The Messy, Brilliant History of The Replacements’ Tim

‘Mats bassist Tommy Stinson spoke with us about the band’s revered fourth album and how their original vision for the project has now achieved a long-deserved reality

Music Features The Replacements
The Messy, Brilliant History of The Replacements’ Tim

The Replacements’ Let It Be is the best record ever made—or, that’s what I declared on my Twitter feed this week, along with Prince’s Sign ‘O The Times. The prompt was to pick one safe and one unsafe choice for the all-time greatest album, and I’ll let you be the judge of which pick of mine fits where. It’s not lost on me, though, that both records were made in Minnesota—or, in broader terms, the Midwest, the region of this country I have called home for all 25 years of my life. I suspect my biases are unavoidable in that regard. It’s true: I tend to the work of my neighbors far more often than that of any coastal folk. I grew up on Heartland rock and Midwest college radio bands—mainly due to the influence of my parents—and The Replacements largely existed in that zone, especially by way of their song “I Will Dare,” which was a fixture on local stations near where I grew up. Paul Westerberg, Tommy Stinson, Chris Mars and Bob Stinson—lovingly called The ‘Mats, a truncation for The Placemats—were four kids who grew up a half-a-day’s drive away from my residence in Ohio. They also happened to make some of the most crucial music of the last century, despite their best, continuous efforts to squash that destiny long before it could fully unfurl. It’s a story as old as music itself; a portrait of lucky, brilliant men tumbling in and out of bad timing.

I had come into the orbit of The Replacements via a Saturday Night Live rabbit-hole I’d gone down in my teenage years. Fellow Midwesterner Chris Farley meant everything to me back then, ever since my father gifted me the pastime of watching Tommy Boy every time it came on TV. The United States is a big, vast, beautiful and damning place to be born into; having figures and art and hope fall into your backyard is a juxtaposition worth untangling over and over. When Farley premiered his character Matt Foley on SNL in 1993, it felt otherworldly and innate and homegrown—as if I was watching an Illinois or Michigan living room mushroom into clumsy, caustic tumult in the dead of winter.

By the time The Replacements entered my vocabulary, I’d been obsessing over all of the musicians who’d been banned from the sketch show, especially Elvis Costello, Fear and Rage Against the Machine. I found a clip of Westerberg and the boys performing an out-of-tune rendition of “Bastards of Young,” blissfully unbothered (in actuality, I admittedly never caught a glimpse of it) by the frontman yelling “Come on, fucker” at Bob Stinson just inches away from his microphone. What I really saw were four unkempt, unbothered dudes playing their instruments just like my friends once played theirs—who sang and laughed and proudly showed off shit-eating grins like we’d all done so often.

I’d find The Replacements again some years later, when I was knee-deep in my first watch of One Tree Hill. In a Season Three episode, Sheryl Lee (Laura Palmer, for the unhip folks) delivers a monologue about the greatest moment of her character’s life happening when she and her friends attended an outdoor festival in Winston Salem, North Carolina and watched Paul Westerberg play “Here Comes a Regular” after a torrential downpour caused an hours-long power loss. “In typical fashion,” Lee says. “He finished the song, smiled and then threw up and fell off the stage.” It was a fictional account about the miraculous wonder of a very real and very perfect song. The details were embellished, but the magic was all the same—“Here Comes a Regular” is, maybe, the greatest ballad ever written or, at the very least, a song that transcends generations.

“Here Comes a Regular” is the subdued, emotional closer on Tim, the fourth Replacements album and their first for Sire Records. Prior to that point, the band had been attached to Twin/Tone Records, a label founded by Peter Jesperson, the manager of the Minneapolis record store Oar Folkjokeopus and the guy who discovered the Replacements (and later managed them). But Tim, which came out in September 1985, was a sonic turning point for the band, who’d taken the raw, oral intensity and early indie leanings of Let It Be and transposed them into these mature, understated articulations on growing up under the microscope of newfound fame—and it arrived such a far distance away from the bold, biting volume of Hootenanny and Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash.

