The Replacements’ Blithely Adolescent Spirit

Bob Mehr's biography of the band that regularly pulled defeat from the jaws of victory makes for compelling, heartbreaking reading.

There is a park bench near Lake of the Isles, Minneapolis, dedicated to the memory of late Replacements guitarist Bob Stinson. Stinson, who died in 1995 of natural causes after years of drug and alcohol abuse, was the kind of guy who liked to sit, drink a six pack, and watch the trains go by. That bench seems like the kind of thing Stinson would have gotten some use out of in life.

As a memorial, however, the bench seems to be far less significant than should be warranted for the man whose urge to push past his broken youth spawned one of the truly great bands of the college rock era. Bob Mehr’s new biography of the Replacements, Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements, frames the history of the beloved, besotted, and embattled band, in large part through the lens of Stinson’s tragic life.

The book opens at Stinson’s funeral, the remaining band members arriving to pay respect to their former guitarist who had struggled both personally and professionally after being kicked out of the group in 1986. Stinson’s bass-playing younger brother Tommy, drummer Chris Mars, and Paul Westerberg, guitarist and songwriter, had spent the better part of the decade after Bob’s unceremonious exit from the band trying to solidify their place in the music business. While many of their contemporaries had begun to see significant financial and critical acclaim, the Replacements seemed to be just as willing to burn a bridge leading to a new opportunity as they were to cross it.

Stinson’s funeral serves as a gut-punch of an opening scene, with the generally stoic Westerberg breaking down in tears to Stinson’s ex-wife Carleen that “we were just kids… we didn’t know shit.” This confession sets the tone for the whole book. The story of the Replacements is a story of a bunch of overgrown kids who can’t quite figure out where they belong, filled with unresolved anger, self-loathing and fear, who lash out in unexpected ways and at inopportune times.

There’s something Holden Caulfield-esque about the way the band members interact with each other, and with the music business, that comes clear thanks to Mehr’s detailed and careful interviews with most of the band and their associates. Akin to J.D. Salinger’s famous protagonist, the members of the Replacements seemed to be grappling with loss, pain, and self-doubt by dousing themselves in booze and breaking things in order to avoid the expression of their actual feelings for each other.

Unlike the previous full length biography of the band, Jim Walsh’s All Over but the Shouting: An Oral History of the Replacements, Mehr had the active participation of two of the core surviving members of the band, Westerberg and Stinson (Chris Mars, who departed before the band’s initial breakup in 1991, now focuses on his art career and did not agree to be interviewed for the book) and their insights help to understand the complex dynamic of the band.

Walsh’s book often felt like it skipped over the darker sides of the group, but Mehr favors a ‘warts and all’ approach: Tommy Stinson and Westerberg doing speedballs during the recording of All Shook Down, the band’s psychological abuse of young producer Tony Berg, Bob’s physical abuse of his girlfriend, the frequent infidelity of the married members while on tour — all of these details show the more serious flaws of a band that was frequently canonized as a bunch of fun-loving clowns. Westerberg, the band’s songwriter, comes off as the antagonist to Bob’s protagonist for most of the first half of the book; frequently mean, spiteful, destructive, and cruel, Westerberg is initially added as a second guitar player for Bob’s band Dogbreath, and essentially takes it over by sheer force of will, firing the singer and taking the reins while Bob sits back and watches, helplessly.

The truth, of course, is more complex than a simple hero-villain dynamic, but Westerberg is often hard to root for, given his callousness and his selfishness. It’s a virtue of the book that a die-hard fan of the band can feel, at times, like the musicians they idolized were actually pretty flawed and, sometimes, awful, people. Mehr explores this darkness without apologizing for it, although he also does offer some possible explanations for these tendencies: family histories filled with immodest alcoholism, typically stoic Midwestern upbringings, and, most disturbingly, an excavation of Bob Stinson’s thick case files from the Minnesota Juvenile Court that detail the physical and sexual abuse he faced at the hands of his mother’s boyfriend, Nick Griffin.

Mehr’s ability to show the less glamorous side of the band is what makes the book such a heartbreaking narrative. While this is a book for fans of the band, it’s not necessarily a book that will turn a casual reader into a fan of the band. His ability to separate the group’s frequent brilliance from the bizarre pathos that powered them makes for a compelling read, but also an uncomfortable one: the band, at their own admission, sabotaged their potential commercial progress at almost every turn but then puzzled over their lack of anything more than modest financial success (although their proclivity to burn their per diem money just for kicks probably didn’t help pad their bank accounts).

Their conflicted feelings about fame and wealth are reflected in the strained relationship with their original manager (and biggest cheerleader), Peter Jesperson, over Jesperson’s brief stint tour-managing fellow underground rising stars R.E.M. in 1983. While the Replacements were friendly with the members of R.E.M., (R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck guested on 1984’s Let It Be), the band developed an open hostility towards Jesperson’s role with their fellow indie band. Their frustration with the breakthrough success of their rivals seemed to haunt Westerberg and Tommy Stinson.

The Replacements were offered a chance to work with hotshot producer Scott Litt on what would become Pleased to Meet Me and rejected it; months later, Westerberg would glower at Rolling Stone’s cover story on R.E.M., proclaiming them “America’s Best Rock & Roll Band” on the heels of a Litt-produced smash hit album, Document, and Top Ten single, “The One I Love”. Tommy Stinson grouses that the members of R.E.M. hid their debauchery better than the Replacements ever could: “We didn’t hide the fact that we did drugs and drank and were fucked up. We wore our shit on our sleeve, and they hid their shit. Those guys hid it pretty well. And we know that, because we did their drugs and drank with them. I thought they were a bit phony, just playing the game…”

Tommy’s claim about R.E.M. being “a bit phony” echoes the constant complaints of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, and those kinds of complaints resound through Trouble Boys. The book ends with an unplanned epilogue: a reunion tour that began in 2012 and ended in 2015. In some ways, Mehr is forced to end the book on a strange note. It’s narrative would seem to nicely close itself out with the band’s slow fade, breakup, and middling solo careers, but in typical Replacements fashion, they throw a massive curveball. The reunion is initially galvanized by the serious stroke suffered by Slim Dunlap, Bob Stinson’s replacement on guitar, and turns into a well-received three year run of live performances. Westerberg’s own feelings toward the tour seem to lean towards the reunion’s own ‘phoniness’-he spelled out a message to his fans on the t-shirts he wore throughout the tour that ultimately read “I have always loved you. Now I must whore my past.”

Mehr does a masterful job of showing the petulance and childishness that helped make the band so great and yet also so exasperating for their fans and supporters. The emotive core of the band’s music wouldn’t have existed without that Holden Caulfield spirit, the willful self-sabotage and the uncontrollably powerful feelings that drive songs like “Bastards of Young” and “Sixteen Blue” and “Unsatisfied”. In a subtle way, Mehr identifies this as the same spirit that drove Bob Stinson to form a band to exorcise his demons. Sadly, those same demons also drove Bob to drugs and alcohol, and ultimately helped kill him. With Trouble Boys, Mehr has given Bob Stinson something more significant than a memorial bench on a lakefront: he has paid tribute to the man, to the band he founded, and to the blithely adolescent spirit of rock ‘n’ roll.

RATING 7 / 10