Friday, December 07, 2007

Crack Up in the Sun, Lose It in the Shade

The Replacements: All Over But the Shouting, An Oral History by Jim Walsh. Voyageur Press. 303 pages. $21.95.

The Replacements were the prototypical crash-and-burn punk band of the 1980s: a gangly crew of raucous, arrogant, alcoholic jerks from middle-class Minnesota who sang about boredom, confusion and frustration, and played it loud and fast. Like the Velvet Underground and the Ramones, they were also role models, demonstrating to start-up bands everywhere that four losers on a budget really could make history -- provided they had a little luck and a lot of chemistry.

In the lead was Paul Westerberg, a howling vocalist and a frequently brilliant songwriter who had (and still has) a knack for finding raw poetry in the utterly ordinary; playing Keith to his Mick, Sid to his Johnny, was a rock n' roll casualty in the making named Bob Stinson, who pulled furiously rich guitar solos out of thin air; Bob's kid brother Tommy (who started in the band when he was 12) handled the bass and Chris Mars marshalled a killer attack on drums.

At their best, they were pure rock n' roll, not least because they had the perfect attitude, which was that they didn't give a rat's ass whether you liked them or not. They weren't just indifferent to success; they actively courted failure. They were occasionally great in concert and very frequently awful. Prior to a radio concert, Westerberg actually coached the audience to boo, just so he could say "Aw, c'mon ... You might like us if you just gave us a chance." When the band finally made it to the big time, they played "Saturday Night Live" drunk out of their minds. How fitting that the first line they sang, from "Bastards of Young," encapsulated their entire career: "God, what a mess, on the ladder to success."

A Minnesota musician turned rock journalist, Jim Walsh knows and loves the Replacements as much as anyone, and his account of the band's rise and fall, cobbled together from multiple interviews and clippings, is a bit like a Replacements show: a thrown-together, hit-or-miss pastiche that only works part of the time and sometimes not at all.

On the up side: it's a true deep-dyed fan's book. Lots of fascinating pictures and documents you'll see nowhere else, and some pretty good stories from those who were in the band's inner circle and have the scars to prove it. Early manager Peter Jesperson, for example, who stuck with the band from the very beginning and then found himself thrown to the wolves once the guys got a taste of success. Bob Mould and Grant Hart of Husker Du are on hand to represent the local competition. The tragic tale of Bob Stinson's exile from the band and his long decline into heroin addiction is laid out in some detail, and you get a fine sense of him as a funny, sad, strange and rather dense character. Scattered throughout are occasional moments of wisdom on how a band that seemed to hold its audience in utter contempt always kept it begging for more. Also, the mystery is finally resolved as to why they named their breakthrough album Tim (for the hell of it.)

Unfortunately, I sometimes thought the book should have been titled "All over but the chatter." "Oral history" by its nature is a tired, lazy form of biography, which I suspect has become the the standard rock bio format because publishers think that getting a rock fan to read an actual book means making it as much like a movie as possible. It's also somewhat chaotic, patchy and incoherent, as fresh interviews and old quotes are laid side by side, and you have to look in the back of the book to figure out just what exact role any of these speakers played.

As the first book on the subject, it offers a starting place; hopefully, it's not the last word on a band whose influence only gets stronger with every passing year.

No comments: