On my way to the final Replacements reunion show of this year, I make a brief stop in a King Sooper's parking lot, where I pick up Charlie and Ike, errant teenage twins looking to hitch a ride. They're also headed to Riot Fest in "Denver" (as it's billed, but which here means "a rural nothing-place called Byer an hour by car outside of the actual city"). The band is headlining all three of the festival's dates, which are the first shows they've played together since 1991. As we drive, Charlie gets annoyed with me for slyly trying to skip the butt-rockier songs on the classic Replacements album Let It Be, which is playing over the car stereo. Unfortunately, like me, he knows this album about as well as he does the English alphabet — we are, after all, listening to a CD copy he pulled out of his own pocket just after I made sure he was buckled in — so he calls me out with a quickness.
"Don't you realize that this is the best part?!" he screeches, prompting me to reluctantly rewind to the beginning of a song called "Gary's Got a Boner."
"I'm just anxious to hear 'Sixteen Blue!'" I whine back, betraying my preference for the band's more raggedly melodic tragicomedies. I do as he says anyway — I'm eager to please my charges lest they decide to stop arguing the finer points of Stinsons trivia with me. (Just in case: The Stinson brothers are Bob, the band's first guitarist who died in 1995, and Tommy, the band's bassist, who started playing with them when he was 12.)
Whether a truly rabid Replacements fan is more inclined to love the band at their trashiest or their most introspective, we all share some version of one single opinion if you ask us to describe just why their music is so important: When the Replacements existed, they were the greatest band in the world, and no one has come close to achieving the level of majesty established by their work since. They were the band that every other band fails to be, the band with nothing missing. For me, this is because no one else has captured the feeling of fucking up really badly (something that young people like, for example, everyone in this car, happen to be very good at), with the same urgent, subcutaneous itching to somehow be better. Here are the opening lyrics on Tim, from the track "Hold My Life":
Well, well, well I / Found it / It's my life
Down on all fives / Let me crawl
If I want, I could dye / My hair
Time for decisions to be made
Crack up in the sun, lose it in the shade
Razzle, dazzle, drazzle, drone, time for this one to come home
Razzle, dazzle, drazzle, die, time for this one to come alive
Hold my life / Until I'm / Ready to use it
Hold my life / Because I just might lose it
Tell me that's coming from someone who isn't trying to scratch at the same unreachable spot that we are. I don't want to misrepresent the Replacements' best music as accessible only to people under 25, because I think the humanity in it can resonate with anyone with a heart that's currently in the process of pumping blood, but Let It Be and Tim are particularly great because they perfectly capture the adolescent dread that stems from the immense self-doubt and uncertainty that might cause one to crack up and/or lose it in the face of having to make significant decisions. Throughout the end of my teenage years and now, into my 20s, the Replacements always seemed to know what I was going through as I figured out how to live (and wasn't always all that great at it). They were there as I tried not to fall off of strangers' fire escapes, skipped class after class, bit my nails to shreds, and broke up with a beautiful junkie I was very much in love with, and they were there as I did my best to maybe not do those things anymore. The band stares down the barrel of the very hardest feelings instead of choosing not to acknowledge them because they're distasteful or unattractive. That honesty, to me, is everything. And although the wayward teenagers in my car and I are on different ends of the cusp of adulthood, we're likely all processing some version of this same insecurity — the reluctance to claim responsibility for the lives we're not quite ready to use yet. In fact, I'm willing to bet that they know that sensation well, seeing as when I first picked them up, they were stranded in a supermarket parking lot.
And as iconic lead singer Paul Westerberg said himself in a 2002 interview, "For us, it was all or nothing. We were either going to be the greatest band on Earth or the worst. Settling for just being a good band was not an option." The band was able, in their most noteworthy years, to simultaneously represent both parts of this qualitative binary: On the recordings of Tim and Let It Be, they were the best because of that fluency in the crampedness and uncertainty of being a young person. They have songs on them called "Unsatisfied" and the aforementioned "Sixteen Blue," for Pete's sake. But they became perhaps more infamous for their disastrous live performances of this same period and afterward, as when they were banned from Saturday Night Live in 1986 for excessive profanity, switching their clothes, the inability to play their instruments due to extreme intoxication, and for generally behaving like they behaved throughout the '80s, which is to say, more like the worst. Of course, this just adds to the allure for fans born after 1990: Name one current well-known, SNL-level band that acts out that badly. Their vehement lack of polish feels like still another way to relate to the Replacements: Nobody else fucks up (and gets fucked up) like we do. We don't begrudge their awfulness, seeing as we're kind of awful, too.
