Book Review: Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser


AuthorCaroline Fraser
TitlePrairie fires : the American dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder
Publication Info: New York : Metropolitan Books, 2017.
Summary/Review:

Like anyone else who grew up in my generation, I watched and loved the tv series Little House on the Prairie as a kid. In fifth grade we read a section of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book Little House on the Prairie and I was entranced.  I immediately read all the books in the Little House series in sequence (except I skipped Farmer Boy because I had no interest in Almanzo).  The earlier books were my favorites and I read Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie, and On the Banks of Plum Creek multiple times. This was an important time in my life as a reader because up to that point I was rather finicky and found it hard to finish books, especially fiction.

Of course, I knew that the books were highly fictionalized stories of Wilder’s life and the tv show even more greatly removed from reality.  It was interesting to read this biography to learn the true story of Wilder’s life. Fraser’s research and writing is especially good at establishing Wilder’s story in the context of historical events – conflicts with Indians, financial crises and depressions, political movements, and even climate change. The period of Wilder’s life covered in her 9 books is just a small portion of her long life and is covered in the first 150 pages of the 500+ page book.  For all her romance of life on the Great Plains and the admiration of the rugged individualism of farming, Laura and Alamanzo Wilder were not able to find stability and success in life until they left the West for the South (specifically the Ozarks of Missouri) and found work off the farm.

Laura Ingalls Wilder established herself in Mansfield, MO through her activity in local clubs and working for Farm Loan Asssociation, a federal agency that made small loans to farmers.  Wilder also worked as a writer and editor, eventually creating a popular column in a publication called The Ruralist. Wilder’s entry into writing was inspired by a key figure in this biography, Rose Wilder Lane, who lived in various parts of the country working as a journalist (albeit specializing in “fake news”) and freelance writer, and eventually writing novels and political treatises.  Fraser is barely able to contain her contempt for Lane, who admittedly is an awful person, but nevertheless its surprising when someone is so bad that a historian can’t keep a neutral tone

Wilder writes the Little House books during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl of the 1930s and early 1940s, with the current events informing her reflections on the past. Since the books were written for children, Wilder naturally sanitized some of the darkest times of her childhood, elided events, and created composite characters.  But she also chose to use the books to hide her family’s deep poverty and multiple failures while idolizing her parents as exemplars of independence. This means leaving out parts of their lives when Charles Ingalls skipped out of town to avoid a debt or when the family had a miserable time working at a hotel in Iowa.

Lane served as an editor for her mother’s writing, and the surviving manuscripts includes notes back and forth, of what to retain and what to cut.  Fraser indicates Wilder fought to retain many of her own ideas and writing against Lane’s edits and suggestions and the finished novels have the same style as Wilder’s handwritten manuscripts.  Some scholars believe that Lane ghost wrote some or all of the novels, but Fraser use this evidence to attest that Lane mainly did the editing while writing an occasional interpolation. Lane’s increasingly radical right wing, libertarian ideology also influenced her mother’s political leanings and the underlying messages of the novels.

Fraser also examines the cultural effect of the Little House stories, both as a response to the New Deal when the books were published and in the post-Nixonian era of the television.  In both eras, Little House played the role of offering a rose-tinted view of a patriotic past where Americans took initiative and supported themselves through hard work.  Ironically, Wilder created a fictional version of her parents as independent farmers by erasing their poverty, their inability to survive as subsistence farmers, and the times they benefited from help of the government.  In fact, if the government is to be blamed for an of the suffering of the Ingalls, Wilders, and thousands of other pioneer farming families it is when they acted on laissez-faire and libertarian policies that someone like Lane would support. Examples include the US government ignoring their own scientist’s research that showed the Dakotas should not be opened to farming because it was too arid, and state governments offering little aid to farmers suffering from plagues of locusts and droughts because they did not wish to create “dependency.”

This is an excellent work of biography and history.  While offering a look at the exceptional life of a successful and beloved author, it also is a glimpse into the lives and dreams of many Americans in some of the most turbulent times in our nation’s history. Amazingly the book contains contrasting ideas of what it means to be American and the best way to govern this country that are still relevant to the current political debate. If you love the Little House books, this is a good way to deepen your understanding of their author and the books’ place in our culture.  But even if you have never read or watched any Little House material, this is still a great biography that I’d recommend.

