begins and the other ends. Westerberg was in love with rock and roll, and feels badly cheated by it. The rest of the band is variously checked out and disinterested, and show up only here and there, giving the record the deserved reputation as something like Westerberg’s first solo album. In short, All Shook Down can be a tough hang — it’s full of weird and bad vibes. It is also not only an acceptable final note for the Replacements, it is the only way it could have ever ended. What did people expect? A Mardi Gras record?
Twenty years after the fact, the Replacements’ music still exhilarates the soul, and their story still bothers the mind. Paul Westerberg went on to become a dependable and occasionally exemplary solo artist, but never achieved the mainstream success that was often optimistically forecast for him even after the band’s split. Tommy Stinson turned out to be an excellent songwriter of his own accord, and has released a handful of terrific albums under different iterations. He also spent a long and peculiar time in musical purgatory, serving as Axl Rose’s hired sideman during the long running Chinese Democracy debacle. Chris Mars made a couple of cool solo records and subsequently dedicated himself to his work in the visual arts, which is awesome in a Ralph Steadman kind of way. He appears to have little interest in playing the drums these days, which is probably understandable. Likewise, Slim Dunlap made two estimable bluesy solo records, and recently suffered a stroke from which he is expected to make a complete recovery, and we wish him the very best. Bob Stinson died of an overdose in 1995, nine years after his exile from the Replacements and four years after the band had finally broken up. He was 35.
“If it’s just a game / then we’ll break down just in case,” Westerberg once implored in the closest thing the band ever managed to a hit single. And, just in case, they did.
Our Countdown of the Replacements’ albums starts here. Drunken brawling and/or sing-alongs in the comments.