Bill Sullivan's memoir 'Lemon Jail' revisits his glory days as the Replacements’ roadie

Bill Sullivan and Paul Westerberg share a moment.

Bill Sullivan and Paul Westerberg share a moment. Courtesy of Bill Sullivan

Bill Sullivan could tell you stories.

And in Lemon Jail: On the Road with the Replacements, a “more hysterical than historical” tour diary about his experiences as a roadie in the ’80s, he does just that.

It all started at the Walker Art Center, where Sullivan now nurses a Gluek’s as he recalls his past. His curly brown hair is a touch bedraggled, his goatee graying. He no longer quite resembles the “skinny and cute with guyliner” portrait of himself in the book.

Sullivan first heard the Replacements on KDWB during a shift at the Walker as a night guard. After the band played the museum, Sullivan befriended them, and in April 1983, he quit the guard gig and joined band members Paul Westerberg, Bob Stinson, Tommy Stinson, and Chris Mars, along with fellow roadie Tom “Carton” Carlos and manager Peter Jesperson, for the Replacements’ first national tour.

Lemon Jail, named after the band’s derelict van, takes readers on the road, behind the scenes, and in-studio over six years, highlighting tours with the likes of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, R.E.M., and X.

Drugs, booze, and unruly urination splatter almost every page, but Sullivan doesn’t think the guys were that wild. “There was drinking and driving going on but no different than anybody else was doing back then,” he says. “We were just kids trying to have fun. And mostly it was fun, even when things went wrong. And some things went really wrong.” (See: the Mats’ infamous Saturday Night Live appearance—and subsequent lifetime ban from NBC.)

Sullivan didn’t know how to be a roadie when he hopped aboard the “lemon jail,” and he’d spend much of his time with the Replacements afraid of being fired. But the college dropout was innovative, and he learned on his feet. “It’s a nonstop, all-the-time, you-have-to-be-ahead-of-it [gig]. If you’re not ahead of it, you’re behind it, and somebody’s mad,” he says. Among his duties: leafleting, finding pads to crash in, hauling amps and drums, getting guitars repaired, replenishing the supply of drumsticks, littering the stage with guitar picks (Westerberg didn’t like them taped to the mic stand), and completing the “idiot check” (the last pre-departure run-through to ensure nothing important was left behind).

“You go in. You destroy the town—like a cowboy might. Shoot it up and get the hell out,” Sullivan says of the band’s M.O. “But no shooting, of course. We were not violent people.”

The Replacements were “like a gang,” Sullivan says. If California punks were political and New Yorkers were artsy, the Replacements were... their own thing. And often misunderstood. “Sometimes the punk bands we played with kind of laughed at us,” Sullivan says. “Until the band played. They really could tear the bejeesus out of everybody else, if they felt like it.

“The only times they were bad is when they wanted to be bad,” according to Sullivan. “It had nothing to do with drinking or drugs. And it didn’t matter if the people were mean or they were nice. If they wanted to mess up the show, they did. And if they wanted to kill it, they just killed. They could just do it. They were so good.”

And yet, Sullivan says, he was never a super-fan of the Replacements like those featured in the 2011 documentary Color Me Obsessed. “I was the guy picking up their clothes at the end of the night, fixing their amps, driving them around,” he says. “They were my friends for sure—and they still are—but it wasn’t an obsession.”

Sullivan doesn’t remember everything from those days, and his conversation can zig-zag like a tour van across Ohio. For Lemon Jail, he collected scribblings from those years on the road, much of it on stationery he lifted from European hotels, and after he raised $5,760 in a 2014 Kickstarter campaign, he set to work. (University of Minnesota Press regional trade editor Erik Anderson pruned the manuscript to a trim 160 pages.) The stories are interspersed with 86 black-and-white photographs—many of them Sullivan’s, many as dark and blurry as his memory seems to be.

Sullivan left the Replacements when he received an offer to tour with Soul Asylum. “I could have stayed on ’til the end,” he says. “But I knew the end was coming.”

Sullivan hedges when asked what the Replacements meant to him. “Being corny is definitely against the Replacements’ oath,” he says. But his experience with the band set him on his path as a lifelong roadie and tour manager. He’s since worked with artists like Bright Eyes, Cat Power, the New Pornographers, and Spoon. Sullivan can tell you which countries you can party safely in (Spain, yes; Germany, no), why you shouldn’t open tiny bottles of Schweppes ginger ale at room temperature (unless you want to get soaked), and about the time he accidentally ordered reindeer testicles in Sweden.

Sullivan bought the 400 Bar in 1996, making the venue a home for punk and indie rock on the West Bank before it closed in 2012. He tours so frequently now that he doesn’t even have a proper home base. Instead, he hunkers down with his brother, who owns a coffee shop in Raleigh, North Carolina, or with a friend in Texas. Sullivan won’t discuss his personal life beyond sharing that he has a girlfriend. Regarding his childless lifestyle, he says, “I like kids. Don’t get me wrong. They’re wonderful. A lot of work. Expensive. Dirty.”

Can’t musicians be all those things as well? Sullivan laughs. “You can wedgie a guitar player,” he says. “You can’t wedgie a five-year-old.”

In his travels, Sullivan has come to especially enjoy Europe, which he describes as “old as hell” and “super cool.” And he’s made plenty of friends along the way, from club owners to college kids who went on to be record executives to people whose floors he slept on. “The high is all the people you meet,” he says. “The low is hemorrhoids.”

Sullivan already has another book idea percolating. The Minneapolis native came of age as part of an Irish Catholic family around the Chain of the Lakes, where he worked the concessions. About those lakes, he says, he can tell stories far darker than anything that happened on tour with the Replacements.

Bill Sullivan Lemon Jail book launch
Where: The Loon Café
When: 6 p.m. Wed. Apr. 18
Tickets: Free; more info here