Favorite Passages:

“The New York Times asked recently, ‘Why Do People Who Need Help from the Government Hate It so Much?’  It was no mystery to Wilder.  As she knew too well, people who are poor are ashamed.  It’s easier to blame the government than to blame yourself. Wrestling with shame was one of the reasons she wrote her books…” – p. 511

Recommended booksThe Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan

Rating: ****

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Book Review: Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo by Zora Neale Hurston


Author:  Zora Neale Hurston
TitleBarracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo
Publication Info: Amistad (2018), Edition: 1st Edition, 208 pages
Previously read by the same author:

  • Their Eyes Were Watching God
  • Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography
  • Mules and Men
  • Spunk: The Selected Stories of Zora Neale Hurston

Summary/Review:

This recently published biography/ethnography is by the great author, folklorist, and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, based on interviews she conducted in 1927.  Her subject is Kossola, also known as Cudjoe Lewis and by other names, who was the last known survivor of the African slave trade.  The Constitution outlawed the importation of slaves in 1808, but slave traders were able to smuggle in enslaved people from Africa without consequences right up to the Civil War.

Kossola was born in West Africa in what is Benin in the present day around 1840. In 1860, he was captured by the army of the Kingdom of Dahomey and sold to American slavers on the ship Clotilda.  Hurston expresses Kossola’s story in his dialect, allowing him to tell his story.  He talks of his childhood in Africa, capture, passage across the Atlantic, and enslavement in Mobile, Alabama.  After Emancipation, Kossola and other former captives of Clotilda pooled together money to buy land near Mobile from their former captors and created a self-contained community called Africatown.  There he tells stories of his marriage, children, his unsuccessful lawsuit after a train crashed into his buggy, and the death of his son, also in a train crash.  Kossola became known as a storyteller, and the appendix includes a sample of his stories.

The book is an interesting piece of overlooked American history.  It’s also a glimpse into the ethnographic practices of the time, good and bad, as Hurston relates her visits to Kossola and the negotiations that went into planning their interviews. More than once Hurston uses terms like “primitive” to describe Kossola, a shocking judgement for an anthropologist and African American. Critics of the work suggest that parts of Kossola’s narrative are fictionalized – either by himself or by Hurston – and note that she plagiarized and earlier interviewer’s work in an article she wrote about Kossola.  Nevertheless, this is a valuable historic document to read both for Kossola’s story and as an addition to Hurston’s work.

Favorite Passages:

Here is the medicine: That though the heart is breaking, happiness can exist in a moment, also. And because the moment in which we live is all the time there really is, we can keep going. It may be true, and often is, that every person we hold dear is taken from us. Still. From moment to moment, we watch our beans and our watermelons grow. We plant. We hoe. We harvest. We share with neighbors. If a young anthropologist appears with two hams and gives us one, we look forward to enjoying it. Life, inexhaustible, goes on. And we do too. Carrying our wounds and our medicines as we go. Ours is an amazing, a spectacular, journey in the Americas. It is so remarkable one can only be thankful for it, bizarre as that may sound. Perhaps our planet is for learning to appreciate the extraordinary wonder of life that surrounds even our suffering, and to say Yes, if through the thickest of tears. – Alice Walker March 2018

From 1801 to 1866, an estimated 3,873,600 Africans were exchanged for gold, guns, and other European and American merchandise. During the period from 1851 to 1860, approximately 22,500 Africans were exported. And of that number, 110 were taken aboard the Clotilda at Ouidah. Kossola was among them—a transaction.

Hurston’s manuscript is an invaluable historical document, as Diouf points out, and an extraordinary literary achievement as well, despite the fact that it found no takers during her lifetime. In it, Zora Neale Hurston found a way to produce a written text that maintains the orality of the spoken word. And she did so without imposing herself in the narrative, creating what some scholars classify as orature. Contrary to the literary biographer Robert Hemenway’s dismissal of Barracoon as Hurston’s re-creation of Kossola’s experience, the scholar Lynda Hill writes that “through a deliberate act of suppression, she resists presenting her own point of view in a natural, or naturalistic, way and allows Kossula ‘to tell his story in his own way.’”

Kossula was no longer on the porch with me. He was squatting about that fire in Dahomey. His face was twitching in abysmal pain. It was a horror mask. He had forgotten that I was there. He was thinking aloud and gazing into the dead faces in the smoke.

