I have a long personal history with the Replacements, the legendary Minneapolis-rooted band that played hard, stayed true to their lack of ambition, and left lots of carnage in its wake. Led by singer/songwriter Paul Westerberg, rooted in the brotherhood between guitarists Bob and Tommy Stinson, and propelled by drummer Chris Mars, the group is still considered one of the last great rock ‘n’ roll bands, even if it cost a few lives in the making.
The first record anyone ever gave me was the band’s 1984 classic Let It Be. Like many other people, songs like “Unsatisfied” and “Sixteen Blue” became the anthems of my adolescence. It wasn’t until decades later that I saw the infamous band play live in a cornfield outside Denver, blasting out beloved songs like “I Will Dare,” “Left of the Dial,” and “Bastards of the Young” to close out Riot Fest.
So when I heard that Memphis-based journalist Bob Mehr wrote Trouble Boys, which Kirkus calls “an in-depth biography of a beloved, exasperating band that never quite made it,” I had to track him down. En route to Nashville, Mehr talked about the long evolution of his comprehensive biography of the ‘Mats.
“I was a fan first and foremost but working as a music critic over the years, I realized that eventually I had a relationship with all of the principal players,” he remembered. “There are all these tales and myths and anecdotes about the Replacements but my goal was to get inside their circle and see the story from the inside out.”
If there’s a seminal moment, it’s probably Mehr’s trip to Minneapolis in 2004. While he was there, he met singer/songwriter Paul Westerberg in person for a magazine profile. Then he called former band manager Peter Jeppesen, who happened to be clearing out the old Twin/Tone Records office and let the author pore over the last remains of the Replacements’ record label. Later that day, he ended up at the Uptown Bar, where Tommy and Bob Stinson’s mother Anita was still working as a bartender.
“I was in this funny place where I saw the songwriter, the label and the family all in one day,” said Mehr. “I thought, you know, there’s a story here about the music, the business and the family.”
The book is unusual in having the participation of Paul Westerberg, who remains arguably one of the most reclusive artists of his generation. Taking a cue from his late mentor Alex Chilton, the singer-songwriter lived a quiet life after the Replacements broke up, at least until his ghosts came calling again.
“It was a trust that evolved over time, because he is a guarded guy,” Mehr says. “I think he saw I was serious about the time and effort I was putting into telling the story right, so I think he saw it was time to give up the goods, so to speak.”
God knows the story has its casualties. Guitarist Bob Stinson was famously dismissed by the Replacements and died in 1995 at the age of 35. Drummer Chris Mars has long since left his musical roots behind to focus on a successful career as a painter. Slim Dunlap, who replaced Stinson as guitarist, suffered a devastating stroke in 2012, an event that for better or worse brought the Replacements back into the studio for a benefit EP, Songs for Slim. Even Steve Foley, who replaced Mars on drums, died of an overdose in 2008. That leaves bassist Tommy Stinson and Westerberg as the sole survivors of the Replacements.
“In some ways, Tommy is the heart and soul of the Replacements,” Mehr says. “He’s almost the existential hero of the story. His brother Bob put a guitar in his hand to save him from the main choices faced by kids then, which were ‘jail, death or janitor.’ But I really tried to make everyone present in the story, even if they didn’t want to participate or are no longer with us.”
Besides the hundreds of interviews Mehr conducted with band members, family members, managers, roadies and others, he was also granted access to the Replacements’ archive at Warner Brothers, where he listened to studio outtakes to complement the many live bootlegs that fuel the band’s legend. Those live shows were infamous in their day but Mehr unearthed contradictions in the band’s mythology.
“I don’t think it was just drugs and alcohol,” Mehr says. “I think it was more that they played their feelings genuinely, which Paul talks about in the book. If they were bored, they played bored. If they were pissed off, the sets just seethed with anger. If they were in a funny mood, the set turned into a long joke. If the crowd was expecting something, the Replacements would do something to defy expectations. They were locked onto the mood of the crowd and the moments that a show gave them, so that’s how the shows tended to roll out.”
For all of the fights that are documented in his book, Mehr does see the band as a kind of brotherhood.
“The essence of what the band becomes arises in this union between the Stinson brothers, Paul, and Chris,” he explains. “At the end of the day, it’s a love story in a sense. A lot of the story of the Replacements is about relationships. It’s a story about a rock ‘n’ roll band but it’s also about damaged American families and kids who are saved by rock ‘n’ roll, but maybe only up to a point. They carried it as far and as hard as they could. There’s a lot of triumph in their story and some tragedy as well.
The Replacements never had a hit. The closest they came was on 1989’s Don’t Tell a Soul with “I’ll Be You,” which made it all the way to number 51 on Billboard’s hot 100.
“Part of the reason their music has endured is simply because they’re great songs,” Mehr says. “Paul is a great songwriter who touches people in a very specific way. He writes anthems and love songs but they’re never obvious. You also have to take into account this legend that surrounds them as a band. There’s a romance and a mythology that’s inherent in their story. The legacy of the Replacements isn’t one thing. It’s a lot of things that you still see in a lot of different types of bands.”
Westerberg and Stinson famously reformed the Replacements in 2014, both men on the verge of divorce. They continued careening across the United States and Europe, playing like hell, fighting, and falling into their old patterns. Westerberg enigmatically played their last dates in T-shirts that eventually spelled out, “I have always loved you, now I must whore my past.” It’s given Bob Mehr an interesting but ambiguous ending to his rock ‘n’ roll fable.
“When I started the book, there was talk of a reunion but then five years passed with no forward motion,” he recalls. “I did always think it was inevitable that they would get back together. There’s chemistry between Paul and Tommy that neither musician has been able to find elsewhere or recreate with other musicians. That’s a pretty powerful attraction and it’s hard for money or pride to get in the way of something that powerful. Now that they’ve gotten back together and gone through the experience, I think there’s still more to their story. I hope their story continues past these pages and in my heart of hearts, I believe they will. At least I hope so.”
Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic, and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and other media. He is based near San Francisco, California.