The Replacements’ Decadent Food Fight and Ridiculous Record Heist of 1987
The first words out of the label president’s mouth were, ‘Where’s the coke?’
In spite of a Saturday Night Live debacle, the firings of longtime manager Peter Jesperson and guitarist Bob Stinson, and the canceled tour, High Noon management was determined to rally the Replacements’ label to their cause. “Warner Brothers would put out so many records a week, and they weren’t just any records — it was Van Halen and ZZ Top,” said Replacements co-manager Russ Rieger. “We had to get enough key people on board to mount a serious campaign.”
The rough mixes from Memphis made it clear that the new album was going to be far more viable commercially than their previous 1985 LP Tim. High Noon began badgering Sire Records head Seymour Stein for help. “We said, ‘We can’t take the record around from office to office,’” said ‘Mats’ manager Gary Hobbib.
Under the right circumstances, High Noon figured the Replacements could actually be charming and ingratiating. Rieger suggested that Stein pay for key Warner staff to fly to Memphis for a playback party with the band at Ardent. They would have dinner and drinks, spend a night on the town with the boys, and get everyone excited about the record. Stein agreed and on January 14 sent a memo to more than two dozen Warner and Sire employees:
The Replacements are truly becoming a household word. Our goal in 1987 is to expand these households from a basic college and grass roots following to the rock ’n’ roll world at large… To expand this company’s awareness of the Replacements and their increased potential Sire Records would like to host a listening party celebration… Please join us in Memphis. I guarantee no one will be disappointed.
If nothing else, Seymour knew how to throw a party. Set for mid-February, the trip would include accommodations at the historic Peabody Hotel and a VIP tour of Graceland. The very fact that the company was shelling out for such a lavish excursion didn’t escape anyone’s attention. “You didn’t pile people from Burbank and New York and fly them to Memphis to listen to records normally,” said national sales manager Charlie Springer. “We might’ve done it for Paul Simon or Madonna, but not for a band like the Replacements.”
The ’Mats themselves were oblivious to High Noon’s coup. “It went over our heads. It seemed perfectly natural that everyone at the company should be there because we are the Replacements and we’ve made a record,” said Westerberg. “We were that arrogant. We had no idea that this was a special privilege.”
On the day of the party, the band ventured to a Goodwill near Beale Street and outfitted themselves in deafeningly loud plaid suits, fat ties, and misshapen homburgs. But their label head one-upped them. “Seymour arrived in Memphis off a plane from Paris,” said producer Jim Dickinson. “He was wearing a tuxedo jacket with little Playboy bunnies all embossed over it… I don’t think he’d been asleep in a week. The first words out of his mouth were ‘Where’s the coke?’”
Amid a steady flow of booze and substances, playback commenced. “We were putting our best foot forward, in a way,” said Tommy Stinson. “We tried to embrace some of the Warner people, probably the most we did ever. Sitting there in a room with thirty people playing our new record? That was a huge goddamn move for us.”
As the band went around the room greeting label execs, many of whom they hadn’t met, Tommy began to repeat a little joke: “Pleased to meet me, the pleasure is all yours.” The band would use that phrase as the album’s title. The cover depicted a Faustian handshake between a scruffy rock-and-roller, played by Westerberg, and a bejeweled record executive.
Somehow, Westerberg and Stinson managed to convince the rest of the label that their new guitarist Bob “Slim” Dunlap— whom the brass were meeting for the first time — actually was a gun-wielding ex-con with a hair-trigger temper. “I think we actually had them going,” said Stinson.
One Warner staffer asked Dunlap, with a slight air, what he’d done before joining the band. Dunlap snapped back: “What the fuck do you do for a living?”
The Replacements didn’t need any help being ornery. “We probably insulted a couple people during the party,” said Westerberg. “The fucker in the leather pants, the guy in charge of getting the record on the radio, Tommy said something rude to him, and one of us might’ve pissed on his foot in the bathroom.”
As the partygoers mingled, the record played repeatedly. It was greeted by universal excitement — though Stein did take A&R Michael Hill and Westerberg aside to tell them the album needed another track, since it was only twenty-eight minutes long, prompting the adding of “Valentine” to the running order.
The party moved to Justine’s. Housed in a nineteenth-century Italianate mansion, the French restaurant, a favorite of Stein’s, was known for its rich crab and lobster dishes and signature cakes. “I think the main reason Seymour was willing to pay for the whole trip was just so he could eat there,” said one Sire employee.
Stein had arranged for a private second-floor dining room. The Warner crew did its best to keep up with the ’Mats’ drinking pace. “Later on, a lot of people at the label started going to AA and rehab,” said marketing staffer Jo Lenardi. “But Memphis was well before that time, so everyone was acting pretty crazy.”
During dinner, Stein proffered a toast to the band, delivering a wildly impassioned speech connecting the Replacements to Memphis’s rich legacy and placing them in the continuum of great American music.
