The Replacements performed in Chicago this past Sunday for the first time in 22 years. Actually, if you want to get technical, it was 21 years, 2 months, and 11 days ago. The last time was in Grant Park as part of the annual Taste of Chicago, a beer-and-food festival for douchebags. This time was at Riot Fest in Humboldt Park, exactly 6.53 miles away. You could have walked between the two stages -- or taken public transportation if you're in a hurry. Take the blue subway line to Division, then hop on the 70 bus headed west. An hour tops, and you're there.
I was at both concerts. I've been waiting 22 years (or 21 years, 2 months, and 11 days) for this moment. Here are my stories.
July 4th, 1991
It's a rainy day in Chicago, and I'm going to see the fucking Replacements. I'm 22 years old, just out of college, and this is the most anticipated musical experience of my life. I'm living with three guys in a studio apartment in Evanston, because that's the best we can afford. I'm not going to see the Mats with them, because they're into bands like Robyn Hitchcock and Camper Van Beethoven and don't think much of my musical obsessions.
I have never seen the Mats in concert before, save for a sole "Saturday Night Live" appearance on TV, but I don't think that counts. I own all their music, including a cassette bootleg of "The Shit Hits the Fans," which I bought at the Record Swap for 99 cents and listen to incessantly. Everything about it sounds frightening and dangerous, the antitheses of my suburban upbringing. It makes me want to break shit. I don't know it at the time, but I am a cliché of teenage angst.
I got my Mats tickets from a friend of a friend, who got them from a drug dealer. We are all going to the show together, including the drug dealer, who is providing the drugs and the transportation. He has a 1976 Chevy Chevette, which is kind of a hilarious car for a drug dealer to own. He's a greasy man-weasel who dresses like he works at a renaissance faire. He instinctively knows the perfect thing to say to creep out everyone around him, from quoting Joy Division lyrics when he's trying to be sexy to explaining how his belt is made from real rattlesnake.
We go to his basement apartment and stay longer than we want, and then cram five bodies into his Chevette for the trek downtown. We've underestimated the "Taste of Chicago" crowd. We end up sitting on Lake Shore Drive near Navy Pier for what feels like an hour, but because we're already profoundly stoned, it might've just been a few minutes. I finally get fed up and throw my body weight onto the passenger side door, crashing it open and tumbling out onto the lakeside gridlock. I run like a dog that's escaped from his backyard, heading toward what I hope is the general direction of the park. A few of the other guys follow, while the creepy drug dealer punches his car horn in protest and roars threats at us in what sounds like Klingon.
September 15, 2013
It's a rainy day in Chicago, and I'm going to see the fucking Replacements. I'm 44 years old, and this is the most anticipated musical experience of my life. I live in a 3-bedroom apartment on the north side of Chicago with my wife and 2-year-old son, because that's the best I can afford. I'm not going to see the Mats with my son, because he's 2-years-old and into bands like Bubble Guppies and Mr. Richard and doesn't think much of my musical obsessions.
The entire day should be one big holiday for me, but for most of the morning I've been an emotional wreck. I can't decide on the best way to get to Humboldt Park. I could take public transportation, but the idea of waiting for a bus at midnight in a sketchy neighborhood makes me nervous. I could drive, but the parking situation in Humboldt is desperate at best, hopeless at worst. There are no garages or lots within 10 miles of Riot Fest, and most of the street parking is zoned for locals only. I am seriously stressed out about my options, so much that my wife politely asks me to "shut the fuck up about it."
I decide to drive, because not caring about whether there's parking is totally punk rock.
On the drive down, I listen to "The Shit Hits the Fans," which plays on my iPod through the speakers of my Honda CRV. I haven't listened to the bootleg in at least a decade, and the novelty of four guys playing covers because they're too drunk to remember their own songs doesn't seem quite as brilliantly subversive as it once did. It also doesn't make me feel as smugly superior to the mainstream as it did during my teens. Instead, it just sounds hollow and distant, like hearing an echo from very, very far away.
