The last song on the last Replacements album on the last day of the year
For a band who mostly gained fame from stories of being too drunk to play, switching clothes on stage, attempting covers of dumb AM gold hits, and disavowing fame, the Replacements sure do dredge up deep, heartfelt feelings of reflection and nostalgia in their fanbase.
I loved the Replacements from the first time I saw them in 1984 in Cleveland. I’d only heard a couple songs on college radio, so expectations were vague going in. They indeed came out pretty drunk, but I guess I got one of those “good” of the ubiquitous “good or terrible” Replacements gigs, because it was, to this day, one of the most rabble-rousing rock’n’roll shows I’ve ever seen. I ran to Record Revolution at Parmatown Mall the next day, picked up Hootenanny, and dove in big for the next few years.
Like most early adopters, I stuck with the oftentimes misguided production attempts and the eventual loss of Bob Stinson (with his excitingly spazzo ballast to Westerberg’s pop classicist tendencies) because the songs were almost uniformly great, and again maybe I was lucky, but the subsequent three times I saw them before they disbanded in 1989 were all good shows.
I could even credit the Replacements for the formation of my own band, New Bomb Turks. A picture of the Replacements on soon-to-be NBT guitarist Jim Weber’s dorm room wall had me popping in to say howdy for the first time. “You like the Replacements too?!” Add on that they represented what us Midwesterners pride ourselves on about “our” rock’n’roll — drunken abandon, smart-ass attitude born of many cold months spent indoors telling inside jokes, suspicion of fashion, and cheap beer.
And also as with many early adopters, the second to last album, Don’t Tell a Soul, was an exit point — awkwardly overproduced and, for the first time, showing real cracks in the previously unassailable songwriting. (Well, there were a couple toss-offs on Please to Meet Me, but rollicking toss-offs anyway.) I do believe Jim picked it up off the turntable and slung it across the room. By the last album, All Shook Down, I only paid attention because there was a release party for it at a local bar, and I was able to scam a free CD. I mostly loved the cover photographs, and soon moved on.
The situation was so spent in the Replacements camp, and in Warner Brothers’ offices, that All Shook Down landed nearly stilllborn, forgotten fairly quickly. But time has revealed it as a solid platter of a resigned rocker’s wrap-up of his wreckless youth. A good rainy September day record, or perfect for mopping up after closing shop. Don’t Tell a Soul? Still awkward.
As time has passed, the sad demise of the Replacements was made sadder as their fun, inspiring early years — ultimately one of the most consistently rewarding avenues an American band took with the initial spark of punk rock — were subsumed by a flanneled fanbase that focused on, oddly, the later records as some kind of new Americana, “No Depression” alt-country, or even an influence on fucking emo. No doubt another very Midwestern and integral aspect of the Replacements was the cloudy melancholy that was deep in the heart of the band’s melodies and Westerberg’s scraggly voice. But had you seen them way back, you’d know they were at least 65% life-affirming hoot. It was the later albums though that got more radio and late-night MTV play (if never a ton, exactly); had better distribution and promotion; and they aesthetically played more easily into the lazy genre delineations that squares seem to need. “Oh, those early records, they were just young drunk guys. The later ones are more serious.” Of course the drug and alcohol problems were far more serious towards the end of the band, which resulted in band member rifts just as Westerberg — in classic believe your own press manner — became a little low rent Machiavelli.
A few years pass, numerous off-target “This is where grunge came from!” articles floated around, and suddenly by the early aughts, the Replacements are a dad band whose remaining flag-wavers sat around in bars trading gauzy “They were fuckin’ awesome, man” stories about how their records got them through breakups that were no doubt their own fault. Jim Walsh’s 2007 oral history, All Over but the Shouting, was a welcome and interesting read, if quarter-filled with such eye-rolling deifications. Thankfully, Bob Mehr came around in 2016 with his excellent, full-stop biography of the band, Trouble Boys, wherein Mehr detailed that demise, but not before reminding us how crazed, funny, shit-heeled, and hook-grabbing was the messy majority of the Replacements’ history, before they became a sullen totem of dateless 30-somethings in ill-fitting Wilco t-shirts.
And yet, here we are, New Year’s Eve. Watery-eyed rumination abounds. And here I am, picking the last song from the last Replacements album to dote on.
Not unlike the band itself, by the end of Mehr’s Trouble Boys, it seems useless to continue digging into what had become obvious, and inevitable. Hence Mehr’s description of the last Replacements song was succinct: “‘The Last’ was a note to self, a Sinatra-styled piano ballad summing up Westerberg’s confused relationship with the bottle. ‘It’s a drunken man writing about love, who doesn’t know love from drinking,’ noted Westerberg.'”
Unlike their classic album closers “Answering Machine” and “Here Comes a Regular” that were products of watershed songwriting moments filled with accidental brilliance, “The Last,” in title and tenor, was obviously written and recorded with the intention of being a closing number. Upon first hearing it, it’s nearly show tune in its neon beer sign shmaltz. The general assumption is that All Shook Down is the defacto first Westerberg solo album — the label thought it would sell better keeping the “Replacements’ name on it; and apparently there are only three songs on the album that the other members even play on, drummer Chris Mars having already quit before recording.
Sounding solo, “The Last” starts with just piano and voice, Westerberg ostensibly singing about some lost love, be it lady or liquor. But every lyric can read as talking about his fading band. When he says, “This one, child, is killing you,” he’s kind of reassuring the bandmates he’s spurned that they ain’t missing much, but also telling himself that this band is killing him. So while he seems to be encouraging someone else to move on, it’s a “Dear John” letter too — as if that whiskey bottle is going to miss him.
“Are you too proud to ask? Remember the last one was your last.” Sure enough, the Replacements was the last true band Westerberg ever fronted, and I guess you can hear in his resigned voice that he already knows it might be. It makes sense though. Working bands are kind of a young man’s game — drink through struggles, keep touring a lot, plow through 3 a.m. recording sessions, pile up broken relationships, etc. As an adult, you also have to start taking some pride in whatever thing you think you’re good at, or go nuts with regret. Westerberg no doubt knew at this point that he was indeed a great songwriter, and that speed-fueled energy and wacky covers weren’t going to sustain. “It’s too early to run to mama, too late to run like hell” is a perfect one liner about the feelings when your first band ends around the cusp of 30.
As he sings throughout, Westerberg is really trying to hit the notes right, not allowing in the kind of just-off cracks that made the early songs shake with energy and/or doubt. As your voice ages, those cracks feel less like beautiful mistakes and more like details you missed. And fuck, you’ve been singing this long, you ought to know when to stop and say, “Let’s try that one again.” Therein though lies the loss of youth. So if I have one piece of advice from being a singer in a band for decades: leave the mistakes in.
Sad resignation or woozy hopefulness, either way, “The Last” is a call to move on, which is probably the best sentiment when you’re too deep into thinking about what happened last year.