Published May 03, 2016Beyond their best albums and the songwriting gifts of Paul Westerberg, the Replacements are fiercely beloved for all the wrong reasons. But in his all-encompassing, riveting new biography of the band, Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements, Bob Mehr delves deep into their backgrounds and psyches to uncover what shaped them into the nihilistic, self-sabotaging group of hellbound weirdoes they were.
"In a way, I saw the Replacements before I ever heard them," Mehr explains from the HQ of the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, where he's the lead music writer. "My first exposure was on their first national television appearance on Saturday Night Live in January of '86. I was not aware of the band — I was 11 years old and happened to be watching the show that night. I saw this band come on and distinctly recall the feeling of seeing them — the kind of disregard they had for the stage and the moment.
"There was this devil-may-care attitude or insouciance that just jumped off the TV screen and right through it. As a kid in the mid-'80s there wasn't a ton of live rock 'n' roll — certainly none with the rough edges that this band had. To see them explode onto the stage playing loud, loose, and rough was a shock to the system. So I filed it away, and a year or two later I got into their album Pleased to Meet Me, and it was a perfect soundtrack for my early teen years.
"At that point, I became a fan. There's generally no such thing as a casual Replacements fan. It's a pretty hardcore love affair for most people and I was definitely in that camp."
Forming in Minneapolis in 1979, the 'Mats felt like losers and played that up to the max. Guitarist Bob Stinson was strange enough to recruit his 11-year-old half-brother Tommy to learn to play bass so they could jam with drummer Chris Mars and form a band called Dogbreath. After hearing them play on his way home from a janitor job, Westerberg went from skulking around bushes to imposing himself upon them, quickly bonding with these delinquents and dropouts and becoming their lead singer and songwriter.
"To me, the story of the band was about what had happened leading up to them meeting," Mehr says. "Much of that had to do with rough, unsettled, bleak childhoods, particularly with the Stinsons. Over the years, Bob was the subject of abuse — physical, sexual, emotional. Escaping that, the family returned to Minneapolis when he was a teenager and, in a sense, the reaction to his childhood trauma was to run away and get in trouble and thus began an odyssey in the state's juvenile system — jails, group homes.
"In a sense, that's where the Replacements' story begins — it's Bob trying to reconnect with the world and himself by studying the guitar in almost microscopic ways. Once he's out, he sees his younger brother Tommy going down a similar road; though Tommy was spared the physical abuse, he was subject to that environment. But he was stealing and getting in trouble with the law and was on the verge of being sent away to a boys' reform school.
"Bob, at that point, stepped in, in a very heroic way I think. He'd been through so much and had enough awareness not to let his brother go down this road. He basically forced a bass in Tommy's hands and said 'You're gonna learn to play bass and play in my band,' and it really changed their lives at that point, Tommy being 11 or 12 years old at the time.
"Then Chris Mars comes along, whose older brother was a severe schizophrenic in the '60s, when that was not spoken about or understood, and had lingering damage because of that. Paul, in his own way, was subject to an alcoholic and depressive household. As he says, there wasn't a high school diploma or driver's license between them. These were kids with limited prospects and opportunities and they found salvation in rock'n'roll and this band — all of that fed into who the Replacements were and what they became."
The band epitomized smart, raw, underground and college rock, drinking and snorting and injecting everything they could, setting money on fire, throwing big shows on purpose, getting banned from SNL, and fucking with literally everyone they met, friend or foe, minion or boss. They were complete dicks.
What Mehr discovers via interviews and lore is that behind the notoriety lurked the deepest pain, abuse, insecurity, mistrust, emotional loss and so much horror. Some of us connect with this wonderful band because they were underdogs. In great detail, Trouble Boys reveals the true, touching depths of their despair.
"I had a sense of this before I started but of course I didn't realize how tragic it would be," Mehr admits. "When I was done with it, I realized it was fundamentally two different stories. It's about damaged American families and the kids that come out of that and how they deal with it. In this case, it's how rock'n'roll can save you but only up to a point; at some point, the damage catches up with you. It certainly did with Bob and I think it did with Paul, in terms of his drinking. That reckoning comes at a certain point.
"But it's also a book about brotherhoods. It's about the blood brotherhood between Tommy and Bob, it's about the larger brotherhood of the band itself, and it's about the brotherhood between Paul and Tommy, which survives the death of the band and continues to this day. It's less a book about a rock'n'roll band than this group of human beings who happen to play music."
Tommy Stinson plays Montreal's L'Astral on May 4 and Toronto's Horseshoe Tavern on May 5.
Listen to this interview with Bob Mehr via the Kreative Kontrol podcast: