An Eighties Rock Masterpiece Just Got Even Better

Replacements-Enhanced.jpg Replacements-Enhanced - Credit: Deborah Feingold*
Replacements-Enhanced.jpg Replacements-Enhanced - Credit: Deborah Feingold*

Like so many other Replacements fans, no doubt, the first thing I did with the new version of Tim was skip right to “Left of the Dial.” One of those “bury my soul in these guitars” songs that any music fan collects over time. It’s a highlight of the classic 1985 album from four Minnesota punk boys, the great American rock band of the Eighties. “Left of the Dial” is the Replacement’s most heart-on-fire confession, a rager about losing your friends over time, missing them over the miles, until you turn on the car radio and get jumped by that stupid tune you used to sing together. Every note in this damn song triggers a neural rush. But now, every note is different.

In Tim: The “Let It Bleed” Sessions, a new Ed Stasium remix finally cleans up the murk on one of rock’s most infamous production disasters. There’s so much more to this music than any of us knew—so many details that got lost until now. In “Left of the Dial,” it’s the rasp and crackle in Paul Westerberg’s ravaged throat. It’s the live-wire buzz of Bob Stinson’s guitar, which you can now actually hear. Sometimes the new mix sounds too busy — at the end, when kid brother Tommy Stinson plays his poignant bass throb, he gets drowned out. But you hear Westerberg sing and hum and moan to himself in the final minute, as if he’s so swept up in this tale he forgot his mic was on. It’s insane that this exists now.

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Listening to the new Tim is full of these revelations. It’s like watching Get Back, the moment where Paul sits at the piano to play “Strawberry Fields Forever” and John plucks his guitar, both pretending this is no big deal, not fooling anyone. You think, “Wait, these details were buried in a vault all these years? This music, this history, it’s all different?” The four-CD Rhino box is full of alternate takes, demos, live slop, notes from legendary band biographer Bob Mehr. It turns Tim into a whole new trip, packed with twists no fan could prepare for. New stories and surprises leap out of every riff. This will take some time to process. It’s why the indie rockers in your life are a bit messy right now.

the replacements tim let it bleed reissue
the replacements tim let it bleed reissue

Tim has always been their most polarizing album, the one you can always use to start an argument in a bar. (And boy, do Replacements fans love arguing in bars.) Great songs. Lousy production. For many fans, a total letdown after their 1984 masterpiece, Let It Be. The sound got muffled, with lead guitarist Bob Stinson barely audible. Tommy Erdelyi seemed like a cool choice for producer, since he was also the great Tommy Ramone. But he wasn’t such an experienced producer, beyond his own band, and this job was way over his head. He ended up flattening the Mats, with a feeble mix that sounded soggy, drenched in digital reverb, devoid of guitar dynamics. Even Chris Mars’ drums turned to mush.

But Tim is also an undeniable classic. It breaks down into three mighty songs (“Kiss Me on the Bus,” “I’ll Buy,” “Little Mascara”), two really mighty songs (“Hold My Life,” Bastards of Young”), two of the most soul-stompingly perfect songs in rock & roll or human history (“Swingin Party,” “Left of the Dial”), then a powerhouse acoustic finale that kicks you in the teeth while you watch your twenties swirl down the drain like the last dribbles out of an empty bottle (“Here Comes a Regular”). Plus a droll goof with staying power, “Waitress in the Sky.” Just for variety, two terrible songs: “Dose of Thunder” on Side One and “Lay It Down Clown” on Side Two. Then there’s “Nowhere Is My Home,” which would have been the best thing on the album, except for some insane reason it didn’t make the cut.

Neither did “Can’t Hardly Wait,” which would’ve come in third. Fans were startled not to see it on Tim, since it was the highlight from the band’s live cassette,The Shit Hits the Fans. A wild November 1984 show in Oklahoma, sounding as raw as you’d expect from Paul’s liner notes: “Our roadie pulled it out of some enterprising young gent’s tape recorder at the end of the night. (Drop us a line, buddy, there’s $3.95 in it for you!)” Westerberg sings the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” like a prayer, urging the audience to “come closer!” But “Can’t Hardly Wait” remains a stunner, still the most intense version, a breakneck punk peel-out with all four racing to the finish line like the next six-pack depends on it. This didn’t make the album? What the hell happened?

Stasium does a heroic salvage job on Tim, finally doing justice to these songs. Stasium was an old Ramones comrade — he engineered Ramones Leave Home and Rocket to Russia in 1977, and produced Road to Ruin in 1979 with Erdelyi. He adds loads of guitar mayhem from both Westerberg and Stinson. Each song is full of lost flourishes — Westerberg’s grunts and yelps (from “I’ll Buy” to “Swingin Party”), the extra guitar in “Swingin Party,” the piano and strings on “Here Comes a Regular.” Bob always haunted these songs by his absence — but now he’s finally in the mix, as he always should have been, a vital creative force like he was on the Tim tour. He gets to step out in “Little Mascara,” which has a whole new extra minute at the end. Bob cuts loose on guitar, adding his bittersweet sympathy to a song already dripping with it.

