Westerberg is looking bored already – and when the view shifts to a stage-level camera wheeled up under his right elbow:

Come on along, here we go
Playin’ at the talent show

He pauses mid-lyric to stick his tongue out at the lens peering up at him, totally annoyed. One more swipe at the chorus:

Check us out, here we go
Playin’ at the talent show

And then – WHAM – all hell breaks loose and the ‘Mats come to life, Mars slamming into the drums full-tilt as Stinson begins thumping a driving bass line. Westerberg spins around and gropes at his amp (there’s nobody to say “No, Paul!” at this point), cranking the piss out of something, up on one foot and almost losing his balance, but somehow landing back at the mic in time to launch into the next verse:

Well, we got our guitars and we got our thumb picks
And we go on after some lip-synch chicks

This is no lip-synch job by The Replacements – oh, no. Compared to the album cut, this version of “Talent Show” is raw and punky. Westerberg looks almost wild-eyed at first, then his expression changes as he launches into the next line:

We’re feelin’ good from the pills we took

Which gets totally bleeped out by the network censor (that’s right – this wasn’t cable, boys and girls; there was going to be no dope at the 1st International Rock Awards … un-uh) and Paul knows it; there’s a big eye roll as he plows on:

Oh, baby, don’t gimme that look

A lyric once intended for a disdainful girlfriend is now directed at the powers-that-be; this is live prime-time, and short of cutting to a commercial, the network is stuck with what it has. And The ‘Mats know it:

We ain’t much to look at so
Close your eyes, here we go

The front line all bellow the chorus as Mars holds down the beat with a sparse Charlie Watts-style intensity:

We’re playin’ at the talent show
Playin’ at the talent show
Wish us luck, here we go

Westerberg fires off a goofy little wave to somebody – in the audience? Back home in front of the television? – while Stinson dances wildly around the stage, almost-but-never-quite taking a header:

Playin’ at the talent show
This time I know where I’ll go
Playin’ at the talent show

Dunlop is hunkered over his Les Paul, looking like the neighbor’s kid that’s come to mow the lawn after downing the first can of beer in his life on a scorching hot day, trying desperately to remember where his hands are. On one hand it’s scary to watch – and on the other hand, it’s beautiful. It’s pure rock and roll, without a net. The Mats swing into a little bit of “bomp-bomp-bomp-ba” barroom chorus, then take it to the bridge:

Well it’s the biggest thing in my life I guess
Look at us all, we’re nervous wrecks

And the music falls away for just a moment, with drumsticks and picks hanging in the air:

Hey, we go on next

And then as the ladies in their gowns fan themselves with their programs and the suits pluck nervously at the nice tablecloths, Westerberg explodes in laughter:

The Elvis?

Totally mocking the name of the 1st International Rock Awards’ sacred statuette. Oh, dear … there would be no Elvis tonight for The Replacements, but they don’t give a rat’s ass, as they’re roaring into the final chorus with the biggest kind of shit-eating grins:

Playin’ at the talent show
Playin’ at the talent show
Playin’ at the talent show
Playin’ at the talent show

Pretty soon it’s over, I know
Playin’ at the talent show
An empty seat in the front row
_We might even win this time _ …

Westerberg then throws in – with total conviction:

I doubt it

As reckless as things seem to be, you realize that the band is locked in and cranking on the groove – unshakeable in the face of all the weirdness, both self-inflicted and from the setting itself. They’re not done yet, though; on the original album cut, the chant at the fade is

It’s too late to turn back, here we go

Yeah, well, Westerberg knows that his earlier drug reference has been bleeped, so now’s the time to make things right in the world, ‘Mats-style:

It’s too late to take pills, here we go

What? Did they really sing that? Yes, they did – and just to make sure you didn’t miss it, they do it again:

It’s too late to take pills, here we go

Sure, it was dumb-ass and school-boyish and served no purpose other than to piss off the powers-that-be after they realized what the band had pulled … but at the time – 21 years ago, boys and girls – it was an act of rock ‘n’ roll heroism. (It was also the sound of four sets of feet being shot simultaneously.) There’s a moment when Westerberg looks off into space almost wistfully and sings:

What a show

And you could almost believe that he’s happy to be there, but then they give it one more blast:

It’s too late to take pills, here we go

Stinson is absolutely slashing at the strings of his bass and Dunlop looks like he’s just holding on for chrissakes. “We’re outta here,” says Westerberg, then slurs out one final

Talent show

Mars rolls and tumbles his way along his drum kit as the guitars honk and bark. Crash. Bang. It’s over. The ‘Mats can’t get off the stage quick enough – and the camera can’t cut away quick enough, either. The crowd applauds, although a quick glimpse shows more than a few with dazed expressions – “Were they supposed to be here?”

That was the scene on my screen that evening – and, luckily, I snagged it on my VCR when it happened. (The tape – along with the means to play it – is long gone, but God bless YouTube.)

I remember the feeling of sitting there, grinning, knowing I’d just witnessed something that fell into the space between horrorshow and brilliance.

It was ragged. It was stupid. It was perfect.

I can honestly say that seeing the Replacements that night helped to inspire me to drag the guitar out from underneath the bed and get back to playing again. By the 4th of July, we had a band together and debuted on a flatbed trailer in the local parade.

As we were crawling through Deer Isle village on that hot summer morning, “woo-woo”-ing our way through “Sympathy For The Devil” (a good 20-minute-or-so version), we had no idea that the walking group behind us was passing out prayer books.

The Replacements would’ve loved it.

I like to think Alex Chilton would’ve, too.

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