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Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements

In his new band biography of The Replacements, Bob Mehr offers the ballad of a troubling band and delivers with his welts-and-all approach to storytelling

Band photo by Deborah Feingold

 

By James A. Baumann

It is difficult to find someone who merely “likes” The Replacements. Rather, the band’s admirers generally are devout fanatics for whom each shredded guitar solo is a sacrament and every lyrical turn-of-phrase is gospel. For those individuals, the word that a definitive written history of the band was forthcoming generated a great deal of record store and bar stool speculation. How much would the reclusive band members be involved in the project? What truths would be uncovered? What new stories would be added to their legend? 

Any reservations the fans may have had were unfounded as, with Trouble Boys: The True Story of The Replacements, Bob Mehr presents about as complete a picture of a rock and roll band as you’re going to find. Mehr, the music critic for the Memphis Commercial Appeal and a correspondent for MOJO magazine, fills almost 450 pages as he tackles his subject with the vigor and depth usually reserved for the Founding Fathers.

He doesn’t pull any punches either. The book opens on the scene at the funeral of founding guitarist Bob Stinson. Within the first 20 pages, the abandonment and abuse he experienced as a child has been well documented. Mehr goes on to tell similar origin stories for Stinson’s bassist kid brother Tommy, drummer Chris Mars, and singer/songwriter Paul Westerberg. Collectively, Westerberg described them all as “miscreants who had no other choice, had no other road out. We were one of the few, the chosen, you know? It was either this or… jail, death, or janitor.” Such is the sentiment of much of the band’s story and while it was one they were happy to project, Mehr illustrates in amazing detail the many ways in which it manifested itself.

The Replacements were notorious as the band that couldn’t catch a break and, even if they did, would find a way to let it slip through their fingers. Their prickly dispositions and refusal to play the music business game – abstaining from appearing in videos, drunken industry showcases, feuding with executives and producers, etc. – helped make the band infamous rather than famous. Mehr captures those stories and augments them with examination of the reasoning and conditions behind these antics as well as the fallout afterward.

The band’s reputation as the loveable losers takes a hit as Mehr recounts stories from a number of producers, managers, publicists, label heads, bus drivers, radio programmers, and others who found themselves in the band’s crosshairs. These were all people who ostensibly were working with the band’s best interests at heart. However, they could find themselves caught up in the band’s antics, showing that self-destructive behavior isn’t always limited to the “self” in question.

While The Replacements’ appeal came, in large part, from their us-against-the-world credo, Mehr also shows that they saved some of their harshest blows for each other. He repeatedly points out how Bob Stinson couldn’t shake the feeling that Westerberg had stolen his band from him. Then, later, he must have felt that he also lost the role of Tommy’s big brother. Once Stinson and his troubling drug use was driven out of the band, Chris Mars and his introverted personality became a target. Even Slim Dunlap and Steve Foley -- the replacement Replacements -- were not immune to hazing rituals of sorts.

This is not to say that the story doesn’t include plenty of moments of love, comradery, and brotherhood between the players. They describe it themselves as a gang mentality that they carried with them as they tour Twin Cities watering holes, garner critical acclaim, and steal their own Twin Tone tapes. In addition, when they were practicing in the Stinson family basement, the likely couldn’t imagine that they would one day see the world touring and hanging with contemporaries such as REM and the Young Fresh Fellows as well as getting to rub elbows with heroes like Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, and Keith Richards.

In the end, the book wraps up with the band members, previously scattered to the wind, rallying around the side of Dunlap after he suffers a stroke, as well as Stinson and Westerberg’s all-too-few Replacements reunion shows. Even the sad scene of Bob Stinson’s funeral closes with Westerberg tearfully clutching Stinson’s ex-wife saying “We were just kids. We didn’t know shit. We were… just kids.”

For all the hard knocks and divisiveness, though, Mehr doesn’t forget that if the songs and performances weren’t so strong, nothing else would have mattered. Readers get to hear the stories behind some of the most famous songs and, in particular, the work that went into getting them on tape. As the self-taught band grows and is pushed into more “professional” recordings, we see them both bristle and mature.

