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I met Paul Westerberg once, kind of. The Replacements were playing to about 30 people in a club called Going Bananas below an ice cream shop on Cary Street in Richmond. There were lots of songs from Hootenanny and a bunch of typically left-field covers: “No More the Moon Shines on Lorena,” “Ye Sleeping Knights of Jesus,” “Help Me Rhonda.” For an encore, they played a song I hadn’t heard before, but would again and again for the rest of the night, and again and again after it came out a month later on Let It Be. It was the sort of noise, riffage, and emotion the Replacements did better than anyone else in the world at the time. I later found out its name was “Answering Machine.” Westerberg berated the thing, then bore down on the beast, screaming it into submission.
When the song ended, he headed off the low stage the easiest waystraight ahead, with a step to the right to avoid me. I stepped too, holding out my paw for him to shake. “You’re a great writer,” I blurted. He paused, then uttered something between a “nah,” an “ahhh,” and an “urrh” in dismissal. Later that night, guitarist Bob Stinson asked me and a couple of acquaintances if we knew where he could score some coke.
“Answering Machine” isn’t included on All for Nothing, the new double-CD Replacements compilation, which collects only the music they made after 1984the year Let It Be ended their affiliation with Minneapolis punk label Twin/Tone. There, they made four albums and an EP that melded speed, wit, and street empathy, achieving a mix of maturity and brattiness that curdled into preciousness after the band’s signing to Sire. Onstage, they were in the forefront of the ’70s revival, slapping their AM faves (“Hitchin’ a Ride,” the Jackson 5, Skynyrd) next to Westerberg’s own pained, hilarious odes. (Not to mention the occasional piece of newer radio flotsam; I once witnessed a roadie-fronted blast through Mötley Crüe’s “Too Fast for Love.”)
Tim was an incredibly sure-footed, balanced, expressive debut for the big company, but it was a last gasp in some ways, too. Stinson proved too sodden even for this bunch of drunks to hang onto and was ousted before the next album, 1987’s Pleased to Meet Me.
Even more problematic for All for Nothing than the absence of Twin/Tone masters is the fact that, after Tim, the Replacements just weren’t as vital a band. There were still some great songs (and, I’d argue, a glorious finale in 1990’s All Shook Down, with some of Westerberg’s best lines since the early days), but a growing and audible sense of exhaustion and the absence of Stinson’s fire-alarm leads took the distinctiveness down a notch or two.
All for Nothing chronicles these falls and rises, while its exhaustive liner-note anecdotes argue that, at times, the celebrated offstage antics of the groupwhich replaced Stinson with Slim Dunlapindeed outshone its later music. The first disc’s selection is a little rote, culling four songs from each of the Sire records, laying the required semihits and rockers next to acoustic ballads obviously chosen, in part, to validate Westerberg’s sensitive-guy status. He doesn’t need the help; “Bastards of Young” proves it as well as anything, while “Sadly Beautiful” remains drippy. If I’d decided to start a generation during my college years, Westerberg would have made a great spokesman, right down to his protests that he didn’t want the gig. But some of his and the band’s best qualitiesparticularly the self-deprecation and raucousness touted in the press material for these CDsare hardly displayed in their finest form here.
Looking back, Pleased to Meet Me, though a favorite of the cult, is the band’s weakest moment; the supposedly representative selections included here miss its rare high marks. “The Ledge” is the kind of thing the early Mats would’ve sneered at, a laughably overblown suicide tale told from the point of view of the “boy they can’t ignore.” “Alex Chilton” is a sentimentalized ode to the author of “Bangkok”; “Can’t Hardly Wait” in its horns-and-strings splendor is an OK tribute to Chilton’s Box Tops. In retrospect, 1989’s Don’t Tell a Soul, which sounded impossibly vague back then, is a better, if less punchily produced, record.
Promising before you play it, the second disc of outtakes and B-sides, Nothing for All, is slighter than the first CD. Its cover versions are substandard in the wrong sense. You don’t get the band members switching instruments and Westerberg tangling himself in the microphone cord while muttering a half-remembered “Walk on the Wild Side.” Instead, here’s a “Jungle Rock” listless enough to have come from the BoDeans and an indifferent Dylan remake whose title, “Like a Rolling Pin,” indicates its level of wit.
Some moving moments are scattered among the raritiesTommy Stinson’s nice “Satellite,” for instance. But more affecting are a flailing Westerberg moaning, “Oh, God” in the middle of the Only Ones’ “Another Girl, Another Planet” on the Don’t Tell tour, and the big ballad, “Who Knows,” that comes near the end. “Wake Up” (“and remember where you are”) actually gets up to midthrashing speed. As for “All He Wants to Do Is Fish,” “Date to Church,” and a lot of the rest, well, I can’t hardly wait for the rumored excavation of the “lost” Twin/Tone stuff.
If you were a Replacements fan, you had a million stories. Like the time, a few months after my “Answering Machine” epiphany, my friend Carol and I stood on the stairs next to Going Bananas’ stage, the only spot with a view we could find in the now-crowded room. A few songs in, Tommy’s strap broke at the bottom of his bass. “Anybody got a shoelace?” he asked, looking to make a repair. Carol volunteered one of hers, and Tommy dug into his pocket and handed her a few crumpled bills. She even got her string back at the end of the night. CP