The Replacements are in the ether again.  Do they ever leave?  Their legend has hardly faded since they broke up in 1991, but it seems now that popular culture, having cycled through late 70s/early 80s new wave and post-punk, is in the midst of a nostalgic phase for late 80s/early 90s college-radio music.  There was just recently a tribute concert to Michael Azerrad’s book, Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991.  New indie-rock bands brandish the sounds of Dinosaur Jr and other old stalwarts.  And of course, we’re all heading to the 20th anniversary of college radio’s gotterdamerung, the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind.

Perhaps it should be no surprise there’s a documentary about the Replacements in the works.  (There’s a documentary about Thelonious Monster’s Bob Forrest in the works, ferchrissakes.  Retrospectives on underground rock bands are second only to progressive causes in adopting documentaries as their privileged medium, it seems.)

I was at my local public library a few days ago, which has a ridiculously well-stocked section of music books, and on whim I picked up Jim Walsh’s oral history, The Replacements: All Over But The Shouting (Voyageur Press, 2007).  A native Minneapolitan and local journalist, Walsh was around the band for pretty much all of the members’ lives, belonging to that generation of local rock bands that were quickly overshadowed by the Replacements and Hüsker Dü (Laughing Stock and REMs [sic], anyone?).  If the teaser to the film documentary above is any indication, then it follows the same method as the Walsh book, drawing heavily on contemporary interviews with music critics and contemporaneous musicians who were inspired at various distances from the band.  The former members themselves were largely absent from the new interviews for the book except for, well, the real replacements: a still-traumatized Slim Dunlap, and the last drummer Steve Foley, who wasn’t in the band long enough for most fans to even know he came after Chris Mars, but was in just long enough to burn out like all the other guys.

Sometimes this method works, and sometimes it doesn’t.  Walsh’s introductory chapter isn’t especially reassuring: hagiographic reminiscences from I-was-there Minneapolis scenesters and the odd present-day musician (Billie Joe Armstrong, Craig Finn, Joe Henry) about when they first discovered the Replacements and what the band meant to them.  Is it me, or do the Replacements, more than most other indie-rock icons, particularly inspire this kind of self-indulgent, “man you kids just don’t KNOW how great this band was” reverie?

In fact, I remember the Replacements.  Never got to see them, but I was 16 whenLet It Be came out, and “Sixteen Blue” spoke to me like it did so many other lonely, misfit boys.  (Bob’s raw solo still gives me the chills.)  I had the cassette-only live recording The Shit Hits The Fans, and 25 years later I’m still trying to figure out who originally wrote “Left Here in the Dark”, one of the few songs that the band played through to its approximate end.  I even liked the first major-label album, Tim, although already I was struck by the new heights of sappiness attained by the ballad “Here Comes A Regular” — heights that Paul Westerberg would continually surpass on their remaining albums.

So I’m not a lifer for the Replacements; I can’t bring myself to call them “the Mats” like their devotees do.  That said, I still want to know more about what they achieved, and why they were so important for so many — and Walsh’s oral history fails too often in these regards.  We learn fairly little about the influences and elements that went into the Replacements’ music.  We don’t get to appreciate the stylistic break that the band made with the prior generation of Minneapolis groups that adhered rigidly to the conventions of new wave (the Suburbs, Suicide Commandos, etc.).  It’s a truism that the Midwest is the bastion of diehard classic rockers, which seems borne out by the Replacements’ style and especially their go-to covers (again, see The Shit Hits The Fans), but then what was the context in which they and their fans got off calling them “punk “?  (And by what stretch of the imagination could Hüsker Dü be portrayed as “more of a Beatles thing” — Bob Mould’s own words — in contrast to the Replacements’ Stones’ thing?)

Except for Jim Walsh’s special insight into the late Bob Stinson (he gave a really touching eulogy at Bob’s funeral), we get only hints of what made the members of the band tick.  Drawing on quotations from old interviews with the band, the author isn’t really able to reconcile the contradictions of Paul, Tommy Stinson, and Chris Mars, or challenge the members to come clean about those contradictions.  Westerberg comes off as a bit of a jerk, a quality that, along with his self-deprecation and ambivalence about success, are chalked up to his environment, the white ethnic neighborhoods in South Minneapolis.  Some suggestive passages:

            [From Jim Walsh’s preface:] Paul, like me and Mars, grew up in the Catholic ghetto of South Minneapolis, and it’s only very recently that I’ve come to know what that means.  Some of us read the Bible every day, and others of us did the rosary every night after dinner while the other kids in the neighborhood were outside playing.  Some of our parents were alcoholics; some of our parents treated booze and sex like it was one and the same and the road to hell.
Every year on Ash Wednesday since we were in first grade, we had a priest rub our foreheads with ashes and say, “Remember man that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”  Have that done enough times, and not only will it provide a soul with freedom, inspiration, humility, and beautiful, mysterious ritualistic imagery, but it’ll fuck with a boy, and a man (pp. 20-1).

