‘Holy Crap, This Is Like Some Kinda X-Rated Chuck Berry Song!’: Replacements’ Manager Peter Jesperson on First Hearing Their Music
In this excerpt from his new book, 'Euphoric Recall,' Peter Jesperson talks about meeting the Replacements, becoming their manager, and recording their debut album for his label, Twin/Tone.
1:24 PM CST on November 14, 2023
One day in May 1980, a young man walked up to the counter at Oar Folkjokeopus, handed me a cassette tape with “The Replacements” written on it, and asked if I’d give it a listen. I could never have predicted how much of an impact that moment would have not only on my life but on the lives of so many other music fans.
From the very first listen, I could tell the recordings were head and shoulders above any new submission I’d gotten in a long while. The band’s performance was downright startling. Just twenty or thirty seconds into track number one, “Raised in the City,” I could barely believe my ears. When I caught the lyric, “I got a honey with a nice tight rear/She gets rubber in all four gears,” I rewound the tape to the beginning and listened again, just to be sure I heard it correctly. I thought, Holy crap, this is like some kinda X-rated Chuck Berry song! The other three songs—“Shutup,” “Don’t Turn Me Down,” and “Shape Up”—knocked me out too.
As I played the four songs repeatedly over the next few days, I grew more convinced that this band was uncommonly good. So, one afternoon I pulled out the piece of paper I’d gotten with the tape. There was a name on it—Paul Westerberg—and a phone number. I called and reintroduced myself to Paul, told him I loved the demo, and asked if the band was hoping to record a single or a full album. After a pause, Paul replied, “You mean you think this shit is worth recording?”
I suddenly realized he’d given me the tape in hopes of getting a gig at the Longhorn, not as a pitch to Twin/Tone. I said I did think the songs were worth recording, and I was sure I could help the band get a show at the club as well. In the meantime, I said, I’d love to see them live as soon as possible and asked when they were playing next.
Paul called back a few days later and told me they had a show in a couple of weeks at the Bataclan, a sober club at a church in south Minneapolis. I wasn’t sure what to expect, so I went alone. As I approached the front door, I saw a dark-haired teenager sitting on the steps looking dejected. When I started up the stairway, the kid said, “You must be Pete. I’m Chris, the drummer. We ain’t gonna play; we just got kicked out.”
A minute later, two of the other band members sheepishly wandered out. I recognized Paul from the store. He introduced me to Bob Stinson, the lead guitarist. Apparently, the bass player couldn’t make it. He’d been climbing a tree earlier that day, fell, and tore a muscle in his arm. It turned out the guys had been caught with pills and booze. The manager of the Bataclan was in a rage and told them to get out.
The Replacements’ first appearance at the Longhorn was Tuesday, July 1, 1980. I’d been raving about them for weeks and had played the demo in the record store, so when they took the stage at 9:30, the room was filling up nicely. I was hoping the band would be great, but what I saw and heard that night was something else. They didn’t have their shit together onstage—they had crappy equipment, took too long between songs, and didn’t tune their instruments often enough—but they were a revelation, embodying nearly everything I loved about rock ’n’ roll music.
The ingredients for greatness were there from the beginning. The songs were crude but impressive; the band members had an undeniable chemistry and an uncontrived irreverence; they were smart, wildly entertaining, and really funny. Bob in particular could be positively clownish, all the while doing these searing leads that seemed to come from a different universe than any guitar player I’d heard before.
I was shocked when I met the bass player, Bob’s half-brother, Tommy Stinson. He was only 13 years old. But he played well, despite being airborne for most of the set—grounded just long enough to periodically yell “fuck!” into the mic. Chris Mars was the anchor, hunched over the drums, always ready for whatever the other three threw at him. And then there was Paul, who looked like a square peg in a round hole. Though he played spot-on rhythm guitar, he seemed uncomfortable—teeth clenched as if he was trying to will himself into the front man role right before our eyes. And yet somehow he pulled it off, with panache.
There’s no recording of that night, but I remember the song selection was a mix of covers and the Replacements’ own songs. Some great originals, like “More Cigarettes” and “Raised in the City”; others, like “Get on the Stick” and “Off Your Pants,” were acceptable placeholders until better songs came along. The covers included the Syndicate of Sound’s “Hey Little Girl,” “So Long” by Slade, and the Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night.” And they did three Johnny Thunders songs. When I first encountered the Replacements, it was like they wanted to be Johnny Thunders’s Heartbreakers. The show was raw, but it blew Paul Stark, Charley Hallman, and me away. The next move was to bring them into a proper studio.
Our go-to recording spot, Blackberry Way, had an open day on July 21, and I snatched it up. Stark and I schlepped the band and their gear over to Blackberry in Stark’s van. He and I had different expectations about what might transpire in the studio. I had no doubt that we’d get some great performances on tape, and I was already certain we’d be making a full-length album. Stark was less convinced they’d respond well to the studio environment and thought we’d be starting with a single.
