About the time the couch crash-landed on Southeast Ash Street, it became clear this was a Replacements show that would live in infamy.
Portland always brought out the worst in the Replacements. Singer Paul Westerberg went so far as to call it a "curse." And the show on Dec. 7, 1987, the last on the Pleased to Meet Me tour, was the nadir. Or, depending on your perspective, the peak.
Memories being what they are, no one is sure if the crashing couch was the punctuation on the most disastrous gig in the career of a band famous for disastrous gigs or just the beginning. What's certain is, at some point, members of the 'Mats and their opening act, the Young Fresh Fellows, got it in their heads that it'd be fun to pitch the dressing-room sofa out the second-floor window of what was then the Pine Street Theater.
"Who's idea was it? I can't remember for sure, but let's blame it on Tommy," says Fellows frontman Scott McCaughey, referring to Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson. "We thought it was brilliant at that moment—it would have been less comical had it landed on somebody. Obviously none of us were interested in thoughts of safety or retribution at the time."
In truth, the show doesn't sound much different than other Replacements shows of the era: moments of blotto ineptitude interspersed with the occasional glimmer of transcendence and lots of random cover tunes. Nevertheless, it's probably the only show the band ever felt the need to publicly apologize for. They even wrote a song about it.
Twenty-eight years later, and 24 since their last visit, the Replacements are coming back to Portland. Of course, this Replacements isn't the Replacements, as two of the four slots in the band are occupied by literal replacements. It's more like "Paul and Tommy Play the Hits." It'll almost assuredly be great. Few legacies are as protected against reunion-tour cynicism as theirs, and reports from the festival dates they've played over the last year, including a triumphant Minneapolis homecoming in September, indicate the songs are as vital as ever, regardless of who's actually playing them.
But without the threat of the whole thing falling apart in a boozy mess, it still won't be the Replacements. In its heyday, the group made self-sabotage into an art form. By the metric of practically anyone who heard them, the 'Mats should've been the biggest band in the world, the pre-Nirvana force to rise up from the American punk underground and bring raw, honest rock 'n' roll back to the pop charts. And over and over again, they managed to snatch failure from the jaws of success. Over time, those spectacular flameouts—getting banned from Saturday Night Live, getting tossed off a Tom Petty tour—came to define the Replacements as much as anything they recorded. With almost any other band, that might seem depressing. In the case of the 'Mats, though, it's damn near heroic.
"They knew they were never going to succeed on their own terms," says Gorman Bechard, director of the documentary Color Me Obsessed. "At least they could fail on their own terms."
It's all different now, though. A reunion tour is an inherent victory lap, particularly for a band that didn't sell a lot of records in its prime. It's proof the Replacements did succeed on their own terms—it just took two decades in absentia for it to happen. Even with their old Pacific Northwest running buddies the Young Fresh Fellows on the bill, there's little chance this show will devolve into chaos. There's nothing to ruin, because there's nothing to protect. All we'll get are the songs. And, truth be told, that's not such a bad consolation.
In 1987, though, there was still plenty to fuck up. Released in April, Pleased to Meet Me was the Replacements' second major-label album. As many ascertained from its production sheen and punk-deficient songwriting, it was meant to be the record that would finally break the band big. (It had horns on it, for crying out loud.) The night before the start of the supporting tour, Westerberg, Stinson, drummer Chris Mars and guitarist Slim Dunlap (who joined after Tommy's brother, Bob, either quit or got fired), along with McCaughey, shaved off their eyebrows. This is how the Replacements chose to present themselves to a potential new mainstream audience: as a crew of bedheaded Uncle Festers.
By the time the tour reached its end in Portland, the 'Mats were no more famous than when it began, and everyone was exhausted. They'd played San Francisco the night before and, according to McCaughey, were operating on an hour of sleep.
"The minute we arrived at Pine Street," he says, "Paul came up to me and chanted, 'Drink! Drink! Drink! Drink!'" The tour had actually swung through town five months earlier, and while that show wasn't exactly a sober affair, this was something else. "We're not talking a bunch of New England Conservatory grads to start with," says former WW music critic Marty Hughley. "The second time, they were so drunk whatever chops they had just disintegrated." With the Fellows lobbing food at them, the 'Mats stumbled through a set consisting mostly of songs from its back catalog and several covers, of everything from the Stones to Prince to Dusty Springfield, stopping, restarting and occasionally abandoning a song altogether (while, naturally, completely disregarding their single at the time, "Alex Chilton"). Stinson and Westerberg—who came out draped in a velvet "Leonardo da Vinci" robe McCaughey often wore onstage, with the rest of McCaughey's tour clothes wrapped around him—gradually stripped, tossing garments into the crowd and eventually playing with their pants around their ankles. About half the crowd left. All in all, a pretty standard Replacements experience.
