“If they hadn’t come along I think we would have to invent them somehow,” impressively bearded writer Robert Voedisch told filmmakers in 2011’s Color Me Obsessed. Sprawling over two hours, the documentary captures the feelings of affection, disbelief, and for many fans in regard to the last few albums, despair, that the infamous Minneapolis postpunk band the Replacements inspired. Indeed, the level of reverence that fans hold for a band clearly defined by irreverence remains palpable. They were a 1980s Velvet Underground, notes one; they may have sold few records, but everyone who picked one up joined a band. “The great existential heroes of American Indie rock,” Titus Andronicus lead singer Patrick Stickles, argues; “a glorious mess,” one A&R exec confides. Throughout the film, whether from former grunge/punk practitioners like Babes in Toyland drummer Lori Barbero or floppy haired writers like Voedisch or non-descript man/woman on the street types, ‘Mats fandom predictably overflows.
Undoubtedly, each of these opinions holds true for particular perspectives. Still, the ‘Mats (an adopted nickname from Placemats, a reference to both a mistaken flyer and the Replacements’ larger comment on music and celebrity) appealed to diehard fans who might have loved entire shows of the band playing covers, but more conventional rock admirers sometimes viewed such antics as unprofessional, even personally insulting. The ‘Mats motto, captured in Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, proclaimed no grand gestures. “Straight to the middle,” they would say, henceforth swaying between shabby garage postpunk grandeur and punk rock self-sabotage in other moments.
Undoubtedly, the Replacements’ narrative reflects larger social and political currents of their day. Their drunkenness, purposeful lack of professionalism, and general aversion to success seemed to some to be a statement unto itself. Azerrad argued that in the context of the hardcore straight edge movement and Reagan era ethos, both tightly conservative in their own ways, “getting wasted was once again a rebellious act.” Whatever one thinks of this line of logic, it fits an obvious narrative (one we’ve discussed here before in one of the very first posts on this site): four working class, ostensibly Catholic, Midwestern kids act irreverently, make several great albums that barely sell (their first three records sold 122,000 combined) but make an indelible impression upon American music culture. Drunken, punk rock irresponsibility buoyed their masculinity. Yet, I argue there is more there there and that the 30th anniversary of Let It Be, arguably their Exile on Mainstreet/Illmatic/Ready to Die/Boys and Girls in America masterwork, provides the best window into this heretofore under discussed aspect of the band: sexuality.
The 1980s were not an easy decade to be a young person, music critic Greg Kot told interviewers in 2011. You had nuclear annihilation, Reagan in the White House, and as his Sound Opinions partner Jim DeRogatis added, the AIDS plague creeping across the nation. When Let It Be was released on October 2, 1984, sexuality remained circumscribed by heteronormativity. Watch some of your favorite films of the period and reflect on how gays and lesbians, if portrayed at all, were depicted. For example, Beverly Hills Cop, also released in 1984, is still hysterical, but the Bronson Pinchot character today? Bogged down in offensive and stereotypical tropes about gays, Pinchot’s character stands as a clear example of the homophobia that remained embedded in 1980s pop culture. Anyone who has seen the documentary How to Survive a Plague knows the AIDS crisis hardly engendered the understanding of straight people in America. If anything, Reagan’s refusal to acknowledge the disease regretfully represented one of two poles of response: 1) purposeful ignorance or 2) homophobia that depicted the plague as a punishment from God or elsewhere. Yet, the working-class, Midwestern Replacements took a radically different route, one that emphasized vulnerability, insecurity, and nascent sexuality.
Enter the ‘Mats.
Here come Dick, he’s wearing a skirt
Here comes Jane, y’know she’s sporting a chain
Same hair, revolution
Same build, evolution
Tomorrow who’s gonna fuss
– “Androgynous,” The Replacements, Let It Be
Recently, the ‘Mats, minus original drummer Chris Mars, have dominated the attention of aging Gen Xers with a handful of reunion shows, best represented by their recent concert in Queens, New York with none other than fellow Minnesota natives and ‘Mats standard bearers, the Hold Steady. After complaining about how FAR Queens is from whatever Manhattan hunting grounds the two music critics inhabited in their youth, Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald discussed the show and in particular the song “Androgynous.” The song quoted above describes a couple unconcerned with gender categorizations, transgressing the various markers of male/female sexuality. When Westerberg croons “Kewpie dolls and urine stalls will be laughed at the way you’re laughed at now,” in 1984 mind you, he wasn’t taking a piss or cracking a joke. “A lot of songs if you go back thirty years,” Greenwald pointed out, might try to hard to demonstrate their openness of mind and come off as heavy-handed. With the ‘Mats however, he admitted “it just seemed sweet and that was sort of powerful and kind of fun.”