So despite the minor incongruities in the way that Charlie and I obsess over their music, we're both similarly overwhelmed by the weight of seeing the holders of our lives in person later. Our belief that they're plain-long the greatest that ever were was likely also established in part by our coming later to them than those born in time to witness the truly bad or, even more damningly, mediocre parts of their career. See, except for when I'm in the company of crotchety teen hitchhikers, I get to skip over the songs I'm not touched by in favor of the ones that feel like Westerberg is my biographer. The Replacements myths conceived of by their younger fans are selective; for all their hugeness of feeling, they are entirely without room for anything less than what we personally consider divine/meaningful. Tonight, that fantasy band becomes real, and I wonder whether I'll love them as much in the flesh.
After bidding adieu to the twins and impatiently skulking around the festival for a few hours, I take my place in front of the stage where the Replacements will play. I'm in the second row and all the way to the side, where I talk to two brothers, close with each other like Ike and Charlie, but in their 30s instead of their adolescence. One is eager as hell to tell me about the string of Replacements shows he saw in the '80s, but the younger one has never seen them live before. He breathes, "They've been my favorite band since I was a teenager. I begged my parents to go let me see them play at Rutgers when they came to New Jersey, but it didn't work. I never thought I would have the chance to see them again, and 21 years later, here we are." We're suddenly broken-faced and grinning in this field in Colorado, dumbfounded by our mutual good luck in the imminent resurrection of the band that soundtracked our respective youths so well. "I've been waiting about as long," I say, cornily referencing my current age of 22. (The thing about myths is that, however selective, they're also outsized and fabulistic, so this exaggerated declaration of love feels true to scale.) When I tell the guy I've forgotten my camera and so can't get as close to the stage as I would otherwise be allowed as a member of the press, he hands me his point-and-shoot on the spot and shoos me away: "Go! Go!"
Dazzled by his kindness and my extreme fortune, I do! As I scuttle into the photo pit, still not entirely grasping what's happening, the stage is overtaken by a flurry of pink. Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson are wearing color-coordinated tiered princess skirts underneath pink and blue plaid cowboy shirts, the latter of which is also worn by the other band members. They've topped this off-kilter spaghetti Western drag with horrible oversized cowboy hats the color of parking cones. I have only a second to take it in before they sink the sonic claws and teeth I've fantasized so enormously about into "Takin' a Ride," a careening driving song that immediately calls Charlie and Ike back to my mind once again — they're somewhere else in this crowd, presumably also in slack-jawed heaven. I have foregone any attempts at professionalism and am fully shrieking and crying and holding myself. Sometimes I remember to take a picture so that I don't run the risk of getting thrown out of the press area, but mostly I concentrate on making myself hoarse by means of a guttural and uncontrollable love coming out of my body and spilling directly onto Paul Westerberg's feet, which are directly in front of me. (I have a terrifically hard time trying to curb the awful and embarrassing impulse to touch his socks. I know.) Truthfully, I'm feeling very much like one of those primal-screaming teenagers from video clips of the Beatles performing.
Near the end of the song, Paul casually knocks his neon hat offstage, indirectly gifting me with what is now my most prized possession. This is the magic of loving a band as much as I do the Replacements — that exaltation has the power to morph a truly hideous plastic-and-felt novelty into the irreplaceable diadem of my bedroom/life/world. But, as I'm seeing, the Replacements themselves don't actually need my mythologizing; they really are just that good. The chorus of the classic from Let It Be that Charlie and I howled at each other just hours ago — "YOU'RE MY FAVORITE THING, BAR NOTHING!" — which I'm now singing in unison with Paul, is almost idiotically apt in this moment.
