Local Current Blog

When nostalgia keeps us out instead of inviting us in

Fans of all ages flocked to the Replacements show at Midway Stadium (Photo by Nate Ryan/MPR)

There’s a folder on my computer, buried deep in my iTunes library, that contains about a dozen of my all-time-favorite songs that I can barely stand to listen to.

Opening that folder is like falling through the Sea of Holes in Yellow Submarine. Every track has the power to transport me out of this reality and into a different time, a different place, a different turning point in the swervy-curvy path of my life. If I ever write a memoir, I imagine the writing process will involve opening that folder, putting every song on repeat, curling up in the fetal position on the floor, and squeezing all the tears out of my eyes and all of my life out onto the page. I don’t go there often, but when I do, it hurts so good.

The Folder That Shall Not Be Clicked is evidence of the monumental role that nostalgia plays in my life. I don’t know exactly how my relationship with my past relates to other people’s, but if I had to guess I’d say I’m probably closer to the memory junkie end of the nostalgia spectrum, especially when it comes to memories and music. I love reminiscing with my dad about the Beatles and Rolling Stones songs he played for me as a kid; with my high school friends about the crappy pop-punk CDs we used to spin on repeat while tooling around in my beat-up old Toyota Corolla; and with all of the concert buddies and true-blue-friends I’ve stumbled across in my adult life because of our shared obsession with music. I can chart the times I’ve fallen—I mean really, truly, head-over-heels fallen—for music right alongside all of my first romantic experiences, fallouts, melodramas, and triumphs. And over the years I’ve amassed a long list of songs I only want to listen to in certain situations with certain people so we can shoot each other all-knowing smiles as we sing every word from the very bottoms of our hearts.

Last summer, for example, I remember driving back from a girls’ weekend at a north country cabin and laughing and singing my guts out all the way home as my best friend, Stacy, manned the iPod. Stacy and I met through music and we’ve been through a lot together over the last decade (we like to refer to the beginning of our friendship as the “best-worst time ever”), and every song she pulled up brought up a new story and another reason to turn the volume even higher. Though we have no right to lay claim to the discographies of artists like Dan Wilson, Ike Reilly, Bob Mould, Elvis Perkins, the Fratellis, or whoever else was cued up on her playlist, the songs blaring over the speakers most definitely felt like they were ours in that moment, a personalized soundtrack to a million inside jokes and “remember whens.” As we wound through county highways and navigated our way back home, that sense of ownership over our music and our memories made the car feel impenetrable.

And there is something impenetrable, indeed, about nostalgia. It slowly inflates around us like a balloon, preserving our moments just as we remember them and leaving no room for the correction of details or an outsider’s haze of cynicism. There is something so safe about being in control of the past and remembering things exactly as we left them—the memories of those little moments where we were vulnerable, where we had no choice but to change, where we felt pure joy or sadness, or where we felt invincible all add up to tell some kind of story about who we are now. It’s only natural that that we end up carrying these memories through life like flickering candles that need to be sheltered from a wind that’s hell-bent on blowing them out.

It’s been so strange to get older and realize that the warm waves of familiarity and nostalgia can also sting when they’re accessed from other angles. The same bubble that can keep us safe inside our memories can also deflect anyone who wasn’t there who is trying to connect with us in the here and now.

Long before I ever listened to the Replacements on purpose, I flat-out resented them. It’s funny to admit that now. It’s nothing personal, really, and it had absolutely nothing to do with the band’s music or the musicians themselves. In hindsight, I think it has a whole lot to do with the fact that the first three or four times I asked people in town about the band, I received a variation of the exact same response: “You’re too young. You missed it. You wouldn’t understand.”

From the very first moment I learned of the Replacements’ existence (and had to sheepishly ask someone why they’re referred to as the ‘Mats, a shortened version of an inside joke about a time the band was incorrectly billed as the Placemats), it was drilled into me that they were a band who could only truly be loved by the people who were there to see their career unfold and implode first-hand. So I did what any scrappy young music writer trying to elbow her way into the business would do: I approached the Replacements and other bands from “the heyday” like a historian, memorizing names and albums and song titles and lore and arming myself with enough information to survive the rounds of questioning that are inevitably directed at young women who are trying to stake out their space in record stores and rock clubs. It never occurred to me that I might actually be able to like them.