I know I said Let It Be is the greatest album ever made—and I do stand by that—but it’s Tim that remains my favorite Replacements project. From the gauzy gallows imagery of “Swingin Party” to the honky-tonk-colored “Waitress In the Sky” to the jangly “Kiss Me On the Bus,” it’s an untouchable assemblage of tracks. Westerberg had found a lot of influence in everyone from Roy Orbison to Nick Lowe to Big Star, particularly in how each of them constructed pop melodies—and, in turn, Tim is a real halcyon affair brimming with golden, catchy rock cuts. Lines like “unwillingness to claim us, you got no war to name us” and “if being alone’s a crime, I’m serving forever” and “everybody wants to be someone here” were candy to a 19-year-old kid exploring his college’s dust-soiled, out-of-order radio station booth—and they hit me even harder now, six years later.

Part of the story—and, perhaps, the downfall—of the Replacements is that they were drunken Midwesterners who kamikazed their own potential. There’s a mythology there, this idea that, because they were chaotic and self-implosive back then, they’ve retained that same youthful and raucous energy far into adulthood. The truth of it is that Westerberg found his way into recovery in the 1990s, Tommy has maintained a busy career in bands like Guns N’ Roses, Soul Asylum and Perfect and Mars has dedicated his post-Replacements years to his artwork. Bob passed away in 1995 from organ failure that came about after years of drug use. They say never meet your heroes, but I’ve interviewed almost 100 people I fuck with in 2023 alone, and I haven’t had much interest in adhering to that longtime mantra much. Upon hearing that Tommy Stinson was available to talk, I’ve never typed an email so fast in my life.

And, in true Replacements fashion, Stinson shows up 10 minutes late to our interview. I wouldn’t have expected anything less, to be honest. When he saunters into our cameras-off Zoom call, he sounds a million years removed from the shitfaced 23-year-old who went toe-to-toe with Kurt Loder in a 1989 MTV interview. He’s much more reserved now, but still as goofy as ever—the kind of warm aftershock you’d expect from a rockstar who spent his time coming of age in and out of stupors. The Replacements’ music doesn’t ever leave conversations in, around and beyond the zeitgeist. Through various all-time album rankings and word-of-mouth celebrations from fans online and in record shops, the band is still as relevant as they ever were—perhaps even more so now.

I ask Stinson if he and the band ever got recognized on the street back around the time that Let It Be and Tim came out. “That came later,” he replies, suggesting it was near the tail-end of The Replacements’ first tenure. “Strangely enough, at 56, it happens more now. It’s weird how the world works.” Beyond a song like “Left of the Dial,” which pays homage to the college radio stations that helped get the band’s name into more conversations, The ‘Mats were cognizant of how it was young students—who were practically the same age as them—who were some of the biggest catalysts in getting their music heard during the Let It Be and Tim years. Playing universities and campus bars was the Replacements’ bread and butter, what got them going.

Four years ago, Rhino Records put out Dead Man’s Pop, a remix of the band’s ill-fated 1989 album Don’t Tell a Soul. In 2023, the label are returning to the well with Tim: Let It Bleed Edition, a large box-set that—at its core—reshapes and restores Tim to its original intended form, along with demos, live cuts and alternate mixes. But the release of Tim: Let It Bleed Edition is a paradox in many ways: The Replacements, for a long, long time, have held the opinion that Tim and Don’t Tell a Soul have always sounded terrible but, if it was fully up to them, we’d never be hearing any of these outtakes or rarities.

“We would’ve never put out extra tracks, live junk like that,” Stinson says. “We, as the artists, wouldn’t be so much into that. But, when I take myself out of the ‘artists’ category and put myself into the ‘fan’ category, where I am the kind of music fanatic that likes to fucking see where the hits were coming from, the outtakes, the fucking beasts that got them there—I’m interested in all of that stuff like anyone else, as a big music fan. When I put myself in that category, it’s like, ‘Okay, I understand why we are uniquely relevant in that regard, that people still want more and this gives them the opportunity to get a bigger picture of the records that they adore.’ I’m glad we got a chance to make [Tim] sound the way it was meant to be.” Stinson himself is not a proponent of recreating history. In fact, he claims that—if it weren’t for him not liking the mix in the first place—he would have “ixnayed the box-set’s release.” That there was a public want for the bigger picture of Tim, it softened Stinson’s opinion on the whole shebang. “I’m glad it sounds good,” he adds. “I’m glad people like it.”

