Bob Mehr - Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements [Book] (Cover Artwork)

Bob Mehr

Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements [Book] (2017)

Da Capo Press

Bob Mehr’s exhaustive biography Trouble Boys is an engrossing, meticulously researched portrayal of a band that simultaneously strived for and self-destructed against attaining legendary status. Constructed over a 10-year period, Mehr draws upon band archives and interviews with surviving members and associates to synthesize an insanely detailed dissection into each individual member of the band. The biography tracks the members’ childhoods up until the most recent Replacements reunions within the last few years. The book oscillates between hilarious rock and roll hijinks and depressingly hungover reality checks. It’s an essential read that digs deep into the psyche of this singular band.

The profile opens in 1995 at Bob Stinson’s funeral where the band members have reunited after a protracted acrimonious dissolution of the band following 1990’s All Shook Down. Bob’s ex-wife Carleen is accompanied by her and Bob’s son Joey who is confined to a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy from a childhood fever. Westerberg recounts that the scene is exceedingly overwhelmingly depressing, and Mehr uses the moment to highlight the extreme misfortune sometimes a result of their own self-destructive impulses that plagued the group.

Bob Stinson

Bob Stinson is the beating heart of the band, and they end up losing their way following his not unjustified dismissal from the group. The elder Stinson’s life story is so tragic it borders on complete absurdity. Ignored and cast off by his biological father, young Bob deals with mother Anita’s cavalcade of men throughout his life. Unfortunately, half-brother Tommy’s father Nick Stinson would be responsible for damaging abuse that would scar both Bob and sister Lonnie. Anita is able to escape back to Minnesota after leaving Nick in the middle of the night in Florida. A predictable period of bad behavior from Bob defines his life up until he starts a band (Dogbreath) with some friends and his little brother Tommy. After finding some initial success with the Replacements, Bob’s value as the wild card in the band and his penchant for zany rock and roll shenanigans is gradually overwhelmed by crippling substance abuse that takes precedent over his role in the band. After being kicked out before the recording of Pleased to Meet Me, Bob’s life oscillates between periods of relative stability and slippage back into his maladaptive habits. It’s heartbreaking to read, but within Bob lies the paradox of the band in general. Part of the compelling factor for the Replacements is the ability to be on the verge of complete collapse while successfully transmitting a defiance against a life of despair. “It’s a band full of losers” but they’re all so convinced at the inability to win that they seem to sabotage any semblance of success. For every step forward, there’s a drunken facedive backwards.

Paul Westerberg

Paul’s songwriting may be the most essential to the band’s near success, but as his solo career has proven, the chemistry of the band in combination with his inimitable songs were magic. Paul’s sardonic wit is present from the very beginning and although he did not plunge to the depths of substance abuse like Bob, in the end alcohol seemed to paradoxically be his essential ingredient and what ultimately served as his albatross. The enigma of the Replacements is that their wild behavior and unpredictability are what set them apart but simultaneously prevented them from reaching further success because of their penchant for self-sabotage. Paul’s talent for songwriting is apparent from even earliest Replacements ragers, and I personally believe he found the perfect balance between a voice for his despair (with his own twisted sense of humor) and a rough and tumble rock and roll sound on Tim. Following that album, each successive release became progressively more sanitized as Trouble Boys tracks Paul’s attempts to come up with a hit song. That’s not to say Pleased to Meet Me, Don’t Tell a Soul, and All Shook Down don’t have great individual tracks, but without Bob Stinson in the band the chemistry was not the same. That’s also not to say the band weren’t justified in their dismissal of Bob from the group since his erratic behavior would have inevitably led to the whole group’s demise a lot sooner.

It’s obvious that Mehr holds Westerberg highest in regard compared to his band members and not without reason. Westerberg’s prolificacy and depth of songwriting is highlighted early in the story when Mehr reveals Westerberg would pass home recorded cassettes of demos to Peter Jesperson (the band’s first manager) that he was either too embarrassed or hesitant to share with the rest of the band. These cassettes would prove catalysts to the expansion of the Replacements sound as Westerberg fought for songs like “Within Your Reach” and “Answering Machine” to be included alongside more raucous tracks on the band’s early albums. However, Westerberg’s growing confidence seems to lead to a habit of poor self-editing, accounting for some of the weaker numbers on latter day solo records. Westerberg himself admits he has difficulty discerning his really strong tracks from the duds.

Westerberg has been capable of some of the most resonant lyrics in rock and roll. Two of my favorites are “Within Your Reach” and “Bastards of Young.” Westerberg drunkenly storms up to Jesperson in a bar one evening with the claim he has written the best lyric ever:

I can live without your touch, if I can die within your reach.

