Over at the generally awesome Onion AV Club I found a link to an early Replacements performance that I’ve seen many times but still found myself watching this morning. It’s Paul Westerberg and the boys playing “Johnny’s Gonna Die” from 1981; Noel Murray describes the scene:
“An impossibly young Paul Westerberg has trouble staying in tune while plucking away at The Replacements’ first semi-ballad, but he overcomes whatever awkwardness and embarrassment he might be feeling by channeling it all into one great rock ‘n’ roll scream towards the end. Meanwhile, Bob Stinson—who actually would die, about 10 years later—steps up and nails his too-brief solo, looking for possibly the last time in his musical career like the most sober and competent performer on stage.” The video and the article that goes with it can be found here.
I love The Replacements, LOVE them, and I have since the first time I ever heard Hootenanny in a girls basement as a teenager; but I’ve never been able to describe why nearly as well as Noel Murray did in the paragraph above. There may be bands that wrote better songs, or were better musicians but nobody has ever turned awkwardness into rock and roll and made me feel it on a gut level quite like they did. I’ve written about them on this blog and others many times before but the little bit below about The Replacements, Alex Chilton and Johnny Thunders, from earlier this year may be my favorite.
** A partially fictionalized music nerd moment…Bangkok is a so-so song on a mostly forgettable album called “Live in London” recorded in 1980 and released years later. By the time The 80’s came around Alex had been in the music biz for 13 years, ever since The Box Tops had a smash hit with The Letter in 1967. While not even 30 years old Chilton sounds here like he’s lost the map, he is out of tune and playing with a band that had just met and rehearsed the previous day. In 1980 Alex Chilton isn’t a legend yet, The Replacements haven’t written a song about him and the bands that will pay homage to his legacy haven’t heard their first Big Star song yet. In 1980 he’s just trying to make a living, he’s done some production (he’s listed as producer on a number of The Cramps early singles) he’s been a hired studio hand and tried to keep a hand in the business but it’s tough; he’s got no band, no label and too few prospects when he arrives in London. As the band meanders through Bangkok Chilton sounds almost disinterested…slurring his words and sleepwalking through the guitar bridge before it suddenly clicks. Having stepped back to play the guitar lead something happens, maybe it’s the house lights, or the crowd, or just the realization that THIS it’s all about THIS is what keeps him going. Alex steps back to the microphone with purpose and growls out the line that name checks a punk rock classic “I ain’t living on the Chinese rocks…” before bringing the song to a close and tearing into an R&B Classic. A few more times that night he catches the ghost again but not often, just enough to make the people in attendance remember why they came.
Somewhere in Midwestern United States the man who made Chinese Rocks a classic, a man as bent on self destruction as Chilton is tied off in a bathroom. In a few hours he’ll sleepwalk though his songs too. In torn clothes and shoes Johnny Thunders cuts a sad figure. Johnny mumbles his words, insults the audience and even falls off of the stage, but sometimes just for a second the feeling hits him and he’s just a little more a guitar player than he is a junkie. For a few seconds the kids at this club in Minneapolis cheer and John smiles before he stumbles backwards. When the show is over one of the kids in the audience goes home and writes a song called Johnny’s Gonna Die, he’s 18 years old and has a band. His name is Paul Westerberg and later on he’ll write a song about Alex Chilton too.
Here’s an old TV interview with the Replacements and Johnny’s Gonna Die from 1981:
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