I find a space about a mile south from Humboldt Park, in between two abandoned factories. I step out into a river of crushed beer cans and surgical gloves. (No, seriously, surgical gloves. I count at least six floating along the curb.) I lock my car, waiting for the familiar "beep-beep" that (at least here) gives me no sense of security. And then I lock it again, just to be sure. I walk two blocks toward the park, and then backtrack to lock my car one more time. I'm pissed at myself for leaving the stroller and the portable DVD player in the trunk. Now when the car gets stolen, which I'm convinced it will, it's just going to be one more thing I have to argue with the insurance company about.
We make it the Petrillo Music Shell around noon. The rain comes in spurts, and there's even lightning at times. We sit through the opening acts—NRBQ, and Material Issue, who I only know because their single "Diane" is being overplayed on the radio that summer—but we're barely paying attention to any of it. We're mostly focused on drinking, and when the drug dealer with the rattlesnake belt finally shows up, taking turns going outside to smoke his weed.
Around 3-ish, a guy wanders onstage to introduce the Mats. “Some people say they’re an institution," he says. "Others say they should be in an institution!" The Mats launch into "I Will Dare," my favorite song of the moment, but I barely hear any of it because I'm too busy arguing with one of my friends, who insists the guy who introduced the band was Johnny Marr. I don't believe for a second that the former Smiths guitarist is now doing MC duties for Chicago beer festivals, and we get into a heated argument. By the time I realize he meant Johnny Mars, a disc jockey at a local radio station, the song is over.
Because of my parking paranoia, I'm there by 2 p.m. The Mats don't come on until 9. Which is good, because I also get to see Bob Mould and Rocket From the Crypt and the Pixies. But it's also bad, because it means seven hours of standing on my feet and being rained on and breathing in second-hand clove cigarettes and eating carnival food. The last 30 minutes leading up to Mats, as I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other old fat dudes like myself—bobbing and teetering like inflatable air dancers—I feel like I'm going to die. Literally die.
But then the lights go out and the Replacements come out. The actual fucking Replacements! I have goosebumps big as pennies. My heartbeat is beating ridiculously fast, but perfectly in time with "Takin a Ride," the first song of their set (as well as their discography), so it all works out. I'm way more emotional than I'd anticipated. I'd joked with friends for months that when I finally saw the Replacements play live again, I'd weep like a baby. Turns out, it wasn't hyperbole. I cried and I cried hard. Which is a strange thing to do when you're listening to a punk song from the '80s about driving too fast.
"I don’t even know what fucking record this is," Paul mutters in between songs. "The key of Lee Majors, let's go!" I know he's been sober for years, decades even, but his stage banter gives me hope. Maybe he took some Tylenol PM before the show, something to put his head in the right mindspace.
I get it together by the third song, "Favorite Thing." But then I lose it again when Paul sings "Yeah, dad, you're rocking real bad." Because why? I have no fucking clue. Because I am a dad and I am rocking real bad, and Paul knows it? No, that's stupid. Paul wrote the song in a drunken haze, and he rhymed "dad" and "bad" because it was easy, not as an Easter egg for his someday aging fans drunk on too many $7 beers.
Still, it feels personal. He's 54, I'm 44. We have an emotional and intellectual connection with this music that all these young fuckers can never begin to.... Oh, oh, oh, they're playing "Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out!" I got a handjob to this song in college! Aw man, good times. Good memories. Who's with me?
Somebody in our group mentions the absence of Fred. "Wasn't Fred supposed to be here?" Fred is our resident Mats expert, the one who turned us all onto the band. According to legend, he's seen them no less than two dozen times in concert, most recently as the opener for Tom Petty in Des Moines in '89, and his accounts of the show have gotten increasingly weird with each telling. ("They did the entire first act of Annie," he's insisted. "And then Bob pissed into the audience when the crowd started booing!") It's odd, bordering on distressing, that Fred isn't here. But then somebody remembers that he decided to stay home and tape the show. It's being broadcast live on WXRT, and Fred intends to get it all on tape. His disgust with the shoddy recording quality of most live Mat bootlegs is a subject we've heard him rant about all too often, so we're glad he's finally getting his white whale.
