You had to squint to see it, but that was Peter Jesperson’s way. Where others heard rough promise, harsh noise, or outright mediocrity, he perceived embryonic genius. Anyone can go back to the Replacements’ earliest demos and retcon them to fit the legend that would ensue. But only Jesperson heard it all at once, in the back room of the Oar Folkjokeopus, the much-beloved Minneapolis record store he managed. Even band leader Paul Westerberg was surprised by Jesperson’s response to their demo tape. He’d dropped it off hoping to land an opening gig at the local punk club the Longhorn, which Jesperson helped book. Jesperson had something bigger in mind: the band would release a record on the hip local Twin/Tone label, which he co-owned. “You think this shit is worth recording?” replied a dazzled Westerberg.
“I’ve said it before,” Jesperson recalls to The Ringer over Zoom, “but if I’ve ever had a magic moment in my life, it was hearing that demo. The light bulb went off and I knew for certain: This is something to pursue.”
It’s been 40 years since the Replacements’ first LP, Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash, was released. Eighteen exhilarating tracks spread over a martially efficient 37 minutes, the coming-out party for what would become the favored band of those covetous of success and suspicious of its implications. It came 10 years after T. Rex’s Electric Warrior and 10 years before Nirvana’s Nevermind—a weigh station between those generation-defining landmarks of anxious swagger. It was released the same month as the Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You, an album whose pure-trash aesthetics and deep emotional core make it a weirdly appropriate companion piece. It is the jumping off point for the Charles Dickens–meets–Hubert Selby Jr. story of four sensitive degenerates from go-nowhere-middle-class Minneapolis who bonded over a love of loud music ranging from Rockpile to Yes. Born to Run for the ADD crowd.
“I bought a headache”
“Just total chaos,” marvels Dave Pirner, whose band Loud Fast Rules opened many early dates for the Replacements before changing their name to Soul Asylum. “So incredibly loud. They just didn’t give a fuck.”
First known as Dogbreath, and then the Impediments, the Replacements were fortunate to arrive just as the Twin Cities was establishing itself as the flourishing epicenter of American music in the ’80s. As Jesperson and his partner at Twin/Tone, Paul Stark, nourished an ambitious punk and New Wave scene, the supernova known as Prince had emerged from Minneapolis’s northside, a geyser of overflowing talent that brought the music industry out to see what other miracles the Midwest had to offer.
“I loved the Suburbs and the Suicide Commandos,” Pirner recalls, name-checking some of the pioneering local acts who paved the way. “I loved Curtiss A. Of course I loved Prince. I guess I thought every city must have all of these cool bands around. I didn’t know any better.”
Even amid a surfeit of talent, the Replacements cut a memorable figure. Buttressed by Westerberg’s warehouse of hook-and-humor-laden anthems, the rest of the band’s lineup seemed to have emerged from some shadow history of Middle American vaudeville. There was bassist Tommy Stinson, whose matinee idol looks were already in evidence at the preposterously tender age of 14. Drummer Chris Mars was an affable, shaggy-haired figure who always played faster than the beat, which was never an easy task. Tommy’s older brother Bob was an introvert off-stage and a Falstaff on lead guitar on it, his playing as brilliant as his comportment was madcap.
Taken together, they were adorable, needy, and most especially truculent. Even a relatively easy glide path to Minneapolis’s hippest label did nothing to dull the raging, anti-authoritarian edge that defined them. Pirner recalls one other crucial advantage the Replacements held over the competition: “I remember many shows where there would be five people in the audience and no matter what, Peter Jesperson would be in the back screaming and hollering and applauding after every song. There were lots of great bands. But they had a manager.”
“I hate music / It’s got too many notes”
To the surprise of absolutely no one, recording the Replacements’ maiden LP proved a diabolical challenge. With the band new to the studio, turned up to the highest volume imaginable, and disinclined to do more than one or two takes, just getting a usable bass and drum track was nothing short of a wing and a prayer. A few different venues were tried before the band and Jesperson settled on scene fixture and Blackberry Way engineer Steve Fjelstad. He had the temperament and pedigree to bring something resembling order to the proceedings.