“Poe-lee very mad ’cause de railroad kill his brother. He want me to sue de company. I astee him, ‘Whut for? We doan know de white folks law. Dey say dey doan pay you when dey hurtee you. De court say dey got to pay you de money. But dey ain’ done it.’ I very sad. Poe-lee very mad. He say de deputy kill his baby brother. Den de train kill David. He want to do something. But I ain’ hold no malice. De Bible say not. Poe-lee say in Afficky soil it ain’ lak in de Americky. He ain’ been in de Afficky, you unnerstand me, but he hear what we tellee him and he think dat better dan where he at. Me and his mama try to talk to him and make him satisfy, but he doan want hear nothin. He say when he a boy, dey (the American Negro children) fight him and say he a savage. When he gittee a man dey cheat him. De train hurtee his papa and doan pay him. His brothers gittee kill. He doan laugh no mo’.

Rating: ***1/2

TV Review: American Experience: Walt Disney


TitleAmerican Experience: Walt Disney
Release Date: September 14, 2015
Director: Sarah Colt
Production Company: WGBH Educational Foundation
Summary/Review:

This two-part documentary attempts to unravel the man behind the myth of Walt Disney.  It begins rather ominously with a series of quotes showing people who knew Disney describing him as autocratic.  Yet, the first half is largely a positive appraisal of Disney as a man with a great imagination who found ways to make his dreams come true and share them with an appreciative audience.  Time and again, Disney makes a daring risk – to move to Los Angeles to start an animation studio, to create a feature-length animated film, to build a large & state of the art new studio, and later on to invent a theme park where guests could enter into stories. Walt’s brother Roy is the financial wizard who generally disapproves of Walt’s ambitious dreams but knowing he can’t stop his brother from pursuing his dreams finds the means of funding them.

Despite Disney’s belief that his company is like a family – and insisting on his employees calling him Walt instead of Mr. Disney – he seems to have an inability to see the negative effect he has by micromanaging and seemingly taking credit for all the studio’s work.  In the 1920s, almost all his animators leave him for another company and in 1941, the Disney Studio goes on strike due to low pay and inequitable conditions for many of the employees.  Disney seems totally blindsided by each of these events and years later testifies before HUAC that the strike was motivated by Communist infiltrators rather than recognize that his management had failed in any way.

Another theme of the movie is how much of an innovator and outlier Disney was in Hollywood in the 20s to 40s, but by the 50s & 60s, Disney had become a representation of conservative, middle-class white values (or a source of those values by some estimations). A story about The Song of the South is telling, as the studio sought advice from Black leaders on how to adapt the Uncle Remus tales, but Walt chose to ignore it.  Disney also hosted the premier in the same Atlanta movie theater where Gone With the Wind debuted a few years earlier, meaning that the star of the movie James Baskett could not attend the premier due to segregation.

Peeling back the layers of the real Disney is hard to do, and I don’t think that this documentary is able to achieve it. Disney may be a tyrant but he also was an innovator and entertainer.  Even Walt admitted that charming, avuncular individual hosting the Disneyland program was a character rather than a real expression of himself, but in many ways that is who Disney wanted to be, which also says a lot.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Koch (2012) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “K” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “K” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Keith Richards: Under the Influence and Knuckleball!

Title: Koch
Release Date: October 8, 2012
Director: Neil Barsky
Production Company: Zeitgeist Films
Summary/Review:

I grew up in a Connecticut suburb of New York City and one of the most significant public figures in my childhood was Mayor Ed Koch.  I mean, he was certainly more present in my life than the mayor of my hometown.  As far as I knew he’d always been mayor of New York and always would be (not true, as Koch was first elected mayor the same month I turned 4).

The documentary covers his life, largely focused on the 12 years he spent as mayor of New York.  The film captures his charm, humor, and positive energy that made him a popular and transformative mayor of New York at a time when crime, homelessness, and decay had made the City a shameful place to live.  Yet, the movie doesn’t shy away from his downside – particularly his reprehensible treatment of the City’s African American community, corruption in his administration, and his general mean-spirited submissiveness of anyone who had a contrary opinion.

In addition to a great array of archival footage, there are extensive interviews with Koch in his last years.  Despite the passage of time, Koch doesn’t display any regrets or recognize any mistakes he made.  In fact he seems to have hardened in his opinions, adopting views such as hateful Islamophobia.  It’s rare that a biographical documentary makes me like a person LESS than before I watched it, but that is the case here.  But it’s also hard to deny that Koch was the quintessential New Yorker and left an indelible mark on the City, for good and for ill.

