For starters, they didn’t pretend that a whole lot separated them from fans; biographical distance was a concept that they slept through in high school. “They probably didn’t aspire to a whole lot, but also didn’t aspire to doing nothing either,” Tommy Stinson said. “That’s the kind of fan we probably appealed to most: the people that were in that gray area. Just like us.”
Onetime Reader staff writer Bob Mehr‘s Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements is a well-wrought account of how a band with guitarist and lead singer Paul Westerberg‘s talent disintegrated thanks to substance abuse and, subsequently, Westerberg’s inability to write powerful music after going sober at the beginning of the 90s. A prodigious reporter, Mehr spoke to three-dozen sources, most importantly the crucial nexus of Westerberg and bassist Tommy Stinson. He doesn’t dilute their voices. Besides being a first-rate biography, Trouble Boys imposes order on an unrelenting barrage of grotesque behavior that was leavened by several of the most beautiful, inchoate records of the 80s. Westerberg and his mates behaved wretchedly: to promoters, club owners, managers. It wasn’t that they wanted to record music on their own terms; they had no idea what the terms were, and, in Mehr’s recounting, if you reminded them of the terms they’d shit in your hat. And with the Replacements I can believe the phrase isn’t a metaphor.
The story is as grim as any by Bobbie Ann Mason. For the Minneapolis-born Westerberg childhood was an accidental whack on the head with a baseball bat and difficulty putting words in correct sequences, enlivened by Rod Stewart and 45s of Daddy Dewdrop’s “Chick-A-Boom (Don’t Ya Jes’ Love It).” With a penchant for violent behavior, possibly instigated by his stepfather’s sexual abuse, Bob Stinson was in and out of residential treatment centers and juvie prisons; half brother Tommy was marginally less troublesome. By comparison, drummer Chris Mars grew up as Teresa of Avila, although his beloved brother was schizophrenic and the burden of choosing between visual art and rock ‘n’ roll was already a strain.
Walking home from his janitor job at the office of senator David Durenberger in 1979, Westerberg heard an unholy racket from a home on Minneapolis’s Bryant Avenue: Mars and the Stinson brothers’ band Dogbreath, murdering Yes’s “Roundabout” dead. Punk wasn’t on their radar. “They hated punk bands,” Westerberg told Mehr, “but they were playing like the MC5 or something.” Yet Westerberg’s ambitions dovetailed with Bob’s deepening inability to concentrate on more than a couple of fabulous smut-rock solos—his guitars, to cite critic Rob Sheffield’s piquant phrase, careened in search of cigarettes and cheeseburgers. Years later, when the band’s mythos started to calcify, their consistent disdain for what corporate types would call “career development” got them into the rock racket because, as Westerberg sang in “Bastards of Young,” it beat pickin’ cotton.
The Replacements’ debut, Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash (1981), coproduced by Peter Jesperson, won them national attention and local enmity: Husker Du front man Bob Mould recounts how the group showed no interest in helping colleagues. Westerberg was losing interest in their punk stuff (“I couldn’t write hardcore worth a shit”). A ragged slow one on 1983’s Hootenanny called “Within Your Reach”—in which Westerberg shouts the title over bursts of guitar and a drum-machine loop—demonstrated the sophistication he aspired to and in which Bob had no interest. Before Bob got the boot—a career move for a band that had hitherto given career moves the finger—there was 1984’s Let It Be to finish.
Kicking off a trilogy of albums that established Westerberg as the hero of fans who wanted a less adverb-drunk Morrissey, Let It Be also constituted the fourth corner in a series of acclaimed Ameri-indie albums released in 1984: Minutemen‘s Double Nickels on the Dime, Husker Du’s Zen Arcade, and Meat Puppets II. Praise centered on Westerberg’s way with a ballad: “Unsatisfied,” “Androgynous,” et cetera. After the recording of 1985’s Tim, Bob was fired, and the band didn’t pretend to care about the fast ones. Producer Jim Dickinson treated the Replacements as if they were Alex Chilton (the group’s idol) for 1987’s Pleased to Meet Me, lavishing them with Fairlight tricks and mixing-board gewgaws, to middling effect—they were not a group for whom click tracks are made. Competent, uh, replacement guitarist Slim Dunlap joined an outfit that, judging by those depressing H.W. Bush-era albums Don’t Tell a Soul (1989) and All Shook Down (1990), had degenerated into a vehicle for toxic alcoholism and the Westerberg-Tommy rivalry, with a spooked Mars bracing for his own pink slip.
Finishing Trouble Boys led to an inescapable conclusion: the story of the Replacements is the love affair between Tommy and Paul. The Replacements happened to come of age at a time when members could at least acknowledge aloud the—well, let’s call it the possibility. Let It Be boasts “Sixteen Blue,” a crawl through teen confusion that peaks with a forlorn Westerberg singing, “Now you’re wondering to yourself / if you might be gay.” The last line is almost inaudible; when I heard the song 25 years ago I had to press my ear against a shitty speaker. “I thought, Jesus, he’s written about Tommy,” Jesperson tells Mehr.
As its title suggests, Trouble Boys chronicles the peaks and inevitable demise of a quartet whose songs, I’d argue, immortalize no one so much as themselves. This theory explains the continued allure of their catalog: the audience’s getting off on the band’s chance to get it all wrong. It explains why the Replacements had to collapse, leaving broken bodies and wonderful songs in their wake, over and over. v