The finished product is a perfectly hectic guided tour through the taxi rides, strip malls, fleeting crushes, and petty drug deals that characterized the lives of teenage dirtbags all over the margins of Anytown, USA. A majority of the songs are under two minutes and none is longer than three and a half. “Hangin’ Downtown” sounds like a book report on “Penny Lane” delivered by the slowest kid in class. “Something to Dü” is a good-natured jab at their scene rivals Hüsker Dü, a charmingly provincial artifact from a time when no one ever would’ve imagined that both bands would endure through history. And then there’s “Johnny’s Gonna Die,” a slow-burn reckoning with misguided hero worship inspired by an especially tragicomic Twin Cities performance from the desolate rocker Johnny Thunders. “There was that moment in late ’80 or early ’81, we had all gone to see him play,” Jesperson recalls, “and he was in really bad shape. The show was barely watchable, he was so messed up and junk sick and all that.” The following day Jesperson checked in with Westerberg, who told him the title of his new song. “I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ All the songs that had been coming in at first were rockers. That was really the first slow one that entered the picture.”
A minor-key wake for a man Westerberg considered a role model, “Johnny’s Gonna Die” is as outwardly dispassionate as it is grimly perceptive: “Everybody stares and everybody hoots / Johnny always needs more than he shoots.” It’s Kafka’s A Hunger Artist by way of Max’s Kansas City—a portrait of a performer whose public suffering became inextricable from his work, and those who callously egged him on. It was a prophecy of not only Thunders’s future but the Replacements’, as well.
“Forgot my one line / So I just said what I felt”
As the group collectively mastered their brand of revved-up, working-class glam, Jesperson found himself the repository for an entirely different side of Westerberg. Simultaneous to rattling off scads of Slade-inspired burners, it transpired that Westerberg was leading a kind of double life as a Jackson Browne–style folk singer. Like a Victorian with a shameful habit, Westerberg protected this information from his bandmates at all costs. But he confided in his manager.
“Paul used to drop off cassettes of his acoustic stuff at my apartment,” Jesperson says. “He’d come in the middle of the night and drop something off and then vanish before I could see him.”
Over time, Replacements records would become a Faces-like mixture of rockers and heartbreaking ballads, but that would require a couple of more years for Westerberg to become comfortable with his more contemplative side. In the meantime, only Jesperson knew, and the responsibility could be daunting.
“When I started hearing the ballads,” he recollects, “it was revelatory to me and honestly at one point—I think it was when I heard the song ‘You’re Getting Married’—I was literally frightened. I wondered if this might be beyond me to be able to help somebody with a talent of this magnitude.”
The dual arrangement acting as both the Replacements’ manager and the sole repository for Westerberg’s most closely guarded emotions resulted in a rapport with the frontman that could feel startling in its intimacy.
“It was an odd situation and something that I took very seriously. I think for a while I was probably as close as he came to having a best friend and, you know, I don’t think Paul really has best friends.”
“I’m shiftless when I’m idle / And I got time to waste”
In 1981, America was shaking off the hangover of the scandal-plagued ’70s by virtue of the caffeinated buzz of Reagan-era jingoism. But not everyone was feeling the rush. As multiplexes became the province of pumped-up Rambos and Rockys exporting American exceptionalism, a different sort of archetype was taking shape in the shadows. In June 1981, Ivan Reitman’s comedy Stripes created the blueprint for Bill Murray’s cinematic persona, another Midwestern wiseass whose aggressive nonchalance served as a tissue-thin veneer covering up a simmering class-based rage.
The subtext of both Murray’s and the early Replacements’ rebellion is rooted in the suspicion that the top-down happy talk of the early ’80s was on some level even more pernicious than Vietnam or Watergate. In Stripes, Murray’s character is so thoroughly down-and-out that he resorts to joining the Army as a means of keeping afloat. That he is completely unfit to take orders is the gist of the joke, his eventual triumph the ultimate karmic turn of the wheel. By releasing their first LP, even on a small independent label, the Replacements perceived they were joining an army of sorts: the music industry. They were resolved to be untrainable on any terms.
