“The first thing we do when we finally show up/Is get shit-faced drunk and try to sober up…” They were the American Clash. The Rolling Stones of the 1980’s. Somewhere between the greatest American punk band ever and the greatest rock band in the post-everything era. And virtually every sweet, angry, blistering, tender, wonderful note the Replacements played burst from the same impulse that made damn sure they would never amount to anything. “Can you stand me on my feet?” Even in 1983, before they had a chance to start hating themselves for even beginning to seem successful, the Replacements — original line-up: songwriter/singer/guitarist Paul Westerberg, lead guitar Bob Stinson, bassist Tommy Stinson and drummer Chris Mars, all from Minneapolis/St. Paul Minnesota — stage-dove eagerly onto their own lovingly built petard. They were drunks, screw-ups, addicts, sketchy musicians who got even worse when they were drunk (often) or traded instruments, which they loved to do nearly as much as they loved to get drunk, even (especially?) when the tape was rolling. Like the Clash, their UK counterparts who truly believed in their political and moral vision, the Replacements believed fiercely in their own incompetence. “The label wants a hit/And we don’t give a shit….”
Right now I’m listening to “Hootenanny,” the 1983 album that pre-dates, by months, the group’s 1984 breakthrough, “Let It Be.” And while the latter album is cetainly closer to the ass-kicking hooks, sardonic sense of humor and when-you-least-expect-it flashes of sensitivity/vulnerability, the earlier album has a rawness that feels closer to the group’s arhythmic heart. Consider that the title track, “Hootenanny,” is both hilarious in concept — beneath the retro-50s title (and album artwork) resides what has to be the furthest thing from the sugary neo-folk that popularized the ‘hoot’ idea in the late-50s — and purposefully distrastrous in execution. Once again, the band has traded instruments — I think Westerberg plays drums, bass-player T. Stinson takes up a guitar and drummer Mars is on bass, and Christ only knows how sober they all weren’t at the time — so the two-or-three chord blues-grunge progression carries no strict meter, chords or melody. Westerberg brays “It’s a Hootenanny!” over and over again, and barks/slurs whatever else he has in his mind, which turns out to be not much. “Run It,” comes next, a high-speed, fuzz-guitar ode to the joys of defying traffic signals. Minimal words, minimal chords, mostly noise, attitude and a deceptively clear understanding of how street lights (and traffic laws) read as metaphors for social structure. Which is precisely the sort of thumb-suckery hat requires them to rip doughnuts into professorial front yards: “Ain’t no truth-run it!/Ain’t no good-run it!” A hair over a minute later the car ejects us at “Color Me Impressed,” and the threshold of the Replacements’ (and particularly Westerberg’s) real headwaters: the rowdy, beer-and-coke soaked party where everyone looks so maddeningly hip and cheery. “Everybody’s dressin’ funny,” Westerberg snarls to a double-speed and yet catchy descending guitar riff. “Color me impressed.” As if the ‘Mats were up to anything smarter. Instead, they’re (apparently) snorting cocaine (how else to interpret, ‘Put the party on the mirror/Oh shit, pass the bill to Chris’)? Even more intriguing is the double-meaning (and PW’s ouevre is crammed with double meanings) hiding within the bridge lyric, a simple, “Can you stand me on my feet?” which means one, or perhaps both, of two things: the singer either needs help standing up, or wonders if anyone even would want him around if he weren’t so amusingly wasted. The next three songs explore decadence and self-destruction. “Willpower” marches grimly over a horror-show bassline, a backdrop of echoing, self-recrimination voices (“I don’t wanna…stop it, stop it, stop it. . . I don’t wanna”) undermining an attempt at self-discipline. “Take Me Down to the Hospital” paints a jaunty what-if portrait of what could happen if you fail to re-gain some semblance of sobriety. A snarling lead guitar cuts like barbed wire through a two-chord vamp that detonates, pulls back then erupts again, with Westerberg’s threats and admissions (I‘ve already used eight of my lives!” ) climaxing in a wail – Take me down! – echoed by his bandmates – Hospital! A split second later comes the final word in the trilogy, the bizarre plagiarism-fest that cobbles together the opening chords of “Strawberry Fields Forever” to a kind of madman’s spin through “The Twist,” to a beautifully shambolic, guitar-led rip off of “Oh, Darling!” that is actually addressed to (and titled) “Mr. Whirly,” who presents as a kind of pink elephant character, the personification of the feeling you get right before the bed starts to rotate. The suite ultimately collapses under its own sloshy weight, with Westerberg ending things with a phony count-on: “One, two, three, and you are….I said, you’re the— The listener fills in the blanks himself: Out! Then: A loser! Then another taste of PW’s version of romanticism: “Within Your Reach,” its impassioned lyric playing out over a synth-dominated two-chord tune, all juxtaposing images of a world gone insane (sun keeps rising in the west) to the singer’s unexpected feelings of passion and need. He’s so happy, in fact, he can “die within your reach.” Apres fulfillment comes only…..destruction. A scary thought, eh? “Buck Hill” is an instrumental — the first in a series of truly memorable guitar-based, only barely worded tunes, e.g., “Seen Your Video”) followed instantly by its obverse, a wordy, often hilarious speed-rap, “Lovelines,” its giggle-laced lyrics drawn directly from the lovelorn personal ads tucked on the last page of a 1982 issue of the Twin Cities Reader (or was it the Sweet Potato? One of the TC’s alt-weeklies, anyway). And what the hell is going on here? Is PW truly ridiculing the romantically-bereft? Or putting the boot into the cynical sex-biz types who capitalize on the unrequited desires of others? A little of both, I guess.
A couple of quickies — “You Lose” and “Hayday” — come next, but the real climax, and the signpost to the rest of the ‘Mats’ career can be found in “Treatment Bound,” an acoustic sing-along type of campire tune which describes several disastrous dates on a tour through Wisconsin and Minnesota, the band continually machine-gunning itself in the foot (getting shit-faced drunk, then desperately trying to sober up) at shows where “so-called friends” only buy them more and more and more drinks. “We’re gettin’ no place, fast as we can!” Westerberg boasts/complains. “The label wants a hit/And we don’t give a shit!” He isn’t ashamed. In fact, he’s proud of himself, if only because he’s living down to the terrible self-image that goaded him to pick up a guitar and climb on a stage in search of acceptance. What sort of a loser would do that? “Yesterday’s trash/too bored to thrash.” It’d be funnier if the song weren’t so tuneful. And if we didn’t know how the Replacements would come so close to having it all, only to spit it back out again, then collapse into themselves without saving American rock ‘n’ roll the way they really could have done. Westerberg seemed poised to do it on his own in the ’90s (see also: Spin’s “Paul Westerberg: The Spirit of Rock ‘n’ Roll’ cover) And yet even a clean-and-sober (mostly) Westerberg solo career would spark, sputter, spark again and then fade to his current nether-existence as the creator of muddy, self-recorded basement tapes featuring his self-loathing self on all the (purposefully?) ill-played presentations of darkly conceived, underwritten tunes. All of which takes us right back to the closing seconds of the tune “Treatment Bound” and the “Hootenanny” album as a whole, just after “Treatment” stumbles to a halt, when Tommy Stinson turns to Westerberg to ask after a chord-progression-gone-wrong: “One of those chords at that one part, you just fucked it up!” Westerberg shrugs and responds simply: “Fucked ‘im up.” And he’s not angry, or even apologetic. Color him impressed.