Tommy Stinson at Southpaw
Brooklyn, February 3, 2005
For diehard Replacements fans, voyeurism can be the motive for seeing Tommy Stinson on tour for his first solo release, Village Gorilla Head. How has the elfin bass player fared? What’s up with becoming the bassist for Guns ‘n Roses? Has Tommy gone metal? Is he a lost soul, a rock and roll ghost?
Far from it—striding through Brooklyn’s Southpaw he’s wiry and alert, a puckish survivor of 2 1/2 decades in rock, sporting tight black jeans and a cheekily anachronistic punk hairdo. Almost as boyish looking as when he started at age 13, 38-year-old Stinson took the stage and threw himself into an impassioned, no-nonsense performance that converted a subdued crowd into a throng of noisy believers. If there were any doubts about his abilities (and really, doubts were why it was so interesting to be there), Tommy banished them with his authoritative guitar playing, mature songwriting and striking, husky voice. From the beautiful ballad “Light of Day” to the clever wordplay in the Dylanesque “Hey You,” it was clear that Tommy has moved out of the sidekick role forever.
Shadows of the Replacements remain. Tommy absent-mindedly threw a metal-esque fist into the air to punctuate the ending of a serious song, and periodically flashed the audience an “I don’t mean it” grin. If these gestures recall the compulsive self-deprecation of former bandmate Paul Westerberg, there are other echoes too. Tommy is a deft lyricist in his own right and he crafts inventive, catchy melodies. But there’s a Westerbergian resemblance in both theme and mood. In interviews, Tommy readily identifies Paul as an influence. Reviewers cite other ones—the Rolling Stones, Big Star, the Faces (but hey, they were all Replacements influences, too).
In truth, Tommy is a little hard to read. His face is an ever-changing map of the rock attitudes he grew up absorbing— from the brutish sensitivity of his late brother, Bob Stinson, to the good-time preening of Rod Stewart, to flashes of John Lydon’s suspicious glare and even the aloof beauty of Kurt Cobain. But something hard and reserved in Stinson stares out from behind the rock echoes. We, in turn, stare at him endlessly, trying to parse the trim, muscular body, the choir-boy haircut, the mixture of bravado and sincerity.
Maybe he’s been stared at too much. Where he revealed his heart was in his songs. By the end of his set he’d told us so much about disillusion, tattered hope, and stubborn belief that no one could wonder what he was all about. If anyone still did, his encore in the crowd, at the bar, with an unplugged acoustic slung carelessly across his body, settled the score for good. “I’m just a one-man guy,” he sang, head back, posture relaxed, unguarded at last. The audience crowded around him, charmed and protective. Yet even with Tommy Stinson singing straight into your face from about two feet away, you felt a certain respectful distance from him. He is a one-man guy. He’s had to be.
You can listen to some of Tommy’s new songs at his MySpace page.