Like many people my age and younger, I have my friend Jim Walsh to thank for my first real introduction to the band’s importance and history. It was the release of Jim’s first Replacements book, All Over But the Shouting, that inspired the first annual ‘Mats tribute at First Avenue in 2007, and every year since I’ve watched as musicians from throughout the folk, roots, and punk rock scene don their finest plaid to pay tribute to the artists who inspired them. And that’s how I approached those shows at first: as a person who observed the sea of drunken flannel like an anthropologist, taking note of the way it swayed to songs like “Here Comes a Regular” and “Bastards of Young.” I could see how those songs would be so satisfying to sing, especially if I had come of age to this music. I could see how they would make me feel like I belonged. I was trying so hard to understand.

A short while after the Replacements tribute became a tradition I got my hands on the entire reissued discography, and it was the first time I spent any significant time listening to their music. I remember flipping through the tracks and recognizing songs I’d heard on Rev 105 and Drive 105, or songs I’d heard at the tribute, or snippets of lyrics I’d heard referenced here and there in conversations. But nothing really caught my attention until I went all the way back to this little quickly recorded EP, Stink, from 1982, and made my way to the last track. “I can’t figure out music for boys,” Paul Westerberg hollered, his voice breaking in two as he spit out the words. I stared at the CD player, then hit the back button to start the song again. Did he just say that? Did he just somehow echo my exact thoughts about his band? Does he… understand me?

I burst into tears. I listened to it again and again. It became my anthem.

Fast forward several years and I’ve become not only an anthropologist standing on the sidelines at the Replacements tributes but also a willing participant. I’ve swayed to Jeremy Messersmith singing “Skyway” to a hushed 7th St. Entry crowd, and I’ve shrieked with delight when Pink Mink brought up Dillinger 4’s Paddy Costello and Hüsker Dü bassist Greg Norton to play “my” song, “Gimme Noise.” So I was just as psyched as everyone else when word got out that Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson had gone into the studio together to record a tribute EP for their dear friend Slim Dunlap, and then when the rumors started swirling about a reunion show. And I knew that I was going to have to get a passport and fly to Toronto and fight my way to the front row for that first Riot Fest gig, their first show in 23 years, because not only did the historian in me know it would be important to witness but because I was finally going to have a chance to get to see this band for myself.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to adequately explain what happened at that Toronto show. There was electricity coursing through the crowd. Everyone hoped for the best, and it felt like there was so much at stake. I ended up standing about five people back from the front barricade, and I remember clasping onto my notebook and iPhone for dear life as I prepared to document the hell out of the show. But I had no idea what was about to hit me the moment Paul Westerberg opened his mouth to sing.

As Craig Finn said the other night while opening for the ‘Mats, “I’ll spare you the hysterics.” But the short version is that I could feel this seam splitting open in my mind, unraveling these stitches that held together all the things I’ve experienced first-hand and all the things I’ve tried to understand about music. It hit me that I finally had my own Replacements memory, that their performance was tearing my heart out and squeezing it from the very bottom, and that I was probably going to leave Toronto a different person than I was when I got off the plane. What a cliché! I started laughing through the tears at the ridiculous perfectness of it all, and I haven’t really stopped laughing about it since.

“That’s why this show meant so much to kids my age,” music critic Zach McCormick concluded in his beautiful recap of Saturday’s Midway Stadium show. “We finally have a Replacements memory to call our own.”

For those of us who came of age listening to other people talk about coming of age to the Replacements, there is relief in knowing that we can finally be in this thing together, that we finally got let into the bubble, and that there might be countless other new memories waiting to unfold—if we let them.

The funny thing is, even though I’ve seen the Replacements live a few times now and have definitely been converted into an all-out fan, I still find it hard to truly connect with those Replacements albums that were recorded before my time. I suppose the best thing I have to cling onto from this new era of my fandom is a cell phone recording of Paul Westerberg singing “Skyway” at Midway, and another one of the band doing “Unsatisfied.” They won’t be able to go into my little hidden folder in iTunes, but you can bet that I’ll be lying on the floor the next time I get the courage to cue them up and press play.



  • Will Crain

    Beautiful writing! And don’t worry. It’s not about “You had to be there.” It’s about “You had to be ready for it.” As a teenager, I saw the Replacements at the Fillmore in San Francisco in 1987 or whenever that was and I left early because I thought it was terrible. Jim Walsh’s book opens with Billie Joe talking about the same show and saying it changed his life. I didn’t fall in love with the band until years later, listening to the CDs, same as all the younger fans did.

