Like all good Hoosiers, the best work I’ve ever done was because someone was running their fucking mouth at the State Fair. I’d spent the first year of grad school doing the bare minimum, and as the second year of classes started, my cohort was tasked with training the new kids. We were paired up and each pair was given an area to cover. My pairing got “visual aides.”
About two weeks before the training was supposed to start, the other half of my pair was working the Ball State booth at the State Fair and told someone that he thought my half of the presentation would be “really impressive.”
But, like, he said it in a shitty way. That meant he didn’t think it would be impressive. Because I was a slacker.
At least, that’s how the story got back to me.
I was as aware as anyone that I’d been half-assing basically every part of grad school, but that was when I realized no one there had seen me at 100%. I’d sucked at everything because I chose to, you idiots, not because I sucked.
So, wounded, I slunk back to my one-bedroom cave and got to work. I stayed up all night, designed a slide deck, memorized my talk, made a playlist for the bus ride in to campus, and when it was time for our presentation, I made sure I went first.
And I just sorta destroyed it. I say that as a person who isn’t great about talking about good things they’ve done. But, again, this is probably the best thing I’ve ever done, and then the guy who said I’d be “really impressive” got up and talked about how he liked to show YouTube videos in class and made us all watch a music video that lasted 13:40.
It’s really easy to win a fight your opponent doesn’t know he’s in. And it never matters much.
In 2005, Magnet Magazine put together an oral history of the Minneapolis rock scene in the 80s, which is to say they put together an oral history of The Replacements and Hüsker Dü. The piece includes interviews from pretty much everyone you’d expect - Bob Mould, Grant Hart and Greg Norton from Hüsker Dü, Paul Westerberg, Tommy Stinson and Slim Dunlap from The Replacements - and a ton of other people who were around when those bands ruled Minnesota or have been influenced by them since.
And the piece does exactly what you want from this sort of piece - it talks about Minneapolis, then it talks about Hüsker Dü, then it talks about The Replacements and all throughout there are these moments where everything overlaps. About halfway through the chunk on The Replacements, there’s a quote from Grant Hart, Hüsker Dü’s drummer:
“People always ask about this so-called rivalry between Hüsker Dü and the Replacements. We were from the same town and sharing the same stages. In the press, any time we got a column inch, they got a column inch. Any time we would get a photo, they would get a photo. People were paranoid about paying too much attention to one band without giving attention to the other.”
And then Bob Mould, also from Hüsker Dü:
“I don’t remember a specific rivalry. Grant would say things that would stir the shit, and it was funny. When you stir the shit, it can draw attention to both people.”
And then, to round off the trio, Greg Norton:
“There was always a little healthy rivalry between Hüsker Dü and the Replacements. We wanted them to be the second best band in town.”
Next, in an awesome act of literary editing, here’s Paul Westerberg.
“It was a friendly competition. We wanted to see them fail. We wanted them to be the second best band in the city.”
Now, obviously these guys aren’t all in the same room for these interviews, but let’s go over that again. Hart says it’s a “so-called rivalry”, Mould says he doesn’t remember a specific rivalry, Norton says it’s a “healthy rivalry,” but that Hüsker Dü definitely wanted to be better than The Replacements, and then Paul Westerberg comes over the top and says yes, it’s a friendly rivalry and hey, we also wanted to be the best but - also - The Replacements wanted to see Hüsker Dü fail.
If my little showdown with the State Fair shittalker was the equivalent of a sucker punch, this is getting a little closer to a street fight - everybody’s got their eye on everyone else, and maybe we’re all cool with having a couple beers together, but if we have to take this outside, we know your guys aren’t going to win. Because we’re better than you are. And in Westerberg’s case, he’s really saying we’re not worried about whether we’re the direct cause of you getting your ass kicked, we just wanna see your ass get kicked.
And even if you’re not in the Replacements or Hüsker Dü and even if you’re not publicly willing to admit that this sort of creative rivalry exists, if you’re the person who cares about this sort of thing, you know you have to work a little bit harder every time the other guys put out a new album or get a new freelance gig or move into a bigger office. It’s not that you’re worried that they’re better than you, you know they’re not better than you, but you need to make sure everyone else knows that, too.
It’s a fight, every night, to become the best in town. But even if you get that title, thirty years down the road, it still doesn’t matter much.
There’s another big quote in that Magnet piece. A better quote.
“I’m the second best writer from Minnesota. I’ve come to terms with that. There’s the extent of my arrogance.”
That’s Westerberg, of course. The first best writer is Bob Dylan, the second best writer is Paul Westerberg, and the third best writer is fuck you.
The Replacements and Hüsker Dü both wanted to be the best band in Minneapolis, but Westerberg’s saying he’s the second best writer from Minnesota. In and from, there’s a big difference there.
If you’re the best in band in town, there isn’t a better show in any bar on a Friday night. If you’re the best band from a town, you’re legends. Let the kids fight to draw a gate in the middle of March - you’ll blow back into town whenever you feel like it and shut the place down. You become the best in town by looking around and staying one step ahead of everyone you see. You’re the best from a place when people who’ve never been there hear you say it (hear you say anything) and can’t think of anyone better.
The Best In Town stops at the city limits. The Best From Town starts there. That matters. And if you can’t take the top spot because you’re from the same place as Bob Dylan, second best isn’t a bad deal.
That last quote from Westerberg has two real parts - his assertion and his confession. “This is how good I think I am, and yes, I know you think it’s arrogant, but I’m owning it”. That’s the part I’m most jealous of. I’m currently the reigning, undefeated, undisputed heavyweight champion of fights other people don’t know they’re in… and it doesn’t matter. If I wanted to be honest about how much of the time I spend looking over my shoulder, trying to stay one step ahead of everyone around me - I’m not sure I’d come out on top, but I’m pretty sure I could hang in there. But I already know that wouldn’t matter, either.
Westerberg wanted what we all want - to be good enough that it matters. Not just to you, not just around you, but to the point where you’re credibly mentioned next to your heroes in conversations (even if you’re starting that conversation yourself).
In that Magnet interview, the other guys in the Mats say that Paul got better as a musician, but he was a great writer from the jump. Maybe that’s what it takes, the sort of talent that people can’t help but recognize. Or maybe it’s having a nemesis, the Hüsker Dü to your Replacements, someone to wear yourself down against so you can build yourself stronger afterwards.
And maybe it’s just driving full speed into car crashes and blowing through a ton of bad shows so you get in enough good ones over the years that you can look back and say “yeah, actually, I didn’t suck at that.”
I don’t know. But here’s what I do know. In 2005, Paul Westerberg said he was the second best writer from Minnesota and almost ten years later, when I was searching for a way to end this essay, I found a video of his mic stand shitting out on him on stage in Louisville and then Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day comes over and fixes it for him and then gives him a smooch and the crowd of people who are there to see Paul Westerberg’s band The Replacements twenty-three years after they broke up all go “yaaaaaaaay!”
That doesn’t happen because you’re the best band in town. And it definitely doesn’t happen because you’re great at showing up people who maybe underestimated you at the Indiana State Fair.
And the specifics change and there’s probably less kissing involved, but some version of that, I think, is what anybody who does anything creatively wants. To matter.
I know it’s what I want. And I know I’ve got work to do.