It was 20 Years Ago Today

4 July 2011

It’s a Hootenanny

The sweaty and assembled masses were probably expecting one last hit before the band left the stage; maybe “Alex Chilton” or “Left of the Dial” or “Unsatisfied” or “Bastards of the Young.” Instead, we got “Hootenanny” for three and a half minutes. About halfway through the song something wasn’t right; the guitars sounded like Marty McFly was disappearing at the end of “Back to the Future.” The song collapsed, the show was over, and there was no final goodbye, just – nothing. Only later did we find out that the band left the stage and had the roadies take over for them. The band wasn’t even on stage to give a final . Perhaps, that was the best way for The Mats to go out. A grand gesture that represented their entire career.

It certainly wasn’t a great show; the Mats were never capable of that. In fact, the worse the show; the better the show. Seeing a Mats show without an incident was like hearing Sarah Palin speak without a malapropism. They were known for getting drunk on stage and forgetting the lyrics – to their own songs! I had seen them six months earlier with Dan at the always-adventurous Aragon Ballroom. The sound was shitty, the lyrics in audible and at one point the guy running the spot light lost sight of Westerberg, prompting him to say, “I’m up here asshole.”

The final show lasted a little over an hour and the band labored though most of it. Rather than playing the hits, they focused on the “new” album, which at that point was just under a year old. Everyone who was going to buy it had already done so. Those in Grant Park that July afternoon were fans anyway; there was a slim chance of any new coverts.

When it began

I met Dan Callistein at work in late 1990; we shared the same musical spirit and sense of humor. He moved from Buffalo and immediately became a Chicagoan. He rooted for Da Bulls and Cubs, adapted to the weather and started listening to WXRT. He introduced me to the Goo Goo Dolls before they became a wuss band (exhibit a, b, and c: “Naked,” “Name” and “Iris”). It was six days after the final Mats show when I was hospitalized with Thripshaw’s Disease. He collected money for a care package, a gift certificate for tapes. Later, he told me his cousin was a leading doctor treating Thripshaw’s Disease. Dan was a mate through and through.

That summer, he was lucky enough to meet Marla Adler. She had a pageboy hair cut, a killer smile, was funny and a little flirtatious. I had been a third wheel with them a few times and Marla never made me feel like one. She was the Elaine to our Jerry and George. I am not saying who was who but suffice to say, I won a bet.

July 4, 1991 – Dan and I were to go to Grant Park to see the show. Marla was going to try to meet up with us, though neither of us thought that was possible. We were one 100,000 people that afternoon. This was before cell phones were so pervasive. She wasn’t going to find us. I don’t think they were  officially a couple. The town elders had not yet sanctified it. That was okay, who needs dames when you have a good buddy, beer and concertgoers who have baked in the sun for three hours?

After the first act, Material Issue, Marla found us! I don’t know who was more shocked between the three of us. She brought a friend with her because single girls never travel alone. Marla also came prepared with a little blanket that we all got under when the skies opened up in a refreshing but brief summer rain.

At one point, we got to talking about Chicago Architecture. We were admiring the old Standard Oil Building, at the north end of Grant Park. It had recently undergone a new façade and a name change. Marla, being stiff-necked, disagreed about the name change. A wager was placed that the new name was the Amoco Oil Building (It has since been renamed the Aon Center). Ducats for “Naked Gun 2 1/2” were on the line. Of course, I won. What she didn’t know was that I took an architecture boat tour three days earlier and found out the name had changed. So now, 20 years later, I admit the truth. Marla, if you make it down to Atlanta, I owe you a movie. She is probably packing a bag and booking a flight to collect.

Close your eyes here we go

The Replacements or The Placemats or simply The Mats, were an acquired taste. This was not a professional band, unless you consider alcohol and drug abuse a profession. They modeled their sound after Big Star (see an earlier Pure Gibberish entry), The Beatles, The Faces and The Clash. They started out in the hot bed of music – Minneapolis, MN, home of Prince. Their sound was raucous and loud. Early songs leaned towards punk and hardcore and. Lyrics dealt with anger, mayhem, being busted at a party, hating your school, lousy jobs and smoking weeds. There was no uniformity in appearance or sound. They looked like four guys who met 30 minutes before the gig and had a vague idea of what to play.

On their second release, “Hootenanny”, teen angst gave way to 20’s idealism, lead singer and songwriter Paul Westerberg started to grow. The highlight of this period is the striped down ballad “Within Your Reach.”

“Cold without so much

Can die without a dream

Live without your touch

I’ll die within your reach”

They may have been toning it down on record but on stage, they were still unpredictable. Going to ea Mats show you never knew what you were getting. Drunk was a foregone conclusion. What wasn’t known is what they would play. Stories abound about them playing six tunes and walking off the stage. They played a famous set at CBGB’s in New York City where they played covers and didn’t know the words to those songs either. Then again, they could play a set that would blow the doors off the club.

