The Replacements’
‘Let It Be’ Turns 35

The Replacements’
‘Let It Be’ Turns 35

That, thirty-five years ago, the Replacements decided to call their fourth and what was to be their breakout album Let It Be tells you all you really need to know about the band and how they approached matters both great and small: as imperfectly as possible.

Were they attempting to ridicule convention or puncture their own mystique at the worst possible moment by comparing themselves to the Beatles? Well, sort of. If you ask the band’s members, though, they also made a spur-of-the-moment decision to mock their affable manager Peter Jesperson, an ardent Beatles fan. Literally.

To understand the persistent appeal of the original Replacements—guitarist Paul Westerberg, drummer Chris Mars, bassist Tommy Stinson and his older brother, guitarist Bob—is to internalize the notion that there’s a certain majesty to knowing you can do something as well as anyone in the world, but deciding, instead, to get drunk and flip that opportunity the bird. To acknowledge the fact that, if you would only cut your hair and clean up your act, you could get the dream girl, or the plum job, but instead you grow a beard and get MORE BEER tattooed just below your knuckles. In that world, the Replacements were the Rolling Stones, a state of mind as much as a collection of great songs.

Let It Be, which came out in 1984 this week was the personification of that ethos. In truth, Minneapolis’ hometown heroes played more crummy gigs than they did great ones, but that forced casual fans to take a stand: could they accept the band, warts and all, when the warts often prevented the Replacements from finishing a coherent song, much less an entire set. Being a fan of the Replacements was like swallowing an explosive and waiting for it to detonate only to find out that it was actually a candle.

The band’s chief songwriter was Paul Westerberg, a caustic sourpuss, whose gruff exterior obscured a poet’s soul and a bleeding heart. Over the years, Westerberg has written dozens of sly songs about invisible people, the daytime drunks and the bored-to-death insomniacs, the neck-down clock-punchers who just want to matter to someone somewhere. On Let It Be, one of the greatest rock records ever released, Westerberg hit his stride and finally peeked out from behind the bar to let us see the real person, in all his wretched romanticism.

The album’s contradictions were obvious: How could a man that the world seemed pre-determined to break in half, have written “Sixteen Blue” a gentle song commiserating with a bored and sexually confused teenager (“Your age is the hardest age/ Everything drags and drags.”) and “Androgynous,” which captures a gender-fluid couple in love with each other’s acceptance (Now, something meets boy, and something meets girl/They both look the same/ They’re overjoyed in this world/Same hair, revolution/Unisex, evolution/Tomorrow who’s gonna fuss”) while still blowing the speakers with the kinetic “We’re Comin’ Out” and a cover of KISS’s gem “Black Diamond’?

How on Earth was the guy that created, “Gary’s Got a Boner,” and “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” able to follow up those two punk throwaways with the extraordinary, teen-angst-ridden “Unsatisfied,” in which the narrator challenges the listener to do the impossible: “Look me in the eye/And tell me that I’m satisfied.”

Let It Be is as thrilling as its provenance is shocking: from a group of deathly pale alcoholics who would ingest bear tranquilizers if the ones for elephants were unavailable.

The reviews were universally positive, which undoubtedly sent the boys spiraling. Despite their best efforts, the band’s brilliance was obvious for all to see. (To capitalize on this momentum, the Replacements followed up Let It Be with a train-wreck-y live album The Shit Hits the Fans. Of course.)

You can usually tell when a band is clicking when its members and its fans can see something of themselves in each other. There was a connection between the Replacements and their supporters that survived Bob Stinson leaving the band in ’86 and his tragic and pointless death in ’95; all those self-destructive tours that were equal parts glory and ruin; and a 22-year hiatus where the band unsuccessfully tried to shake its own mythology. And when Paul and Tommy reunited for one final tour in 2014, the band was tight and focused and played their songs with commitment and energy. They were, in truth, better than they never were.

That tour opened up with a homecoming gig in St. Paul, Minnesota at Midway Stadium, a condemned minor league baseball stadium which was already overgrown and hopeless. The stage was set up at the far end of the outfield, and the middle-aged audience wobbled amid foot high grass, half-bent cigarette butts and crushed Grainbelt tall boys.

Then the Replacements, wearing matching brown-checked leisure suits, which were not nearly as attractive as they sound, stepped out under the lights and opened with “Favorite Thing,” the second cut on Let It Be, much to the delight of the crowd. Two-plus hours later and 30-plus songs they finished with “Unsatisfied” as if to remind all of us in attendance that the Replacements could have been, and perhaps should have been, and perhaps were, the greatest rock band in history. Whether they liked it or not.

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