That often meant going to war with the very folks trying hardest to help them. Jesperson recalls the roots of what would become an increasingly contentious relationship between Westerberg and Paul Stark. “I think that with Paul Westerberg, once he understood that Paul Stark kind of held the purse strings ... when bands sign a record deal, they often think ‘Oh, OK, now we’re going to make meaningful cash,’” recalls Jesperson. “They know they’re signing with a small Minnesota/Minneapolis-based label or whatever. They didn’t think they were gonna get a million-dollar advance or anything, but … I think that they did think, ‘OK, now we’re gonna have money. We can buy new equipment.’ Well, we didn’t have that.”
But for the Replacements, anything more than modest advances were not forthcoming. In the pained tone of any small business owner anywhere, Jesperson explains: “We were strapped. We needed money to press records and to be able to publicize and market them.” Twin/Tone was dancing as fast as they could, but events were moving faster.
Jesperson surmises: “Paul Westerberg needed somebody to rail against because that fed his writing and his attitude and his words. It was uncomfortable. But I think there were also advantages to it.”
“We’ve lost my good thing now”
Minnesotans ranging from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Bob Dylan to the Coen brothers have long excelled in depicting the fleeting pleasures and sundry humiliations involved with climbing the slippery ladder of American success. In many ways, Westerberg is rock ’n’ roll’s Fitzgerald—a chronic and careful curator of his own mythology whose main themes revolve around the ethically armored but inherently self-sabotaging commitment to mistrusting acceptance of any kind.
“I think it was very hard for Paul to play the game,” Jesperson says, “because if he really was trying hard and failed, he thought he would look ridiculous. Whereas if he could sort of try, but look as if he didn’t give a shit, somehow that preserved his integrity.”
At its core, this is what makes the Replacements a source of fascination four decades after their debut. While their petulance could be aggravating, it nevertheless represented a genuinely nuanced attempt at threading the needle between self-actualization and brazen ambition, at a moment when notions of rebellion in music, art, and politics were rapidly being colonized into a high-gloss consensus-building machine.
The idea of success and failure as a zero-sum game is the great lie driving the lunacy of our current age. Bad attention is indistinct from good attention and material gain under any circumstance is viewed as evidence of wisdom and virtue. All of Paul Westerberg’s best songs—“Kiss Me on the Bus” or “Left of the Dial” or “Alex Chilton” or “Achin’ to Be”—concern the middle-class striver who maybe hasn’t grasped the brass ring, but remains ennobled by the successes they achieve on their own terms. Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash commences the group’s decade-long rearguard action against contemporary America’s prosperity gospel.
“Kick your door down”
In the end, everything and nothing happened. They recorded three LPs and an EP and a few singles for Twin/Tone before they were lured away by the majors. They recorded four good-to-flawless records for Sire. They played and behaved badly or brilliantly, according to how well their medicine went down. Everybody stares and everybody hoots. They fired Bob Stinson. They fired Peter Jesperson. They turned a golden opportunity to open for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers into an unmitigated catastrophe and broke up shortly thereafter. Following decades of poor health and struggles with dependence Bob Stinson died at 35. They reunited, sort of, in 2013 for Chicago’s Riot Fest.
On their 2014 reunion tour, Jesperson was shocked to hear they were booking the 15,000-seat Midway Stadium in the Twin Cities. The still-concerned former manager felt the need to relay the message that they were wildly overshooting. “Then they put up tickets on sale a week later,” he recalls, “and they sold out in eight minutes.”
All that celebrated summer it continued.
In venue after venue and festival after festival, legions flocked to witness the reformed spectacle of the Replacements. It didn’t endure, but the sense of redemption was palpable, even valedictory. The shows were uniformly great and they uncorked a brilliant “Alex Chilton” on The Tonight Show. They were there for a good time, not a long time. The payday was right. Children going on the millions went to see them.
Mainline nostalgia meets critical mass meets runaway box office. Was it possible they’d been playing the long game all this time? You’d have to squint to see it. But that was always their way.
Elizabeth Nelson is a Washington, D.C.–based journalist, television writer, and singer-songwriter in the garage-punk band the Paranoid Style.