First time I ever saw/heard The Replacement was when they opened for R.E.M. at a club in New Haven, Connecticut called Toad’s Place. It was July 17th, 1983. I was 24-years-old, a few months away from directing my first feature film, a horror thing called “Disconnected.” (Not a very good film. But I learned a lot.) My girlfriend at the time, Kathy, and I were leaning right up against the stage. We had already seen R.E.M. once before when they came around in support of their debut EP. Now they had an excellent first album. We were pretty psyched.
The opening band came out finally. And I so remember turning to Kathy as we both wondered “what the fuck is this?” They were so drunk, so blatantly obnoxious. And to top it off the guitar player was wearing a dress. (Not that I had anything against rockers in drag. David Bowie was very much responsible for my love of rock & roll. But this guy wasn’t David Bowie.) We turned our backs on the band and leaned back against the stage.
Needless to say, we made a mistake.
Needless to say, by the next year they were my favorite band.
I thank The Professor for that. Walking into his sprawling Phoenix Record shop in Waterbury, he handed me my weekly collection of vinyl that I was going to love, but I didn’t quite know it yet. And one week in that stack was the “I Will Dare” 12-inch.
It was hard to connect the band playing that song to the band I saw on stage. But they were somehow one in the same. And when “Let It Be” arrived shortly thereafter, well, pretty much everything changed.
Now we jump ahead thirty years. During that time the majority of the people I work with on my films would be born. I would have gotten married and stayed married for going on twenty-one years to a woman named Kristine who also called The Replacements her favorite band. (And Kathy would go on to be Kristine’s Maid-Of-Honor at our wedding.) The Replacements, of course would break up in 1991. I’d fall in deeply love with a few other bands, namely Archers of Loaf and Wilco. I write a bunch of books. Make a boatload of movies, including documentaries on two of those favorite bands, The Mats and Archers. Kristine and I would raise our family of dogs. I’d even get my first tattoo at the age of 51 so I could always remember one of those dogs, Mr. Kilgore Trout.
And then the world turned slightly on its side.
Now, after making COLOR ME OBSESSED, A FILM ABOUT THE REPLACEMENTS, I had been often asked if they would ever reunite. I always answered emphatically, “No.” It was just never going to happen.
Needless to say, another mistake.
But I never believed in miracles.
And whether is was getting together to record the “Songs For Slim” EP, or Paul and Tommy finally realizing the love for the band never faded. Or something else altogether, the time was right, the stars aligned, it didn’t matter.
Three RiotFest shows were announced. Kris and I spent hours talking about it. I already had a lot of traveling in my near future because of shooting for the A DOG NAMED GUCCI animal abuse film, and the premieres of both my drama BROKEN SIDE OF TIME and the Grant Hart documentary EVERY EVERYTHING. Plus Kris would just be coming off a long vacation. Would we? Should we?
How the fuck could we not!
Like so many hundreds (thousands?) of Mats fans around the country (world?), we made the necessary arrangements. Even stopping along the way for the night at Niagara Falls as a hoot. (Quite amazing to see in person, if I do say so.) Arriving in Toronto (one of my favorite cities in the world) the day before. We went for a lovely vegetarian dinner with friends, then met up with even more friends for beers at the Elephant & Castle on Yonge Street.
One of those friends was Robert Voedisch, our bearded farm boy from CMO. He shared an amazing story about having the worst week of his life, losing his passport, etc., and so on, only to make it to the airport and run into The Replacements, who were on the same flight to Toronto as he was. His story was vivid and wonderful and Kris and I marveled as if we were watching some outtake from CMO that we had never seen.
Conversation turned of course to what we all expected in terms of a set list for Sunday evening. It’s a conversation that would be repeated the next day over lunch with yet more friends. We all expected the “hits” for lack of a better word, but the big disagreement was over opening song. Many thought “Talent Show,” others thought “I’ll Be You” because of its line about being from Canada, “Bastards of Young” turned up in the mix. I was the only person who insisted it would be “Takin’ A Ride.” Not because I had any inside information. But because I truly felt the band would not only have to remind the crowd who they really once were, but they would also have to remind themselves.
And what better way?