Then dessert was served.
As the waitstaff brought out soufflés and elegantly arrayed silver bowls filled with chocolate sauce and crème fraîche, it was obvious where things were headed. “The trouble started with Chris Mars,” recalled Dickinson. “I saw him tilt a little sideways, [then] he took off his hat, took this poufed-up pie, put it on his head, and put the hat back on.”
“The next thing you know,” said Warner’s radio promoter Steve Tipp, “the band was making hot fudge sundaes on each other’s heads.”
Wide-eyed waiters looked on as the Replacements and their label overlords engaged in a massive food fight, chasing each other around the room. “Seymour was the wildest,” said video producer Randy Skinner, who watched Stein running around smearing chocolate onto the restaurant’s silk damask wallpaper. “I remember Tommy looking at me like, ‘This is the head of the label?’” said Julie Panebianco of Warner Bros. marketing. Just then, Stein jumped up on a table to belt, off-key, “You Are My Sunshine.” The band hopped on and joined in.
Justine’s management had seen enough. “They said the chandeliers were about to fall off the ceiling,” recalled Stein. “I was keeping the beat on the table. The Replacements were on relatively good behavior for them, and it was me that fucked up. But it was a great, great night.”
“After that night,” said Michael Hill, “everybody walked away with a commitment to work that record.”
If the Replacements’ relationship with Warner Bros. was on an upswing, the band’s dealings with their former label Twin/Tone were becoming increasingly contentious.
While Peter Jesperson retained his partnership in the label, he was still licking his wounds from the Replacements experience. Working a day job in a warehouse, he removed himself from Twin/Tone’s business for several years.
Though Jesperson was sitting on hours of unreleased Replacements material, there was little concern that he might release or bootleg the material for financial gain. The band didn’t share that same faith when it came to Twin/Tone’s head, Paul Stark.
The group’s enmity toward Stark had only grown over the years. Westerberg’s refusal to sign a contract with Twin/Tone meant the first four Replacements records were made on a handshake agreement and an understanding that once the group recouped, they’d be given a 20 percent royalty. By 1987, the ‘Mats’ back catalog was shifting serious units. The group was far and away the company’s top act, representing over half of its overall sales, with the Mekons and Soul Asylum a distant second and third.
Despite that boost, Twin/Tone was in constant financial turmoil, largely owing to a series of crippling distributor bankruptcies; the first, in 1986, was Los Angeles–based Greenworld, which went under owing Twin/Tone over $100,000. “It seemed like one big distributor bankruptcy would happen every year,” said Dave Ayers, who remained Twin/Tone’s vice president until 1991. “They would always leave a five- or six-figure debt that we’d never be able to reconcile.”
Making matters worse was the somewhat precarious manner in which the label’s day-to-day operations were handled. “Bless Paul Stark’s heart, but he did not know how to run a business,” said one former Twin/Tone employee. “Whoever was screaming the loudest would get paid; otherwise, you wouldn’t.”
In the fall of 1986, Twin/Tone was heavily promoting Soul Asylum’s third album, While You Were Out, hoping for a breakthrough. At the same time the company began missing its scheduled royalty payments to the Replacements. “The justification became, ‘Do we stop putting records out and pay a few people whose royalties are due, or do we keep putting records out, sell them, and then we can pay everybody?’” said Ayers. “That’s what it turned into.”
By issuing more product, Twin/Tone was incentivizing its remaining distributors to pay on time. To keep the product flow steady, Twin/Tone continued signing bands and hiring employees. At one point its roster included nearly forty acts, including the ‘Mats’ road pals Agitpop. “I remember telling Westerberg, ‘I think we’re gonna sign to your old label,’” said Agitpop’s John DeVries. “He laughed in my face.”
It appeared, from the outside at least, that Twin/Tone was doing well. “It was all a shell game,” said Ayers. “There was no money there.”
By early 1987, the Replacements claimed they were owed nearly $30,000 in royalties; the label put the figure closer to $5,000. Stark did little to assuage the animus brewing. “He fueled the paranoia,” said Ayers. “It would’ve been very easy for him to dispel a lot of that, but he just wasn’t interested.”
If Stark wasn’t going to respond on his own, the ‘Mats would just have to find a way to get his attention.
In the last week of February, Slim Dunlap rounded up the band for a photo session in a black Dodge van. Driving through Uptown, Westerberg noticed an old rifle wrapped in a blanket in back. Dunlap had been given the gun by a friend who wanted him to test it out. Westerberg encouraged him to use it as a prop, to play up the “Small Town Slim” persona.
After finishing with the photographer, the band was drinking its lunch at the Black Forrest Inn, a German biergarten a stone’s throw from Twin/Tone’s offices, and stewing about the money they were owed. To add further insult, Twin/Tone had just announced that it was going to release Sorry Ma, Stink, and Hootenanny on cassette for the first time.