Westerberg and Jesperson and Steven Fjelstad had produced the first three Replacements records, which made the decision to bring Tommy Erdelyi (Ramone) in on Tim all the more puzzling on paper. Yes, Erdelyi had produced Ramones, Leave Home and Rocket to Russia—and he’d team up with Ed Stasium on the Ramones’ live album It’s Alive in the late-1970s, a partnership that was supposed to take shape on Tim, as well—but his work was New York Dolls-inspired and tapped into a much louder sound than what Westerberg and The ‘Mats were leaning towards in 1985. Erdelyi and Stasium were a producer/mixer package-deal, set to seize an opportunity with Warner Brothers that would help them stretch beyond what people knew their creative capacities to be. But then, when Stasium didn’t show up and Erdelyi assumed the mixing duties, it would, ultimately, derail the destiny of Tim and its quality.

“I think, going in, everyone thought Ed would be there to mix, and it ended up not being that way and I think Tommy really thought he could do it,” Stinson says. “The unfortunate side to that is that no one really spoke up about it sounding weird—and I always thought it sounded weird. Not necessarily bad, it just didn’t sound right—almost like it was out of phase, even.” He tells me that Erdelyi’s ears “were shot when we met him.” The Ramones drummer could still hear, but what Stinson means by that turn-of-phrase is that what Erdelyi could bring to the table wasn’t up to par with Stasium’s talent. “There was no getting around that, and he was open about it,” Stinson adds. “I don’t really think anyone thought he was going to mix the record until it came down to the fact that he kind of had to mix the record—because [Warner Brothers] weren’t going to pay someone else when no one stepped in.”

A big thing that Stinson mentions many times during our conversation is the regret he feels for not having the wherewithal or the understanding to speak up about how bad Tim’s mix sounded in the moment, that he and the band should’ve rebelled against being left to their own devices in a do-or-die moment of their career. “We just forged ahead and didn’t really stop,” he adds. “I think it would have been good to stop and take stock.” That doesn’t mean that Erdelyi’s contributions weren’t important, though. Upon Rhino’s announcement of Tim: Let It Bleed Edition, folks on Twitter were quick to admonish the Ramones drummer’s work—which Stinson doesn’t buy into. “Tommy was great for producing it, for getting that part down,” he says. “He did his part pretty well. I think, as far as getting the record done. [Tim] got lost in the mix, it got lost in the post-production of it—because we needed extra hands on deck that we didn’t have, to help guide us through making the decision to say, ‘No, this really doesn’t sound right.’ We didn’t really have anyone with the ears to stop it and say that.”

The Tim: Let It Bleed Edition’s biggest claim to fame is that, for the first time ever, you can listen to Tim in the way it would’ve sounded had Stasium mixed in 38 years ago. When the box-set’s first single, the Stasium mix of “Left of the Dial” came out earlier this summer, Replacements fans claimed that it sounded like the Georgia Satellites, which was, funnily enough, not the knock against Westerberg, Mars and the Stinsons you’d expect it to be—they were friends with the Satellites and admirers of their work. It might be easy to come at “Left of the Dial” with no context of what the rest of the mix sounds like and make any assumption you want, especially if you’re a purist who would rather see Tim left untouched. But, trust me, these Stasium songs are absolutely pristine—especially “I’ll Buy” and “Little Mascara,” both of which feature crystal-clear, punctuated vocals from Westerberg. And, sonically, the uptick in quality cannot be missed or ignored; “Bastards of Young” sounds more ferocious, primeval, titanic and rowdy than ever before.

A few weeks ago, my partner and I went on a drive and I played the Let It Bleed Edition tracks. For the entirety of our relationship, “Swingin Party” has been a focal sonic part of our connection with each other. I said to her in the car, “The version of ‘Swingin Party’ we love was actually supposed to sound much different’”—in the most non-“did you know Tame Impala is just one guy” way possible. I play “Swingin Party” and, immediately, the muted tones of Bob’s guitar are washed away—the notes are clean and precise, and every second comes alive in a space that is, finally, room enough to breathe and shimmer. The ‘Mats’ beloved fourth album is no longer plagued by cloudy gloss or instrumentation dimmed in post; it’s the masterpiece it should have always been.

