Best Worst Year: Episode 39 (Or, Little Mascara)

Her hands. I would walk in the door and it was always her hands. It was just shy of an hour and half to cross the New York border but once the state line came, I would think about her hands. She would press them to my cheeks like my face was a source of warmth. In her tiny apartment just shy of the Chenango. Every Wednesday night. I remember one night just shy of February. It was the kind of snowfall which renders the world still and intimate–as if this one calendar night had wrested itself free from our endless nameless days to ours and ours alone. In the dark. Her hands to my face. She kept saying “This. This.” It was a mantra, a prayer. I closed my eyes and repeated her chorus to myself, hoping to lock this night away somewhere fortified and honest within me. A good, perfect night–if we’re lucky to enough know when it happens, maybe we can take the rippling echo as it bends from its source and make its resonance an extension of our very heartbeat.

Maybe what makes it so perfect and amazing is the very fleeting nature of the act.

The Replacements were always just mythology to me. It was the worst kind of story–the one where you’re just ten minutes late to the party and by the time you get there, you’re finding out what happened second hand. I’ve been living in the ache and wake of The Replacements’ high tide for over half my life. Singles soundtrack. Paul Westerberg. Waitin’ On Somebody. Dyslexic Heart. I was too late. I remember coming home from a school function just in time for Saturday Night Live where Paul was playing for the first time since The Mats were banned from ever performing on SNL again after a “spirited” pair of performances from Tim. By now, I fully recognized St. Paul as my patron saint and had already conned my high school girlfriend out her copy of Please to Meet Me (which I bought her and then convinced her wasn’t as cool as Alice in Chains Jar of Flies which I ended up swapping for said ‘Mats CD). The pure unadulterated energy of “Can’t Hardly Wait” with the SNL band’s horn section is still my Webster’s definition of joy.

To the initiated, there was an unacknowledged bond of solidarity. The real die hards, the true believers who would name their pets after ‘Mats songs or nicknames ( I always name my goldfish Otto) spent hours obsessively listening to countless live bootlegs of staggering ranges of quality–not in just the recording, but moreover the ready-fire-aim approach the band took the stage. Drunk, incoherent, self-destructive, brilliant, antagonistic, glorious–these are the overused currency of adjectives assigned to Replacements shows. Bob in a Tutu. Tommy pogoing like crazy. The half-baked covers of Yes and Hank Williams. Toss an empty beer bottle at a Google search for The Replacements live and you’ll get the picture. The wailing hot mess of it all would occasionally just shimmer with a flash of insight into something deeper and white hot with its restless intensity. They were Feste, Lear’s Fool, and Falstaff rolled into bloody fingers strangling three chords and truth out of a Les Paul Jr. I am the father of a thousands fools, their lines and verses constantly tripping over themselves, walking carefree in a yard of upturned rakes. I can only hope insight slips slightly into something I write just once, but you can’t plan it. I breathe life into language and it escapes like visible breath passing into an early autumn sky.

I could see my breath mingle and tangle with an ocean of cheap cigarette smoke billowing out of two twenty-somethings who, like me, had set anchor at the foot of the Riot Fest Riot stage a good six hours before The Replacements were set to take the stage. It had been raining all day, reducing a good portion of Humboldt Park to a giant mud bog. The Riot Stage was located in the outfield of Humboldt’s ball field. The infield was a sloppy mess, only second to the drunks swimming in seven dollar beers and carnival hot dogs. Bob Mould, Quicksand, Rocket from The Crypt–it’s not like I had to sit through horrible music. I had locked my arm around the security railing to insure my spot through AFI. Goth punk mallrats flailed around me. I remembered all my concert training. I spent enough time being crushed up front at all ages show to know better. That said, I could feel my age in my knees. The rain finally gave up the ghost and was replaced by a bone-seeping permafrost. My hands were blue-knuckled, and I was hoping that I would get away with only a head cold.

The Pixies were playing at the Roots Stage opposite of the Replacements and it would’ve been great to see them, but there was only one true reason I was here–not The Pixies, not AFI, not Against Me!, not even Quicksand or RFTC–not even my friend Meghan from Toronto (who I finally met in the flesh the night before after a year of ‘Mats obsessed connections on various social media outlets). I had waited twenty plus years to see Paul and Tommy, and then on cue, “That’s Life” came swinging through the PA as the band walked onstage.

My heart pounded like any awkward and misused metaphor rattling in a box too big for its import to contain. Like the countless beautiful losers in the crowd who had filled notebooks and emptied mugs to “Alex Chilton,” “Achin’ to Be,” or “Androgynous,” I cried. In so many ways, the loud, fast, whiplash was a validation to my best worst year–the camera flash, bolt of blue which struck me with catharsis I had only touched upon since coming to Springfield. As St. Paul started in on the encore run with “Hold My Life,” I wept and laughed and tried my damnedest to reduce my larynx to bloody shreds. I held onto the steel railing for dear life, hoping that the vibration would find its way into my bones.

I could recount the night, but I can’t. You can read the reviews–from The Chicago Tribune to a universe of blogs, and they will give you the blow by blow, the setlist, the anecdotes about Paul smashing show clock onstage (the show clock is supposed to keep bands on time so they don’t blow event curfew instead it became a casualty to The Mats tour de force set), or Paul threatening to replace replacement Replacement Dave Minehan with Bob Mould. I’m sure, soon enough, you will be able to purchase a concert tee shirt from ebay, or even download the entire set from The Mats Live Show Archive. And you should do all of the above. I know I will, too. (Save the ebay bit since I bought a copy of every single shirt they had for sale. Plus the foam Mats middle finger. Yes it’s as awesome as it sounds.). I also know that in re-living the set it’ll be a desperate, fleeting, and wonderfully woeful attempt to keep something so primal and true to what I am that its echo will ring with almost as much ache as any piece of me I know is both present and gone at once.

_________________________

Jim Warner is the Managing Editor of Quiddity International Literary Journal and Public Radio Program at Benedictine University and the author of two poetry collections Too Bad It’s Poetry and Social Studies (Paper Kite Press). His poetry has appeared in various journals including The North American Review, PANK Magazine, and Drunken Boat. Jim received his MFA at Wilkes University. He lives in Springfield, IL and his favorite album is The Replacements Tim

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