Besides their obvious anti-Queens prejudices, Greenwald and Ryan got it right, even if their conversation remained too narrow. After all, if one takes a step back to look at the album’s other songs, the sense that the ‘Mats understood adolescent sexual confusion seems obvious. Consider the lyrics for “Sixteen Blue”:
Brag about things you don’t understand
A girl and a woman, a boy and a man
Everything is sexually vague [an awkward phase?]
Now you’re wondering to yourself
If you might be gay
Follow this up with the song, “We’re Coming Out,” a tune that warns continually “We’re Comin’ Out . . . one more warning/ one more warning sound” or the opening, “One more chance to do it all wrong/One more chance to get all wrong/one more night to do it all wrong” followed by the repeated chorus of “we’re coming out!” What about the opening track, “I Will Dare” in which gender is never specified. All the listener knows is that there are two people, whose mutual interest seems to exist in some clandestine rendezvous: one older, “How young are you?/ How old am I?/ Let’s count the rings around my eyes,” but none wiser, “How smart are you?/ How dumb am I?/ Don’t count any of my advice.” Whatever the state of their affair, it contains a certain risk: “Oh, meet me anyplace or anywhere or anytime/Now I don’t care, meet me tonight/ If you will dare, I might dare.” Of course, one cannot forget “Answering Machine” a sloppy guitar-only tune that pretty much sums up the daunting exercise that maintaining a relationship over long distances and the inevitable frustrating anti-climax that ensues. The opening verse pretty much sums it up:
My courage is at its peak
You know what I mean
How do say you’re O.K. to
An answering machine?
How do you say good night to
An answering machine?
Granted songs like “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” carry an undeniably immature adolescent perspective but the teenage years are punctuated by wide swings in maturity and awareness. As a former high school teacher, this writer can tell you that such tensions make secondary education a daily adventure. Some days students regale you with insights into life that you never considered, and in others their lack of maturity dips below lines of reason. The stew of adolescence consists of equal parts brilliance, idiocy, confusion, and naivety.
And then there was Bob Stinson’s performance attire. The man loved tutus, of all colors and sizes. In both, Color Me Obsessed and Our Band Could Be Your Life, Stinson’s predilection for such antics seemed to be related to his idiosyncratic nature and to a lesser extent his drinking. Yet, to assume that a band that seemed almost painfully aware of irony (again they called themselves the ‘Mats as in the Placemats) would be unaware of such subtext begs wonder. In 2010, I wrote the following: “So the Replacements, a band that definitely grasped irony, failed to see the irony of a band featuring a male guitarist wearing a dress playing songs with titles like ‘We’re Coming Out’ and ‘Androgynous’ in Reagan America? Unlikely.” I stand by this appraisal.
“They were a band for people who didn’t feel a part of things.” More than a few fans expressed this opinion in Color Me Obsessed. As noted, few groups felt as out of step with American culture during the uber-masculine ‘80s than those of alternative sexualities. Even innocent acts of childhood affection were sometimes best kept secret. In his remembrance of Let It Be for the series 33 1/3, Decembrist lead singer Colin Meloy conveys an early camping experience as a boy when he and his best friend Mark hungry, cold, and freaked out on Hungarian ghost stories tied themselves together in embrace: “We both lay in the dark, listening to the night sounds, with our arms our of our sleeping bags and wrapped tightly around each other like we used to do when we mugged for photographs.” Though completely innocent (not that it would not be otherwise), Colin and Mark knew it best to leave this out of the story for their parents. “When we told the story over dinner at Mark’s house a week later and we all laughed so hard that Mark’s dad started tearing up,” writes Meloy, but the future lead singer made sure not to “mention that Mark had cried and I had hugged him until we both had fallen asleep.” The confusion of adolescent masculinity would continue to hound Meloy even if he was never really confused about his sexuality. The Replacements understood adolescent bewilderment; remember, this was a band that never figured out if it ever really even wanted success.