In the studio that day, the band totally rose to the occasion. They did everything they needed to do to prove my point. They knocked out twelve songs in what felt like twelve minutes. Stark and I were sitting at the console in the control room, and I kept looking at him out of the corner of my eye to gauge his reaction. By song seven or eight I could see him trying to stifle a grin, and I knew I’d won the debate. Eight of the twelve songs they recorded that day made the Replacements’ debut album, two of them straight off this July session tape.
Steve Fjelstad was the engineer, and his relaxed manner and patience served the band well. We worked in clusters of days—two here, three there— between September and November. Some of the sessions were productive, some weren’t.
All the songs so far were rockers. Then one day Paul started running down a slow one he’d written after seeing Gang War, a short-lived band that included the Heartbreakers’ Johnny Thunders and the MC5’s Wayne Kramer. It was a biographical song about Thunders called “Johnny’s Gonna Die.” A watershed composition, it was the Replacements’ first ballad.
About this same time, the band and I had a major confrontation with club owner Hartley Frank. Hartley had a habit of not always tending to the Zoogies calendar very well. He’d often have to fill holes in the schedule at the last minute, leaning on bands to come to his rescue. When he started to make 11th hour offers to the Replacements, I spoke up against it, and Hartley blew a gasket. We’d started the conversation in the club, but then Hartley said, “Let’s go outside, where we can talk privately.”
The six of us walked out of the club and stopped at a marble bench in front of the Northern States Power Plaza. All four Replacements sat down, awkwardly staring at their feet like they’d just been called into the principal’s office. Hartley started yelling. “What’s the problem here? I’m offering you guys great opportunities! It’s good exposure for you! You’ll make more money!” Keeping my voice down, I explained that I thought he was doing the bands a disservice by offering them dates that neither they nor Zoogies had time to properly promote—no time to put up flyers, put ads in the weeklies, contact the daily papers’ calendar sections, or even let people know by word of mouth.
Then, pointing at me, Hartley shouted to the band, “Do I have to talk to this guy every time I want to book you?” Westerberg glanced at me with an Okay if I say yes? look on his face. I nodded. He turned to Hartley and said, “Yes, you do.”
I had never aspired to become the Replacements’ manager, but that’s how I fell into it. I had little choice. Their reputation as a “band to watch” was rapidly growing, but they were still relative novices in the music game, and they needed protection from the Hartleys of the world. So, I ran interference for them. I assumed I’d do that until they could attract a real manager who could properly represent them. But in the meantime, in addition to being their A&R man, I fended off bad guys and handled logistics so they could focus on the music: writing it, rehearsing it, recording it, performing it. Between Twin/Tone and myself, we gave the band our concerted support.
By this time, I’d gone so far past the deep end about the Replacements, I was getting a lot of flak about it, especially from other acts who were hoping to get a deal with Twin/Tone. Some were really pissed off. They felt like they’d paid their dues and the Replacements hadn’t. The Replacements didn’t give a shit about paying dues, of course. But I was taken aback by the resistance from the other musicians. Had these people really listened to the Replacements’ songs? How could they not think the band was enthralling onstage? I remember wagging my finger at one of the more caustic protestors and saying, “Just you wait— someday, people are gonna be writing books about these guys!” At the time that may have sounded like hyperbole even to me, but deep down I genuinely believed it was a possibility.
Beyond working together, the band and I were developing a real friendship. We all lived near one another, and my apartment at the Modesto essentially became the Replacements office. Chris frequently popped by. Tommy and Bob hung out there and at Oar Folk all the time. Paul and I grew especially close. We spent hours and hours together, listening to music, talking, smoking, drinking. In one odd little coincidence, Paul and I smoked the same, very unpopular brand of cigarettes, True Blues. He used to joke that smoking Trues was the equivalent of spitting in your Coke—no one ever asked you to share.
At one of the early Zoogies gigs, just before kicking into the first song, Westerberg said to the audience, in an off hand manner, “We are the Placemats. Don’t ask why.” So, devotees took to calling the band “The Placemats,” eventually abbreviating it to “The ’Mats.” Little did we know that would stick.
In early December 1980, the band took its first real road trip: 150 miles north to Duluth, where they once again opened for the Suburbs. The venue was a roller rink. I borrowed Paul Stark’s van, we packed up the gear, and off we went, the five of us and our first roadie, Lou Santacroce. Lou was a musician and musicologist from upstate New York who’d relocated to Minneapolis and found sanctuary at Oar Folk. Lou and I became great friends. Like me, Lou fell hard for the Replacements the first time he heard the demo, and he never missed a show. He offered to help and worked cheap, which was good because the Replacements sure weren’t making any money yet. He and Wester- berg really hit it off too. Lou had a vast knowledge of rock, old blues, folk, free jazz, and opera. I think Paul was genuinely flattered that some- one like Lou was so taken with him and his music.
