Some People Baked Bread During the Pandemic. I Got Super Into The Replacements.

On the joy of falling in love with a band during a crisis

June 1, 2021 10:29 am
The Replacements
Hey, they beat sourdough bread, right?
Mat Hayward

“Alright, take a look in the mirror,” the tattoo artist told me. The stencil for my first tattoo was set on my left forearm. There was no going back now. 

Here’s where a freeze-frame might pop up. How did I end up here? And why was I about to get a tattoo homage to The Replacements, a band made famous long before I was born?  It’s simple and complicated, like the legendary band themselves. Allow me to take you through a different type of pandemic obsession, one that has nothing to do with baking bread, watching Tiger King or starting a TikTok. You see, my pandemic obsession was one of America’s greatest rock bands, unlikely Midwest rock heroes and icons to this day. 

For months, as I worked from home and transitioned into full-time freelance writing during the pandemic, I’d be reminded ceaselessly of what I should be watching, what I should be doing with my time, what I should be listening to on my turntable.  Most days, though, I wanted to do just one thing: Listen to The Replacements. This famously chaotic band became a lifeline for me, a source of stability in an endless swirl of anxiety, confusion and fear — it’s funny how things work out, isn’t it? 

I’d been knocked sideways by the pandemic, forced away from my office, my family, my friends and my favorite music venues and bars.  Pre-pandemic, if you wanted to find me after work, you could probably take a wild guess among a half-dozen NYC music venues any given night. You’d probably come across me standing to the left of the stage, beer in hand, to the tune of two or three shows a week, every week. 

In the blink of an eye, it was all gone.To say I missed live music from the very start of the pandemic was a massive understatement. 

But relief was surprisingly close at hand. Through plenty of difficult days, my fellow Midwesterners The Replacements stepped in and filled the void with color, character and some of the finest rock songs ever put to tape. Just a rock band? No — I grew to realize they’ve always been so much more than that. 

With live music gone and live streams a meager substitute, I found myself retreating into something more permanent. It was as good a time as any to get into a band that apparently won’t ever play a live show again

I wasn’t completely new to Paul Westerberg and company. The Replacements were a band I always seemed to hear in dive bars. The guys were, of course, no strangers to a good time themselves. I guess you could say I liked ‘em just fine, sure. But between last April and my fated tattoo appointment in October, something else happened, almost subconsciously. I grew to adore the band in all its ragged glory. In fact, adore barely begins to cover it. 

My Replacements obsession burned brighter each day. I tracked down the excellent 2011 documentary Color Me Obsessedand watched it twice in two weeks. I read and re-read the entry on The Replacements  in the iconic Our Band Could Be Your Life (I carry the book in my messenger bag every day now). I got my hands on the deluxe edition of Pleased To Meet Me. 

I pored over old setlists,  picked up a ‘Mats T-shirt — I also started calling the the ‘Mats, a shortened version of the “Placemats” nickname they acquired long ago — and made very legitimate plans to go to Minneapolis on a post-pandemic pilgrimage. (I’m being completely serious: I’ll see you for a beer at the CC Club when I get there.)  I also tracked down my own bit of Brooklyn ‘Mats history: On an East Coast tour, The Replacements played a long-gone venue within walking distance of my apartment, Zappa’s. As one does, I walked there to pay my respects the day after I found out. 

They were a critical part of my pandemic routine, and the soundtrack to my nightly walks through Brooklyn. Every time I listened, I learned more — about the band, and about myself. As it turns out, Paul Westerberg’s striving, searching lyrics are great inspiration to a writer. 

The Replacements were never anything but themselves, and it’s that authenticity and ambition (and yes, I like to think they really were as ambitious as it gets) that I found inspiring. I grew to appreciate the band’s commitment to what they were best at: hard-charging rock songs and eventually, all-time anthems, filled with poignancy and spirit.  Despite their pratfalls, The ‘Mats served as a reminder that you can rise above your station, so to speak, by doing things your way. 

Songs like “Left of the Dial” grew into personal anthems, an adage to continue striving creatively on your own terms, even if you might fall flat on your face. The oft-overlooked track “Learn How to Fail”  also comes to mind. 

These walks usually ended at an outdoor patio bar, the kind of place that tends to play The Replacements on a good night. And when I got home, I’d listen to ‘em some more. Wash, rinse, repeat. 

My solo strolls gave me a great deal of solace, and my pandemic experience would have been a heck of a lot different without them. In a way, I knew that when I stepped out for the evening, headphones on, it meant something: I’d made it through another day, I’d hit my deadlines, I’d earned a cold beer and a sense of calm in the endless noise and swirl of the pandemic. 

I quickly found that there was a Replacements song for every mood or every occasion, whether I wanted a hard-charging punk thrasher or an all-time classic like “Unsatisfied” to help me wile away the days and nights. I’m not sure if it even does them justice to say they’re everything I’ve ever wanted in a band.

I thought that things might change over time, that  I might get sick of the band or tire of listening to “Alex Chilton” on a loop. Reader, I did not. They became my band and I kept coming back, whether I needed the poignant ache of “You’re Getting Married” or the jaunty swagger of “Can’t Hardly Wait.” That’s the funny thing about falling in love with something as an adult. It can happen without you realizing it, but eventually, you come to wonder how things could ever go back to the way they were before. 

The music of The Replacements is, to me, a talisman. It’s something you can own, something you can hold onto — it’s something you can physically feel as it fills up your heart, too.  But why The Replacements? Why not another ‘80s indie rock band, like Husker Du or The Minutemen? Heck, why not a more current band, or more current anything, really? Even I’m not sure if I can answer that.

I guess the simplest reply is that I know in my heart of hearts that The ‘Mats, flaws and all, epitomize rock ‘n’ roll — and life — at its finest (and most chaotic).

As the country gets a bit better day by day, I’m still taking my nightly walks, and I’m listening ceaselessly to The Replacements. They aren’t just a pandemic obsession; to me, they’re a lifetime band. 

So when the time came to get some ink on my forearm, to immortalize a passion of mine, the choice was pretty clear. It had to be The Replacements, and it had to be something “left of the dial,” literally. I looked in the mirror at the stenciled design. It was perfect.

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