The Mats are playing "When It Began," which I guess is off the new album. The lack of "Unsatisfied" on the setlist is really starting to chap my ass. Seems as good a time as any to go to the bathroom and drop acid.
Somewhere towards the end of "Androgynous," I'm starting to regret coming to this show alone. Paul starts singing "Hey Good Lookin," and I nearly gasp with music nerd joy. It's a seemingly off-the-cuff cover, except it just so happens to be included in the set list of their so-called "final" Grant Park performance 20-some years ago! Obviously this is a nod to those of us in the audience old enough to remember, an inside joke for grizzled fans with too many unlistened bootlegs clogging their iPods. I want to turn to the guy next to me and share this useless minutiae with him. But the guy next to me has a mohawk and a sleeveless jean jacket with "Clit 45" stitched on the back. I don't think he'd understand.
MTV Hive commissioned a real photographer, but I still have this stupid urge to take a photo of the action on my phone. I can't help myself. I pull out my phone and hold it over my head in the "I'm gonna update my Facebook status" salute. I pound the buttons on the side with my thumb, but I can't make the camera feature come up. Something isn't working. But I keep trying, and for a full minute, during an amazing performance of "I Will Dare," I'm essentially aiming my cellphone screen toward hundreds of Mat fans behind me, and inviting them to look at the wallpaper photo of my two year-old son jamming on his guitar.
"Oh holy hell," I mutter, my voice trembling. "Please tell me you see that too."
"See what?" Carol giggles, inching closer as if we're sharing a conspiratorial secret.
My eyes are wide and bloodshot, like dinner plates decorated with crayons by autistic children. "That little green alien dude with the huge head and the antennas," I tell her, pointing at nothing. "He's floating right there in front of us!"
Carol looks at the empty air and tries to paint a mental picture. "It sounds the Great Gazoo," she says. "Are you hallucinating the Great Gazoo?"
"I don't know what it is, but it's freaking my shit out," I say, burrowing my face into my knees. "He keeps calling me dum-dum."
Carol burst into crunchy laughter. "Oh man, you are tripping balls," she cackles.
I'm hardly a drug novice, but today has been a bad idea all around. I'd already smoked enough recreational pot to ensure several public executions in Singapore. The acid was just adding insult to injury. It didn't help that a girl named Carol has joined our group, and I've been trying to be charming and flirtatious to her, which is almost impossible when you've spent the better part of the day ingesting booze, pot and acid.
At some point, I think I heard "Waitress In the Sky." Or maybe I hallucinated it. Don't go by me.
The Mats are playing "Left of the Dial," and I'm overcome with a wave of nostalgia and bliss like I haven't felt since my early 20s. Also, I really, really have to pee. Why the fuck did I have so much Dos Equis Amber? Dumb, dumb, dumb.
I wish I would've gotten stoned for this show instead. Drinking is never a good idea when you don't have a bathroom within easy stumbling distance. Also, if the people surrounding me are any indication, there've been some staggering developments in one-hitters over the last few years. I remember when the biggest technological advance in dope-smoking was the "it kinda looks like a cigarette" pipe, which fooled nobody but at least gave us the peace of mind that we weren't being too obvious. But the one-hitters these days, they look like something out of "Ender's Game."
During "Swinging Party," Paul grimaces during the new guy's guitar solo. "Can you lose that Cure thing?" he asks. When it only got worse during "Waitress in the Sky," he reminds the replacement Replacement, "We could have Bob up here in an instant, buddy." Now, he was obviously talking about Bob Mould, of fellow Minneapolis '80s rock heroes Hüsker Dü, who had played earlier in the festival and was somewhere in the crowd. But for like a split-second, I wondered if Paul had meant the other Bob. The Bob who theoretically drank himself to death in 1995. Unless like Elvis, Jim Morrison, Andy Kaufman, et al, the whole thing had been faked, and he had been waiting for THIS EXACT MOMENT to make his triumphant return.