But it’s also hard to listen to the sublime metamorphosis of Tim: Let It Bleed Edition without feeling a caveat of sadness—given, especially, how the cursed original mix of Tim parallels The Replacements’ own demise. Even though they shit on every expectation that was thrown their way, they still could’ve used help with their transition from indie band to major label band when it counted most. “The Warner Brothers people were sweet to us and tried their best to help,” Stinson says. “But I think we were all such social defects. When I look back and watch how our peers were able glad hand and bridge the gap between the music and the fucking commerce of it all, we really didn’t give a fuck. We fucking shat on it at any turn, rather than try to conform. And, really, we did that not out of spite; we did it out of our own ineptitude.”

The band wasn’t interested in kneeling to the rise of MTV. They resisted the urge to make cliche, bubblegum music videos—instead opting to film different angles of speakers for “Bastards of Young,” “Hold My Life,” “Left of the Dial” and “Little Mascara.” It wasn’t The Replacements sticking it to the man or trying to be edgy—they legitimately didn’t pick up on the history of such theatricality, that the Beatles and the Stones made videos long before MTV existed. Even Stinson acknowledges now, 40 years later, that, had he and the guys put more thought into it, they might have finally come around to the common-sense of it all.

“We were too awkward as humans to really understand how to make that all work, not that it was ever going to work—because, I think, what we were seeing with MTV, we were like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ We never could get on board with any of that or looked at it as an asset to our art. It was always looked at as this evil appendage that is part and parcel to getting to the next step—which we wanted, but we didn’t want to fucking have to face what that meant. Because, one, we just were too uncomfortable with it and, two, we were uncomfortable with our own selves to make that move,” he adds.

In July, I got caught up on season two of The Bear and, much to my delight, stumbled upon episode five (titled “Pop”)—which features an extensive Replacements joke from Matty Matheson and the beautiful, climactic use of the horns part in “Can’t Hardly Wait.” I am a simple connoisseur of music; my favorite fragment of any song ever is that horns-led tempo shift that cuts “Can’t Hardly Wait” in half. It’s perfect and larger-than-life, and it’s the best part of Pleased to Meet Me. The track was written and first recorded during the Tim sessions—this time featuring Bob playing the guitar part that would, two years later, be replaced by The Memphis Horns and Alex Chilton’s fills. “Can’t Hardly Wait” has lived the most lives in The ‘Mats’ history—across a handful of tempo and verse changes—and that’s because of Westerberg and the band’s insistence on not releasing the track until it was ready.

“We would often record and, if a song didn’t have the right feel or it wasn’t driving, we’d move on,” Stinson says. “It seems to me that that’s the best way to make records, and our earliest records are a testament to that. We would roughly learn the songs in rehearsal, go play them live a bunch and then record them live. And [‘Can’t Hardly Wait’] was like some of the other songs that happen in the life of any artist: Sometimes they’re ready and sometimes they’re not—whether it’s a vibe or a missing line or a missing chord. Until it comes, you don’t put it out. Finally, that song got to a point where it was ready and, so, we put it out on Pleased to Meet Me.”

The decision to go from Bob’s guitar-playing to The Memphis Horns happened, for the most part, because he’d been fired from the band in-between Tim and Pleased to Meet Me. The reason for him getting canned is still not 100% understood, as reports have cited both Sire Records’ desire for more mainstream records and Stinson’s lingering substance abuse issues. Some folks have even pointed fingers at Westerberg’s want for commercial success having clashed with Stinson’s more rigid, punk-centric playing style. Prefix Magazine once wrote that the Replacements lost their edge when Stinson made his exit. I think that’s true, but Westerberg’s propensity for pop hooks on Tim and beyond suggested that that edge was going to manifest in much more accessible ways with every passing project.

Pleased to Meet Me was made as a three-piece, and it was a conundrum for the band when they were tasked with figuring out what to do with the second guitar parts they’d damn near perfected on Tim. Westerberg was using a lot of open-tunings at the time—so he could play the melody and the chords simultaneously, in a Keith Richards-inspired model—in an effort to fill the space of Bob’s parts. “It came down to, really, just, ‘That part’s important and it needs a melody right there, so let’s make it a horn melody. Why not?’ We’re in Memphis, let’s use the Memphis Horns,’” Stinson explains.

