The Replacements At The Scenes of American Carnage
In a liquor store where an aspiring drummer is smitten by the girl behind the counter, a robbery begins to unfold. “My band never got together after that night,” writes SW Lauren in “Customer,” confessing that thirty-five years later he keeps a loaded gun waiting to avenge the death of the girl who died that night.
Across the Texas border, a man in search of a spark to spice up his marriage is forced to flee from a brothel and wade through polluted rivers to find his way back home. “I had never attempted a long walk with a raging erection,” Gary, the lead character says deadpan in Johnny Shaw’s story “Gary’s Got a Boner.” “I wouldn’t recommend it.”
And on a cold Canadian night, an aging rock star named Jerry Pavano is held up at a gas station stop by a fake cop and robbed of all of his equipment. He’s taken in by a fan named Alex, the Alex of Franz Nicolay’s “Alex Chilton.”
What do these three stories have in common? They’re all part of Waiting To Be Forgotten: Stories of Crime and Heartbreak, Inspired By The Replacements. The anthology of twenty-five short stories is each based on a song by the Replacements, the venerable and seminal band that broke up onstage in Chicago more than two decades ago but still evoke passionate barroom discussions of where they place on the continuum and list of rock and roll’s greatest bands.
Crime writer Jay Stringer was on Facebook when he saw a post about the book Trouble In The Heartland: Crime Fiction Based On The Songs of Bruce Springsteen. He commented that it would be great if something similar could be done about the Replacements. The publisher immediately contacted him and said “Why don’t you do it right now?”
The Glasgow-based Stringer was heading out for a Noir at the Bar writers’ series event he’s helped bring across the pond when I caught up with him. He told me that he put out a call to the crime community with some loose guidelines. His first reaction was relief as the stories started to come in and he saw that the writers got it.
“The phrase “crime fiction” can evoke certain tropes, a set structure,” the editor elaborated. “I didn’t mind if the writers wanted to stick to that, and some of the stories definitely mine familiar noir or mystery territory, but I wanted them to know they could run off in any direction. As long as there was some element of crime in the narrative. The ‘Mats sang about emotions, attitude, and people. I wanted a variety of stories to reflect the variety of the material. I already knew they were a good fit in the genre. But the fun was in seeing if other writers would get that.”
While putting together the collective about “misfits, dreamers, loners, losers and lovers, Stringer admitted a certain amount of intimidation himself. How do you sum up everything about your favorite band in the space of three thousand words? He eventually chose to write the short story “I Will Dare.”
“As I’ve gotten older, I realized the point of ‘I Will Dare’ is they weren’t just being brave, they were terrified,” he said on a recent appearance with Scott Hudson, host of Live Ledge podcast on realpunkradio.com. “We call it being brave but acting out of courage and fear is really the same thing. I realized I was terrified so I thought ‘I’ll just take that one.”
Stringer had a concept about an aging priest who had been in prison for 25 years with six months to go. But he wasn’t sure where to take it. By the time he went to the Roundhouse during the Replacements reunion tour, Stringer had begun to observe troubling signs. There were certain things that were written on Paul Westerberg’s shirt and there was the way he was interacting with bassist Tommy Stinson. “I think they’re going to split up again next week,” he said to a friend who replied, ‘Well that’s dumb’ and I said ‘That’s the Replacements thing to do.’”
Stringer began to think to himself, “What would be the Replacements thing be to do in the story? What would be the dumbest, stupidest thing to do when you’re six months from getting out?” Then it clicked. Break out when they’re about to give you your freedom.
Stringer contacted a few others who he thought might bring something different from the traditional crime genre. They included musician Franz Nicolay of the Hold Steady and Gorman Bechard, the novelist and filmmaker who directed the documentary Color Me Obsessed: A Film About The Replacements. Bechard, who hadn’t written fiction for a decade, was reading the novelist Raymond Chandler. He chose a nourish backdrop in creating the femme fatale Ophelia, the woman that one could imagine Paul Westerberg singing to in the bar of the song “If Only You Were Lonely.”
