Album: Dead Man’s Pop
. . .
“Feeling good from the pills we took”
“Talent Show” just might be the greatest song Paul Westerberg has ever written.
Out of all of his “state of the Replacements” missives, it has the most breadth and the most depth, capturing the essence of the cockiness needed to go on that stage and play your songs as well as the insecurity that it all might go to shit.
In my waxed up hair and my painted shoes
Got an offer that you might refuse
Tonight, tonight, we’re gonna take a stab
Come on along, we’ll grab a cab
And while I love the studio version — especially on Dead Man’s Pop, where it’s both perfectly raggedy and raggedly perfect (love love LOVE that fucking banjo!!!!) — there are two live versions that I love even more.
We ain’t much to look at so
Close your eyes, here we go
We’re playin’ at the talent show
Playin’ at the talent show
Come on along, here we go
Playin’ at the talent show
Check us out, here we go
Playin’ at the talent show
On May 31st, 1989, just three short weeks after they were in Fresno, the Replacements performed on a TV show called The International Rock Awards, shown live on the American Broadcasting Company. Which, of course meant that the West Coast got a pre-recorded feed. Either way, I taped that sucker. I mean, after all, along with the Replacements, the show also featured Lou Reed, who was coming off of New York, Keith Richards, who was cruising with Talk is Cheap, and David Bowie, who was with, um, Tin Machine.
And all of the winners got little Elvises. Statues of Elvis, I should clarify. Because of course they did. Me, I would have chosen Chuck Berry doing the duckwalk. But that’s just me.
In any event, the ‘Mats — brought on with an introduction (by someone who sounded a lot like Wendie Malick) of “We apologize, here they are: The Replacements” — chose to play the more thematically appropriate “Talent Show” instead of either “I’ll Be You” or “Achin’ to Be,” and as Slim strummed the opening chords, a bemused Paul asked “what the hell are we doing here?”
I have an answer for that: to make people like me grin from ear to ear at the improbability of the Replacements playing live again on network TV. I mean, that was one more appearance than R.E.M had made!! And said grin only intensified as the full band kicked in and they went into the second verse.
Well, we got our guitars and we got thumb picks
And we go on after some lip-synch chicks
We’re feelin’ good [CENSORED]
Oh, baby, don’t gimme that look
So I’m watching this for the first time, grinning from ear to ear, and all of a sudden the sound goes out as Westerberg sings “from the pills we took” and I realized instantly that it was network censorship, which of course had been happening for decades and decades. We must not let the evil rock stars lure the youth to recreational sex or dangerous drugs, because we all know that the youth would never try those thing on their own.
And you could tell that Paul knew it was happening — there was probably a backstage contretemps — because the way he grinned & rolled his eyes before he sang “oh baby, don’t gimme that look.” Because Paul Westerberg had a plan. He was going to get around the dumb-ass censorship.
Meanwhile, “Talent Show” roared full steam ahead into the soul-bearing third verse.
Well, it’s the biggest thing in my life, I guess
Look at us all, we’re nervous wrecks
Hey, we go on next
And of course, there’s always a breakdown at this point — either to replicate that moment where time stops just before you go on that stage or because Paul didn’t have have any other words — and in the studio version there’s some random notes, studio chatter, a beer bottle smashing and of course, the banjo powering up. The banjo!!! Why in the bloody fuck did Chris Lord-Alge eliminate the banjo?!?!!?
But on the International Rock Awards, the breakdown only happened for a second, and in a wide shot Tommy Stinson walks up to his mic and screams “The Elvis, HA-HA-HAH!!” — mocking the whole fucking thing — and when they immediately cut to a close-up of Paul singing “playing at the talent show,” he’s also trying not to crack up, and at the end he mumbles, “we might just win this time, I doubt it.”. Fan-fucking-tastic!
None of which prepared me for the coda, as Paul surprised everybody by singing not “it’s too late to turn back, here we go,” but rather “it’s too late to take pills, here we gooooooooo”, not once, not twice, but three times, each time spitting out “TAKE PILLS” with gleeful contempt. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!
I’m sorry, this was wayyyyyyy better than accidentally saying “fucker” on SNL. This wasn’t something that David Bowie or Lou Reed or Keith Richards were going to do that evening. This was The Replacements being the Replacements, and I loved it.
Let’s put it this way: out of all of the stories I’ve read about how The Replacements fucked up their career by sabotaging themselves in public, this one is my absolute favorite. And apparently,
Fast-forward a few months, and I’m one of my favorite record stores — let’s say Ragin, cos I don’t remember for sure — and I happen to see something called Inconcerated, which featured five live songs (plus a studio version of “Achin’ to Be” for… reasons, I guess?) It was a promo-only CD, and it said where the live songs were recorded — University of Milwaukee — but it doesn’t say when.
No matter, because first of those songs was “Talent Show,” and it was just a complete smokeshow from the opening — Paul’s singing on “oooo baby don’t gimme that look” is utterly sublime — and when they got to the breakdown and Paul shouted “but we won’t say nothin’ bad on TV,” I was dead. Of course, it turns out that they recorded it just a couple of days after the International Rock Awards, so the whole incident was still fresh in their minds. But I didn’t know that.
Because of course they’d say something bad on TV. Which was way it was 25 years before the Replacements were on network TV again. (Of course, most of that was because they broke up in 1991, but still.)
It’s such a great version that when Paul sings “we just might win this fucker, you never know,” you believe him, because it’s — finally! — a representation of the Replacements I saw live: raggedy, sloppy and one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll bands ever to walk the planet. And of course, I knew that there was probably a whole show that had been recorded, and wanted to hear that. But it would take awhile.
“Talent Show (Milwaukee, 1989)”
“Talent Show” Live on the International Rock Awards
“Talent Show (Matt Wallace Mix)”
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