“The record seemed to encapsulate perfectly all of the feelings that were churning inside me. The leap from seventh to eighth grade had felt like quantum shift and my head was reeling from the changes,” writes Meloy. More than any other rock album from this period, the musical content truly reflects this nervous searching junior high and teen years. “My eccentricities were becoming more and more pronounced against the status quo of my schoolmates,” Meloy continues, “I was fitting in less and less. I’d been told by older classmates that middle school girls were easy, but I could barely bring myself to speak to them, let alone try and get in their pants.”
Alternative music veteran and former 120 Minutes host Matt Pinfield credits the band with helping to lay the foundation for Emo. That Andy Greenwald, author of Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo, and Chris Ryan, an early champion of the movement, acknowledge the band’s importance alongside its obscurity drives this point home. To quote Wilco’s “The Late Greats”, the ‘Mats remain the best band you never heard: “The greatest lost track of all time/ The Late Greats Turpentine/ You can’t hear it on the radio /You can’t hear it anywhere you go.” Lead singer Jeff Tweedy once remarked that everything Wilco did was based on the ‘Mats.
That the decade’s most astute album about adolescent sexuality came from a pizza maker/drunk (Bob Stinson), a snot nosed teenage pot smoker (Bob’s younger brother Tommy) and a local hard-drinking janitor (Paul Westerberg) really should come as no surprise. The idea that middle or upper-class people somehow have a better handle on the complexities of sexuality does not really align with historical reality. Take George Chauncey’s Gay New York. Working class New Yorkers of all ethnicities and races knew homosexuality well even if they had yet to articulate its formal meaning. As gay culture took form in 1910, 1920 and 1930s New York, middle and upper class men and women felt it more important to shield their alternative sexuality from public view than did their working class counterparts. As Cameron Blevins correctly points out in a brief review of the book, the middle class, “anxious” over “working class sexual practices,” sought to define heterosexuality more rigidly as a means to protect their own visions of “manhood.” In this regard, Harlem, a black community, and the immigrant and bohemian-filled Greenwich Village served as sites for some level of public gay culture, though as Blevins notes, by the 1920s and 1930s, Harlem nightlife exhibited visibility and vibrancy. The Replacements grasping a sense of this complexity over 70 years later shouldn’t be surprising.
Enjoy It While it Lasts Cause It Won’t Last Long
“Have you seen the newest Linklater film?” and “Did you go to the Replacements reunion show?” blogger Jason Tebbe (aka @wernherzbear) noted in a recent tweet, have become the newest of Generation X obsessions. Sandwiched between two giant cohorts filled with self-regard, boomers and millennials, Generation X cultural dominance promises to be fleeting. If boomers bang on about “ending that God damned war” in the 1960s and millennials want to instagram every meal and sunset they encounter to let the world know how great their lives are, Gen X likes to stew in self-doubt, skepticism, and 1990s nostalgia – “Did I sell out?”/”When is the next Pavement reunion tour?” While it certainly counts as a form of narcissism it locates itself in authenticity – however flawed a concept that might be. Obviously, few bands embody this mindset like the Replacements, and few areas of life facilitate more doubt than sexuality.
In recent months, from Coachella to Queens, as evidenced above, the ‘Mats are enjoying a small taste of the breakthrough they never achieved in their earlier incarnation. Adolescent sexuality today, though still undoubtedly confusing, provides much more space for homosexuality. Queer studies in the 1990s, the rise of the third gender movement in recent years, and even those that argue for asexuality have all asserted their place in American culture. RuPaul has a popular reality show drag queen contest that treats contestants largely with respect rather than circus freaks to be mocked. In this context and when compared to where we were 30 years ago, the Replacements seem to be primed for modern 21st century America. One can only hope that Let It Be’s 30th anniversary and this past summer’s reunion tour stokes a new interest in the band. “Today people dress the way that they please … they love each other so Androgynous, closer than you know, love each so, Androgynous.” Exactly.
 Michael Azerrad, Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Underground, 1981 – 1991, (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2001) 204.
 Colin Meloy, Let It Be, (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2004).
 Yes, I know the song is not actually or at least, specifically about the ‘Mats. The sentiment, however, is.