If art is a mirror, then the one The Replacements gazed into was cracked and distorted, reflecting all their generational, geographic and familial ills.
But luckily for this band of outsiders, who were even outsiders among outsiders, they were able to turn those early imprints of being raised by angry World War II veterans, abusers, alcoholics and victims of mental illness into something raw, intuitively brilliant, and almost accidentally revelatory.
The Replacements could never have come from anywhere but the Midwest, with it’s culture of repression, stoicism, skepticism and plain blunt mistrust
What is uncovered in Bob Mehr’s Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements, the Last Rock ‘n’ Roll Band, *is how these Midwesterners, *untutored in music in any formal way, these four misanthropes — Bob Stinson, Tommy Stinson, Paul Westerberg and Chris Mars — made it up as they went along, much like The Stooges did before them, and as a result created their own form of expression that relied on bad attitude as much as it did on their own learn-as-you-go sonics.
From the very first, it was clear they had something truly extraordinary — cool-as-an-oyster, yet decidedly dangerous and unhinged — like the earliest days of the Stones when Brian Jones was in the group.
Formed in a fortuitous, yet imperfect storm of time, place and personage at end of the ‘70s Me Generation, The Replacements could never have come from anywhere but the Midwest, with it’s culture of repression, stoicism, skepticism and plain blunt mistrust; all of which fueled their inchoate belief that music was salvation, exorcism or just plain noise to drown out the voices in their heads.
What they couldn’t say outright found its way into their straight-from-the-lip lyrics that spared no one, especially not themselves. Irreverent and uncontrollable, they regularly bit the hand that fed them, from managers and label heads to even their mighty Minnesotan forebear Bob Dylan, writing “Like a Rolling Pin” as a parody of his “Like a Rolling Stone,” and singing it in earshot when they worked in the same Los Angeles studio. The man some of us know as Mr. Jones took it in stride. He too was raised in that place where abuse is love, kindness is equated with weakness and one must never ever reveal what you really were thinking.
Memphis-based journalist Bob Mehr knew that, which is why he spent over a decade researching the sociology, history and every footprint they left behind to find out how this band of savants/misfits had it all, but let it all slip away in an orgy of incandescence and self-sabotage.
Mehr spent his time digging into the story-behind-the-story, asking the right questions of the right people — 230 in all — including the famously reclusive Paul Westerberg, bassist Tommy Stinson, reluctant witness and drummer Chris Mars, the family members and ex-wife of Bob Stinson and his replacement, Slim Dunlap.
Not only did Mehr splay open the band’s creation myth, but he examined the ‘Mat’s wrecked aesthetic with the thoroughness of a forensic psychologist, giving a full picture of what actually impelled this band towards greatness and made them shun it, with an equal zeal.
With the clarity of two-and-a-half decades to ruminate, the principal members finally came forward with unexpected and unjaundiced candor, exposing the group dynamics, the Lord of the Fly’s ethos, the excessive drinking and drugging and the very insularity that hid their massive insecurities.
That we came up short is the thing that’s kept us interesting, Westerberg says. That’s part of the attraction. We’ve retained this mystique.
Through a series of interviews, Mehr uncovers exactly how competitive Westerberg really was, and how disappointed that he was that The Replacements didn’t go the distance. When Westerberg was asked to comment on the unprecedented $80 million deal that R.E.M. signed with Warner Bros, in 1995, he wearily said, “I’ve had to mentioned them in every single interview I’ve done since 1981. The problem is, they don’t have to mention [the Replacements]. They simply don’t have to acknowledge us anymore. They won.”
But in truth, they didn’t. The Replacements cast a much larger shadow than their more “successful” brethren. To quote a New York Times headline, “[This] band that could but didn’t,” was infinitely more enthralling than the Athens, Georgia, millionaires.
“That we came up short is the thing that’s kept us interesting,” Westerberg remarked in a moment of revisionist history. “That’s part of the attraction. We’ve retained this mystique.”
Equal parts Greek Tragedy, J.D. Salinger short story and John Updike novel, Mehr gets out of the way and allows the principals to tell their own tales and then seamlessly stitches all the pieces together in 520 pages to show how any other outcome than what transpired was unthinkable as well as impossible. But still, reading accounts of Bob Stinson’s harrowing abuse at the hands of his stepfather, you hope for a different outcome, even knowing full well the facts of the story. When Bob finally succumbs to a life of hard living at the age of 35, it’s like a foregone conclusion.
In the excellent epilogue, Trouble Boys takes us all the way through the band’s 2013 successful but ultimately turbulent reunion, inspired initially when Westerberg and Stinson got to together to record an EP to pay for Dunlap’s medical bills after he suffered a series of strokes. While they balked at first, Dunlap insisted from his hospital bed in a strong, unslurred voice that his former bandmates “go play.”
But the story doesn’t end there. Mehr takes us through Westerberg’s hard won sobriety, his two divorces and six solo albums as well as becoming a card-carrying member of the Sandwich Generation; caring for his young son and dying father.
Mehr injects a searing humanity into the rather unlovable character that emerged in the earlier chapters of Trouble Boys. He does similar justice to Stinson’s, Dunlap’s and Mars’ lives; wrapping up all the loose ends and histories, showing how they all fared post-Replacements. In the end, Mehr’s book is as much mystery novel as it is rock biography with an O. Henry ending, like Westerberg’s best solo songs. Which is really no ending at all.