Of particular note are the chapters around the recording of Pleased to Meet Me. Coming in the wake of Tim – an album that featured some incredible songs yet some questionable production choices -- this would be the first record without Bob Stinson. It was recorded under the helm of producer Jim Dickinson in Ardent Studios, replete with all the history that comes with it. Tommy Stinson was beginning to flex his musical muscles. And, of course, these sessions would produce the renowned “vomit on the ceiling” story.

While all Replacements fans have their own favorites, in many ways this was to be the place where all the pieces clicked together. They had the songs – classics like “Alex Chilton” and “Can’t Hardly Wait.” It had recording sessions that taxed and tested the players to give their best performances. It had studio production gloss. It had label support. The band even agreed to appear in a video. It had everything.

Except a hit.

Bob Mehr took time from his schedule to share his thoughts on the work and passion that went into this project and why The Replacments were deserving of this level of analysis.

Trouble Boys cover

Baumann: First is the big question: How? Considering how notorious the band members have been about not talking about the past, not participating much in reissues, general surliness, etc., how did you get them and their many layers of acquaintances to open up for the interviews and research needed to make this book happen?

MEHR: Frankly, I wasn’t interested in writing anything without the band’s direct involvement. That had already been done, and the results were never really satisfying to me. Fundamentally, the question I wanted to answer in the Replacements story was “why?” Why did they form the band? Why did they make the music they did? Why did their career evolve/devolve as it did? The only way to really get those answers was to have the band members and those closest to them involved in the process, and to persuade them all to reflect honestly on their lives.

Over a period of years, working as a music critic, I’d developed casual relationships with Westerberg and Stinson, but also crucially with key people within their circle, particularly the Replacements’ longtime manager Peter Jesperson and Westerberg’s current manager Darren Hill. Both men were ardent champions of this project from the start, and without their support early on, and at critical points throughout the process, there’s absolutely no way the book could have been written.

In the spring of 2007, I decided it was time to pitch the project formally to them. Westerberg liked my written proposal, but initially suggested we collaborate on his memoir instead. While I was flattered by the offer, I knew that the story I wanted to tell was bigger than just Paul. Not long after, I had dinner with Tommy in Los Angeles, and he was the first to formally agree to participate in the book – with the caveat that he would only do it Paul was on board.

A few months later I found myself back in Minneapolis doing a story on the band for SPIN. Had a long face-to-face with Westerberg there, and we discussed a Replacements biography in-depth: what the process would entail and how, if the book was to mean anything, it would have to get into some darker, and sometimes unpleasant territory. I think Westerberg understood, even better than I did at the time, how difficult the process was going to be for me, given the band’s somewhat tortured personal and professional history.      

After our meeting, Westerberg agreed to participate, as a result so did Tommy, and I was able to move ahead with the project – with the understanding that although they would be involved, it would not be an “authorized” bio and the band would have no editorial control over the finished product. In short: they would give me everything I needed, but it was my book to write.

Ultimately with Paul and Tommy and Peter Jesperson on board nearly everyone else was happy to participate (the notable exception being Chris Mars, who’d developed a standing policy of not discussing the Replacements; though I was able to give him voice in the book, thanks to some previous interviews that myself and several other journalist friends had conducted).

As to why Paul and Tommy agreed? My guess is that enough time had passed from the break-up of the band in 1991, and the death of Bob Stinson in 1995, that they were willing and able to finally look back and grapple with the life and legacy of the Replacements. That’s something they had never done. By the time I came into the picture, I think they needed to do that for themselves as much as anything. The book became the vehicle for that reckoning, I suppose.  

BAUMANN: Second big question: Why? What is it about The Replacements that elicited the type of determination you would need for a project this large?

First and foremost, I loved the band – the music, the romance and the cult and culture that developed around them. But more than that I knew there was a compelling story there – not just about one rock and roll band, but a whole era of the music business. I also felt that a band as intense and profound as the Replacements had something more propelling them than the usual desire for fame and fortune Instinctively, I felt like whatever was pushing them (and also dragging them down) was rooted in their childhoods and formative years.

