When I called a buddy here in Durham to ask if he wanted to go to Chapel Hill to see a new documentary on The Replacements, he said “Every once in a while something cool goes on in that town and, whenever it does, I can’t go.” Behind the humor and little jab at Chapel Hill, I know he was really bummed. He’s usually fine missing these few and far between events in our sister town, but missing this one really seemed to bother him. It’s a film about The Replacements after all. I first heard The Replacements in my friend Andrew’s beat up, late 80s Honda Civic. I was in tenth grade and All Shook Down had come out the previous year to much critical boo-hooing about the end of The Replacements, music writer one-upmanship about the death of a great band, and grumbling about the inauspicious beginnings of a watered down, lackluster Paul Westerberg solo career. The record turned out to be all of these things, but I didn’t have any clue at the time that this record was any of that. It was simply the first Replacements album I would hear and my introduction to a catalog of music that still astounds me.
The first Replacements song to enter my orbit was the roughhewn pop of “Merry Go Round,” perhaps the best track on the record. Maybe I think it is the best because it was the simply the first Replacements song that I heard and it happened to be in the car of a friend who I looked up to and who introduced me to loads of bands I still listen to (Sonic Youth, Firehose, Dinosaur Jr. come instantly to mind) sometimes with somewhat moist eyes. But after a couple of decades, “Merry Go Round” still sounds great to me and, most importantly, it doesn’t sound like a Paul Westerberg song, but like a Replacements one. Andrew’s car stereo was about as cranky and finicky as he was. The tape had to be inserted just so, the speakers rattled and hissed, and the volume knob was so picky that you had to turn it up and down several times before finding the right level of sound in each of the ornery speakers. But all that just added to the beauty of the song and the moment. As we drove out of my neighborhood to whatever high-school Friday night shenanigans were ahead of us, I knew Westerberg’s rattle and rasp and jingle jangle guitar would become our soundtrack for the night.
The Replacements would become a soundtrack for much more than that. They’ve been a heavy-stitched thread in my life ever since then. “Unsatisfied,” “Skyway,” and “Here Comes a Regular” still sound as fresh and heartrending and beautiful to me now as they did when I was much younger and discovering their varied backlist for the first time. I remember exactly what I was doing when I heard “Can’t Hardly Wait,” “Color Me Impressed,” and “I Will Dare” for the first time, and also can say that those songs uplifted me yet again the last time I listened to them just a few days ago. It’s just that way with The Replacements. They have that kind of impact on the landscape of your life. Speaking of impact on one’s life, Andrew is still a friend of mine, though we don’t speak that often. As for All Shook Down, it sometimes finds its way into my rotations, particularly on road trips. When I put it on now, though, I now tend to skip “Merry Go Round” and go to “Sadly Beautiful” or “When it Began.” It’s always been that way with the Replacements and me. I think I know just what I like by them and then find myself rediscovering an album or really hearing a forgotten song for the first time. The song I’d now love to hear coming out of those crackling, surly speakers in Andrew’s car would have to be “Achin to Be,” a twangy, sad, and elegant song I’ve only just recently learned to love.
So…it was with great excitement that I read that Nightlight in Chapel Hill would be screening a new documentary on the band. The all-star gab fest of a documentary called Color Me Obsessed was dreamed up and directed by Gorman Bechard, who also directed Friends (With Benefits) and You Are Alone. I don’t have much to say about the documentary as it was full of talking heads reminiscing about the band. That’s not bad in and of itself, but there was little else to it, so it just didn’t leave much of a lasting impression. It was especially great and very strange to hear Tom Arnold’s thoughts on the early messy shows he saw back in the glory days (Tom Arnold?! Who knew…). Grant Hart and Greg Norton from Husker Du added some great color to the film with stories about the music scene in Minneapolis. It was also touching to hear several musicians and music writers recall Bob Stinson’s wildness and the sadness that seemed to cloud over the music world when he died. What was strangely absent in the film was any footage of the band and any of the band’s music. It just didn’t have the, hi-volume, get-up -and –go, for which The Replacements were known for and which you’d think a filmmaker would be eager to fill his film with. The quiet and sometimes funny recollections were interesting, but without any scenes or sounds from the band’s beautiful, messy glory the film only seemed to take you half way there.
It was worth the trip from Durham to Chapel Hill for the film, though, as the crowd was a perfect representation of just how many different groups of people The Replacements appeal to. There was the older long-haired drunk who seemed to be perennially spinning in the punk verve of what I like to think of as the “Takin a Ride” era of The Replacements. Fittingly, he left half way (the film’s approach is to look at the band chronologically album by album), stumbling drunk, and bumping into folks as if he were still trying to piss off the Minneapolis police with his own personal anarchy. There was the OTHER supremely drunk guy who seemed to know every talking head in the film. He loudly and proudly told us Grant Hart “was the MAN” and that Tommy Stinson “was a really, really great guy.” When Mac McCaughan appeared on-screen, he whooped and hollered about how much Superchunk kick ass, as if he was the only one in the room who had ever heard of them. And there were the more quiet music geek types who seemed too earnest for their own good. They all leaned into to the film with such seriousness so as to maybe miss the point. There were college girls and Moms in equal measure. There were those who were just starting to get to know The Replacements and those who had been with them for a long time.
With all the talking and recollecting both in the crowd and in the film, the generational range in the crowd, all the booze in the room, and the lack of music, it sort of felt like being at an Irish wake. Perhaps that is the film’s finest achievement and not an insignificant one. It brought us all out to gather in one place to remember The Replacements and to revel in stories about them. I guarantee most of us who were there went home and dusted off our old Replacements records. And I suspect we all rediscovered old songs and old feelings, and maybe even some of us reached out to an old friend.
Merry Go Round Video