At its most basic, a live ‘Mat’s show was rock and roll at its core. It was loud, emotional, drunken, spiritually freeing and sexually charged. You felt you saw something, even though you may not know what the hell you saw.

The middle period of the ‘Mat’s career was acceptance and admiration. They released two transcendent albums; 1985’s “Tim” and 1987’s “Pleased to Meet Me.”  Both were critical success, commercial success would always be out of reach. The undercurrents of Alternative were just starting to reach an audience and radio stations left of the dial took a flyer on them. They made one appearance on Saturday Night Live and were banned for life straight away.

Their last real album was “Don’t Tell a Soul.” It was the Mats trying like hell to be commercial. They even toured with Tom Petty. As a thank you, Petty appropriated the line “rebel without a clue” from the Mats song, “I’ll Be You” and inserted it onto his hit, “Into the Great Wide Open.” At the end of 1989, the Mats were no closer to fame and success as they were in 1981. Westerberg had had enough as was going to call it quits. He started recording his solo album but it became the final Mats album, even though the “band” only played together on one song.

It’s too late to turn back here we go

After two great opening acts, Chicago’s own Material Issue and roots, rock revivalists NRBQ, the annual Free Fourth of July concert broadcast on radio station WXRT was ready for the grand finale. The final show of the much-vaunted, little-heard indie-darlings, The Replacements started off promising enough, the first song out of the block was the wistful, “I Will Dare.” The song has always been a favorite of mine with the lyric,

“How young are you?

How old am I?

Let’s count the rings around my eyes”

They seemed sharp, well as sharp as The Replacements could be. Tight and sharp were not adjectives used to describe them; drunk and sloppy were much better. Paul Westerberg led what was left of the Replacements though a few songs from the previous two albums.

Song two featured Westerberg saying “Fuck” about six times. If this show had been in 2004 instead of 1991, it would have been pulled off the air due to indecency, so it goes.

To introduce “Merry Go Round,” Westerberg tells the awaiting crowd, “This one’s called “Diane Go Round.” Was it a nod to opening act Material Issue, they had a popular song out called “Diane.” Maybe it was a giant Fuck You! How dare you young upstarts take our place on the power pop mantle?

After the sixth song, “Swinging Party,” Westerberg said, “Thank you very much, Goodnight.” I think he meant it. That was the first moment, that I could tell Westerberg had lost interest. Imagine that – his last show with this band and he was bored not even 1/3 of the way through. The next few songs didn’t so much fade out as they did just stop. Some songs they only played one verse, one chorus and thought, that’s good enough. Some they played with no heart. Instead of playing them for the last time they had the feeling like they were checking off things to do before going on a vacation albeit a permanent vacation.

As an intro to “Someone Take the Wheel,” Westerberg said, “You can see why we’re hanging it up.” Later to be followed by, “Here’s another one you don’t want to hear; frankly neither do I.” Whether Westerberg was getting frustrated at having to play his songs one last time or just annoyed at being outside on Fourth of July in front of 100,000 fans with a lack of intimacy, to quote a song “I Don’t Know.”

The show was half over when “Talent Show” broke off in the middle for a guitar solo of “Send in the Clowns” before being kicked back in by a little Chuck Berry riff. After that, lyrics were forgotten, rhythms were missing and guitar solos were abandoned. It was great. The deconstruction of the Mats and I was there! It was the dismantling of a building piece by piece. All that was left was the implosion.

After the cover of “Hey Good Lookin’” Westerberg announced, “What time are we done? Have we done an hour?” He was watching the clock like the night manager at a CVS.

The last four songs were nothing spectacular. “I’ll Be You” is a rocker but seemed so flat; you almost wanted it to end. The song about starting out in show business, “I Don’t Know” took a strange turn as Westerberg stopped the song, tried to tell a joke and then launched into the normally beautiful “Within Your Reach” Westerberg’s favorite song. Even singing that song, he seemed to be in a hurry to get it over.

Their most “popular” song, “Can’t Hardly Wait” started strong and actually stayed that way. Then came the final song.

A person can work up a mean mean thirst after a hard day of nothin’ much at all

It’s now 20 years on. Rock acts of all genres who vowed to never play together again have since re-united, multiple times, all for the love of filthy lucre. Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth toured together, The Who go on farewell tours every three years. The Eagles charge a mortgage payment to be seen in-person. Even Backstreet’s Back (Alright!) Some groups have gone out with different lead singers and still use the same name; The Cars, The Temptations, The Jam, The Doors, etc, yet one thing is constant – The Mats haven’t gotten back together. To be honest, there hasn’t been much public outcry for it. There is a Facebook page demanding a Mats reunion, it has 1,845 fans. The likely hood of Paul and any incarnation of Replacements playing live again is slim. I have seen him about six times solo. The Mats songs still get the biggest response.

As for Dan and Marla, they have been together ever since that final show. They are happily married, though I wasn’t invited and I should have been the best man, that’s okay, you missed out on a great crock pot.

The Mats ended on that July 4th; Dan and Marla were just beginning.

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