In between forgetting the lyrics to roughly a third of the songs he performs, Paul just grins and grins. Smart-alecky as ever, at one point between tracks, he rips on Tommy Stinson about his current position as the bassist for Guns 'N' Roses: "What's that? You're in the jungle, baby? Far be it for me to give you shit for being in Van Halen." I want to marry him. The set is a well-curated hybrid of solidly delightful tracks from the prime Replacements records, like "Kiss Me on the Bus" and "Little Mascara," covers of curios like "Maybelline" and "Jingle Jangle," and earlier cuts like "Shiftless When Idle." The most impactful moment comes when the band plays a pretty, soft version of the Beatles' "Hello Goodbye," which stops my heart in its unabashed lovely tribute to the fact that this is the end of the band's first reunion in over two decades. It's a sweet, perfect in-joke about how long they've been gone — time enough, for some of us watching them now in this strange field in Colorado, to start growing up.
"Hello, hello," the crowd and Westerberg call gently to each other, and the moment is fiercely beautiful. "I don't know why you say goodbye, I say hello." I hold Paul's neon hat over my heart in a cowboy salute, certain that I'll need an IV to rehydrate me after I lose my body's entire water supply out of my tear ducts, a feeling which compounds when, halfway through the song, they segue into "Can't Hardly Wait." This is significant because they're playing the first version, originally written for Tim. It has far more blatantly suicidal lyrics and is scratched out on guitar strings instead of blared through a polished horn section, like on the souped-up incarnation that appears on the following album. It's, in a word, the more teenage version of the song. And while Westerberg mostly sings the updated, grown-up verses, he makes sure to add the addendum that made the first demo of the song so distinct from the final one in its darkness: "I can't wait…'til it's oooooooover," he howls pointedly, making sure the stunned audience understands him, regardless of whether we're trying to say our hellos or our goodbyes...or both, like I am.
They close with "Bastards of Young," a song which perhaps most clearly conveys the characteristic discomfort with youth that everyone in this audience has, at one point, felt and recognized in the music of the Replacements. The band disappears for a few moments before the encore, leaving the crowd to consider how, overall, the set was evolved and incident-free, save for some forgotten lyrics — nothing like the shows of yore, really, which often found our young antiheroes tuning for an hour and getting too drunk to play anything but a few brutalized Kiss covers. We're thinking this because we have not yet seen Paul Westerberg try (and largely fail) to man the drum set, which he's all too happy to do for the encore because, as he growls, "I get a chance to sit down." What might seem like a grandfatherly statement takes on an entirely juvenile air: Tommy ineffectually dangles a mic stand nearish the kit for Paul to sing into while also trying to play his instrument as they shamble through "Hootenanny," getting maybe midway through a what-the-fuck-is-happening-grade "performance" before Paul throws his drumsticks gleefully skyward with the attitude of a toddler expecting you to pick up his rattle for the 32nd round of his favorite bratty game. Tommy strums a few chords of halfhearted covers on Paul's guitar as the latter clumsily tries to clamber down from the drum platform.
After four bars of a Who song, Westerberg has recovered the microphone, but in lieu of singing into it, he looks at it askance for the briefest second before impressively underhanding it far into the middle of the crowd. The band waves and smiles and, with that, they're gone once again.
The encore makes it feel like we've seen two shows: the capable, solid one older audiences always wanted but never got, and the kind of legendary demolition derby that younger fans have been pining for despite being born years after they happened in the first place — what Charlie might call "the best part," in spite (and because) of its representative awfulness. Tonight, the Replacements have been the greatest and worst band on Earth, as they always intended, and made tons of separately-held myths manifest as they did. And although the band, the other fans, and I are all a little older than we were when this music most closely resembled our lifeblood, I leave with not only with the ugliest (and easily most wonderful) hat in the world, but also a newly-invigorated itch to tell everyone I know how goddamned incredible the Replacements are now that I know the fantasy is real. Hello, goodbye, goodbye, hello.