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Interviews

You Can't Take the Boy Out of the Replacements: An Interview with the Band's Biographer Bob Mehr

'Trouble Boys' is a new book chronicling the legendary band's influential career.

by Jonathan Cohen
04 March 2016, 3:00pm

They emerged from a Minneapolis basement in 1979, destroyed everything in their path (tour vans, hotels, dressing rooms, audiences) and then disappeared for 22 years—but not before creating some of the most vital rock’n’roll of our times. The Replacements have often been called the greatest band that never was. Frontman Paul Westerberg, drummer Chris Mars, guitarist Bob Stinson, and his bass-slinging half-brother Tommy, who was all of 11 years old when the band formed, blazed a path to legendary status with classic albums such as “Hootenanny,” “Let It Be,” and “Tim,” as well as live shows that were absolutely transcendent one night and drunken disasters the next. Too irreverent to play the corporate rock game that made superstars out of 80s contemporaries like R.E.M., and far too musically eclectic to be pigeonholed into any one scene, the ‘Mats simply made music the only way they knew how.

After gaining national notoriety under the stewardship of Minneapolis record store maven Peter Jesperson and his fledgling Twin/Tone label, the Replacements took a flyer on a major-label deal with Sire Records in 1985. Along the way, they terrorized managers and A&R men, said the F-word on their first live national television appearance, wrote scores of future alternative rock anthems, and then tore themselves apart by 1991 under the strain of creative squabbles and drug problems.

Music journalist Bob Mehr’s new book Trouble Boys finally tells the whole fascinating tale of the Replacements in all its ragged glory. Mehr, a longtime rock critic who now calls the Memphis Commercial Appeal home, brings out the human element in the band’s story, particularly the abuse and neglect-filled upbringing of the Stinson boys, which in no small way contributed to Bob’s death in 1995 at the age of 35. For two decades afterward, Westerberg and Stinson meandered through marginally successful solo projects and hired-gun gigs, but never fully closed the door on a reunion. It finally came to pass in 2012, when the pair hit the studio to record songs for a charity album for one-time ‘Mats guitarist Slim Dunlap after he suffered a severe stroke.

The tour that followed went on longer than anyone anticipated but ended last summer under ambiguous circumstances. (Full disclosure: I followed the band on tour for nearly a year in an attempt to get them to perform on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, where I worked at the time. One evening in Louisville, Westerberg finally took me aside and said yes.) Back on the road, the Replacements packed festivals and minor-league baseball stadiums, playing to the biggest crowds of their career and conjuring an almost-happy ending as only this band could.

Noisey spoke to Mehr about the long road to assembling Trouble Boys, the art of self-sabotage, and the Replacements enduring impact on rock’n’roll.

Noisey: There have been a bunch of Replacements books, but none that the band members cooperated with to this extent. How did you get the gig?
Bob Mehr: In 2004, I did a magazine story for the now-defunct Harp on Paul in Minneapolis. That was our first time meeting in person. He was nine or ten months removed from his dad passing away, and his own son was growing up. He was in a pretty reflective mood, and we got into some unexpected areas about where he was at in his life. It was a good first meeting. That same day, I called Peter Jesperson, who now lives in LA, and asked what else I should do in Minneapolis. Coincidentally, he was in town cleaning out the old Twin/Tone office and going through boxes: all the clip files, all the long-gone fanzines, receipts and studio logs. I went over there and saw that history come alive through the paper trail. Before I headed back to Chicago, I had time for one drink, so I stopped at the Uptown, and who’s there tending bar but Anita Stinson, Bob and Tommy’s mom. It would be another couple of years before I approached everybody formally about writing the book though. I had dinner with Tommy at Peter’s house. Tommy’s thing was, "I’ll do it if Paul does it," probably thinking that was his way out, because Paul wouldn’t say yes. But I met with Paul again for a SPIN interview and when I turned off the tape recorder, he said, "OK, let's talk about the book." A couple days later, he called and said he was in, and let’s do it. All of that was between 2004 and 2009, and I spent basically the next six-and-a-half years researching and writing it.

