Bill Sullivan was a roadie for the Replacements, the legendary ’80s punk-pop band whose genius was famously eclipsed by their self-destructiveness. Bob Mehr’s 2016 tome Trouble Boys is a very comprehensive, if less than insightful, chronicle of the band. Sullivan, having lived firsthand some of the most debauched road tours in history, provides a very compact but telling glimpse into the experience of traveling with the band.
The titular Lemon Jail better resembled a trash dumpster than a vehicle. Sullivan’s description of the tight quarters accounts for the “jail” part of the description. The “lemon” part of the moniker is not explicit but one infers this has to do with the urine that collected in the trough-like configuration under the vehicle’s sliding door.
Sullivan was so smitten with the Replacements that he volunteered his services free of charge and despite facilitating a lot of malfeasance, he worked his way up to a paid position and accompanied the band on tour from 1983 to 1991. He writes, “I was a pretty good roadie. I seemed to be able to walk-or better-yet-straddle-the line between legal and stupid.” Sullivan went on to manage tours for Soul Asylum, Yo La Tengo, Cat Power and other A-list alt-rock performers.
Paul Westerberg aptly dubbed Bill Sullivan “Father o’ Ruckus”, as he often instigated drug and drink-filled shenanigans, and they shared a Twin Cities Catholic upbringing to rail against. Other duties as assigned included stepping up on the stage and telling dirty jokes or singing show tunes with the band, patrolling the pit to protect the musicians from irate and violent concert goers and, of course, the procuring of various inebriating substances.
Despite raunchy details, fond anecdotes lighten these recollections. Before Sullivan first went on tour, his mother meticulously packed an Igloo cooler full of homemade chocolate chip cookies and sandwiches kept fresh with frozen water-filled baggies. The cooler, unsurprisingly, given the Replacements’ penchant for using things for other than their intended purposes, fares no better than the van.
Sullivan, despite engaging juvenile behavior, was an ingenious autodidact and paints a clear picture of what it is that a roadie actually does. Loading and unloading gear requires mathematical precision. Keeping instruments in good repair is an ongoing project, and often challenging in the small college towns where the band played. The Replacements were rather hard on guitars.
Sullivan’s illustrative copy feels authentic and he captures the band members as characters. Drummer Chris Mars drew Fred Flintstone or Jed Clampett on just about any blank surface he encountered. Teenaged Tommy was legally required to have an appointed guardian while touring with the band, certainly a lunatics running the asylum scenario. Tommy’s big brother, the late Bob Stinson, was as dissolute a character as ever incited by rock ‘n’ roll. The word-craft evidenced in Westerberg’s lyrics also informs his mordant quick-wittedness. When told a friend from high school was at the stage-door asking to be admitted to the show, Westerberg replied, “I had no friends in high school.”
Even the most diehard Replacement’s fan will find that much of the brief text covers well-trodden territory. The writing is at times as anarchic as a tour, occasionally bordering on incoherent. The specific details of the antics that kept the band from claiming the level of professional accomplishment, that was theirs by all rights, are more depressing than amusing.
While the copy is neither groundbreaking nor eloquently composed, Lemon Jail contains a fascinating trove of grainy photographs and ephemera. While Sullivan’s prose might be lacking in gravitas, the illustrations are worth the price of admission. Show posters. Ticket stubs. The typewritten scene rundown for the band’s notorious Saturday Night Live episode. Chris Mars’ sketches. And over 100 previously unpublished black and white snapshots. In that regard, color me impressed.