The Replacements would have been bigger than R.E.M. in a just universe. If the naked expression of young angst and disillusionment is the soul of rock ‘n roll, then “the Mats” were robbed of their place in the pantheon.
Bob Mehr’s long-awaited Trouble Boys, The True Story of the Replacements is the product of ten years of research. In great detail, the book chronicles the history of the Mats from their inception in the late-’70s through 2015 reunion performances. The story of a band, formed perhaps a decade too late or a decade too early, both too stupid and too smart for its own good, remains often riveting. At times though, the exhaustive research exhausts even a devoted fan reading this tome.
Guitarist Bob Stinson spent his youth in and out of reform schools and mental institutions. He attempted to inoculate his 11-year-old half-brother Tommy against a similar fate by teaching him to play the bass. Bob rewarded Tommy with soda and candy when he practiced and punched him when he got it wrong.
The Stinsons teamed with drummer Chris Mars and lead singer Robert Flemal in Dogbreath. High school drop-out Paul Westerberg was walking home from his janitor job and intrigued by the cacophonous sound of rehearsals at the Stinson home. Serendipitously he met, and eventually joined, the band. Westerberg saw to the ouster of Flemal and grabbed the creative reins, creating the framework for the complicated, messy, maddening odyssey pursued by the Replacements.
Peter Jesperson started the indie Twin Tone record label in Minneapolis. He also managed its landmark record shop Oar Folkjokeopus. Westerberg borrowed a Maxell C-90 tape from his sister and the band recorded a demo. After much hesitation, he finally got up the nerve to leave the tape with Jesperson.
When he finally got around to listening to it, Jesperson was so impressed that he played the tape for everyone he knew. That cassette had no case. “Santana — Moonflower”, in girly writing, was crossed out on the label. Jesperson went on to the manage the band. His eventual firing resulted in one of the many broken hearts that the Replacements left behind.
Bob Stinson resented Westerberg’s commandeering of what he considered his group. While the band is notorious for drunken and drug-fueled debauchery,Stinson pushed the envelope and was fired in 1986. This blow resonated as even more emotionally fraught. For, Tommy’s loyalty remained with Westerberg rather than his older brother. After a lifetime of struggles with addiction and mental illness, Stinson died in 1995 at the age of 35.
Mehr evenhandedly covers the band’s further, acrimonious personnel changes. Various witnesses recall the sacking of drummer Chris Mars. Conflicting memories clash. Mehr describes Mars’ reaction to a magazine story in which Westerberg pans the drummer’s prowess. After reading the article, “Chris’s ears were burning.”
Two pages later, Mars’ replacement, Steve Foley, is out drinking with his brother who notices that Westerberg and Tommy are across the bar and looking straight at him. Foley’s brother asks him if his “ears are burning”. At least when it appears for the second time in so many pages the idiom is used correctly. While Mehr deserves commendation for his objectivity and fairness, his clunky writing grates, particularly as the author professes a deep admiration for Westerberg’s eloquence and nimble wordplay.
Many tales of the Replacements’ excesses are so over the top that many must be presumed at least partially apocryphal. Based on Mehr’s plethora of interviews, it seems that most of what seemed just grist for the rumor mill was, if anything, understated. It’s a miracle that all the members didn’t meet the same fate as Bob. The Mats had an infinite capacity for the swilling of alcohol, abuse of substances, destruction of dressing rooms, smashing of guitars and the intentional pissing off of record execs and DJs. Just about the only rumor that this book does serve to dispel is Westerberg’s alleged torrid affair with Winona Ryder. The two, Ryder discloses to Mehr, socialized a few times, and remained only friends.
The Mats’ stupid and often mean-spirited behavior, corroded by their militant childishness, depresses. All of the living former band members stay candid. They seem to gloss nothing over. However, the frequently verbatim quotes lack context, which deprives a reader of any idea of the facial expression, posture or tone of voice of the speaker. Westerberg remembers, recounting a decade of raucous self-destruction, grappling with a fear of failure, equalled only by a fear of success. But Mehr doesn’t demonstrate if in retrospect this is spoken bitterly or from a peaceful, enlightened stance.
Anita Stinson, mother of Bob and Tommy, represents perhaps the most tragic character in this saga filled with sadness. Her eldest son Bob was brutalized by her second husband and was subsequently in and out of institutions. This precedes the rift between her sons when Bob was fired from the band.
Bob’s son Joey suffers from cerebral palsy. He is unable to speak or walk. Bob’s mental and physical health continued to decline until he was found dead. Joey clutches his father’s hand at the funeral. Anita is granted sole custody of Joey, who himself dies at 21. These interviews with Anita are less satisfying. For we never know if she is stoical or weeping or simply numb.
Mehr reports having interviewed 230 people in the process of writing Trouble Boys. Fifteen-year-old Stinson’s case log from the St. Cloud’s Children’s Home is quoted. Even minor players in the Replacements’ drama are introduced mechanically with a notation of age, provenance, ethnicity, religion, parents’ professions and place in the family birth order. Many of the quotes feel stilted. Perhaps they were selected towards supporting Mehr’s simplistic attribution of bad events happening due to alcoholic and/or abusive parents. The world is full of wounded children. Too much telling and too little showing give the reader little opportunity to draw a more nuanced conclusion.
Because Tommy was the young pretty one, who played with Guns N’ Roses after The Mats fell apart, it’s perhaps assumed that after Bob left, the Replacements were only a front for Westerberg. Mehr refutes this. Westerberg credits Tommy’s enormous gravitas, musical sensibility, and leadership. Despite the mire of ceaseless details and the author’s facile psychoanalyzing, it emerges that the chemistry between Westerberg and Tommy Stinson was critical both musically and personally. Over the decades, the pair fell out over creative direction and finances. They went years without speaking. Yet, when Westerberg recounts receiving the word of Stinson’s death, he posits that no death would shatter him more than Tommy’s.
Perhaps because there’s little ingress for pop psychology, the book is strongest when describing the Mats’ process in the recording studio, the revolving-door producers, and the evolution of their music, from Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take out the Trash through Don’t Tell a Soul. Mehr also documents the conflicts with band members and the callous ruthlessness Westerberg resorted to towards realizing his vision. The final album, All Shook Down, was considered a Westerberg solo album, Replacements in name only, at the behest of record execs.
What’s gratifying is that while the Mats, for all intents, were commercial failures, they garnered respect from the music world and a small cadre of committed fans. Critical admiration was consistent and lavish. Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, John Cale, Lou Reed, and Iggy Pop were fans. The girls in the film Heathers attend Westerburg High. (The “e” was changed to a “u” as a studio V.I.P. deemed that “Westerberg” looked “too Jewish”.) In the film Aurora Borealis, the lead character, moves to Minneapolis in order to meet Westerberg.
The quintessential articulation of self-doubt and yearning, Westerberg’s songs are used to good effect in many teen romance and indie films. For all Mehr’s adulation of Westerberg as a songwriter and his excruciating attention to the minutest of minutiae, there’s no mention of Westerberg teaming up briefly to write songs with Carole King.
Westerberg himself wrestles with the band’s legacy. The Replacements were hugely influential for many major alternative rock bands like Nirvana, Wilco, The Goo Goo Dolls, and Green Day. The phenomenal stardom of all of these successors is not lost on Westerberg. Major achievement in the alt-rock market eluded the band, as perhaps their music and miens were too heavy on the rock and too light on the alt.
Mehr’s dedication and comprehensiveness must be admired. Unfortunately, one of the saddest, maddest stories in rock history sags, too obfuscated by a multitude of gracelessly reported and often extraneous details. Rather than channeling the Mats’ spirit of anarchy and fun, this authorized biography reads more like a biography of Dwight Eisenhower; dry and dull. Perhaps it’s fitting that the enormous volume is marred by awkward prose and superficial pronouncements. After all, the Replacements have never gotten what they deserve.