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.