Monday, June 12, 2017

The Voices of a Generation X: The Replacements

The recent death of Soundgarden and Audioslave frontman Chris Cornell has cause me to reflect on the music of my lifetime and of my generation.  In the broadest of definitions, Generation X covers the years 1960-1980.  In other words, anyone born in that 20 year span is part of the slacker generation.  We were the last sons and daughters for the Silent Generation and the majority of the children of the Baby Boomers.  We grew up in the aftermath of the civil rights era, the Vietnam War, and Watergate; we came of age during the Reagan years, learning lessons about the glory of consumerism, the importance of college, and that some jobs were beneath us (though we did have some great cartoons and the kind and gentle hand of Mr. Rogers to help keep us centered); we helped to elect Bill Clinton and usher in a decade of change and growth that we somehow thought would never end (oh how naive we were); at the turn of the century we became parents, teachers, and leaders, and nearing a new decade we helped elect the first black President of the United States.  We're the only generation that had one foot firmly in the analog age and the other in the digital age witnessing the birth of cable television, MTV, CNN, the 24 hour news cycle, CDs, personal computers, cell phones, the internet, file sharing, digital music, MP3 players, smart phones, on demand entertainment options, the .com bubble and bust, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Amazon, Google, and on, and on; needless to say the world is a very different place than when we were kids.  We're also the first generation that did not out perform our parents.  But throughout it all, the highs and the lows, the recessions and the scandals, the threats from the Soviets and then the terrorists, we had music.

The pop culture identity of Generation X will always be synonymous with the 1980s and '90s.  Collectively those were the decades that we grew up, came of age, and reached adulthood.  During the Reagan years our radio airwaves were dominated by the likes of Madonna, Prince, and Michael Jackson, three performers that while technically weren't members of the Pepsi Generation (all were born in 1958), they were part of those crossover years that happen between every generation and had far more in common with the kids of the '80s than those born right after World War II.  As the decade wore on a slick, glammed out version of heavy metal dominated MTV and the radio.  Underneath the surface of all of that glitz and pomp bubbled a scene filled with misfits and freaks, nerd and rejects, art kids and the unwanted, punks and goths and rudies and straight edgers and the like, all creating a music and a scene that would blow up and dominate the next decade.  Some of the bands that came out of this/these scenes found crossover success early on (see U2, INXS, and a slew of new wave one-hit-wonders) but others never would.  The 1990s would see these same freaks and geeks thrust into the spotlight of mainstream success, changing the world, as Hole would later sing, "with one song."

Now it would be impossible to do a comprehensive study of the music that defined Generation X, at least here and certainly not by me.  There were movements in heavy metal, country, and most notably hip hop that I am simply not qualified to write about (though I do love me some late '80s and early '90s hip hop jams).  What I can discuss is the music that boiled out of the punk scene of the 1970s and the various scenes and sub-genres that followed (though I barely know anything about industrial or goth music), but even with that limitation doing a comprehensive look at this music would be a massive undertaking (there have been books written on this subject for Pete's sake).  So with that in mind, I'm going to cover the voices that define the musical legacy of this generation to me in a new series The Voices of a Generation X.

I can think of no better place to start than with The Replacements.  They weren't the first and certainly not the last, but more than any other group The Replacements embodied everything that was and is Generation X.  A group of misfits from Minneapolis, MN, The Replacements banged out a series of classic records that, at the time, went completely under the radar yet they still managed to influence a slew of other artists and become legends without ever touching or even sniffing the pop charts.  The angst and frustration of our generation was beautifully and perfectly captured in songs like "Bastards of Young," "Unsatisfied," and "Never Mind."  We're a generation of broken families, missed opportunities, and untapped potential and no one ever knew or expressed that better than The Replacements.

The beginnings of the band go back to 1978 when a 19 year-old Bob Stinson gave his 11 year-old brother Tommy a bass guitar to keep him off the streets.  The pair enlisted Chris Mars and a band was formed.  Paul Westerberg overheard the band rehearsing when on his way home from work and was eventually invited to jam by Mars.  After a failed show at a church, the band changed their name and officially became The Replacements.  According to Mars the name had a specific meaning --
"Like maybe the main act doesn't show, and instead the crowd has to settle for an earful of us dirtbags....It seemed to sit just right with us, accurately describing our collective 'secondary' social esteem."
It was this sentiment the oozed out of everything The Replacements ever did, from sloppy records of incredible power pop songs played through the combined lens of Big Star and The Jam to baffling inebriated live performances that were either legendary brilliant or epicly horrible.  The band found itself either too rough around the edges or too polished at varying points in their career, making them the greatest band of the '80s that never quite made it.  In the end they went out in true Replacements' fashion with each remaining member leaving the stage mid-performance to be replaced by their respective roadies.  During their run, they released eight records (seven full-lengths and one EP), each good to great in their own rights with the three in the middle being nothing short of brilliant.  Twenty-two years later, Tommy Stinson and Paul Westerberg reunited to perform at the Riot Fest shows in Toronto, Chicago, and Denver before embarking on multiple tours over the next couple of years before once again calling it a day.  The long and storied history of the band was detailed in Bob Mehr's book Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements and the early, pre-major label portion of their career was covered in Michael Azerrad's brilliant book Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981–1991.

I first discovered The Replacements, like I did many bands, through MTV's 120 Minutes.  The show played the videos for "Bastards of Young," "I'll Be You," and "When It Began" on a regular basis.  Around that time ('91-'92-ish) I picked up a copy of the Mats' sophomore release Stink and the soundtrack to the movie Say Anything, which included the track "Within Your Reach."  It was these releases that formed my early opinion of The Replacements.  They were another early '80s punk band that branched out with their sound in much the same way that 7 Seconds did in the late '80s (though with drastically different results).  Over the years I picked up copies of Tim and Please To Meet Me and while I enjoyed both, the band's music didn't fully connect with me until much later.  In 2016 a proper best-of collection was released in Don't You Know Who I Think I Was?, which I immediately picked up, and from that moment on I was hooked.  Since then I have devoured the band's catalog and fallen completely in love with their music.  Their 1985 album Tim is now one of my all-time favorites and not a week goes by where I don't listen to their music in some capacity.  The Replacements' music (including Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson post-Mats projects) has become to be a huge part of my life and touched me deeply becoming an integral part of who I am.  I am very much a person that has been defined by music.  Outside of my family, I have three passions in my life and music is the one that is the highest on that list.  The Replacements have become a core part of that passion, in no small part I'm sure due to their place in the history and culture of my generation...or at least my small corner of this generation.  They were misfits and outcasts who wore their hearts on their sleeves and had a tendency to completely fuck things up and never reach their fullest potential.  If that isn't a summer of my life, I don't know what is.  They may never have been real, full-blown rock stars but they wrote music that spoke to a group of people that desperately needed it and needed to know that they were not alone.  For that, I am eternally grateful.

No comments: