Trouble Boys is a deeply intimate and nuanced portrait, exposing the primal factors and forces—addiction, abuse, fear—that would shape one of the most brilliant and notoriously self-destructive groups of all time.
Paul Harold Westerberg was a child of the 1950s, just barely. The second son of Harold Robert Westerberg and Mary Louise Philipp, he hit the sheets on December 31, 1959, though he wasn’t due for a few more days. “My ma always told me that she flipped a mattress that day to hurry up the process—so I would make it there in time to be a tax deduction,” said Paul. Years later, in the song “Bastards of Young,” he’d write: “Income tax deduction / One hell of a function.” …
Paul’s first years were spent at 3734 Pleasant Avenue, kitty-corner from the Church of the Incarnation, where Hal and Mary Lou had been married. It was known as the Cathedral in the Pines, a working-class, Catholic, heavily Irish South Minneapolis neighborhood where the Westerbergs were surrounded by Patricks, Gallaghers, and Malarkeys. The house was within eyesight of the Catholic school that Paul attended until he was a teenager.
One of Westerberg’s childhood friends was a roughneck named Scotty Williams. Williams came from a “wild-ass family of nine boys, who’d all served in the Marines,” he recalled. Scotty was Paul’s bad-boy buddy, his corrupting influence from an early age. “Me and Scotty smoked our first cigarettes in kindergarten, used an old Marine helmet for an ashtray,” he said. “Nobody over at his house gave a shit.”
A number of neighborhood kids played music, including Kevin Patrick, a gifted drummer who’d later join the Prince-affiliated band Mazarati. One of Paul’s schoolmates was Jimmy Mars, whose little brother Chris played drums too. “Chris was a couple years younger, which at that age is an eternity,” said Paul. “I didn’t really know him, but I was always aware of him.” …
The Westerbergs and Philipps had always been big boozing families: “My cousins, my aunts, uncles, whichever side of the family,” said Paul, “whenever they got together, they’d break out the liquor.” For Hal, though, it was more than a social lubricant: “Like a junkie who needs it just to get straight,” said Paul, “he’d have a couple quick belts when he got home. And then would drink until he’d go to sleep. But then every morning he was fairly chipper and ready to go.”
Hal’s problem was spoken of fairly openly. “My mom would say that on a regular basis: ‘Such is life with an alcoholic,’” said Paul. “Not that she was teetotal by any means, but she could function without it.” There was no violence in the house (apart from once when Hal disciplined Paul for “bugging my sister ... he knocked me down and felt bad right away”), but his parents’ moods and emotions vacillated. “My dad was depressed. My mother was anxious,” said Paul. “A swell combination there.”
When Paul was thirteen, one of his older sisters dared him to drink a glass of vodka. As he absorbed the drink’s effects, his world changed. “What I felt was immediate release from all anxiety,” he said. “I’d found the elixir of life that makes you calm and fearless. I think that’s the alcoholic trigger. I started at thirteen, and I kept it up. It was in our genes.”
* * *
From a young age, Paul Westerberg had a mind that seemed to work differently.
“It probably has to do with all the blows I took to the head,” he would say, only half-joking.
When he was twenty months old, his sister Anne accidentally whacked him in the noggin with a baseball bat: “Just as my right cerebral cortex was forming,” he said. At nine, swinging on a rope in a junkyard, he fell and cut the left side of his head badly; he was left with a permanently pointy Spock-like ear. “That probably impaired my hearing too -- as well as knocking all the math, language, and reasoning out of me.”
In school he sometimes had trouble making sense of words. “I don’t know if you’d classify it as dyslexia,” he said. “But even now, if you wake me up in the morning and have me read something, I turn some of the letters backwards. It forced another part of my brain to grow stronger.”
Much of the memorable inverted imagery in Westerberg’s songs would come from a real place in his mind. “I really do think the opposite of what I’m told. If [someone says,] ‘White sheet rain,’ I think, Black blanket sun. Musically too, I think the opposite of what makes sense sometimes.” Schoolwork became a constant struggle. “I had to work really hard just to be an average student.”
What came naturally was music. Paul never took formal lessons, but he could fiddle with the piano in the house, and his mother would lullaby him with “Hello Mary Lou” and “Come On-a My House.” “I thought my mom wrote those,” he said.
The proximity to his musician uncles also stoked his interest. “We’d go to my Uncle Bob’s at Christmas, and he would play the piano. When it really got good was when the other uncle, Paul, would come over and crack out his trombone and they’d actually play jazz,” he said. “That was pretty exciting to hear in somebody’s living room.”
