Sunday, December 16, 2007

Book Review: The Replacements - All Over But the Shouting: An Oral History by Jim Walsh

Jim Walsh’s The Replacements: All Over But the Shouting marks the first full-length book covering the musical misadventures of the Minneapolis band. If there ever was a band perfect for such a study, it’s the ‘Mats. Alternative before the term had yet to be co-opted and applied to everyone from Nirvana to, ugh, Better Than Ezra, the band’s reputation for inebriated concert performances that could be either transcendent or the equivalent of drunken karaoke, erratic off-stage behavior, and occasional flashes of studio brilliance is every music journalist’s wet dream. With the ‘Mats, there’s enough internal band dysfunction and tall tales to fill a Minneapolis dive bar. The trick is separating the fact from the fiction to arrive at an understanding of the band that is more than just VH-1 Behind the Music caricature. Although Walsh’s book is always engaging and often interesting, with plenty of “the fish was this big” stories, it doesn’t really add any new understanding to either the band or its place in music history.

The book does have some strong qualities to make it a worthwhile read. First, Walsh has managed to get contributions from many participants and unwitting bystanders in the ‘Mats madness, including Twin/Tone co-founder Peter Jesperson, R.E.M. guitarist and bane to flight attendants Peter Buck, and Husker Du-er Grant Hart. Hold Steady singer/indie darling Craig Finn, and purveyor of everything that is soulless and wrong with third-generation punk, Green Day singer Bill Joe Armstrong, are called in to show how the ‘Mats influenced later generations of musicians. For whatever reason, Kurt Cobain was unavailable for comment (what’s that… he did what?)

The contributors’ comments and recollections help the reader understand what the Minneapolis music scene was like in the ‘Mats heyday, and how the band was both influenced by, and helped shape, this scene. As expected, there are enough stories of the ‘Mats in-fighting, on-stage and backstage antics, and drunken exploits to satisfy those who like their musical anecdotes with a twist of self-induced implosion. Some of the stories show that the ‘Mats’ drunken hijinks have been exaggerated over time, and were, in some cases, carefully orchestrated to maintain an image.

Despite this, the book is ultimately disappointing; there are far too many gaps, holes, and missing plotlines in the ‘Mats history to ignore. Of course this is the potential drawback of any oral history; the author is ultimately dependent on his interviewees to provide good and complete details. In this case, the result is an incomplete ‘Mats history; Michael Azerrad’s chapter on the band in Our Band Could Be Your Life gives a better overview of the band in fewer pages.The book’s shortcomings include:

There are little-to-no discussions about the (potential) inspirations or origins of the ‘Mats songs, with only a few exceptions. Plenty of contributors spend pages wetting themselves over how good “Unsatisfied” is, but most other songs are ignored.

There are few actual dates given in the book; album releases and concert performances blend from one to the next as the years roll by. If you don’t know your ‘Mats history, this book isn’t a good starting point.

With the exception of one new quote from Chris Mars, all the quotes from the original band members are taken from previous interviews and news features. These quotes don’t add much to the book, especially since it’s mostly accepted that the ‘Mats tended to portray specific personas in interviews. In Walsh’s defense, it is difficult to create a complete oral history when the main players decline to comment.

With the exception of Bob Stinson, whose chemically-addled life is addressed in brutal detail, the reader gets very little sense of what the ‘Mats were like as people. Instead, the band members remain little more than musical stereotypes: Tommy Stinson comes across as nothing more than a naïve and inexperienced boy, Chris Mars is the silent member, and Paul Westerberg remains the truculent/troubled/occasionally cruel/sometimes caring singer-poet.

Overall I expected more from this book, especially given the number of people interviewed and Walsh’s extensive personal experience with the band. Like a drunkenly sloppy ‘Mats live performance or Pleased To Meet Me, the book has some high points, a few drunken low points, and a few broken bottles scattered along the way. At the end of the day the reader is left a little underwhelmed.

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