The first time I tried to see The Replacements, my grandfather died. The second time I tried to see them, almost three years later, my grandmother followed suit. Two years after that, the band broke up.
Given the seeming effect on my family’s mortality, I chalked it up to a curse, a weird piece of karma that seemed on the fringes of a fate that seemed to have befallen one of the most influential groups of my generation.
Of all the bands I listen to, and I listen to a lot, The Replacements are the ones that should have made it. They should have been playing to stadiums of 15,000 instead of clubs of 150 and small venues of 1,500.
On Sept. 19, they played in a stadium — one that held the U.S. Open for more than 50 years and, like the band, is making a comeback of its own as a neighborhood concert venue. Unlike the other times, I was there, despite some hurdles.
But no one in my family died — thank God. And the show was even better than I imagined.
Explaining my lifelong affair with music is difficult. As a writer and photographer, I love songwriters who capture life’s little moments and tell complete, visual stories with smart and clever turns of phrase in 2½ to 4 minutes. I greatly admire musicians — especially guitarists, piano players, and a good horn section — whose passion seeps through every chord change, whether you hear them live or in the studio. And, even though I can’t carry a tune, I appreciate singers who can push the limits of their instrument to bring intense feelings of emotion and release to the songs.
My grandmother, who loved music of all kinds well into her 80s, believed very strongly that the best songs are reflections of their time in a way that's somehow timeless. It’s through this lens that I hear music. How does it relate to a specific era? Does it sound dated, or is does it mean as much today as it did when it was first released?
I’m not nostalgic for my childhood or, even worse, my teenage years or my early to mid 20s when I hear music. I’m looking for timeless, and for the most part, Paul Westerberg’s songs are just that, just like the cover songs the band plays (some successfully; others not so much).
I did not become a Replacements fan until "Let it Be," then became obsessed when “Tim,” their major label debut, was released in 1985. At the time I was just really starting to get into contemporary music, having grown up on a steady diet of Elvis and the 50s groups and singers that my father and grandmother loved.
“Tim” was unpredictable, a mashup of different genres and styles that combined yearning and attitude, disenchantment and hope, anger and heartache, with a sound that ranged from acoustic to punk. You could never tell where the band was going next, but their diversity of styles shaped my tastes in a way that no group has done before or since.
Like too many of the great ones, The Replacements’ influence was much greater than their reach, with only one song approaching the Billboard Top 50 while they were active. They alternated brilliance with self-destruction, always coming this close to success before imploding on themselves in some way.
When they broke up in 1991, it felt right at the time, but wrong nonetheless.
“God, what a mess, on the ladder of success. Took one step and missed the whole first rung.”
I followed Westerberg’s career — in part because he was the chief songwriter and lead singer — the closest after the band drifted apart. I read the stories about the demise of Bob Stinson, the original lead guitarist who was fired from the band for erratic behavior and a Keith Richards-like habit (though, sadly, not professional constitution) of ingesting various legal and illegal substances.
Westerberg stopped touring in 2005 and, despite the reissue of The Replacements’ catalog three years later, stubbornly refused to get the band back together. Chris Mars, the original drummer, became a painter. Tommy Stinson, the teenage bass player, started lucrative gigs with Guns ‘n Roses, among other bands.
It wasn’t until Slim Dunlap, who replaced Bob Stinson as the lead guitarist, suffered a massive stroke a couple of years ago that Westerberg and Tommy Stinson decided to resurrect the band’s name. They recorded a five-track EP to launch the Songs for Slim project, raised more than $100,000 to help pay for Dunlap's medical care, and — just as important — enjoyed it so much that they decided to play together again.
The tour — actually a series of one-off concerts at major summer festivals — coincided with my layoff last May. The timing, along with the easy availability of concert tapes that surfaced as mp3s within days after each show, gave me a chance to listen to the group in a way I hadn’t done since the mid 1980s. And ironically, as I approach 50, the lyrics resonated in a way they hadn’t when I was in my 20’s.
I hoped Westerberg, Stinson, and the replacement Replacements would come our way at some point. When they announced the Forest Hills concert, I had my chance. And, short of family members passing away, I was determined to take it.
Forest Hills Stadium is located in a residential section of Queens. It hosted the U.S. Open from 1924 to 1977 and, despite some renovations and the addition of some seating and a permanent stage, remains the same horseshoe-shaped concrete landmark befitting of the quiet neighborhood.
Concerts were held during the stadium’s heyday, with The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Barbra Steisand, Frank Sinatra, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and Jimi Hendrix and others performing there. The venue was reopened to live music last year, with a strict curfew of 10 p.m. to keep the residential peace, and was a perfect place for an outdoor show just before the official start of fall dawned.
Since taking up photography professionally, I’ve tried to shoot concerts on the now-rare times that I go, partly because of the challenge of live events and in part because I want to capture the groups that I enjoy. The ubiquity of camera phones has made it impossible to police the taking of stills and video, but Forest Hills had a strict policy of no professional cameras.
I tried to contact the promoter, the band, and the stadium, but was unsuccessful. Finally, I just decided to say to heck with it, take my camera and see what happened. Because Jill couldn’t come due to circumstances at home, I was meeting our friend Bernadette at the venue, so I had some extra time.
Arriving an hour before the two openers — Deer Tick and The Hold Steady — began, I was promptly stopped by security and told I couldn’t take the camera in. Rather than take the train back to Manhattan where I was staying — there was no parking at the stadium — I managed to convince security to let me in with the camera, but no battery.
The security guard, a nice guy that I chatted with for a half hour, told me as I left that I could get the battery back if I could somehow manage to swing a press pass. He too had been a photographer and sympathized with my situation.
Walking in, I looked around the stadium and thought back to all of the events and history that had occurred there. Readers of this blog know that I’m fascinated by history, an interest that dates back to my grandmother and dad. I walked over to Guest Promotions and talked to the two women sitting at the table as the sun set, talking to them about the stadium, the musicians that performed there, and my desire to photograph my favorite band. They too were sympathetic, but said they could not give me a press pass.
Instead, they did me one better, giving me a sticker that allowed me to go to the VIP tent and score free beer and food. I showed it to the security guard, noted my dumb fortune, and he fished the battery out of his pocket.
“I guess it’s your lucky day.”
Lucky, indeed. The pass allowed me to walk through the floor area and snap away, although I also wanted to experience the band from my vantage point in the lower bowl (which happened to be close to the VIP tent). When I returned to my bleacher seat off stage left, I had a stack of photos on my SD card and the feeling of finally being close to the band I could have seen almost 30 years before.
That allowed me to sit back (and stand from time to time) and listen to The Replacements perform their catalogue of should-have-been hits. This time, however, it felt like a valedictory lap as the crowd sang along to a band firing on all cylinders. Song after song, anthem after anthem, I found myself moved during each verse chorus verse.
I could never be a music critic. I love what I love too much to pick things apart and I dismiss the stuff I don’t like with barely a passing glance. A flubbed lyric here, a missed chord there — it means little to me if emotion and passion are in its place. Watching The Replacements become the rock stars they once ached to be, seeing the faces and hearing sing-along shouting of fans old and new, was more than worth it.
You could not help but join in, too.