Monday, April 27, 2015

Husker Du and the Replacements in Minneapolis in the '80s

(Requested by reader Skip D. Expense)

I don't like the term "Amerindie," it's nearly as ugly of a word as "blog," but it's the scope you need to start with for Husker Du, the Replacements, and Minneapolis in the '80s, which I was fortunate enough to be around for (until 1985 anyway). Husker Du and the Replacements would make their lasting outsize impacts on pop music and rock 'n' roll currents, but there was another powerful stream of Minneapolis music in the '80s coming from the north side of town, in the person of Prince Rogers Nelson, who contended with them for ultimate supremacy of influence, musicianship, songwriting, guitar playing, hip cachet, future of rock 'n' roll, what have you. It's clear now who made the biggest dent—and more importantly, by implication (especially when you factor in those Amerindie dominations of Husker Du and the Replacements), just how much fun it was to be in Minneapolis at the time. Note: As a native more or less of the Minneapolis environs, I unfortunately come with all the in-built prejudices. Please read "Twin Cities" or "Minneapolis/St. Paul" whenever I say "Minneapolis."

Within that Amerindie scope, there was a vaunted Minneapolis tradition that traced through soon after the beginnings of rock 'n' roll from the Trashmen ("Surfin' Bird"), Castaways ("Liar, Liar"), and Novas ("The Crusher") in the mid-'60s, and then carrying on into the '70s with acts such as Skogie & the Flaming Pachucos and the Suicide Commandos. Aided and abetted by a nightclub in downtown Minneapolis called Jay's Longhorn, all this led to the Twin/Tone label in approximately 1977 and a rash of often worthy acts: the Suburbs, Curtiss A, the Hypstrz, and others (Big Hits of Mid-America Volume III is the essential document here). Besides the Longhorn, much of this activity was hived around a record store in south Minneapolis named for Skip Spence and Roy Harper albums, Oar Folkjokeopus. And here it was that arrived one day a fabled demo tape which became a record contract for the Replacements. An instant legend too good to be true, they were impossibly young—Tommy Stinson, the bass player, was 14 when the first album came out in 1981, Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash.

My own involvement, as usual, was late arriving. I knew many people who were very excited by the album and the band but I've always appreciated it only in pieces—and insufficiently, as I think now that "Johnny's Gonna Die," for one, is much more an amazing song than I understood for a long time. I did not properly catch up with the Replacements until the EP follow-up of the next year, Stink, which opened with audio verite of Minneapolis police breaking up a rowdy party, and contained two instant classics by title alone (though fully delivered on in the music) in "Fuck School" and "God Damn Job." Inspirational verse: "God damn it, god damn it / God damn, I need a god damn job." I wrote up a review of the EP and several other albums that also came out that summer in an attempt to get a god damn job as a rock critic and somehow it worked.

At that point, I still had not seen the Replacements, but the editor at the college paper who started giving me review and story assignments was Dave Ayers, already an enthusiast. In 1982 and 1983 I started going out to see music more than I ever had and soon enough saw Replacements shows too. I think the first I saw was on a Friday night at Duffy's in south Minneapolis. It was a "bad night"—I think you know what I mean. They were reeling drunk. Guitarist Bob Stinson (Tommy's older brother) was wearing a dress and appeared to be feuding with Paul Westerberg. They were kind of bumping and muscling each other around the little stage, hitting at each other with guitar necks. It looked like rambunctious antics but then you'd catch their faces—they were really mad. The band would pull it together for a song, or for part of a song, sound pretty good, even great, and then they would blow it for the next two or more. I didn't find it very charming. I had a suspicion they were overrated.

Late in 1982, Husker Du's second album Everything Falls Apart came out. At that point, Husker Du was somehow distanced from the buzzing around Oar Folkjokeopus, even though it was one of the principals there, Terry Katzman, who put out the band's first two albums on his Reflex label. By all signs Twin/Tone never had much interest in the band. Already there were concerns at the label that the Replacements' Stink was too "hardcore punk." Husker Du was definitely hardcore punk, in the developing California and DC sense of the term. In performance, they were also more like macho acrobats of playing fast and loud. They were from St. Paul, or beyond. Something was not quite right about them. And I think everyone agrees still that the first album, Land Speed Record, a live set, was all but unlistenable.