We arrived at Fort York a little after six PM. I really wasn’t interested in seeing any of the other bands. Not that a few didn’t hold interest. It was The Replacements day. I was nervous for them. I was nervous for us. I was nervous for the thousands in attendance. I was nervous for rock & roll.
(And yes, I was figuratively turning my back on those opening bands. Some habits die hard, though I’d learned my lesson the hard way.)
Kris at one point asked if I were okay. “Not really,” I replied. “I’m more anxious than at one of the premieres for my own films.” And Kris knows how I make myself sick at those.
So really by the time Iggy took the stage, I had no patience. Not ever a fan, I just truly found him annoying, like the mosquito that won’t go away, and that for some reason you can’t fucking squash. It could have been the performance of a lifetime. He could have done an encore with the reunited Beatles including both Lennon and Harrison having risen from the dead. I didn’t fucking care.
Get off the stage. Get off the stage. Please get off the fucking stage.
The Replacements were scheduled to start their set at 8:45 and play for 75 minutes. The festival had a hard out, and the “noise” had to end at 10 PM.
Once Iggy’s set and the half hour in-between were quite possibly the longest moments of my life. Like waiting for a doctor to tell you if you were going to live or die. And all the time thinking, this doctor is always late.
But quite possibly for the first time in their lives The Replacements were right on time.
They took the stage. (The Replacements were on stage in front of me. I cannot write enough variations of that sentence.) Paul Westerberg, as out-of-tune stylishly as ever, cracked wise, and then it started. And four measures into the breakneck throb of an open to “Takin’ A Ride” every bit of anxiety I felt beforehand melted away. Any worries that the audience felt, any doubts the band felt, had all been in vain. Paul Westerberg stepped to the mic, as cock-eyed and crooked as I had remembered, sang “Stay right there/Go no further,” and Goddamn we were transported back in time. Only this time I was not going to turn my back on the stage. I would never make that mistake again. And no worries, Paul. No one was going anywhere.
And while cohort Tommy Stinson might not have been leaping six feet into the air, he was a punk rock whirling dervish around the stage. Both he and Westerberg were having fun. That might have been the biggest surprise of all. The nicest surprise. And I don’t think I could have been happier for anyone. They were enjoying themselves. Joking, whispering in each others’ ears, playing the songs that meant so much to so many. When flubbing the lyrics of “I Will Dare,” Westerberg was as self-deprecating as ever. Cockyand sarcastic, yet loveable in a way few could ever achieve. He even came out in a Montreal Canadiens’ t-shirt (Toronto’s arch rivals) for the encore. It was a Replacements move. I’m tempted to say “vintage.” But it was happening in real time. It happened just the other night. It’s not vintage if it never went away. And for so many of us, this band has never gone away.
And doubters be damned, Bob Stinson was just as much on that stage as was Chris Mars and Slim Dunlap. They were channeling their energies into the replacement Replacements, guitarist David Minehan, who played all those blessed wrong notes the right way, and drummer Josh Freese who pounded like a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robot on speed. They were tight. And even all the right notes were perfectly out of place.
The set list itself was a thing of beauty. Heavy on the early rockers: “I’m In Trouble,” “Favorite Thing,” “Color Me Impressed,” “Love You Till Friday” into a breakneck cover of “Mabeline.” The boys weren’t taking this reunion thing in stride. If they were going to do it, they were going to do it right. And they weren’t going to give us the band circa 1991. This was 1984/1985 vintage Replacements, firing on all cylinders.
In a word, they sounded great. If you closed your eyes you could imagine you were at one of those shows way back when where they hadn’t gotten too drunk, but instead had decided they were in the mood to play the greatest rock show of all time.
Of course it ended much too soon. “Bastards of Young” closing the set, as raindrops started to lightly fall. Ilona, my fictional Daughter of God, whose favorite band was The Replacements, no longer able to hold back her tears of joy. They came back for a two song encore, “Everything Is Coming Up Roses” an old Broadway standard that only The Replacements could rock, and “I.O.U.” from “Pleased to Meet Me.” And the show was over. The impossible really had happened.
And it happened oh, so fucking well.
Was it a miracle? Well, in the 80s The Replacements took a few albums worth of songs and fed the rock-starved world. Those same songs have taught the world not how to fish, but how to rock & roll.
And I’m pretty sure I saw them walking on water as they left the stage.