I had consumed just enough Dos Equis Ambers to almost-kinda believe it. But it's not true. It's never true. Goddammit I wish just for once it could be true.
We manage to make it midway through the show before somebody mentions Bob Stinson, and how the band sucks now without him, and how amazing it'd be if he just showed up, maybe in a tutu, and showed that nobody Slim how to play a Replacements song with sloppy finesse. And then, I don't know, maybe throw up on the front row. That would be AWESOME! We laugh at how much Bob would obviously love us, and then smoke some more weed.
We're growing restless. There have been far too many songs from the new post-Bob albums, and not nearly enough of the old punk barn-burners. There's been no “I Hate Music," no "Raised in the City," no “Take Me Down to the Hospital," not even a goddamn “Unsatisfied." And for the love of Christ, would it kill them to play any of the "hits," like "Left of the Dial" or "Bastards of Young?" This is bullshit, man.
We leave somewhere around "Within Your Reach." On the ride home, we listen to the rest of the concert on the Chevette's radio. We won't know until later that the Mats gave their instruments to the roadies and made them finish the rest of "Hootenanny." But we did enjoy this final exchange between the two XRT hosts.
DJ1: I think that’s it. They’re so unpredictable, though. Are they gonna come back?
DJ2: Or they’re gonna break up? Maybe they’ll break up and then they’ll get back together and then they’ll come back.
DJ1: I believe they’re not going to be back.
We laugh and laugh as we inch northward on Lake Short Drive. Those corporate fuckers just don't get it. The Mats are yanking their chains. Break up? The Replacements can't fucking break up. They'll break up just as surely as one of them will die young because their liver explodes, or have a stroke like my grandfather did in his fucking late '80s. Can you imagine? Oh god, these old men and their conspiracy theories. They just don't get us!
Do we have any pot left?
My old man bones are rattling. My socks are so wet, they feel like they're filled with mayonnaise. I am simultaneously too hot and too cold. I am, by my very nature, prone to feeling uncomfortable at the slightest change of temperature, so this is a special slice of hell. But I don't care. I feel like what marathon runners are supposed to feel after they push past their upper threshold of pain. I am high on endorphins and indie rock muscle memory.
Somebody behind me screams, "I can't believe this is fucking happening!" A few people in the crowd laugh, but I want to hug the guy who said it. I can't fucking believe it either, brother!
The Mats play mostly everything I want them to play. They do "Left of the Dial," "Alex Chilton," and "Bastards of Young." They skip a few things. I wish they played more obscurities. I wish they'd done Let It Be in its entirety. I wish for so much. But that's like being the child of divorced parents and the parents get back together and your first thought is, "I wish they were rich now, too." Don't be greedy, fuckhead! You dreamt about seeing the Mats sing "Bastards of Young" live, right in front of you, and you got that. And unlike that farewell show you half paid attention to in 1991, they didn't do anything off the "new album" (in this case, Songs For Slim.) So with all due respect, shut your fucking old man indie snob complaining hole and enjoy the musical riches you were lucky enough to live long enough to witness.
There's only one thing I wished for, and it came true. As Tommy Stinson played the final chords of "Hootenanny" at Grant Park in 1991, he told the crowd, "It's the fucking last time you'll ever hear it." And he was right. It was the fucking last time we heard "Hootenanny" performed live by any facsimile of the band. For that promise alone, he kept his word.
After the show, I walk back to my car, which is remarkably unstolen, and drive it to my three-bedroom apartment on the near-north side. My wife and kid are asleep, so I pour myself a deep glass of whiskey and sit alone in my office and listen to old Mat bootlegs in the dark. They sound so much sweeter than they have in ages.
I know this wasn't one of those legendary Replacement shows that people will be talking about and mythologizing for years. Nothing was broken, nobody did anything embarrassing or felonious because of too much alcohol, and the audience heard most of the hits they came hoping to hear. But for me, it felt historic. It took just 30 minutes of music, and two original Replacements, to make me feel immortal.