    • Andrea Swensson

      That’s a good way of putting it. I’m glad their music found me when I was good and ready for it.

      • Will Crain

        That said, I grew up in SF and I still hate the f-in’ Grateful Dead!

    • John Frederick

      I’d agree with that too. I remember watching the original Saturday Night Live performance and was left thinking, “what’s the big deal – that sounded kind of crappy.” I found myself in possession of a cassette copy of a few of their albums a year later and after listening to it several times, suddenly realized what the deal was.

  • Kathryn Kysar

    Andrea, Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and feelings so beautifully. I too was locked out: I grew up in the shadow of the hippies and spent part of my teen years hitch-hiking up and down Snelling Avenue looking for the sixties with my best friend. We finally realized we had missed it–Woodstock, Altamount, etc., all happened without us–and was not coming back. Thus, when punk/ new wave came around, we grabbed it–finally, something of our own. I’d love to hear you write more about gender and rock and roll, as I am saddened to know that women still have to arm themselves with massive amounts of data for the “who knows more/who belongs” discussions with the hipper-than-thou men. So glad you can now own the experience and make this band your own!

    • Andrea Swensson

      Thank you, Kathryn. I’d like to explore these topics more, too. This is actually the first in a new weekly series I’m planning to write about the more personal side of my musical experiences. Keep an eye out for a new column every Tuesday!

      • Kathryn Kysar

        Andrea, I will read your blog avidly in coming weeks.

  • Lydia Turner

    I used to work at Down in the Valley for a good 3 years, and before that was a dedicated music scavenger there, and constantly felt this push from devoted, nostalgic, patronizing customers, insistent that I wasn’t experiencing the full affect of their favorite band because I wasn’t around to *~really~* experience it. I wish that we could foster a more forgiving, gracious environment to discuss and learn about music, and share all of the valid experiences we all have. Being excited, not condescending, when someone hasn’t heard about a band or artist, because it means you get to experience someone else’s first listen and relive your own first listen.

    Music is communal and entirely about sharing and I think that gets lost by a great deal of people when they tuck away their nostalgia, not sharing it for fear of popping the perfect memory bubble they’ve cultivated. The bubble is thicker than it seems, though, and bubbles are amorphous by nature, meant to evolve and constantly alter. All nostalgia bubbles can take a hit every now and then.

  • bob hicks

    Hate to tell you Andrea but westerbergs comment that he couldnt figure out music for boys might have been a reference to the suburbs tune from their 1981 credit in heaven album…

  • Lovely piece. It made me realize that I’m guilty of the “You had to be there” effect all too often, and I’m going to try to be more inclusive with my nostalgia. It’s almost a right of passage. Even though I had dance music on heavy rotation throughout my teenage years, I didn’t start going to shows regularly until I was older. I got to know “old school ravers” who reminisced about map points and “techno heads” who spun yarn of epic all night warehouse parties. And even though we were all listening to the same music and the atmosphere was very welcoming, I had to pout a little because I immediately knew I had missed out on those experiences. I quickly made my own memories to gush about with friends for years to come, but I find myself looking at the new generation and regurgitating the same phrases that I heard when I was a newcomer to the scene. “They can’t understand what it was like back then!” Maybe they can’t, but then again, whatever magical experience they’ll later wax poetic about is yet to come, and that’s pretty special, too.

  • John Frederick

    Good article. It was interesting reading in this, as well as in Zach McCormick’s review, that there is a feeling of being condescended to by the older (or original) fans. Although it’s not fair (and sure, kind of jerky) of the oldsters (or aging hipsters as they are also called) to take this attitude, it’s not all-together surprising. I think there is a generational component to this situation. Events like this concert are some of the first true Generation-X nostalgia events (think of when the Eagles got back together in the 90s for the baby-boomers). Gen-X is firmly footed in middle-age now and we’re starting to see a little bit of its personality, which has been overshadowed by the boomers and millennials, rear its collective head. There has always been a fair amount of ‘tude with Xers, especially around “cool music” and especially, especially around The Replacements in Minneapolis. Without really realizing it, I think Gen-X is just trying to hold on to, and maybe even wave it in everyone’s faces a little, the idea that something of cultural significance sprang from its particular era.