Given how rough the original mixes of Tim and Don’t Tell a Soul were, it feels almost improbable that Pleased to Meet Me came out sounding so polished in-between them. But that has much to do with the fact that Ardent Studios in Memphis was a much more nurturing, top-notch recording space than Nicollet Studios had been two years earlier. It was at Ardent where folks like John Hampton, Terry Manning and Jim Dickinson—who produced Big Star’s Third and Alex Chilton’s 1979 album Like Flies on Sherbert and, of course, Pleased to Meet Me—cut their teeth. Being in a big-time, historical studio with someone like Dickinson was a level-up from having to work through the prosaic limitations of a slipshod Minneapolis studio with a producer whose ears weren’t holding up with that of professional mixers—The Replacements were the band, not the experts, and not having to lend a focus to quality checks made Pleased to Meet Me their cleanest, toughest release. “The only thing we ever had for a testing stereo was Peter Jersperson’s, for that regard,” Stinson adds. “If it sounded good in his place, it was good enough to put out. I don’t think [Tim] even got that stamp on it, to be honest with you, from any of us.”

The Replacements had worked with Chilton on “Left of the Dial” and “Can’t Hardly Wait” and demoed some stuff during the Tim sessions but, ultimately, their collaborations together barely extended beyond that. Westerbeg, in particular, had been a big Big Star guy—and Chilton’s imprint can be heard from Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash through All Shook Down. But, once the allure of Chilton being in the studio with The ‘Mats wore off, it was obvious that he wasn’t quite what they needed to make a record. “We realized we love his music and love the stuff he’s done, but that he’s a different person now than he was then—and what he brought to the table wasn’t what was expected,” Stinson says. “That’s no shot across the bow to him. What it is is that we were big fans and we would’ve loved to have him produce [Tim]. And when we got there, when we got to that point, he really didn’t know what it was we wanted and he didn’t really know what to do with us. And that became apparent pretty quick.” The band moved on, accepted it as trial and error and then tried something completely different with Erdelyi. Were The ‘Mats sore about missing the mark with Chilton? “I don’t remember anyone crying in the studio, if that’s what you mean,” Stinson adds, chuckling.

I’ve lived my whole life in a pretty underloved part of the country, so I feel a kinship to that part of the Replacements’ story—their upbringing in Minneapolis and then, against all odds, breaking out alongside bands from the coasts. Of course, Minnesota had Bob Dylan and Prince, but I have always wondered how many Hüsker Düs and Replacements there could’ve really been had the Land of 10,000 Lakes become the Land of 10,000 Bands. Even 40 years later, Stinson hasn’t found another place in the world that rivals what he experienced making music as Dogbreath and then, later, The Impediments, with his brother and Mars before recruiting Westerberg to sing lead in their crew. “We had a really diverse musical community that really hung out a lot together and fed off of each other in many ways,” he says. “You always heard about the rock ‘n’ roll era of Los Angeles, but there was something very special about Minneapolis in teh 1980s—especially in the late-1970s, early-1980s, well past Dylan’s tenure in the state. I think that’s what made that so special.”

“Here Comes a Regular” was written about the CC Club and Oar Folkjokeopus, two spots that were instrumental in not just The Replacements’ existence, but in binding the Minneapolis music scene together. Stinson used to skip school and hangout at Oar Folk, watching soaps behind the counter with Jesperson. Even when the band was making Let It Be and Tim and finding success on college radio stations, they were still completely attached to their home. “That’s where we lived, that’s where we ate, drank, partied,” Stinson says. “We were very much Midwestern Boys.” When Bob taught his brother how to play bass, bands like The Time, Lipps Inc. and The Suburbs were starting to really catch fire locally. Stinson had been to jail three times before he turned 10 years old, and joining a crew gave him an out from where he was heading—and being surrounded by a bustling, up-and-coming music hub helped usher him towards the spaces he needed to be in. “Minnesota already seemed like somewhat of a destination, musically, by the time we got to it,” he adds. “As opposed to needing to go to Chicago or New York or L.A. to find fame and stardom, we didn’t really have that need—because it seemed like it was happening right there [in Minnesota].”

Tim: Let It Bleed Edition features a special disc of nearly 20 songs performed live at the Cabaret Metro in Chicago on January 11th, 1986. It was a week before they’d travel east and play a last-minute gig at Saturday Night Live, filling in for the Pointer Sisters, who had to cancel mere days before the live show. It’s one of the better live recordings of the band you’ll hear, as they tumble through Tim songs in a truly anarchic showboat of messy intensity. The Replacements often played drunk and would play bits and pieces of un-rehearsed songs and covers instead of the material they were supposed to be spotlighting. To think that that same band would go on to play one of the most prestigious late-night shows ever, it felt like a victory for DIY, homegrown bands who didn’t have industry connections or big label deals—but, perhaps, that was just as much a detriment as it was a promise of hope.

“Part of our lure is that we stayed underground. We stayed underground, for the most part, because of our shortcomings,” Stinson says. “But that was also, somehow, our strong-suit—that we were so unable to conform to what would make us star-quality or what would catapult us. We always felt like the music had to do it, that we couldn’t do something with the music to make us more popular. In saying that, there were a lot of opportunities that I think we probably pissed away—because we just didn’t know how to greet them artistically and make them fun or make them palatable. We pretty much wung our entire career. From top to bottom, we were total defects and we didn’t know any better. All that you hear is exactly the way we were. It’s the good, the bad and the ugly, really.”

Though that Metro gig is an outlier for its streamlined song selection and the band’s harnessed, unfiltered energy, the spirit that oozes out of the set greatly foreshadowed what was to come on Saturday Night Live a week after its recording—when they played “Bastards of Young” and “Kiss Me on the Bus” bonkers sloshed, after drinking and taking drugs with guest host Harry Dean Stanton in their dressing room in-between the dress rehearsal and live show. Between the band wearing mismatched combinations of each other’s clothes and Bob tripping and falling on his guitar and breaking it, I suppose it’s no shock that The Replacements were canned from SNL and banned for 30 years (Westerberg would return and do a solo performance in the 1990s, though), but, even almost four decades later, Stinson has no qualms with the lows of his own—or the Replacements’—nostalgia. They were just four guys running at the same pace and running from and to the same thing.

“For good or bad, awkwardly, we stayed true to ourselves—which was a good thing for the music in one way but bad in another. And you just gotta live with that,” Stinson says. “I wouldn’t change a fucking thing if I had a chance to, because it is what it is. I’m not one to sit there and think I know any better or that I would have made anything different—except, maybe, mix [Tim] better. If we had a better mix on that record, maybe radio would have been more friendly to it.”

I ask Stinson about Rhino’s decision to change the original Tim artwork, which had a banality to it that has long been criticized. “I haven’t pulled it out of the fucking box to know what you’re talking to me about,” he says. I explain to him that the cover of the Let It Bleed Edition has been changed to just a picture of the band with their instruments, a detour from Robert Longo’s infamous contribution. Stinson notes that Longo was paid handsomely for the artwork and it had seemed like a good pairing at the time—as weird and bizarre as it was, particularly that a sketch of Bob’s face was the only visible band member feature on the cover. He then offers up a nugget that might explain why the box-set is called Let It Bleed: “If you look at artistic records from the past, we were kind of thinking, ‘Oh, the [Rolling Stones’] Let It Bleed cover has got artwork that adds to the actual record, that sounds kind of cool.’ That was the mindset behind that and it made just about as much sense as [Erdelyi] being the one to mix that record.” (It should be noted here that Stinson absolutely loathes the box-set’s title, but found it too late to voice his opinion during the process.)

When Tim was coming together, The ‘Mats had shuffled through various titles—Whistler’s Mammy, Van Gogh’s Ear, England Schmingland—before settling on the shorthand first name of hundreds of thousands of people in the world. Westerberg threw out “Tim” and the whole band laughed about it for a bit and then said “Why not?” There’s also a story floating around that they wanted to call the record Tommy, but that The Who wouldn’t sign off on it so they picked Tim instead. It’s easiest to just chalk the origins up as an inside joke. Before we end our talk, I ask Stinson how he feels about the title almost 40 years later, and he offers a parting gift you can ascribe to much of the Replacements’ history: “The joke was very long forgotten by the time the record came out. At best, it was a moment. It was already too late to change the idea, right?”

Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.

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