In the music world, and especially in Minnesota, the legacy of the Replacements casts a long shadow. But past attempts at capturing a conclusive portrait of the mythic '80s rock band have fallen short. Part of that's due to the group's keen obfuscation of its own narrative, but there's also the fact that the 'Mats haven't agreed to look back with any biographers — until now.
Longtime music journalist Bob Mehr got frontman Paul Westerberg, bassist Tommy Stinson, and more than 200 other principal characters to cooperate for Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements, his enthralling new Replacements biography due out Tuesday.
The book, which took almost a decade to complete, expands on the familiar framework: A hyper-talented, hard-partying, self-sabotaging Minneapolis band falls short, banished forever to the realm of cult worship. But there's a lot more there, and through the Replacements' vivid personalities and Mehr's dogged reporting, Trouble Boys emerges as an immediate candidate for the canon of great rock bios.
City Pages chatted with Mehr, who's currently the music critic at Memphis newspaper the Commercial Appeal, ahead of the Twin Cities book-release party for Trouble Boys on March 5 at the Turf Club.
City Pages: There might be a really obvious answer to this question, but what did you feel was missing from previous attempts at capturing the story of the Replacements?
BM: The Replacements had been written about a lot certainly during their career and lionized afterwards, and there have been a couple attempts at slightly longer-form things with [Michael] Azerrad’s book, Jim [Walsh]’s oral history, and even that documentary [Color Me Obsessed].
But I felt like, for me, I wanted to tell the story … so much of the Replacements story has been told out from the outside looking in, and I guess I wanted to do it from the inside looking out. To really understand the band, and its dynamics internally, and really get to some of the roots and personal histories behind its members.
Also, fundamentally, I felt there was a story there that everybody knew, kinda the Replacements story writ large: their career, their self-sabotage, and of course their music. I felt like that was, in some ways, a surface story that had been told up this point, for various reasons. I was fortunate enough in securing Paul and Tommy’s participation and most of the principals.
But also my timing was good. I feel like enough time had passed when I started doing this that the band could look back a little more reflectively, and enough time had passed since Bob’s passing that people could kind of approach that as well. I think it was a combination of the willingness of the participants and the timing that allowed me to do this.
BM: I had some relationships with Paul and Tommy and their management and people in their camps, if you will, so I wasn’t coming at it completely cold. So I had some involvement with them, just from being a journalist over the years and interviewing them and some of the people involved with their careers.
I started about doing it pretty formally. I pitched Paul formally, a written proposal kinda outlining what I wanted to do and why I wanted to do it. Around the same time I met with Tommy and discussed it with him. He technically agreed first, with the caveat that he would do it if Paul would do it. I’ve joked about this, but I think that was his way of getting out of it.
Paul and I had something of a relationship going back to the first time we met and talked in 2004; we did an interview for Harp magazine in-person in Minneapolis and we sorta hit it off at that point, I think. Subsequent to that, in early 2008 after I pitched him formally, as I did an interview for Spin at his home. After we were done with the interview, I turned off the tape recorder and he said, “OK let’s talk about the book.”
And in that afternoon we talked for a couple hours about what it would entail, how I saw the book, kind of the parameters — that they would be involved, but they wouldn’t have any control over the finished product. They’re basically involved and supportive to the extent that Paul and Tommy are supportive of anything. Ultimately, it was my book to write, and that’s the way I wanted it, and the way I thought it had to be.
I think there was an awareness, both with Paul and Tommy, that this was gonna be a tough book and a difficult book for me to write and for them to have out in the world, to some extent. Because they knew anybody doing a serious job was gonna get into some difficult aspects of their lives and the band’s career, which was very successful on some level and a triumph in some ways, but also had its tragic qualities as well.
CP: Entering the process, did they have any apprehensions?
BM: Well the process, I thought it’d be a two-year process, it turned out to be something like six-and-half years. I first approached Tommy and Paul about this about eight years ago, and I probably had the idea about 10 years ago.
It’s been a project that’s gone in many stages and phases. Throughout the actual process, no, I don’t think there was a lot of apprehension expressed. Basically, the way I did it, is I would do interviews with Paul and Tommy a couple times during the year, and in between I would do dozens and dozens of other interviews.
In total, I interviewed around 250 different people. As the process unfolded, and Paul and Tommy saw I was making a pretty serious effort to tell their story — ya know, talking to family, childhood friends, managers, producers, fellow musicians, everybody along the way. I think they felt if not comfortable, then at least confident that I was taking this job and this opportunity to tell their story very seriously.
To the extent that they can be supportive of it, they’ve been supportive. And frankly, I’m not kidding myself: They gave me a great opportunity. I’d like to think I earned it and proved myself, but it’s their willingness to be really frank throughout the process that allows the book to be what it is.
I’m obviously in their debt and grateful. And I think fans of the band and people who like rock literature kinda owe them a debt to, because they didn’t have to open up the way they did.
CP: Did Paul have difficulty reckoning with the past?