As the drinks and anger flowed, the band got an idea: they would steal their master tapes from the label. In fact, they would destroy them. Westerberg advocated a ceremonial end by casting them into the Mississippi River.
“That part never made any sense to me,” said Dunlap, who proposed hiding the tapes in his basement. “If you steal ’em, then keep ’em. Why throw them in the river? But it wasn’t a logical discussion.”
Dunlap pulled up in front of the Twin/Tone complex on Nicollet and left the engine running. The other three entered the building. Tommy chatted up receptionist Roz Ferguson, while Westerberg and Mars headed for the storage area and began rummaging through the tape library. “If it went to court, I don’t think anybody could testify that they actually saw Chris and I grab any tapes,” said Westerberg coyly.
Initially, staffer Chris Osgood and office manager Abbie Kane didn’t give the band’s presence much thought. “They had this look on their faces like they were up to something,” said Osgood. “That wasn’t weird in itself — they were always up to something.”
After a few minutes, Mars and Westerberg left quietly. Stinson soon followed, carrying a large box. Kane held the door for him. She watched Dunlap’s van peel off and walked back inside. “I got maybe ten steps in and Paul Stark came running out saying, ‘Where the hell did Tommy go?’” recalled Kane. “‘Where are the tapes? Where are the tapes?’”
Tearing down Nicollet Avenue, the band looked through their haul. “The stuff wasn’t clearly labeled,” said Tommy Stinson. “Some of it was ours. But we could’ve gotten other people’s records too.” (A later inventory revealed that the band had mostly grabbed Replacements album safety masters used for promotional cassette dubs. The band’s master tapes were actually stored inside Twin/Tone’s second-floor suite of offices. “See,” said Westerberg, “we were too lazy to even go up a flight of stairs.”)
Heading downtown, Dunlap pulled over by a railroad bridge. Westerberg wanted to send the tapes dramatically over the water. “But I said, ‘What if you get out onto the middle of the bridge and a fucking train comes along?’” recalled Dunlap. “There was no place to walk. That freaked ’em out. So they decided, ‘We better not hike out there.’”
They found a safer spot near the old Pillsbury Mill building. Atop a small embankment, they began bowling down spools of tape into the Big River. “It was fun,” recalled Westerberg. “A lot of them we rolled down the hill and the reels came undone. Then we realized we had to go to the edge, down to the lip, to get them into the water. Instead of floating out and then gently plopping down,” he said, “they just sunk like a stone.”
Initially in high spirits, the ‘Mats headed to the CC Club, crowing about the caper. Somewhere between rounds, the realization hit that they’d actually failed in their original mission. The handful of tapes they’d gotten couldn’t have been their master reels. If they weren’t at the studio, the band figured they must be stored at Stark’s home in the nearby suburb of Golden Valley.
“By the time we’d gotten past the part of throwing things in the river, we were even drunker,” said Stinson, “and we took it to the next level: ‘Let’s go to Stark’s house; let’s go rob him.’”
Despite Dunlap’s reluctance, he took the wheel again. Soon the band began creeping through Stark’s tony neighborhood. When they arrived at his house, it was obvious that Stark’s wife, Julia Bertholf, was home.
Tommy rang the bell. The plan, such as it was, called for another charm diversion. Bertholf, however, was immediately suspicious of her rubber-legged, reeking young visitor. She slammed the door in his face and quickly dialed her husband.
The ‘Mats’ drunken initiative was dissipating into alcohol fatigue. The legal implications hit them as well: “Stealing from the record company what we thought was ours was one thing, but entering a guy’s home… that’s when it got a little dicey,” said Westerberg. The band skittered away empty-handed. “We figured we’d made our point anyway,” said Stinson.
By then, word had already gotten back to the Twin/Tone offices that the ‘Mats had thrown the stolen tapes in the river. “When we heard that, I do remember some irreverent laughter,” said Kane. “It was the Replacements — you really had to just laugh. Unless you were Paul Stark.” The next morning, the story of the heist was being wildly exaggerated around town — one version of the tale had Slim and his rifle holding the label’s employees at bay while the others grabbed the tapes. “That was no longer funny,” said Dunlap.
Unsurprisingly, the cold war between the band and the label grew chillier over the next eighteen months, culminating in a 1988 lawsuit seeking a lien on the unpaid royalties. The parties settled out of court two years later. By then, Twin/Tone was in better financial shape, having signed a pressing and distribution deal with major label A&M (later Soul Asylum’s home). Stark agreed to pay off the ‘Mats’ balance — now unarguably in the $30,000 range — over a year. He also got his wish: the wording of the settlement acknowledged that the label did have a binding contract with the band.
In November 1990, Tommy Stinson signed the agreement on behalf of the group, as vice president and partner of the Replacements LLC. Technically speaking, Twin/Tone never did get Westerberg’s signature on a contract.