BAUMANN: Everyone I've spoken with who read the book has been taken by the extensive depth you were able to go into (such as family histories, etc.) and chose to go into. Was that a conscientious goal from the beginning?

MEHR: As I got deeper into my research it became clear how central those personal histories were to the story of this particular band. Especially as it related to Bob and Tommy Stinson, but also to Westerberg, Mars, Jesperson, and so many of the people who would come to work with and play a major role in the band’s career. I don’t think there were any accidents or coincidences when it came to those who were part of the Replacements story. The people who were closest to them were there for a reason – because they understood them, shared the same background and demons, or found something transcendent in their music that expressed some wounded part of themselves. At the end of the day, the book is the story of families – damaged families of origin, and new families we create as a response to that.

BAUMANN: In a similar vein, with a band as renowned as The Replacements, I think there exists the danger of falling into the old saying of, "when the legend becomes fact, print the legend." That could certainly have been the case for stories like the infamous Portland show or the run-in with Bob Dylan in the recording studio. Was this something you wrestled with while working on the book? Was the extensive research an antidote to that? 

MEHR: Yes, the Replacements are probably the ultimate example of that phenomenon. So much of their story – their behavior and antics, on stage and off – graduated to the realm of myth and legend, they’ve been handed down almost as folk stories. As it turned out, some of the most outrageous things, the tales that seemed the tallest, happened to be true. But generally from a research perspective, I did try and throw out what I knew, or thought I knew, forget everything I had read or heard, and start from scratch.

BAUMANN: Continuing down that line, did you have to resist the urge to play armchair psychiatrist as you were writing the book and recounting all these cases of extreme behavior up and down the spectrum? I think, in the end, the book does an excellent job of "show, don't tell" in that regard. But I am assuming that your opinions and thoughts about the band -- outside of their music -- had to have roller coastered during the research and writing.

MEHR: It’s hard not to speculate or draw conclusions as a biographer, especially when you live with a project as long as I lived with this one. I’m sure in the earlier drafts of the book there was more armchair analysis on my part, more speculation as to motives and meaning. But in the rewriting and editing, I tried to strip that away and leave behind nothing but the story. Of course, in constructing the narrative – what you choose to include and omit – you’re making judgement calls and influencing the reader’s understanding. But as much as possible, I tried to make it so that everyone would feel like they had the information needed to draw their own conclusions about the band. I think I succeeded in as much as people’s reactions to the book have been like a Rorschach Test. Everyone sees something different in the ink blotter. And what they see probably says more about them than it does the Replacements.

BAUMANN: One of the big takeaways from the book for me was that The Replacements long were considered and portrayed as the band that couldn't catch a break and, even if they did, would find some way to sabotage it. However, your book shows that when they shot themselves in their own foot, there were a lot of other people that suffered collateral damage either personally or professionally. Was that a purposeful theme that you developed and, if so, when did it begin to emerge in the process?

MEHR: Yes, though, I’m not of the opinion that their self-sabotage was the sole reason for their relative commercial failure at the time. In some ways I think the destructive, and self-destructive, things they did have fed their legend for the last 30 years, and are a big reason why the Replacements are more popular now than they ever were, even in their ‘80s heyday. That said, I did want to show that there was fallout from the choices they made, for themselves and others around them. But I never wanted to judge them on that either. At the end of the day, the things the Replacements did hurt themselves more than anyone around them.

BAUMANN: In the end, though, it's a book about a rock and roll band. What are the handful of songs -- either from the band or solo careers -- that you think best sum up The Replacements story? What are the songs that hear differently or have a different meaning now after writing the book?

MEHR: After doing this book my respect and admiration for the Replacements – for what they achieved, for how far they got – is even greater. And, of course, knowing so much more about their lives, that can’t help but inform my understanding and appreciation for the songs as well. My hope is that I convey all that effectively in Trouble Boys, so that readers will feel that same deeper connection to the music.

If I was to come up with a list of ten tracks that conveyed some larger story, I would include the following songs from the Replacements and various post-band and solo efforts: