The Replacements Were My Smiths (Guest Blog)

Accused by Smiths devotees of never having felt any pain, Fruit Bats singer Eric Johnson defends: "I had plenty of pain ... provided by four hard-drinking, hardcore burnouts from the Twin Cities."

The recent announcement that influential alt-rockers The Replacements are reuniting for their first shows in two decades stirred some deep-seated emotions in one musician ...  

I’m not really all that into The Smiths.      

There. I've said it. Now let me tell you about some of things people have said to me when I’ve made this confession. One person offered this remark: “If you don’t like them, you couldn’t possibly be into music at all." Another told me that this revelation put a serious damper on our friendship. Yet another became enraged -- literally fuming -- as if I’d said something against his family, something racist or downright evil.

The admission of this seemingly innocuous facet of my musical taste was something that, to some people, has been a deal-breaker -- a black mark on, well, me.

As a younger person (most of the following story happened in my youth, as these things do), I eventually came to wear this as a badge of honor -- something to set myself apart. Telling people this dirty little secret was like my party trick when I was in my rebellious, contrarian and smart-ass early 20s living in the indie-rock '90s, a time when most people were invariably serious about such things.

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Something in me, maybe testosterone, relished announcing this fact to groups of my peers, hearing the needle on the record player scratch to a halt, ladies gasp and hold their hearts, the sound of smashing glass as sensitive dudes dropped their beers and clenched their fists, ready to come to their very first fisticuffs in defense of their man-god Morrissey. It was an argument starter and a conversation ender, because one thing is for certain: People are deadly serious about their Smiths.

The truth of the matter is, these days, I don’t really hate The Smiths. Not even by a long shot. Johnny Marr’s guitar playing is amazing, that’s pretty clear. And I’m certainly not into igniting inflammatory debates at parties (or anywhere) anymore. I hung up my button-pusher spurs and it's all about the love.

But there is one thing that really sticks with me -- a memory from back then that just won't go away. It came one night when a hurt Smiths fan, who saw me as an enemy of all that is good, told me, “If you don’t like The Smiths, you must have never been confused as a teenager. You must have never felt any pain.”

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I was floored by the comment at the time. I formulated comebacks in my head for weeks, months, maybe years -- but you can’t retort to such absurdity. I had plenty of pain, like every teen and maybe even a bit more. Why couldn't I say it at that moment? After all, It was as if this person was saying that her pain, and the soundtrack to that hurt, courtesy of Morrissey, was more valid than mine. That pissed me off and it confounded me, because nothing goes better with pain than a soundtrack. And I had my own: provided by four hard-drinking, hardcore burnouts from the Twin Cities.

It took me a long time to realize that The Replacements were my Smiths -- they were The Smiths for sensitive guys, but sensitive guys who were funny smart-asses, who drank beer and lived with their moms in snowy Midwest burgs. Sure, I’m generalizing grossly and romanticizing at once, but that’s kind of the point of such things -- the romantic part, at least.

When I first saw the album cover for The Replacements' Let it Be, those guys looked so glamorous and cool, but sitting on a rooftop in a neighborhood that was not unlike my own. They were punk rock naifs, as much channeling the sounds New York and London as they were the sounds of Cheap Trick and Big Star and all the other heroes of middle America. When Paul Westerberg sang, “Your age is the hardest age / Everything drags and drags,” he was less about looking skyward, ever-so-dramatically toward an uncaring God, but more about simply complaining to you, his buddy.

It was everything romantic and sad and confusing but all beautifully simple and right there for me -- a sad and confused kid who, yes, didn’t like The Smiths, but still needed and deserved a soundtrack of my own.

Eric Johnson is the singer and songwriter for indie band Fruit Bats, a former member of The Shins and a music composer for such films as My Idiot Brother and Ceremony. Follow him on Twitter at @fruitbatsmusic.