For a band that so embodied the antithesis of image-driven ’80s music, The Replacements have nevertheless evolved their own image-driven mythology. The epic alcohol intake, the sloppy performances, the raids on their own record company and tapes being flung into the Mississippi River, the many comic misadventures of late guitarist Bob Stinson—all have fed the legend of a band that propagated a strain of back-to-basics rock that sought to eschew legend, returning it to the hands of regular kids who don’t buy into that shit.
That mythology achieved an unlikely focal point with the cover of The Replacements’ third album, Let It Be. A candid shot of the bleary-eyed band hanging out on a rooftop, everyday kids clad in ordinary jeans and Converse sneakers, it similarly represented the antithesis of the posed album photos that tried so hard to present an image or convey meaning. And yet the image, as journalist Michael Azerrad wrote in Our Band Could Be Your Life, became “a great little piece of mythmaking” anyway—not only capturing each band member’s individual personality (Paul Westerberg, the caustic genius too busy talking to acknowledge the camera’s presence; Bob, the smirking imp, etc.), but providing something like a blueprint for every group that would take guitar and beer in hand and blossom into grunge and “alternative” rock.
What’s more, the photo’s “meaning” would be endlessly hypothesized about and debated. Perhaps, similar to the album title, it was a slyly scaled-down parody of The Beatles’ own rooftop performance in Let It Be. Or no, maybe it was a commentary on rock’s promise of reinvention, that stardom can elevate the ordinary kid from the basement to somewhere overlooking the world. Though, in keeping with the pervasive sense of alienation in Westerberg’s songs, that elevation can only go so far—maybe just outside their bedroom window, with the childhood trophies looming overhead a constant reminder of the small rewards afforded by even trying.
Or maybe they were all just really hung over and sitting on a roof.
For what it’s worth, meaning wasn’t even part of the conversation the day it was shot. We spoke to photographer Daniel Corrigan at the CC Club—another oft-mythologized Replacements haunt (it inspired “Here Comes A Regular”) that sits right across the street from the old Oar Folkjokeopus record store, former home of the band’s Twin/Tone label—and he was quick to point out that the shot was just a last-minute decision, taken after doing some shots of the band practicing in the basement. It wasn’t even his first choice for a cover: He preferred the (almost as legendary) photo of the band in an elevator, trapped there after Corrigan lured them with the promise of cocaine.
Any meaning ascribed to it is therefore definitely after the fact—and, indeed, maybe even a point of contention between Corrigan and Westerberg, whom Corrigan says remains somewhat aloof toward him after years of his photo taking on its own life. “I think Paul in some way, a little bit, resents still to this day that the picture is mine and not his—because if it was his, more of the project would be his,” Corrigan told us. “People do make such a big deal about the picture and how it represents all this stuff… And I think even that concept kind of bothers Paul.”
Of course, if anyone has cause to quibble with the mythology surrounding the Let It Be photo, it would be bassist Tommy Stinson—the very person whose roof it was taken on. When we brought Stinson to the home where he’d spent his teenage years jamming with his brother, accidentally formulating a career, he was equally blasé about its supposedly legendary status. To him, this was just his mom’s old house, and—as he showed us where she’d once done donuts on a motorcycle in the backyard, eventually crashing into the basement, or the front porch where he and his brother used to get stoned and watched the storms roll in, sometimes hearing the screams from a nearby halfway house for schizophrenics—he shrugged off any idea that it’s some sort of landmark, the same way The ’Mats shrugged off the very idea of stardom.
“When you’re in it and itʼs part of your daily life—youʼve got your friends, you walk around, you go do your shit, you go to the bar, Hums, whatever, you hang out with your family—itʼs not like you have this sort of surreal existence. Itʼs just regular life to us,” Stinson said at one point. “We didnʼt have any clue about that. Itʼs like, ‘Letʼs go make some racket, Paul. Let’s go beat it up.’”
Still, even that indifference is part of the mythology—just like the Stinson house, or the CC Club, or the Hums Liquor store he mentioned within “stumbling distance,” which the band also made legendary through photographs. As is the band’s commitment to just banging out some tunes, regardless of where they might end up—something Stinson and Westerberg were doing the very day we talked.
At the time, Stinson didn’t let on that their new “racket-making,” ostensibly as part of the Songs For Slim project, was ready to blossom into a full-on Replacements reunion, with shows scheduled at Riot Fest dates in Toronto (Aug. 25), Chicago (Sept. 15), and Denver (Sept. 21). But much like the Let It Be house being just a house, he probably only would have downplayed their importance as just some shows. Even though, to so many people, it means so much more.