The Replacements were a lot better than they wanted you to think they were.
One day they were a small band on a tiny label, whose hatred of MTV could fairly be described as sincere. The next they were a major label act, selling themselves as the lovable fuck-ups, as part of a varied menu of pop music options. The effect was deranging. "They laughed in the face of stardom," says their A and R guy at Sire, "yet got really pissed off if you didn't treat them like a star." As the divine nobody tasked with holding it all together, Westerberg appeared to be splitting at the seams. He was a fuck-up; he was a striver. He was the sensitive one; he was the asshole who drove the lighting guy to tears. Jim Walsh, the compiler of All Over but the Shouting, describes a bootleg video of the 'Mats playing "Bastards of Young," their own blank generation anthem, at a speedway arena. At the end of the song, Westerberg says either "I love you" or "Fuck you," you can't tell which. Exactly.
Unlike Morrissey, who requires the services of a paid collaborator, Westerberg wrote the melodies, the words, and all of the band's guitar parts, as Bob Stinson once admitted. And yet he's never made a great record without Bob Stinson. He's made a really good Replacements album (Pleased To Meet Me) and cut some superb songs as a solo artist (male menopause having intermittently been as kind a muse to him as puberty), but he's created nothing that touches on the high points of Let It Be or Tim. Bob was a glorious oaf, a drunk who would sometimes wear a pleated miniskirt and anklets onstage, whose playing was hopeless until he'd started his fifth beer and hopeless after he'd finished his seventh. R.E.M.'s Peter Buck claims Bob didn't know the titles of their songs. "Paul would just say, 'The fast one,' 'The sorta fast one,' or 'the one that sounds like this, Bob.' "
The cumulative portrait of Bob Stinson in Shouting is of a dopey and innocent wild man, a lug who was fond of saying "Relax, it's Tuesday," no matter what day it was, and who, stuck in traffic, would say to whomever was driving, "Close your eyes and floor it." Westerberg comes off as something else altogether. According to Bob's former wife, Stinson got dry for a spell during the Tim tour. One night Westerberg walked up to him midset with bottle of Champagne in his hand and said, "Either take a drink, motherfucker, or get off my stage." "It was the first time I'd seen Bob cry," his ex claims. "He came home that night in tears, he didn't know what to do. He'd been completely dry for the 30-day program, and the three weeks following. But after that night, Bob felt that no one liked him unless he was drunk."
Westerberg fired Bob a couple of weeks later. And here we arrive at the final rub. Bob Stinson, rock savant and a guileless ox, wandered for 10 years as the toast of alt-weekly Minnesota. If you had played the solo at the end of Sixteen Blue, a lot of people wanted to buy you a drink. The entire Snow Belt apparently conspired in Bob Stinson's death. For years he ambled from watering hole to new girlfriend and back again, losing himself in self-abuse. In Shouting, a friend recalled, "Once when we were endlessly traipsing around the snowy streets of Minneapolis, one of Bob's favorite pastimes, he tried to explain why he had such a striking impact on people. Sniffing and sipping an icy beer, he finally said, 'The one that's furthest out is the one that everybody lets their heart trust, completely. Completely.' " Stinson died of an overdose in 1995, a legend, and an unemployable wreck.
All those years I thought I'd been listening to Paul Westerberg, I'd been listening to Bob Stinson. This, admittedly, is a sentimental gloss on the career of a band whose every note was supervised by Paul Westerberg. It places Stinson in the pantheon with Brian Jones and Syd Barrett, the rock 'n' roll muse-martyrs who, too good for this world, nonetheless leave behind a beautiful corpse for their more ambitious peers to feed off. Who, sifting through the gem box of Let It Be, would ever argue it was the byproduct of anarchy, clown pants, and a case of beer for breakfast? Oh, right. The Replacements did. In that spirit I'd like to say to Paul Westerberg: I love you, man. Fuck you.
Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.
Photograph of the Replacements by Michael Buckner/Getty Images.