Wait. I forgot—I hate crowds and I'm kind of claustrophobic. Hmm ... okay, change of plan: instead of going to a concert and then reviewing it, let's stay home and review a bootleg CD of a 20-year-old concert instead. That's right—no visuals, just audio. Who are we gonna hear but not see, me? The Replacements, that's who!
I recently downloaded* a concert by the Replacements from July 23, 1987, at the Beacon Theatre in New York City. The 'Mats, as they're called by some fans, are one of my favorite bands. Paul Westerberg is one of the greatest lyricists of all time, and his melodies combine the best of rock and pop conventions. They never made a bad album. Sure, there are misses in addition to the hits on each of their seven albums, but the Replacements were never caught looking.
They had a reputation for being an amazing band in concert ... if they could keep their shit together. The Replacements were heavy drinkers (a less charitable person might call them "raging alcoholics"), and, well, sometimes drunk people are fun to be around, but usually only if you're drunk yourself, and sometimes they're a huge pain in the ass, especially if you're sober. On July 23, 1987, the Replacements were more the latter than the former.
But I wasn't there, of course. I was 11 at the time and spending a week at my grandparents' house in Douglas, Ga. Maybe if I had been drunk before I listened to this concert it would've helped. But wouldn't you know it, I forgot to shotgun some vodka before I put on the headphones, so the fact that Westerberg kept forgetting the lyrics and the band kept trying to cover songs like "Rebel Rebel" and "Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)" only to watch them fall apart a minute later didn't help. (The unofficial bootleg of the show is called God, What a Mess.)
Last summer Jefitoblog offered a 'Mats concert from July 27, 1987, where they sounded even worse, especially Westerberg, who seemed to be shredding his vocal cords while missing most of the notes. Bad month? Maybe. Trouble breaking new guitarist Slim Dunlap into the fold? I don't know. At one point during the July 23 show a concertgoer standing near the bootlegger's tape recorder can be heard asking her friend, "Are you having a good time?" I couldn't hear a response. At another point a fan yells, "Fuck you, Paul!" His friend tells him he shouldn't say things like that. The fan disagrees ("They like it!").
When I go to concerts I like to sing along. I do it quietly, because no one paid to hear my voice, but it's a big thrill when I look around the room and see everyone else singing too; I am one with the crowd, and we are one with the band. I don't think anyone wants to hear an album reproduced onstage note for note, even one of their favorites, but I am usually curious how certain songs will translate live without the help of studio magic. I don't mind if a singer wants to change the way he performs a song in concert, but I do like it when he sticks to the script, i.e. the words that are in the songs that are on the albums. The words that fans have memorized just by falling in love with the songs and playing them over and over again. They've made an emotional connection with those songs and often the lyrics themselves. Like I said, Westerberg is one of the greatest lyricists there ever was or ever will be. Here's an example of his talent, from 1985's "Bastards of Young":
The ones who love us best
Are the ones we'll lay to rest
And visit their graves on holidays at best
The ones who love us least
Are the ones we'll die to please
If it's any consolation I don't begin to understand them
Those lyrics hit me like a truck five years ago, even though I first heard "Bastards of Young" in 1993 when I received the album Tim for Christmas. Maybe it was the death of my grandmother in '97 that really drove those lines home once I rediscovered "Bastards." Now that I live in Chicago I only get to visit her grave once a year, when I come home for Christmas. This Christmas I'll be visiting my grandfather's grave as well; he passed away in January. I don't mean to get sappy, but unconditional love, whether from grandparents or parents or any other family member, is the greatest gift any of us will ever receive.
Alright, back to talkin' about drunk people! Westerberg says in the documentary Come Feel Me Tremble (2003) that the reason he has trouble remembering the words to his songs in concert, even now, is because he has ADD, not because he's drunk or high. Well, I can believe that now that he's sober, but in the two concerts I've heard from July of '87, he definitely sounds drunk. He calls the lighting guy at the Beacon Theatre a moron at one point, which elicits laughs and applause from the audience, but it just made me wince. A drunk lead singer who can't finish his songs, who makes up lyrics on the spot in front of paying customers, comes across like an even bigger asshole when he accuses the tech guy of doing a sloppy job.
But the audience at the Beacon seems to be almost as drunk as Paul (and possibly Tommy, Chris, and Slim), so they don't mind too much. They don't sound like they're paying that much attention either. There's lots and lots of talking near the tape recorder's microphone, and the cheers that accompany the beginning of songs like "I Will Dare" or "Black Diamond" quickly die down once the audience realizes the band's going to stumble through another one. I've heard lots of Lemonheads bootlegs where the band takes five or six songs to hit their stride, but once they do, their momentum is never lost. Not so with the two Replacements bootlegs from July of '87. However, I do have a bootleg from July of '85, when Bob Stinson was still in the group, that shows what the Replacements were really capable of in concert, even when they'd had a few—but not a few too many—to drink. Shit, Shower & Shave, a bootleg from 1989's Don't Tell a Soul tour, is also worth tracking down.
And it's not like there aren't high points in the July 23 show: the covers of "Sweet Home Chicago" and Elvis Presley's "I Can Help" are noteworthy, and the band gets through Hootenanny's "Within Your Reach" and Tim's "Waitress in the Sky" without crashing and burning. As far as crowd chatter goes, the best exchange begins with the guy who can't believe the Replacements covered a Bangles song, "September Gurls." He's corrected by a female fan who informs him that it's originally a Big Star number. The guy's response is predictably, beautifully male: "I know, but it's a Bangles tune." Never admit a woman has bested you in the area of music-geek trivia! (As soon as this guy finishes digging a nice hole for himself in front of the more knowledgeable female fan, another guy yells "'Freebird'!" Wouldn't be a concert without it, I suppose.)
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's start at the beginning of the—
... You know what? In the tradition of the Replacements' Beacon Theatre performance, I'm gonna be sloppy and not finish this concert review. Like my favorite midwestern band, I want to be a lovable loser. Besides, the audio on the Beacon bootleg isn't very good, and why would anyone want to read a review of a concert the reviewer didn't attend, and who does this reviewer think he is anyway?! Besides, tonight I can't hold a pen ... or type on a keyboard ... or keep typing, I mean. Whatever. Shut up. Yeah, fuck you, me! But I mean that in the best possible way. Goodnight, everybody!
I'll leave you with this write-up of the Replacements from a 1987 issue of Creem:
These guys get a bad rap. One day they might be drunk; next day, not so drunk. One day, great onstage; next day, not so, with only moments of greatness. People say they're "the bad boys of rock." If they were boffing 12-year-old girls and doing tons of drugs and selling millions of records—instead of going back after a show to call their girlfriends, making about as much as they'd make in a factory by having fun, being mischievous but basically kind-hearted, and not selling many records but actually being as honest in their own way as John Lennon was in his—they'd be revered. Still, the music's what will matter in the end.
* Thanks to PaulWesterberg.net for the link to the 7/23/87 show in the first place, and Hidden Track for the show itself.