The Beatles arrived when Paul was five, especially for his older sisters, who watched Ed Sullivan with their friends. “They’re all squealing, ‘Oh, Paul’s so cute!’ It definitely perked me up. Whatever they would’ve looked at—if it’d been Tab Hunter—I probably would have dug that. Fortunately, it was the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.” His older brother Phil hipped him to folk and blues music. Inevitably, Bob Dylan had a formative impact; early on, Westerberg wrote “a vague rip of ‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’ called ‘Mr. Tonic Guy’ or ‘Mr. Tonic Man.’”
Westerberg also absorbed early-seventies A M pop radio, putting a pair of transistor radios to his ears in bed each night. His friend Tommy Byrne’s stepfather owned a bowling alley and would hand over discarded jukebox 45s. “It was pop music, bubblegum,” he recalled, “whatever was a hit in 1970–71”: “Here Comes That Rainy Day Feeling Again” by the Fortunes, “Temptation Eyes” by the Grass Roots, the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There,” the Partridge Family’s “I Think I Love You,” even silly novelties like Daddy Dewdrop’s “Chick-A-Boom (Don’t Ya Jes’ Love It).”
He bought his first real records in 1972, picking up Seventh Sojourn by the Moody Blues, mostly to impress his sisters. He also got Never a Dull Moment, the fourth solo LP by Rod Stewart, the laddish, raspy-throated singer for the Faces. Paul would stare at the unusual album cover -- Stewart looking bored and deflated, sitting in an armchair—and wear the record out, absorbing its raw, beautiful folk songs and loose-limbed rock numbers. Later, for a couple of days before a session, Paul would shout at the top of his lungs to get Stewart’s huskiness into his voice.
He also fell for the glam rock coming from the United Kingdom circa 1972. “I was a Slade fan all the way. That was, for that one year, year and a half, my favorite thing,” he said. “Parents thought it was asinine. I thought it was exciting.”
Paul was a small kid -- and his mother had enrolled him in school earlier than normal—but still played baseball through eighth grade, though the glasses he was prescribed at age nine made it hard to see the ball. “I was always pretty fast. My reflexes were very good. But I was mostly a tenacious benchwarmer. By the time I was ten, I was absorbed in listening to rock-and-roll and trying to get a guitar for years until I got one.” He’d initially wanted to play drums. “My mother’s words of wisdom were: ‘Some musicians can get one girl, but remember: a guitar player always has his pick.’ How right she was.”
He bought his first guitar, a cheap Harmony Sovereign acoustic, off his sister when he was twelve, for $10: “Mowed the lawn about ten times to get it. The neck had gotten so bowed I couldn’t even play a chord. But that was very good. It was almost like exercising with weights on your leg.”
Westerberg wasn’t a natural performer. “If I sang, I’d do it from underneath the table,” he said. “One time, I played a little song for my mom and dad on the guitar, something that I told them I wrote for them, for their anniversary. They looked really embarrassed. That was the last time I ever did that.” Mostly, he devoted himself almost secretly to the instrument. “My plan was to learn the thing and pull it out one day and wow them.”
By the early seventies, Paul’s older brother Phil Westerberg had become something of a tearaway, often in trouble with the law. “He was the total black sheep of the family --- in jail about five times,” said Paul. “He didn’t really do anything bad. He did stupid things. He definitely ran with some criminal dopes. One time he came home with the bullet holes in his car, all beat up.” …
He also heard the music Phil sometimes made. “My brother had friends who were musicians, and I used to hang when they would come home drunk late at night and I would sit and watch them,” he said. “I was taught some shit from a few of his buddies—they were into everything from Zeppelin to bluegrass. So I got a crash course on everything from mandolins to guitar solos.”
Paul would spend years practicing undisturbed. “The guitar became my companion.”
Excerpted from Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements by Bob Mehr. Available from Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2016. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Bob Mehr is an award-winning music critic for the Gannett-owned newspaper The Commercial Appeal and a longtime contributor to MOJO magazine. He's also served as an editor, writer, and columnist for Village Voice Media, New Times Inc., and Chicago Reader. He contributed liner notes to the Grammy-winning Big Star box set Keep an Eye on the Sky and has written essays for reissues of the Replacements, Kinks, Warren Zevon, Dixie Chicks, Al Green, and many others. A native of Los Angeles, he lives in Memphis, Tennessee.