BM: I think it changed over time. Sometimes it was easier, certain parts of his life were easier to discuss than others. Some of this I’m thinking pre- and post-reunion. Basically, I was done with most of the book before the [2013-15] reunion happened. The reason I mention that is because I think since the reunion and the success of that … there was such an amount of validation.
To play St. Paul for 14,000 people, play New York City, to just feel the kind of love I think they felt during the reunion. I think that validated a lot of maybe difficult things in the past, and wiped away any of the kind of negative connotations with the Replacements past.
Because in the long run, if they weren’t as commercially successful as they would have liked in their career during the '80s, I think the fact they’re still able to fill a baseball stadium in 2014 is proof that they succeeded in the long run.
As far as the process, sure. I think it’s difficult for anybody to go back and look at your past, especially if you’ve lost friends, family members, and you look back at your regrets. Paul is such an intelligent person. He’s far more self-aware than he leads on, and he also understands his place in the rock world and rock history. And he’s a student and a reader of biographies and history, so I think he was aware of what the process was going to entail.
So as difficult as it might have been, or as annoying as it might have been, to rehash for him certain aspects of his past, I think he knew it had to be done. But yeah, there were a couple moments where it was draining emotionally and physically and spiritually, as it would be for anybody going back and looking at their past in that kind of detail.
CP: Throughout the book, sources tend to characterize the band members one-by-one. If there was a common thread, take us through it, member-by-member.
BM: Paul is always somebody who likes to keep something in his back pocket or up his sleeve. I think that Paul was always smarter and more self-aware of what he was doing and what the band was doing.
I think the band’s legacy is a testament to that: People are still talking about the things Paul did that seemed so spur-of-the-moment 30 years ago onstage, or in a studio, or in a record company office. There was more … calculation isn’t quite the right word, but more of an awareness of creating his own legend and the band’s legend as he went along.
With Tommy, he’s so much the emotional and spiritual center of the band, as well as its foundation musically. I think that was always the case, which is pretty remarkable when you consider how young he was.
It was also almost an existential choice to join the band. It was like, be in this band, or God knows what’s going to happen in your life. And he ended up having an amazing career in rock 'n' roll, as one of music’s preeminent rock bassists. He’s the guy for so many people.
With Bob, most people didn’t know the truth of Bob. He was an amazing human being on so many levels and had overcome so much to get where he was. Really through sheer will he created not just the band, but a life in music for himself and Tommy.
Coming where he came from, and the things he went through, even though everybody kind tends to look at it as tragic, his story is really a triumph and a victory as much as it is a sad story because he’s not around.
Chris is really interesting. In a band, there’s kind of a chemical thing. If you change any of the parts, it would be a completely different thing. The fact Chris was the way he was, he was seemingly the quiet one.
When you have three other characters like Paul, Tommy, and Bob, you become the quiet one by default. But he was responsible for a lot within the group in more subtle ways, or less obvious ways, than the others. Certainly the Replacements would not have been the same if somebody else was in that position.
With [guitarist] Slim [Dunlap], I think Slim, in some ways, saved the band, with his temperament, with his counsel, his ability to relate to others. He came in at a point where the band was very much teetering on breaking up, and not sure what their future was like.
And I think Slim, just by the dint of his really amazing humanity and personality, kind of kept them going longer than they may have. So he’s really a pivotal figure, because I’m not sure if the latter half of their career would have existed at all if somebody as empathetic as Slim hadn’t been there in that role.
CP: Were you shocked by the descriptions of the horrific child abuse endured by late guitarist Bob Stinson?
BM: I had a vague awareness he had a troubled past, and that was sort of always the thumbnail sketch of him. I certainly didn’t realize the depths to which it affected him, or the depths to which it was connected to him really becoming so obsessed with music.
And how much there’s a direct line between the tragedy of his childhood and his desire to reconnect with the world through music, and ultimately start the band that would become the Replacements.
I knew there was much more to each of their personal stories that hadn’t been explored. You're only a band as unique, special, visceral as the Replacements if there are some complex things going on behind the scenes and in their lives.
For me, the challenge was to find out what the story of each of these guys was, and their story as they came together.
CP: Was the mythic, sort of, legend of the Replacements still present when you talked with sources?
BM: There was, whatever you wanna call it. They all sound like clichés — chemistry, magic, whatever. But the combination of those four people in that moment in that time is what makes bands, and the Replacements did capture … I don’t know if they captured a zeitgeist or if they were their own zeitgeist.
And you can see that in the way people relate to the band; there’s almost no such thing as a casual Replacements fan. And some of that was their own self-created imagine. It was almost a protective impulse to present themselves as “lovable losers.” In fact, they knew they were a great band and they were proud of that fact.
One of the reveals in the book is to see just how competitive Paul and the rest of the band were with other groups. On a local level with Husker Du, or on a national level with R.E.M. For all their self-deprecation and insecurity, they were proud of who and what they were, and they knew they were damn good.
CP: A lot is made of the band's projection of its identity. Was that a means of shielding their true selves, marketing, or some combination thereof?
BM: Marketing might not be a bad word, but [it’s more] cultivating a legend. Everything about the Replacements — all those myths and legends — the reality is: Some of it was true, some of it was instinctive, some of it was calculated, but all of it was true, you know what I mean?
Paul talks very early on, in the first year of the group, that his idea was: If you went to a Replacements show on Tuesday night, Wednesday morning you don’t say, “Oh did you hear the Replacements?” It was: "Did you see the Replacements?” The idea being that you create a spectacle for people, and they’re going to be talking about that.
In a way he did that on a micro level during their career, but it’s exploded into this macro thing. That’s a big reason why I think the Replacements have remained hip: They created a romance and myth around themselves and a lot of that has stuck.
CP: In terms of the vibe the band gave off and how people chose to perceive them, their Minnesota-ness or Midwestern-ness seemed central to the equation. How much did regional identity inform the band?
BM: I think it was huge. They are sort of quintessentially Minnesotan, Midwestern, Catholic, I think mostly working class. I think all those environmental, socioeconomic factors really figured into pretty heavily into what the band was. I think by nature they were a fairly insular group.
As Paul said, “We were outsiders even among the outsiders.” I think that’s a huge thing. In my experience coming up there every years for the last eight years, that’s not lip service — that’s a real thing, that kind of regional identity.
CP: For whatever reason, most people point to the Replacements as this hyper-talented band that fell short of its potential. If we're to believe that narrative, what do you point to and why?
BM: The easy thing that everybody points to is some level of self-sabotage. But I don’t actually buy that and I try to explain that while they certainly didn’t help themselves along the way, that wasn’t the end-all-be-all reason for why their commercial success wasn’t what it could have been or what people expected or hoped for.
There were myriad reason why each record maybe didn’t do what it could of or should have. Paul, for his part, thinks, “Well, we just weren’t made of the stuff popular music is made of,” at least certainly not at that time. Some of that’s true, some of it’s about radio, the old major label system. They were a little head of the curve.
Had they come out a few years later, where alternative radio was more of a force, they would have benefited from that. You can point to things as specific as that, or look at what they did or the opportunities they screwed up, but I don’t think there’s ever any one culprit.
CP: So, Paul has to be aware of his tremendous songwriting gift. Is he content with how it’s been actualized in the world?
BM: I think he’s much more at ease with it now than he probably was in the ‘90s. It was probably hard for him then to open up a magazine or turn on the radio and hear bands and artists that were usually taking one part of the Replacements personality or sound, and becoming very successful with it in a commercial way. Particularly at a point where he was in a low ebb of his solo career.
I think it was much harder then. Now, I think he graduated into this Grand Old Man of rock 'n' roll, and he’s considered in that pantheon of songwriters that really hit people in the head, heart, and gut in a way that few people do.
There’s 10, 15, 20 songs by Westerberg that people are really affected by. And I think, ultimately, that’s the thing that lasts most and is probably the most gratifying, in that your work is going to survive and touch people generation after generation.
I don’t think now he would trade that for having a pop hit in 1987 or 1989, ya know? But when you’re in that moment it’s hard to be faced with the failure of a record that doesn’t go Top 40. But I think, in the long run, Paul and the Replacements, they’ve have come out on top. From that perspective, they’ve won, so to speak.
CP: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this book?
BM: Part of it was finding a balance between the anecdotal, the emotional, the business stuff — I was trying to tell several different stories on several different levels. It was finding a right balance between all of those things and all of the great stories, anecdotes, and funny tales.
I’m sure I could have written this book completely differently, but I feel like, objectively, I got to the important issues and what made the band tick.
CP: Most surprising?
BM: Setting aside the Bob stuff, I think the degree to which Paul and the Replacements had an ambition and a drive early on. Also the prehistory of the band. Paul’s years of kicking around in bands and ad hoc combos and his role as lead guitarist before he was ever a singer-songwriter.
All that was really new to me, and will probably be new to most people. I’m of the school of thought that, the more you understand about someone’s formative years, I think a lot of stuff later in their life will come into focus and make sense.
For me, that was where a lot of the revelations were. There was so much history where I felt I was the first person to really get into. So I hope, in some ways, the book is revelation from start to finish, even though some of the general stories and ideas have been out there before.
CP: Do you have the impression you're sitting on something special?
BM: I’m proud of the book and obviously I worked a long time on it. I think whatever is really good or fascinating about it comes down to the subject matter. I was blessed and fortunate to have the opportunity to tell the story of a band that is so vivid, so entertaining, so amazing, so colorful. As a biographer, as a writer, you couldn’t ask for a richer subject.
In terms of drama, comedy, tragedy, all the elements of an intriguing and moving story are there. For me, it was really about doing my due diligence, finding out the facts, and getting out of the way and letting the story sort of tell itself. If I’ve done that, and if it’s a good book, it’s really because the Replacements are fabulously entertaining and moving story.
CP: That’s a very modest, Minnesota answer from a non-Minnesotan.
BM: [Laughs] My time there has benefited me.
Twin Cities release party for Trouble Boys
What: Author Bob Mehr will speak about and sign copies of his new book.
When: 4 p.m. Sat., March 5.
Where: Turf Club, 1601 University Ave. W., St. Paul.
Tickets: Free; more info here.