There are always beloved albums that get botched in the studio, whether it’s the Stooges’ Raw Power, David Bowie’s Earthling, Mary J. Blige’s Stronger With Each Tear, The Chills’ Brave Words, Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers’ L.A.M.F. — all great albums badly recorded. But what do you do when a remix changes the story? It happened when Iggy Pop remixed Raw Power in 1997, bringing the buried sonic details to life. No matter how much sentimental fondness you had for the old mix, this one was now the real Raw Power. Same thing with Taylor Swift redoing Red, except no sonic flaws to fix — the new Red was suddenly the real thing.

Paul Westerberg has so much in common with Taylor — the emotional realness of their songs, their love of melodrama, their tendency to leave genius songs off the damn album. Both love to casually drop a bombshell confession mid-song, then stroll away — it’s so Westerbergian when Taylor tosses “leavin’ like a father” into “Cardigan,” just as Paul slips “you wonder to yourself if you might be gay” into “Sixteen Blue.” (Gen X’s “Fifteen.”) “Mirrorball” and “Swingin Party” are flip sides of the same late-night heartbreak. Taylor’s most Replacements-ish song is “Ours,” which would fit perfectly on Pleased to Meet Me, the same way his Swiftian “Little Mascara” would fit into the Unhappily Ever After trilogy on Evermore. But one thing they have in common is they just took world-beatingly classic albums and made them better. Tim (The “Let It Bleed” Edition) is like Red (Taylor’s Version), where a soundtrack-of-your-life album gets tweaked and makes you completely re-evaluate your long history with this music. It forces you to let go a lot of things you thought you knew about these artists.

The Replacements have gotten burdened with the mythos of a sob story, a woulda-coulda-shoulda band of beautiful losers who tumbled off the ladder of success, boo hoo. A cute narrative, and it’s easy to see why journalists cling to it, but not the least bit adequate or accurate as a framework for these songs. The self-pity in their music is run-of-the-mill, but the exhilaration and desolation and honesty and we’re-coming-out exuberance — that part’s unique. It’s a corny cliché to sniffle that a band this weird didn’t go mainstream. The real shocker is that these four boys ever found each other, that they ever made this noise, that so many people then and now hear ourselves in it.

Case in point: their Saturday Night Live gig in January 1986, a triumph that blew the minds of the lucky ones who saw it. (Few did — not exactly a golden era for the franchise.) The best SNL music performance ever at that point, by a mile, and still one of the best ever, four punks banging out “Bastards of Young” and “Kiss Me on the Bus” in their Seventies nerd-wear. A glorious life-affirming racket that makes you want to jump off the couch and tell all your friends or create your own art or just dance around and play air guitar. But when people talk about it now (even the ex-Replacements) all they remember is how it hurt Lorne Michaels’ feelings, which couldn’t be less the point. If you haven’t actually seen it, go ahead and watch. I guarantee you will not spend a moment thinking about how Lorne felt.

The new Tim challenges that whole narrative. It captures their music’s ecstatic highs and harrowing lows, from the back-to-school romance of “Kiss Me on the Bus” to the alcoholic despair of “Here Comes a Regular.” Plenty of people heard this album and wanted to start their own bands. Westerberg had advice for them. “Don’t put an ad in the paper,” he said in Rolling Stone in early 1986. “Just find some friends that you share something in common with—partying, a brand of beer. That’s better than being a member of a band for three years, making it and doing it all with someone you don’t really know. If all this falls to hell, I still have three friends. And that’s good enough for me.”

That was the spirit of Tim right there. Those words had a pretty major impact on my life, like these songs. The bitter irony, of course: a few months later, they kicked Bob out of the band, to replace him with a slicker pro they didn’t know. His name was Bob, too, so they made him change it to Slim, to avoid reminding themselves of the regular they left behind. (Bob Stinson died from drug-related organ failure in 1995.) But that story’s in this music too. “They call your name out loud and clear” — now there’s a line that got messy fast.

“Nowhere Is My Home” is still the showstopper, with a high-energy alternate romp. But it’s best in the original 1985 outtake — the Stasium remix is busier, stepping on the Bob Stinson third-rail guitar that tells most of the story. “Swingin Party” takes on new dimensions, with added twang; very different, but equally essential. Like most Replacements fans, I was too theatrically illiterate to hear the connection to the Rodgers/Hart standard “Where or When.” (That took Bryan Ferry’s version of “Where or When,” where he gives it the “Swingin Party” arrangement.) But it’s now the most famous Tim song, thanks to Lorde’s brilliantly melancholy cover, where she gives this song the pop reach it always deserved.

The heart of the album is “Bastards of Young,” where he sings, “The ones who love us best are the ones we’ll lay to rest/And visit their graves on holidays at best/The ones who love us least are the ones we’ll die to please/If it’s any consolation, I don’t begin to understand them.” It’s no consolation at all, actually — the empathy in his voice trails off before he even gets through “understand.” He just spills a bleak confession, then lunges the other way to avoid eye contact. But like so many moments on Tim, this one follows you around through the years.

As for the two terrible songs, they sound marginally improved, still pitifully overmatched by the rest — no surprise when you consider how few bands ever write a song that could hang on Tim. “Waitress” is fine as a comic sorbet to cleanse the palate between tearjerkers, like “Vicar in a Tutu” on the Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead. There’s also a nifty 1986 Chicago Iive show, a couple notches below the excellent For Sale: Live at Maxwell’s 1986, or various other ’84-’86 shows floating around. (Wonder if Stasium will have a bash at 6/17/86?) The live set showcases Bob’s virtuosity at rock & roll trash. His 1966-not-1965 Lennon guitar in “Nowhere Man” is as eloquent as his 1972-not-1969 Mick Taylor in “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” “Nowhere Man” also taps into the ever-strange John/Paul connection. You can hear the Lennon chill in Paul’s voice, especially in “Here Comes a Regular,” when he sighs, “Once the police made you go away.”

Tim sold 75,000 copies, a phenomenal total for a Minnesota punk band playing bars with no hits, no video, no NYC/L.A. connection, terrible production, nothing going for them but great press. Yet for some reason, this seemed like a shocking flop to a band who sincerely thought Tim would make them mainstream mega-stars. While everybody saw the Replacements as successful peers to Hüsker Dü, Meat Puppets, the Minutemen, they saw themselves as failed rivals to U2 or R.E.M. That’s one of the most depressing discoveries in Mehr’s excellent bio Trouble Boys — which has to hold the rock-book record for most depressing discoveries per page. The Mats finally got popular in the grunge Nineties, thanks to Nirvana (plus Heathers, Say Anything, Singles). Tim, more than any of their records, prefigured the 1990s rock boom that made these guys posthumous legends. But they seemed to want no part of it. To them, this album was just another grave for the kids to visit on holidays at best.

At a certain point in my 30s, Tim overtook Let It Be as my favorite Replacements album, a change I definitely didn’t plan on or see coming. When I realized Tim had slipped past Let It Be, I felt cheated, like this was a major life decision made behind my back. But it hits deeper over the years — the rugged power-trio format suits the hard-ass tone of the songs. So only time will tell if the new “Left of the Dial” tops the original. I won’t know for sure until I hear it on an Arizona highway in 110 degree heat, pull over into a gas station so I can scream it at the rear-view for a long-gone friend out in San Francisco, definitely not L.A., even though I still have many hours’ driving left for tonight’s Taylor Swift show, where she will sing “All Too Well” for the only time that tour.

“Can’t Hardly Wait” might be the ultimate Tim song — what could sum up the Replacements’ spirit better than the song that gets dumped in a ditch for being too awesome? Like “Silver Springs” from Rumours, it’s the outtake that ends up defining the project. “Can’t Hardly Wait” makes a few appearances here. The previously unreleased Cello Version is a clever twist, kinda like the horn-section rendition eventually released on Pleased to Meet Me. But both feel like variations on a theme rather than the actual song. You get closer to the real thing with the “Tim Version” outtake, newly Stasiumized, buried near the end of Disc Three. Great, yet not as slashing as the already-released “Tim Version,” which is still a touch too slow. So it’s not quite a definitive or final “Can’t Hardly Wait.” But it’s fitting that this restless-heart road trip of a song never gets a proper home, just wandering from version to version, each one telling a different tale.

The most emotionally powerful “Can’t Hardly Wait” — and fastest, not a coincidence — is still the one on The Shit Hits the Fans, for my money. It’s still the one I play when I want to hear a bunch of lonely boys in the Midwestern winter try to cheer each other up, by playing a dumb song about a long drive that never ends. It’s a bunch of losers banding together against the world, refusing to get beat down. It’s a bar band refusing to go through the motions, refusing to let anyone stand in the back with arms folded and play cool. A brotherhood making demands, cracking dirty jokes that double as philosophical challenges. The singer is tired of tonight; the guitarist, bassist, and especially drummer can’t hardly wait for tomorrow. The band speeds up at the end, with Paul chanting “no I can’t wuuh-haayt!” while Bob goes off the guitar guardrails. Three minutes, that’s it, but you’re not the same when it’s over—any attitude you brought into it gets trampled in the dust. It’s a song that laughs at your self-pity and dares you to dare.

In so many ways, that’s the whole story of this album and this band. The Replacements and their audience built something that lasted, and it’s never sounded louder than in the new Tim. The songs that love us best, never laid to rest.

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