From a film making perspective, one of the most remarkable parts of this documentary is an extended sequence set on Election Day in 2010.  As Koch learns that Andrew Cuomo (whom he endorsed for governor) is not going to meet with him at the election celebration, Koch decides to leave the party.  The camera follows him all the way home until Koch shuts the door on his modest apartment.  It’s pretty powerful in saying so much about Koch and his legacy without any narration to explain it.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

Ed Koch is kind of a dick, but he’s still pretty funny.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Watch American Experience: Blackout, an incident that was key in prompting New Yorkers to vote for Koch.  The book Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning also includes extensive coverage of the 1977 mayoral election. The essays collected in New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg are largely focused on the Koch Era.  Ric Burns’ New York: A Documentary Film provides a more extensive history of the City.

Finally, I’ve always loved this short film “Sundae in New York.”

Source: I watched this movie on Netflix streaming.

Rating: ***

Book Reviews: Dig if You Will the Picture by Ben Greenman


AuthorBen Greenman
TitleDig if You Will the Picture
Narrator: Peter Berkrot
Publication Info: Tantor Media, Inc., 2017
Summary/Review:

I received a free advanced reading copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program (although I ended up listening to an audiobook from the library)

Greenman’s book is the story of Prince’s career largely told through Prince’s music with a focus on his role as a cultural icon and sometimes generous/sometimes rocky relationships with other musicians.  Prince’s biography is in there too, but it’s more of the details fall into place around the examination of his music.  Greenman is a devoted fan of Prince so his own experience as a Prince fan emerges several times in the book, but unlike Rob Sheffield who makes the fan’s experience a window into a greater understanding of an artists, Greenman’s personal reflections seem more an intrusion.  Nevertheless, it’s overall a great attempt at understanding the life work of someone as mercurial and hard to define as Prince.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: Dreams to Remember by Mark Ribowsky


Author: Mark Ribowsky
TitleDreams to Remember: Otis Redding, Stax Records, and the Transformation of Southern Soul by
Publication Info: Liveright (2015)
Summary/Review:

It’s hard to believe that Otis Redding was only 26 years old when he died in a plane crash on December 10, 1967.  His accomplishments as a singer, song-writer, and producer left behind a colossal legacy for someone so young. Ribowsky’s biography examines Redding’s life as an artist depicting him not only as a talented singer and musician, but the creator and defining star of soul music (I feel that Ribowsky gets a bit hagiographical in this sense as much as I admire Redding’s musical greatness).

The biography explores Redding’s upbringing in Macon, GA – a city that also gave us Little Richard and James Brown – his rise to fame as a stunning stage performer, recording with Stax records in Memphis, and becoming a soul superstar in the mid-60s.  A lot of key moments in Redding’s life are covered in depth including writing and recording “Respect” and how that song was transformed into a defining hit song by Aretha Franklin, covering the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” even though he wasn’t very familiar with the song and ended up improvising new lyrics, his standout performance at the Monterrey Pop Festival, writing and recording “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” and his tragic death.  Ribowsky is also interested in detailing Redding’s role in the rise of Stax Records, defining a Southern soul sound grounded in being the music of the black community in contrast to Detroit’s Motown Records attempts to produce crossover hits.  While Redding did not have hit songs on the pop charts in his lifetime, he managed to have great success and wealth by keeping recordings in the charts for long periods of time, and concurrently with The Beatles, using the long-playing album as a vessel for pop music artistry instead of the single.  The Beatles are also Redding’s fans and loaned him and his retinue limousines every time they performed in London.

While Redding is known as a big-hearted and friendly person, Ribowsky doesn’t shy away from his dark side.  The culture of Stax Records involves casually adding one’s own name as a writing credit, swindling other artists from royalties, and in-fighting among the stable of artists, something Redding was not above participating in.  He was also involved in a shoot-out in Macon that somehow miraculously was kept out of the news coverage of the time.  Worst yet, according to at least one women in the band, Redding and his crew were guilty of emotional abuse and sexual misconduct on their tours.

If you’re interested in Otis Redding and soul music, this is an excellent study of the man and his times, and outside the bits of hagiography, and excellent biographical work.