But Everything Falls Apart was something else again. There was a cover—of Donovan! The title song was epic and layered. Lots of pop hooks and lots of good ones. Though still in the loud / fast / heavy vein, it appeared now to be a loud / fast / heavy vein they were actually authoring as they went. Later, of course, Husker Du became the ones that got away. After SST signed them around 1983, their really remarkable run started, first with a very good EP, Metal Circus, and then followed by the double-LP concept album Zen Arcade, at which time their very imposing ambitions and abilities became apparent.

In the summer of 1984, I interviewed Grant Hart and Bob Mould and published some newspaper stories about them. I'd seen them once or twice before the album came out and then started making a point of going to all their shows I could. In retrospect, by my experience, Husker Du at the time looks more like an invention of the future than the Replacements. I'd never seen shows like theirs before, and it feels like I have seen a great many of them since. Husker Du set a certain template. I'm talking about the moshing specifically, the notion that the circle emanating directly in front of the stage, and perhaps about the size of the stage, becomes a place for the audience to rehearse rioting. Bodies fly in and out and all about—stage diving and crowd surfing were just later, further permutations. I learned that my favorite position at these shows is one or two rows back of the moshing—the sight lines are good and there are bodies to protect you. Sometimes the people in front melted away and left you exposed, even as the music, felt in the bones it was so loud, kept playing, and then you had to pay attention, with arms positioned loosely out front to catch bodies as needed.

These shows—in spaces such as Goofy's Upper Deck downtown, where signs on the walls advertised "businessmen's special" lunches for the strip club below—were loud, physical, exhausting, cathartic affairs, almost like a workout on some hot summer nights. Another interesting feature was reflected in the way Husker Du was going about making a career at the time. Around Metal Circus or Zen Arcade, they started getting one album in the can ahead of their releases, and were working out the next album in performance. When I was seeing them regularly in 1984 they were mostly playing the songs from New Day Rising. Thus that element of deep familiarity with the music was precluded. You went to the shows to hear unfamiliar stuff they were working on, to get familiar with it yourself show by show. There weren't always that many crowd-pleaser chestnuts. There was a kind of survivor's kick about getting to the end of them, and lots of unexpected highs as the new songs became familiar.

By 1984, however, it was the Replacements who were the darlings of Minneapolis. The lively and inventive Hootenanny came out in 1983 and New York was onto them then. There the Replacements sojourned in the spring of 1983, hungry for break, and had some good nights and bad nights and generated more details for the legends. In winter 1984 I saw them at the hippie-era blues club the Cabooze, on the edge of the West Bank neighborhood of Minneapolis, in what may qualify as legendary circumstances. The high levels of which they were capable were mostly sustained that night. They sounded good as a band and when that was true anything could happen, because they always had an arsenal of great songs and an amazing hilarious taste in covers. Then, for whatever reason, they felt like playing that night, and they continued doing so—past last call, past the house lights coming up, and even with the bartenders and staff hanging around arms folded and looking somewhat annoyed (not all of them). Bear in mind that bars closed at 1 a.m. by law in Minnesota. Maybe the band was just used to playing later from being out on the road. They played until almost 2 as I recall. A great show.

Let it Be came out in the fall. I thought at the time that it was uneven, but it struck with a mighty wallop and became inevitable and inescapable in my world of Minneapolis. I saw a competent show at First Avenue but they felt distant and inhibited, and didn't appear to be particularly into it. For whatever reason, I never did see them do well in that venue, whether it was the "big room" of First Avenue, which functioned much of the time as a danceteria (Prince's stomping grounds then, and maybe still?) and also hosted touring acts, or the adjoining small venue called 7th Street Entry, a tiny wedge of space (formerly a kitchen) that housed many amazing shows in its own right, punk-rock and otherwise, but in my time mostly variations of punk-rock. On a good night you could shuttle back and forth between the great dancing grooves and crowds in the big room and into the bawling squall immediacy in 7th Street Entry.

Interestingly, the last truly great show I ever saw by the Replacements was in Seattle, shortly after I moved there. It was in late November of 1985, at the Astor Park (since demolished), downtown near the monorail line. They were touring on Tim and they were just good that night, never better, generous and joyful and on fire. They held court in the grand style, mixing up all my favorite originals with lots of surprising covers. It's sort of a bittersweet transitional memory for me now. Bob Stinson was a critically important part of the band and for better or worse I don't think they were ever the same after they kicked him out. He was that good—or he was that good when he was good, because we know how the narrative of the legend goes, which also has the benefit of being somewhat true: Never a better band, never a worse, at random. I have followed the exploits since with varying levels of interest—Husker Du too—but all that is mostly beyond Minneapolis, after the '80s, or both.

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