There were two people in those early days who I believe had this effect on Paul: Lou, and my girlfriend, Linda Hultquist. She and I had gone to the same high school but didn’t meet until later, when she expertly did lights for the Commandos and helped to haul gear. (She was considered the fourth Commando.) Linda was whip-smart and didn’t suffer fools gladly. And she had no problem putting Paul in his place, with retorts like “Oh, color me impressed, Paul” (a phrase Westerberg filed away for future use). I believe these two highly intelligent people thinking he was something special made a huge impression on Paul, giving him confidence at a crucial time in his development as an artist.
As for the Duluth show, the Suburbs were becoming well known outside of the Twin Cities, but no one there had a clue who the Replacements were. The Replacements were giving it their all while most of the people skated in circles and paid little attention. One unforgettable moment was when the band blasted into a new song called “I Hate Music.” Westerberg grabbed the mic stand forcefully and pulled it toward him, accidentally snapping the neck of his guitar and somehow managing to cut his forehead. Blood was running down his face as they finished the song, at which point Westerberg completely demolished what was left of the guitar, smashing it on the stage. I don’t know how many of the skaters even noticed, but for me, it was a true rock ’n’ roll moment.
For these out-of-town gigs, it was always a trip picking Tommy up from school. He was still only 14 and in ninth grade, and the other kids would look at him wide-eyed as he climbed into the van. In the early days, Tommy’s age had been more of a novelty than a hindrance, but over time, the more we branched out in our gigs and went on the road, the more we faced resistance from bar owners who were wary of having an underage kid on the premises.
Early in 1982, as we were doing more touring, Anita Stinson, Tommy and Bob’s mom, said she’d be happy to sign a document stating that I was Tommy’s guardian for touring purposes. I always got along with Anita, and she trusted me. I typed up some formal-sounding language on Twin/Tone stationery. She signed it, and we had it notarized. It probably wouldn’t have stood up in court, but it looked official and did the trick.
Sometime in late ’80 or early ’81, an important development took place between Paul and me. He confided in me that he had been record- ing solo guitar and piano demos in his parents’ basement, and asked if I’d give them a listen. Of course I said I’d love to. He started sneak- ing them to me in strict confidence, usually one or two at a time. He asked me not to mention it to the band, especially Bob. He knew Bob had a fixed idea about what the Replacements should and shouldn’t be, and tender, introspective ballads fell into the latter category. The first things Paul gave me varied from rough sketches to more finished songs, and I was gobsmacked. One of the first was called “Bad Worker.” The chorus alone blew my mind:
I’m a bad worker
My father would be ashamed
I’m a bad, bad worker
I give ya minimum effort for a minimum wage
Another one that impressed me was called “Gas Station Attendant” (still to this day unreleased). He’d never worked at a gas station, and yet the words were so clever and funny:
You were fixin’ your hair while I was checkin’ your air
You caught me smokin’ at the pump
The Modesto apartment building where I lived had a security system to buzz people in, and Paul used a particular buzzing pattern so I’d know when it was him. Late one night, he called to say he’d just recorded a song that he sang mostly in falsetto and had to get the tape out of his house fast, before he had second thoughts and erased it. I was surprised how quickly he got to my place after the phone call; he must’ve run the whole sixteen blocks. When I heard his buzz, I cracked my door open like always, but when he got to my apartment, just his arm came through the gap, tape in hand. I grabbed it, and he turned and ran back down the stairs.
The song was spellbinding, and though his high-pitched singing was a little ragged, it worked. From the lyric, I guessed the title might be “You Hold Me in Suspension.” It’s a beautiful song that has one of my all-time favorite Westerberg lyrics: “All paint chips, and all love fades” (also still unreleased).
We finished laying down basic tracks for the ’Mats’ debut album by early 1981. The sound was unpolished, but it wasn’t all first takes knocked out live in the studio. It took time to get the results the band wanted. Overdubs and mixing took place in February, and by March the album was complete: 18 songs, only two of them breaking the three-minute mark. All in, the album was just shy of 37 minutes long.
Album titles were being tossed around, and for a while the consensus was Power Trash. Then one night, as we were driving to a gig at Zoogies, Paul announced he had a new idea: Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash. Everyone erupted with laughter and agreement. Could there be a more perfect title?
Excerpted from Euphoric Recall: A Half Century as a Music Fan, Producer, DJ, Record Executive, and Tastemaker by Peter Jesperson. Published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press. Copyright 2023 by Peter Jesperson. All rights reserved.
Peter Jesperson will sign books at Roadrunner Records at noon on Saturday, Nov. 18. He will also sign books and participate in a Q&A moderated by Mary Lucia at Electric Fetus tonight. That event is sold out but we figured we'd tell you anyway.
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