 

Rating: ****

Book Review: Democracy in Chains by Nancy MacLean


AuthorNancy MacLean
TitleDemocracy in Chains
Narrator: Bernadette Dunne
Publication Info: Penguin Audio, 2017
Summary/Review:

This book documents the history of the political and economic ideology that has come to dominate the Republican party today. A lot of the familiar figures are here from Friedrich Hayek to Milton Friedman to Charles and David Koch.  But the central figure of this narrative is James Buchanan, founder of the “Virginia school” of political economy – teaching and training economists at University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, and George Mason University – and a major figure in the Mont Pelerin Society and Cato Institute.  Buchanan put forward the public choice theory which introduced many familiar ideas of limited government, anti-regulation, anti-taxation, and rewarding the “job creators” into the public debate. He also came up with long-term strategies of eroding the public’s trust in the government and using the proximity to Washington, DC to keep close ties with right wing leaders while economists trained in his methods went through a revolving door between academia, lobbying, and government positions. MacLean’s writing is obviously biased and I doubt that many of her most conspiratorial implications are 100% accurate.  Nevertheless it is clear that this particular form of right-wing/libertarian ideology has taken hold of at least one major party and the wealthy individuals and corporations who support it, and that it is due to a many decade effort to influence hearts and minds by Buchanan and his cohort.

Recommended booksFree Lunch by David Cay Johnston, The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein, and The Price of Inequality by Joseph E. Stiglitz
Rating: ***

Book Review: Dreaming the Beatles by Rob Sheffield 


AuthorRob Sheffield 
Title: Dreaming the Beatles
Narrator:  Rob Sheffield
Publication Info: HarperCollins Publishers, 2017
Previously Read by This Author Love is a Mix Tape, Talking to Girls About Duran Duran
Summary/Review:

Even the author wonders what anyone could possibly say about the Beatles. Sheffield’s approach is to look at the Beatles story through the lens of how they’ve remained beloved icons to this day appealing to people who discover them long after they broke up (the author and myself included).  Sheffield has a funny way of retelling famous Beatles stories as well as poking holes in a lot of accepted wisdom.  One essay on the song “Dear Prudence” contains a lot of the factors in Sheffield’s approach.  First he notes that Paul plays the drums because it was recorded at a time when Ringo quit the band and ponders what they may have been thinking or feeling not knowing if Ringo would ever return.  Second, he talks about a common theme he sees in many Beatles song lyrics, that while they are putatively written addressing a girl, that they were often a means in which the Beatles could talk to one another.  Finally,  the actual subject of the song, Prudence Farrow, is famous for needing to be “rescued” from meditating too long in her tent, but Sheffield points out that she was just fine and didn’t need rescuing by a bunch of bored rock stars. Sheffield writes with a lot of humor and joy as he attempts to unravel the continuing appeal of the Beatles.

Recommended books: How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll by Elijah Wald
Rating: ****

Book Review: River of Doubt by Candice Millard


AuthorCandice Millard
TitleRiver of Doubt
Narrator: Paul Michael
Publication Info: Books on Tape (2005)
Summary/Review:

The River of Doubt, or Rio da Dúvida, was the actual, dramatic name of a river in Brazil’s Amazon region that is now called the Roosevelt River.  Fresh off his failed attempt to return to the Presidency as the Progressive “Bull Moose” Party candidate, Theodore Roosevelt conducted a scientific expedition for the American Museum of Natural History to explore this remote river in 1913-14.   Brazil’s greatest explorer Cândido Rondon joined Roosevelt as  leader and were accompanied as Roosevelt’s son Kermit, a naturalist, and 15 porters.  This book describes the adventure along the river that was plagued by waterfalls and rapids that required frequent portages, disease, loss of food and supplies, and the threat of the indigenous peoples, the Cinta Larga, tracking the expedition.  One member of the party drowned, one was murdered, and the murderer was abandoned by the party in the jungle.  Roosevelt himself suffered injuries and illness that brought him close to death and expressed the wish to be left behind.  It’s a harrowing story that despite happening in modern times seems to be from a more distant era.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Trouble Boys by Bob Mehr


Author: Bob Mehr
TitleTrouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements
Publication Info: Boston, MA : Da Capo Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group, [2016]
Summary/Review:

The Replacements are a band that have left a legacy of great music, yet always seemed to have the potential to do much more.  After reading this book though, it seems amazing that they even accomplished what they did.  Beyond their music, The Replacements are known for their heavy alcohol and substance abuse and their disastrous antics on-stage.  Turns out that they actually played better when drunk, and their worst performances were a rebellion against perceived hostility in the crowd or plain old self-sabotage. From the beginning, the band is riven by conflicts among its members and with their managers, producers, and record labels.