What were some of your biggest revelations about the band? I’m sure there were some stories where the real truth ran counter to some of the long-repeated lore.
That was a big part of it for me. I knew there was so much more to the Replacements’ story despite how much had been written about them. There was a lot of mythology. The wild and crazy anecdotes are great, but what was behind this behavior? And this music? The band got together so early in their lives, but it seemed fully realized. By 1980 and 1981, they were just knocking people out. A lot of it was rooted in their childhoods. I found out about how rough and tragic Bob and Tommy’s upbringings were. Paul came from an environment of alcohol, depression and repression. For me the revelation was finding out about their lives before the band and how much it impacted who and what the Replacements were. More than with most bands, who and what they were as people was very much who and what they were as a group. Some bands put on a mask and are totally different on stage. With the Replacements, there was no separation.

Did this band enjoy its success as it was happening? Were they proud of what they were accomplishing? Some of their more wild and appalling behavior, especially in business settings, can make it seem otherwise.
There was a tremendous amount of both insecurity and ego in the mix. That’s maybe typical of people who come from alcoholic backgrounds or have it in their makeup. It’s also a Minnesotan or Midwestern thing: don’t be too big for your britches. But they had a measure of pride and were incredibly competitive with bands like Husker Du and R.E.M. They gave a fuck. They gave a lot of fucks! It was a surprise how much it meant to them. It wasn’t an off-hand thing. In Paul’s case, as much as the band was completely genuine, he had an understanding of show business and showmanship. Not so much that he was doing an act on stage, but he understood that the things you do can carry on beyond the life of the band or those songs or that show. He was aware of creating this idea of the band, from the first few months. If you went to a Replacements show on Tuesday, on Wednesday, it was, did you SEE the Replacements, not HEAR the Replacements. In the short term, that may not have been the best for their career. But in the long run, here we are talking about their legacy 30-plus years later and all the moments they created. These weird swings of mood and feeling in their shows were part of that inherent mix of ego and insecurity. They also wanted to leave something behind that would be remembered.

From the time Peter discovered them, it was always an upward trajectory for them. In the States, everything was on an upswing from the first moments. But there was never really any plan. They just fell into this thing that had a strange momentum of its own. When it came to conducting their careers, there wasn’t a whole lot of forethought or planning. It was more like, we’ll burn that bridge when we get there. There were flashpoint moments. On his own, Paul only had a couple of songs before the Replacements. But once he met the other guys, he quickly wrote 30, 40, 50. Something about the chemistry of the four of them inspired him as a writer and a musician to take the opportunity to make something of himself. He’d been searching for years for that kind of opportunity. Peter was so pivotal because the band was incapable of everything besides playing. They couldn’t even drive to their gigs. To me, Hootenanny into Let It Be is the most crucial time. The first two records were all energy, but the real identity of who they were and who they could be was crystalized on Let It Be. They began to show the twin sides of their musical personality.

Could it all have panned out different for the Replacements? Could they have played the game more? Or were they just so true to themselves that they couldn’t help it?
They certainly could have done a few things to have been more successful. Maybe it was a question of finding the right producer or mixer to help inch their songs up the chart. But at the end of the day, they weren’t ready to do those things in terms of the business side. They just weren’t capable of it. And in any case, at that time, it may not have made any difference. They still would have needed MTV and radio support. Nowadays, the path to that kind of career is very different. If they’d have come up at a point where alternative radio had more impact and power, maybe they would have succeeded on a bit of a higher level. As Paul says, they were five years ahead and ten years behind. They could have been the Faces or Mott the Hoople. Or, they could have thrived in the post-Nirvana environment. In the heart of the 80s, it was hard for a band with that sound and attitude to succeed commercially. They were playing a long game, consciously or not. In 2014, they filled a baseball stadium with 14,000 people singing back their songs to them as generational anthems, which they have absolutely become. In the long run, they won. The victory wasn’t in the moment. It was for all time.


Bob Mehr

As they’ve aged, how have the guys changed?
Tommy has evolved completely. He was plucked at age 12 to be in a rock’n’roll band. He’s almost known nothing else. He did a lot of growing up after the band broke up. His opportunity in life, odd as it sounds, was in Guns N’ Roses. That provided a stability and platform to be a professional, working musician, and for him to support his family. Paul would sometimes grouse about Tommy having moved to Los Angeles. But he did his growing up out there and became a much more evolved human being, and maybe even a better person. He’s still the same in some ways, of course. You can’t take the boy out of the Replacements.