Jay Walljasper:  Paul Westerberg’s childhood home is on the next block from my house.  I show it to my son now [in 2007], an aspiring songwriter, and tell him, “Yes, it’s possible to make it.”  It’s funny because it is actually a pretty grand house for a band that fancied itself a bunch of working-class fuck-ups from South Minneapolis.  It’s big and brick with an iron fence around it, and looks like some family mansion from the 1910s.  The people living there now say that in the basement young Paul painted the walls with a tribute to his favorite band: “I love the Suburbs” (pg. 51).

Curtiss A: The Stinson family lived in the house [2225 Bryant Avenue in South Minneapolis] next to the house where my band practiced.  I knew [their mother] Anita because she worked at the Uptown.  Bob [Stinson] would come over and watch us, and the thing about him that I loved is that he hated us.  He had this gigantic sneer, like Elvis.  And he just sneered at us.  I didn’t know if he just didn’t like us, or if he was just one of those kids like that, or if he was maybe jealous that maybe his brother was showing some interest in what we were doing.  At the time, I didn’t know either one would be players (pp. 54-5).

Lori Barbero: I knew Anita and I walked in and out of the house freely.  It was just a huge rush.  What are they going to come up with?  What’s Bobby gonna do?  Who’s gonna get obliterated?  There was so much humor in it, and so much reality, and so much originality (pg. 58).

I could go on — lots of Replacement obsessives are familiar with the details — but two things come to mind.  First, change the city, the ethnic composition, and the cultural pastime, and the emotional arc could resemble almost any given movie about Irish “Southies” from South Boston.  Second, so many other bands came from these same parts, and they weren’t obliged to express the South Minneapolis ethos that Walsh tries to evoke.  So why were the Replacements?  In fact, something that generally goes overlooked is the anxious, self-conscious manner in which the Replacements charged themselves to convey a particularly ethnically/class-based outlook on life that’s “only from Minneapolis:

Steve Perry: “Maybe I’m from the working class,” Westerberg says, “but I’ve hardly worked a day in my life.”  He and Chris Mars then embark on an explanation of the theory of social classes according to the Replacements, which differs significantly from Karl Marx’s version.
“The middle class is the best,” says Westerberg.  “They make the best rock’n’roll.  Elliot Murphy said that.  I don’t the exact reason, but I think the lower class is so desperate to rise above where they are that they’ll do anything, even to the point where it makes them look stupid.  Like metal, for instance.  They’re all stupid, but they want to make it.  The upper class of wealth and affluence will try to make art, ’cause they’ve already seen money and power, and they go, ‘well, we’re above that.'”
“They try to imitate art,” says Mars, “where the lower class is doing anything they can to bust out…”
“And the middle class,” continues Westerberg, “doesn’t give a shit.  ‘Cause they’re right in the middle.  They’ve never been rish, they’ve never been poor.  We don’t want to rule the world, but we don’t want to be at the bottom of the ladder” (pp. 220-1).

And in this invention of tradition, there’s maybe a Minneapolis story still to be told about the Replacements, but local son Jim Walsh might not be the guy to tell it, and the Replacements’ reverent fans aren’t necessarily the ones to put it in proper perspective.

A final note: The Replacements: All Over But The Shouting just scratches the surface of rock literature about Minneapolis bands from this era.  I’m looking forward to reading Bob Mould’s just-published memoir, See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody, and if I’m going to try to get the whole Hüsker Dü story, then I’ll probably have to read what Mould’s bandmates say in Andrew Earles’ Hüsker Dü: The Story of the Noise Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock.  Awhile back on Twitter, I posted this briefer oral history from Magnet Magazine, “A Tale Of Twin Cities: Hüsker Dü, The Replacements And The Rise And Fall Of The ’80s Minneapolis Scene.”  And maybe I’ll have to dig out Neal Karlen’s 1994 book, Babes in Toyland: The Making and Selling of a Rock and Roll Band.