As their early work gets a polishing, one fan offers memories of a night with the mighty 'Mats.

“One more chance/To get it all wrong/One more time/To do it all wrong/One more night/To get it half-right . . . “

—”We’re Comin’ Out,” Replacements

ONE WINTRY EVENING—Jan. 31, 1985—the Replacements pulled into the dirt parking lot of a Charlotte, N.C., punk-rock dive—they were already late for the sound check. Wanting to get some records autographed, I’d been waiting on ’em for some time. Judging from the actual check itself, which basically consisted of Paul Westerberg strumming a chord or two, gurgling “Yer myyyyy fave-rut thaaaaannnggg!” into the mike, such preshow rituals weren’t high on the ‘Mats’ priority list.

Indeed, about all that seemed to be on that list was: (a) go find booze, and (b) make sure Bob Stinson doesn’t disappear, as the gifted but frequently unhinged guitarist was known to do on occasion. Through a complicated negotiation that involved a cranky Westerberg initially refusing to autograph my records (“That’s so lame”), as well as turning livid when I innocently asked if I could tape the show on my Walkman (“No goddam way. Our road guy’s gonna be watching you, man”), followed by my striking a truce by providing E-Z directions to the liquor store, I was given the job of Bob’s Babysitter.

Which turned out to be easy enough, as Stinson was a man of simple means. Despite the hovering presence of several notorious groupies (one was known as the Dragon Lady), he remained oblivious, merely asking me to take him to find some “candy.” After we cleared up my semantic confusion (“What, coke?” “No, candy.” “You don’t mean smack, do you?” “No, candy!”) we ran to a nearby convenience store. Stinson was as happy as a clam with his paper sack of jawbreakers, lemon balls, and chocolate cigarettes—the latter would be visible behind his ears during the concert.

Oh, yeah, the gig: brilliant. The Replacements’ fourth record, Let It Be, had come out the previous October, going on to scale year-end critics’ lists across the land, while a week prior to the show, a Rolling Stone profile listed the ‘Mats among the hottest new stars to watch. On the strength of that article alone, by 11:30 the venue was stuffed to the gills with slumming hipsters, satin-jacketed rival club owners, the aforementioned groupies, and even the daily paper’s music critic, who rarely, if ever, came to the club.

By quarter to midnight, it was two-thirds empty. Westerberg decided to piss off all the trendies and stage the Rolling Thunder Jukebox Revue. After about 10 minutes of “real” songs, Westerberg took a big swig from a bottle of Jack Daniels, passed it to Bob Stinson (who gulped with a huge jawbreaker lodged in one cheek), nodded at drummer Chris Mars—and they were off. Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades,” T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy,” R.E.M.’s “Radio Free Europe,” Big Star’s “September Gurls,” Hank Williams’ “Hey Good Lookin’,” and KISS’ “Black Diamond” zipped by in a hardcore blur, or staggered along at a country-drunk lope, or were half-begun then discarded, along with a handful of originals.

It went on for the better portion of an hour—one of the most thrilling, visceral shows I’ve ever experienced. A go-for-it rock band with more at stake in divining for itself the heart and soul of those brazenly manhandled tunes than in giving the crowd what it wanted. As journalist Michael Azerrad pointed out in his 2001 book, Our Band Could Be Your Life, “If indie rock was becoming predictable . . . this band was nothing if not spontaneous. They’d screw up a gig at the drop of a beer can. . . . And yet on a good night, they were one of the best rock ‘n’ roll bands one could ever hope to hear.” This was a good night. It rang true.

Afterward, I walked up to Bob Stinson, who was unsteadily balancing the bottle of Jack in the crook of his arm while pawing around in his candy bag, and told him how great the show was. “Brmppgggsnkkish,” he slurred, which I took to be “Thanks, bro,” as he wandered away. I don’t think he even recognized me from earlier.

The Replacements’ first four records were recently reissued by TwinTone/ Restless. No goodies or bonus tracks, but the digital remastering sounds great. Their innocent, irreverent aura transports me back to when, in the space of one surreal evening, I made up for a lot of lost time. I hadn’t gotten to witness the Who in ’65, the Doors in ’68, the Stooges in ’73, or even the Ramones in ’76. But I did get to see the Replacements in ’85, and I’ve got the used candy wrappers, the autographed records (yes, Paul finally relented), and a cassette tape of the show— shhh, don’t tell a soul!–to prove it.

Remastered versions of the Replacements’ Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out the Trash, Stink, Hootenany, and Let It Be are available now from Twin Tone/Restless Records.