"I don't know if, from an audience perspective, that show was any more disastrous than other Replacements shows over the years," says David Benedetti, a former KBOO DJ who used his tax return to follow the band on tour. "I saw some crazy Replacements shows, so this just fit in as another crazy Replacements show."
If the show has earned a place in Replacements lore, it's likely more because of what happened backstage. Aside from the couch-tossing incident, Westerberg charged at a chandelier for a "Tarzan swing" and yanked it out of the ceiling. The two bands bowled in the hallways using empty beer cans and balls stolen from a nearby alley. Fellows drummer Tad Hutchison fell on a broken jar of peanut butter during an attempt at a human pyramid and had to get stitches. There was even an appearance by Pappy the Clown, mild-mannered Chris Mars' "demonic," drunken alter ego. "Eight Keith Moons armed with bottles and bowling balls and a complete disregard for reason" is how McCaughey describes the scene. Concert promoter Monqui had just taken over the building, and co-founder Mike Quinn admits to feeling ambivalent about the situation.
"I was pissed," Quinn says "But it's like, what do you do? I love the band. Part of me was like, 'This is awesome,' and another part of me is like, 'This is fucked up.'"
When the Replacements went back into the studio in 1988, they committed two apologies for the Portland debacle to record, one more literal than the other. On the original vinyl pressing of Pleased to Meet Me's follow-up, Don't Tell a Soul, Westerberg requested the phrase "We're Sorry Portland" be etched into the record's run-out groove, where the serial number would normally go. More obliquely, around the same time, Westerberg also wrote a song called "Portland," a countryish tune that went unreleased for a decade. Though not a direct expression of contrition, it does feature a lyric that seems to address that besotted night: "It's too late to turn back/ Here we go, Portland." (Westerberg also requested to play for free the next time through town, but management nixed that idea. They did lower the ticket price, though.) As late as 2013, members of the band were still talking about it: In an interview with Time, Tommy Stinson was asked about the story behind "Portland." "It wasn't one of our defining great moments," he said. "It was a bad gig, and people were really bummed."
The "curse of Portland," as Westerberg once referred to it in The Oregonian, continued to haunt the group even after it initially disbanded. In 1993, Westerberg was supposed to play solo at La Luna—the renamed Pine Street Theater—when a back injury forced him to cancel. The Replacements did manage to get through one gig in Portland without incident, in 1991, on its final tour until this current one. But that show had problems of its own, in that it didn't have any. If they were too drunk in '87, they were too sober in '91.
"To me, that's a bad Replacements show," Benedetti says. "A show that's loose and sloppy, and comes off the rails, that's what I loved about the Replacements—you never knew what you were going to get."
They just couldn't win—which is precisely why everyone loved them.
Set List: The Replacements at Pine Street Theater, 12/7/87
1. Happy (The Rolling Stones cover)
3. Hold My Life
4. Honky Tonk Women (The Rolling Stones cover)
5. Left of the Dial
6. Little Mascara
7. Answering Machine
8. Never Mind
9. Favorite Thing
10. Kiss Me on the Bus
11. Another Girl, Another Planet (The Only Ones cover)
12. Darlin' One
13. I Will Dare
14. Cruella DeVille
15. I Don't Know (with Scott McCaughey of the Young Fresh Fellows)
16. Within Your Reach
17. California Sun (The Rivieras cover)
18. The Look of Love (Dusty Springfield cover)
19. Color Me Impressed
20. Let It Out (Let It All Hang Out) (The Hombres cover)
21. I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man (Prince cover)
22. Can't Hardly Wait
23. Gary's Got a Boner
24. Johnny's Gonna Die
SEE IT: The Replacements play Crystal Ballroom, 1332 W Burnside St., with the Young Fresh Fellows, on Friday, April 10. 9 pm. Sold out. All ages.