Damn if that doesn’t read more powerful on the page than it sounds in the song. My other personal favorite is the last verse from “Bastards of Young:”

The ones who love us best

Are the ones we’ll lay to rest

And visit their graves on holidays at best

The ones who love us least

Are the ones we’ll die to please

If it’s any consolation, I don’t begin to understand them.

Tommy Stinson

If Bob was the heart of the band, Tommy is the eternal, youthful rock and roll spirit personified. Mehr tracks Tommy’s evolution from Bob’s scrappy half-brother to full blown rock and roll stud. As Bob was battling his early demons, corralling a band together became a healthy outlet for his self-destructive hedonism. Due to lack of options, Bob began teaching Tommy bass guitar when he was 12 so he could join in on the nascent Dogbreath. Tommy showed a natural talent and became a boisterous presence in the band, barely balancing his school life with the chaotic existence of the band and inevitably choosing life on the road over studies. It’s telling that the two band members on the cover of Sorry Ma are a wailing Westerberg and an airborne Tommy Stinson. As the band finds success, Tommy gravitates more toward a comradery with Paul as his brother’s behavior became increasingly erratic. Tommy is later faced with the unenviable task of choosing the band over his brother once the decision to fire Bob becomes imminent. Tommy sticks with Paul until the bitter end during the discordant sessions for All Shook Down.

The book briefly touches on Tommy’s post-Replacements career, but I think it undersells how consistent and enjoyable his solo output has been. His first solo project Bash & Pop’s debut album Friday Night is Killing Me is an underappreciated gem that imagines where the Replacements might have gone after Tim. It’s full of raucous bar rock that throws an arrogant sneer even as it can’t completely disguise that lurking Midwestern despair. It unfortunately came out during peak grunge and was buried under the torrents of minor chord moaning. Tommy recorded with a few other groups before joining Guns ‘N Roses after Duff McKagan left. Following the successful Replacements reunion shows, he reignited Bash & Pop for the new album Anything Could Happen, which was one of my favorite releases of last year. Again, another excellent straightforward rock album with lyrics that could hold up with the best Replacements songs.

Chris Mars

The “quiet one” a la George Harrison. Mars begins as a primary songwriter for Dogbreath but is usurped once Westerberg joins the group. Mars takes a lot of shit from Westerberg as a drummer with severely limited range throughout the story, but his chemistry with the band is undeniable as the latter-day studio musicians fail to capture the magic of the band on the last two albums. Initially, all the guys in the band are raging substance abusers and womanizers, but it’s Mars who first matures out of this mindset and begins the journey toward sobriety. That’s not to say Mars couldn’t throw curveballs for the band’s unpredictable live shows. Mehr recounts how Mars would randomly dress in a clown outfit, not speak, and cause general chaos for the rest of the band (although much to their delight and amusement). Mars eventually finds solace in his artwork and begins to maneuver his activity towards this inevitable primary focus. One telling story on the limitations and frustrations of the band to successfully capture the sounds in their heads is when Mars follows Westerberg to the studio as the frontman is trying to covertly record “Within Your Reach.” Westerberg has demoed the song with a drum machine, and Mars tries and fails to supply an acceptable drumbeat to accompany what Westerberg envisions. It’s a heartbreaking moment that foreshadows the musical and personal relationship disintegration between the two.

Other Players in the Story

Slim Dunlap

Bob “Slim” Dunlap takes over for Bob Stinson after the recording of Pleased to Meet Me. A veteran of the Minneapolis scene and a fan of the band, he records on the last two albums and is a more stabilizing force for the band compared to his predecessor. His medical problems later in life serve as a catalyst for the band to reconcile and produce some new music.

Peter Jesperson

Arguably, the 5th Replacement. Jesperson is one of the co-owners of Twin/Tone and is an early champion of the band. His rampant substance abuse and neglect of managerial duties eventually lead to his dismissal (in addition to a ridiculous reaction of jealousy from the band when he manages one of R.E.M.’s tours).

Overall, Mehr’s intimate biography elevates the Replacements to the legendary status they deserve to share. The band is the ultimate paradox: a group who strove for success and made debilitating concessions in its pursuit but would also revert to comic self-sabotage if success seemed on the horizon (for example, the tour opening for Tom Petty). Despite never having a true hit song or platinum album, Mehr illustrates that the legacy of the band has clearly outlived some of their 1980s contemporaries and influenced artists across the entire genre spectrum of rock and roll. I’m sure it’s no solace to the band that this notoriety has come without a substantial financial windfall, but the infamy and unparalleled songwriting prowess of the band will triumph eternal as long as we never forget their story and the music. The songs are still out there, so follow the band’s command and “Take it, it’s yours.”