PRINT March 2003


1985: The Replacements’ Tim

Time for decisions to be made / Crack up in the sun, lose it in the shade.
—The Replacements, “Hold My Life”

WHAT THE BEATLES WERE TO LOVE and the Sex Pistols to anger, the Replacements were to screwing up. Not merely or accidentally hapless, the original members of the band—Paul Westerberg, brothers Bob and Tommy Stinson, Chris Mars—made a loopy lust for failure the basis of a collective comic persona. While their contemporary Martin Kippenberger, another born comedian, fitted the self-conscious, balletic pratfall to the world of gallery and museum, the Replacements tailored it to a pop-music career. Every professional opportunity that came their way became, as songwriter Westerberg proclaimed with hoarse glee, “one more chance to get it all wrong / one more night to get it half-right.”

The four were just rowdy, endearing goofballs when they started performing in their hometown of Minneapolis in 1978; by ’85, the year of their major-label debut, Tim, they’d promoted themselves to the rank of professional screwups. Abandoning songs midway during live sets, picking fights with fans, tossing their LPs’ master tapes into the Mississippi River to sabotage a pending release in the shiny new CD format—the Replacements treated their career like a game they couldn’t bear to win.

The band’s self-image was so complex because it reflected with unusual purity the baroque condition of rock in their day. A once revolutionary form that had delivered nothing so successfully as its own ubiquity, at middle age, rock had misplaced its reason for being. Sun King Elvis, bloated and bejeweled, had expired, and rap was being born . . . the Replacements, formed during the twilight of rock’s import, opted for honesty and frankly acknowledged their favored music’s cultural demotion. Playing the stuff was now, as one early Westerberg tune declared, just “something to dü.”

History might humble a form—humiliate it, even—but beauty is never beyond reach. Stageward the ’Mats stumbled. Audiences never knew which version of the band to expect. By show time the four might be too smashed to stand upright, much less play a set. On good nights, though, they’d play the stuffing out of every number, proving themselves one of the great live acts of the day, a jukebox loaded not just with strong originals but with the ’70s FM radio rock, corn-coated country tunes, and Americana their own frayed-edged compositions had absorbed and synthesized. Juvenile and sophisticated, ornery and self-mocking, the band didn’t play “funny songs” à la Bonzo Dog Band or They Might Be Giants, but instead expressed the existential situation comedy its members were living. Their decision to highlight the coordinates of their dilemma in every aspect of their packaging—recordings, promotion, performance—lent the Replacements’ image an artful transparency that helped to make theirs the mid-’80s music of choice at art schools across America.

And it was all for real, which meant their comedy had consequences. Living a pratfall in slow motion is no easy thing. As their major-label career advanced, the structural tension inherent in their conflicted outlook grew more pronounced—the clownishness, the fascination with failure, the strategic self-loathing so fundamental to their idea of themselves clashing ever more powerfully with the reality that they were, in fact, artists possessed of substantial musical gifts. Theirs was the classic dilemma encountered by a certain kind of comic mind: What to do with a loser’s self-image when that image has yielded success? Westerberg’s lyrics struggled to reconcile the problem, the effort gradually exhausting him as, by the late ’80s, his songs had grown less what-the-hell and more self-pitying. Unable to find a way around a predicament of their own creation, the Replacements disbanded in ’91.

Of course, the fool is supposed to fail; it’s part of the program. The Replacements had transposed the fool’s gestural one-liner onto their lives, scaled it up, and ridden its arc to the disastrous, hilarious end; their career describes, as nearly as Kippenberger’s does, that rarely glimpsed phenomenon, the meta-comedy. The Replacements weren’t just one of the most talented acts of the rock era. These four midwestern kids, who performed their first gig at an alcoholics’ halfway house and showed up sloshed, were one of the great balls-out comedy acts of the last century.

Milwaukee-based artist David Robbins teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is currently writing an alternative history of twentieth-century comedy.