Mehr’s book traces the band back to their childhoods which were troubled indeed, especially for the Stinson brothers who suffered from abuse and neglect.  Each member of the band is well-developed within the narrative of the band’s rise and fall:

Bob Stinson – The founder of the band who always resented Paul Westerberg essentially taking over, and disliked the move to more melodic pop songs.  Stinson’s substance abuse problems were the most serious of all The Replacements, and he was forced out of the band in 1986.

Tommy Stinson – Bob had his little brother take up bass, and Tommy ended up developing into the most talented instrumentalist in the band.  Tommy’s life is remarkable as he drops out of school and he essentially spends his teenage years playing and touring with The Replacements.  Eventually he grows close to Westerberg and allies with him against his own brother.

Paul Westerberg – In the story related in the book, Westerberg hears the Stinsons’ band rehearsing in their basement and pretty takes over and makes them his band.  Westerberg comes across as arrogant and dismissive, and I really felt like punching him in the face by the end of this book.  And yet, Westerberg also grows to become a talented songwriter creating introspective songs that speak for the disaffected youth of the 1980s.

Chris Mars – Every band has a “quiet one” and The Replacements’ drummer is not just a musician but an artist who finds fulfillment outside of the band.  Still the way Paul & Tommy basically ditch him in the later years is just wrong.

Slim Dunlap – A journeyman/session guitarist who takes over after Bob Stinson’s ousting, he’s older than the rest of the band and settled in his married life, creating quite a contrast.  And yet he becomes something of an enforcer for the band against outsiders.

All in all, this is a well-written book that gives the reasons that for all their flaws, we still kind of find ourselves rooting for The Replacements to succeed.
Favorite Passages:

Though the band’s drinking would come to define and even consume them in later years, in the beginning it was a perfect lubricant for the long hours of practice and their burgeoning friendship. “That was the glue that held us—ol’ Jack Daniels,” said Mars. Westerberg noted: “They weren’t heavy fall-down drunks when I met them. None of us were. We learned to be that together.”

Where other groups evinced a certain artfulness or tried to present an idealized vision of themselves, the Replacements were all rough edges and struggle. That was part of the attraction: watching them, you couldn’t help but root for the band.

When Hoeger asked about their career aspirations, Westerberg articulated a prescient vision of the Replacements’ future: “We’d like to become famous without being professional,” he said. “Maybe like a giant cult.”

“To me, the soul of rock-and-roll is mistakes. Mistakes and making them work for you,” Westerberg would note. “In general, music that’s flawless is usually uninspired.”

Over the course of their career onstage, the Replacements would happily play the role of jesters and buffoons, but their concerts were also a high-wire act as well as a geek show. On one level, it was theater, pure performance—but it was real too. The band was constitutionally unable to put on a conventional act. If they were bored, they sounded bored; if they were drunk, the sets careened; if they were angry, their playing seethed; if they felt ornery, the show might devolve into one long piss-take, a joke on the crowd. That kind of calculated authenticity—in all its paradoxical glory—would be the Replacements’ methodology moving forward.

True Replacements fans—not the ones coming to live vicariously through them or to find sanction for their own behavior—were a different breed. “When we started, we were mixed-up kids, and we wrote about it,” said Westerberg. “It’s funny that the people who related to it the most weren’t fucked-up kids, though. Our fans have always been, dare I say, a little more intelligent than the band was labeled as. I always thought that ironic.” Replacements partisans were, on the whole, literate, dark-humored, and a bit confused about their place in the world. They weren’t the go-getters or yuppie types, but they weren’t hopeless wastrels either. They were, Tommy Stinson would note, “more like us than they fuckin’ knew. They didn’t really fit anywhere. They probably didn’t aspire to a whole lot, but also didn’t aspire to doing nothing either. That’s the kind of fan we probably appealed to most: the people that were in that gray area.

Prince was rumored to have lurked in the shadows at some of the Replacements’ shows at First Avenue, but it was in the bathroom of a club in St. Paul where Westerberg finally ran into him. “Oh, hey,” said Westerberg, seeing the dolled-up singer standing next to him at the urinal. “What’s up, man?” Prince turned and responded in cryptic fashion: “Life.”

Dubbing the Replacements “America’s inebriate counterpart to the Smiths,” Reynolds was one of the few European journalists to grasp the peculiar alchemy that fueled the ’Mats: “At the heart of the Replacements lies fatigue, insecurity, a sense of wasted or denied possibilities, but this is a pain that comes out bursting and exuberant, a world weariness that’s positively, paradoxically boisterous.”

Recommended books: Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink by Elvis Costello
Rating: ***1/2