With Paul, it was very difficult for him in the mid-90s, at the low point of his solo career, to really assess and be comfortable with the Replacements’ legacy. It was a millstone around his neck. And it was doubly galling for him to see bands take one part of the Replacements’ sound and become incredibly successful commercially, while he’s sitting back home in Minneapolis. Now, after being on his own and making records in his basement and then having the reunion experience, and having such validation, he can see how much the Replacements affected people. For a long time, both Paul and Tommy were uncomfortable with the Replacements being the most important thing in their lives. But at this point, there’s no denying it. They have accepted it and they appreciate it.

The reunion seemed like a microcosm of their original run condensed into less than two years—all the highs, lows, and head-scratching moments in-between. Why did it go sour?
I had written most of the book before the reunion happened, but it was always there lurking in the background. They even made some attempts to rehearse in 2008 because they were starting to get big festival offers around that time. Paul was hesitant of being faced with the legacy and potentially damaging it. As it turned out, the opposite happened. They were as good if not better than they’d ever been. The chemistry between Paul and Tommy, which is so unique, was still there and as powerful as ever. It was a success in that way. It was also important because it came out of a noble cause, which was to get together for Slim. It allowed them a purpose that was bigger than a check. They realized how much they needed each other. They were at a bit of loose ends in their lives. Sometimes you want to go back to familiar and important relationships, and for Paul and Tommy, it was the bond they have. The reunion went on longer than any of them expected, because the demand was so great. They made some attempts to record too. But they’re both different people than they were in the Replacements, and it’s very hard to revive a band as a real going concern when you aren’t in your mid-20s anymore. There are so many other factors. I think they are capable of making another great record. But for the moment, they need to go do their own things, which is what they’re doing. A part of me thinks that this thing they have between them and how people relate to it is too special for them to walk away from completely.

As a fan engaging with the band on this level, did you have any pinch-yourself type of moments during the process?
As mythic as Paul and Tommy are, they’re both pretty regular guys. Paul lives a very normal, Midwestern life. Tommy has a bit more star quality and magnetism. But it’s not like interviewing Prince. Paul is more self-aware than he leads on, and more aware of his place in the rock landscape. It’s an incredible thing to relate to someone musically for years and years and then develop a relationship with them outside of that. The same things I love about his songs are what I love about his personality: the wit, the cynicism, the irony. Sometimes we’d just watch The Partridge Family or look at his records.

I did the Tommy interviews in Memphis, LA, and upstate New York. Sometimes, we went bar-hopping, which is not advisable [laughs]. To hear him talk about his life and experiences in and out of the band, you see a side of him that I don’t think most people get. He’s such a survivor and an intuitive person. It’s really interesting to bask in that energy, and his energy is undeniable. He’s a guy blessed with this "thing."

Chris Mars has drawn a line in the sand between his thriving career as an artist and his time in a rock’n’roll band. He decided he didn’t want to participate directly. It did present a challenge, because I needed to represent him and explore his role in the band. I think it’s mostly down to professional stuff with Chris, and he doesn’t want to cloud it with his past in The Replacements. He doesn’t even like talking about it in interviews he does about his art. That’s just a decision he made. His last few years in the band weren’t always the happiest.

If you had to quickly evangelize The Replacements to someone who wasn’t aware of them, how would you sum them up?
For me, they are the last rock’n’roll band, and the "roll" is important. The roll was rooted in blues and folk and a kind of swing. They’re a really interesting and affecting band. They came up in a time, place and environment that so informed them; this slipstream between 60s music and 70s punk and new wave. They took all those things and put it through their own peculiar filter. It’s very rare to have a band that pours so much of who and what they are into their music, their live show and their legacy. You’re getting more of these four guys in these records than almost any other band I can think of. For me, that’s more than just fine art — it’s real life. That’s the beauty of the Replacements to me. They hit you in the head, the heart and the gut. That’s a rare combination. Very rarely do you get a band that serves it all to you and satisfies all those needs.

Jonathan Cohen is a boy. Follow him on Twitter.