    • Jonathan

      You’re on to something there, John. With the Replacements there has always been a sense, at least with me, of “Well, world, you didn’t really embrace them THEN, so you certainly shouldn’t feel entitled to them NOW.” That’s a really snotty oversimplification of that particular emotion, and not very nuanced, but you get the idea. Maybe it’s a fear of polluting the romantic notion of whatever we’re nostalgic about by introducing it to a younger, broader audience that might not share the enthusiasm or get the aesthetic or whatever. I’ve kinda been this way with Uncle Tupelo; selective of who I share them with (if such a thing could happen) because I want whomever listens to them to really GET them, appreciate them, and be respectful of what I’ve constructed them to be in my own experience. If I heard “I Will Dare’ blasting from a frat house on Greek Row with a bunch of mindless jock idiots singing along because the other week I said to my frat friend “Hey, you should listen to this”, I don’t think I’d forgive myself. Not that the writer or Gen Yers are mindless jock idiots, but it’s that kind of “Hey, I was here first” that can be hard to dislodge when you’re talking about something as special as the ‘Mats.

  • Tim Gilmore

    I can understand your loss to explain why you think you like the Replacements. You probably never did like them just like me. Being in my 50s I am basically the same age as the band. When I first heard them I thought “What garbage, anybody can do that”. I attended St Cloud state and was working at the University program board who hired bands for events and one of them was the Replacements. I asked them why them? I have heard their stuff and it sucks, so why are you hiring them? I got many responses telling me what a great group they were and I would have to wait and see. Sure enough they didn’t fail to dissapoint and put on a short set just to get paid and left. Yeah in my opinion they should never be hired back and they never were as far as I know. I put them out of my mind until I had an opportunity to see them again at the Cabooze in probably 85 with the original lineup still intact. The place wasn’t too crowded and I was with some of the “Big fans” of the Replacements at the time so I figured I would give them another chance. I was familiar with many of their songs because many of my friends used to play them on their boom boxes at the time so I could sort of relate to or recognize many of the songs. I was standing up front in front of Paul and I am about 6 foot 4 and a few people yelled at me to ask paul to play this song or that one. I yelled at Paul to play Buck hill and Bob came over with his penis hanging out of his pants and started playing the guitar part and then Chris followed and Paul was distracted by my friend who gave him a harmonica and asked him to play White and lazy. When Buck hill was over Paul realized the harmonica was in the wrong key so he gave it back and I told him “we don’t care” so he doused it in beer and went on with the song. I kept yelling at him to play certain songs and sure enough he responded to my cues, so much that people were shouting out “Tim , tell them to play this or that.. ect” I did and the band complied all except for Tommy gets his tonsils out. I didn’t think they were a great band then, Bobs guitar playing was so sloppy and they had him turned down low, so the sound guy knew how to make it work. Most of the songs are not that impressive just obvious accounts of reality in a beer soaked mind. Sure some of the songs have merit, but not in the same vien a “Genius”. If you think about it, The Replacements wouldn’t like them now either. Just my opinion from somebody who was ther. They were not that great. I can write better than Paul.

    • David Frederick

      Nearly everyone who knew the band well has said the Replacements could be the worst band in the world on one night and the best band the next. Sounds like you caught a couple of their really bad shows. But anyone who has their records or has seen them play within the past year is not saying “they were not that great.” And no, you cannot write better than Paul.

      • Tim Gilmore

        Oh I have seen them when them when they were “good” and I have written many songs long before Paul started to inbed local catch phrases and topics into his lyrics. Its kinda cute and you might feel special because some people might not get the joke? Take the song “Skyway” for example. Did you ever notice the beginning sounds just like “Afternoon delight” ? Yeah Paul is real deep.

    • Jonathan

      If I got booked to play at St. Cloud State, I’d probably want to get the hell out of dodge ASAP too.

  • Nikki Tundel

    This is a wonderful piece, Andrea. It’s beautiful and thoughtful and achingly sad and so human. It’s forced my little brain down lots of different paths — kicking up thoughts about music and identity as well as ideas about life itself. (Does that sound like a mandatory book-jacket blurb? ? If so, sorry. The bottom-line is: “Yo, I liked your words.”) Thanks for writing this.

  • Hannah Lynch

    “Music for Boys” is a Suburbs song (“I can’t figure out…”). I did not know this until recently, thanks to my Mpls born & bred hubby. Changes the meaning a little, but only if you let it I suppose. :)
    xo Old Lady Reps Fan

  • adamthegimbel

    A+. I was there at the end. Saw them in 1991 and didn’t fall for them. A few years later I heard some bootlegs and flipped. Doesn’t make me or you any less of a fan. Cheers.