Whereas a film’s story is constantly changing from concept to shooting through editing and re-editing, Bechard found himself liberated by writing fiction, something that has kickstarted him to write his first novel in ten years. “It’s like therapy,” he said as part of the writer’s roundtable on Live Ledge with Stringer and Nicolay. “I can kill whoever I want, I can fuck whoever I want and I can say anything I want. It doesn’t make any difference.”
The anthology traces some of the band’s titles from the prototypical punk shorthand “Customer” to the latter day pop of “Achin’ To Be.” They also put you back in time. In “Run It,” writer Rick Ollerman describes the unnamed post-punk band that’s playing at the First Avenue club in Minneapolis. It’s easy to imagine it’s the Replacements themselves. As a heist unfolds, he references the words from the cd of the band playing inside as he strives to save the story’s heroine from danger.
The stories range from the whimsical cybercrime of Hailey Ardell’s “I’m In Trouble” to the sadistic Pulp Fiction on steroids of Mike McCrary’s “Here Comes a Regular” and “Darlin’ One” by Eyre Price. Stringer was also delighted that “I’m In Trouble” represents the young author Ardell’s first published piece. With Tommy Stinson having joined the Replacements as a teenager, it evoked a karmic connection for Stringer.
The stories strike at the human condition. In “God Damn Job,” the song from the band’s early Stink EP, writer Ed Kurtz places his lead characters as drivers for escort girls, one of whom is saving money for nursing school. Their roles are viewed as therapists, noble public servants for the men who tell their stories and seek comfort from their loneliness. Kurtz captures the small talk of everyday work. “The new girl who called herself Charity asked me to jack up the Seger I had going. She asked if I’d ever heard Metallica’s cover of ‘Turn The Page’ and I said I hadn’t.” The drivers’ fortunes increase with their newfound sense of purpose derived from work. “In seven days me and Frank went from smoking rollies with lint in our pockets to Camel filters and four hundred apiece, cash. And I literally had to do nothing at all.”
The book also is timeless and contemporary, with references to Trump bumper stickers seen on cars of “pasty-faced troglodytes” in the town of Spring Valley of Alex Segura’s “Within Your Reach.” The immigration debate comes to life in “I.O.U.” as Rory Costello evokes empathy for Guatemalan meat packers in Iowa caught up in an extortion scheme. In the hilarity of “Gary’s Got a Boner” the story’s protagonist must compete in the treacherous waters for cover alongside Mexican families trying to escape for a better life in America.
The writers also take their shots. In “Customer,” the shooter is wearing a Bad Company t-shirt. Bechard rants against annoying southern rock in “If Only You Were Lonely.” The notorious animal rights advocate and director of the film A Dog Named Gucci, doubles down with retribution in his lead character’s visceral reaction to someone who has abused a dog. “I snapped boyfriend’s neck. The sound was crisp, like ripping open a head of iceberg lettuce.”
Many of the authors set their stories in the band’s hometown of Minneapolis where Josh Flanagan writes that “it was cold but in a place like Minnesota, cold is relative.” Author Rick Ollerman describes travelling in the suburbs near the house featured on the Mary Tyler Moore television show. Russian gangsters immerse themselves in dismemberment while on the television, the U.S. hockey team take the gold medal.
In “Alex Chilton,” Nicolay documents the changes in our homogenized lives since the Replacements were together in the Eighties. “Funny how in your town the Starbucks is a symbol of the soulless corporate consumerism that put Hippie Mike’s Uncommon Groundz out of business,” he writes, “but as soon as you’re away it’s a beacon of free wi-fi.”
For editor Stringer, “Alex Chilton” mythologises a certain type of musician. Jerry Pavano is the aging, cynical rock star who is a little too old to still be doing it. “Franz’s story pulls away the myth,” he told me. “It’s a side to the story I hadn’t thought much about.”
“It would be like if Jeff Tweedy wrote a song called ‘Paul Westerberg’,” Hudson suggested to his radio guests on The Ledge. But the difference is that Westerberg is home playing baseball with his children.
“Didn’t Tweedy write a song about Westerberg called ‘The Lonely One’,” Hudson poses to Stringer, Nicolay and Bechard.
Bechard jumps in, saying, “It doesn’t matter if he did. We’re saying he did.”
And then he put a finer point on it. “Besides, what right does he have to say what his songs are about?”