Within Your Reach

Had a terrific chat this morning with Gorman Bechard, the director/author/photographer/all-around creative whirlwind whose latest film, Color Me Obsessed, is currently making the rounds at the festival circuit. It’s a documentary about the experience of being a hardcore fan, as viewed through the prism of the Replacements’ music; the interview was recorded with Dave Lifton as a segment for the next episode of the Popdose podcast, so listen for it soon.

Our discussion, naturally, included a lot of talk about the Replacements and what made them special. It was an interesting experience for me, because although I love the band’s music, I’m not as passionate about it as Dave or Gorman (who contends they’re the best band ever). I wasn’t old enough to really be aware of the ‘Mats during their heyday; by the time I was into my teens and buying music, they were in their final stages of collapse. The first Replacements album I bought was All Shook Down, which is just about the worst introduction I could have picked — a resigned sigh from a band that once made an art form out of making everything sound like it mattered.

Without getting too precious about it, I think the Replacements worked so well because their music was all tension. At first, they perpetually teetered between melody and chaos; later, as they graduated to the majors, their songs were the center of a tug of war between untrammeled emotion and pop songcraft. At any given moment, a ‘Mats song could shock you with its beauty and insight — or punch you in the gut with ragged, willful discordance. Kind of like…life, right?

After we ended the call with Gorman, I remembered one of my earliest crystallizing experiences with the Replacements: Driving through San Francisco early on a sunny spring morning, with my girlfriend in the passenger seat and a couple of her girlfriends sitting in back. I don’t remember where we were driving, but I do know we were headed for a breakup, because I was still tied up in knots over my last relationship. That breakup was only a couple of months old, and I’d stupidly soothed it by staggering out of the house on a Saturday night to go to a party, and in walked this girl with high boots and a short skirt. It was a mistake, but it felt fine for awhile — for as long as I could keep it moving, anyway.

And then I’m in the car on this beautiful day, and “Within Your Reach” comes on, and suddenly I can’t turn it up loud enough, and it feels like my heart is going to explode, and I want to scream along until my throat disappears in a ball of flame. I want to cry, I want to rage, I want to dive into everything I’m feeling, I want to run away from it as fast as my legs will carry me.

That’s the Replacements. That’s what you can do with a few chords and a commitment to the truth. And they channeled it through such a delicious dichotomy — with “Within Your Reach” in particular. How many songs are this beautiful while sounding like such complete shit? It’s a mess, but it has so much power — I’m sure there was plenty of thought involved, but it sounds like the kind of thing that just emerges, fully formed, and can never be replicated again, no matter how hard anyone tries to recapture it.

It’s the kind of perfect intensity that’s difficult to attain and impossible to maintain indefinitely. I broke up with that girl, and the Replacements broke up with each other, and the odd reunion aside, I’m sure everyone agrees it was all for the best anyway. I mean, I’m glad I’m not on that car ride anymore. But I still love playing this song loud and feeling that bittersweet swell.