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The Replacements' Self-Destruction Couldn't Kill Their Spirit

Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements
By Bob Mehr
Da Capo Press,
 520 pp., $25.99

Perhaps no band bio has been so aptly named – even though the title actually comes from a Dave Edmunds and Rockpile song that the Replacements admired.

Despite an impressive body of work that has made rock critics, college-radio programmers and indie music lovers swoon and praise them to high heaven as alt-rock/post-punk messiahs, the Replacements were usually their own worst enemies, gleefully sabotaging their own career.

Consider this. They were kicked out of their very first gig at a sober house for teens (under original name “The Impediments”) for drinking in the parking lot between sets. Their second gig was similarly unfinished after such a negative and threatening audience reaction. Their third show, a showcase for record label reps, was also botched on purpose with extreme indifference by the band.

Through the ’80s, there seemed to be hardly a reporter or radio DJ they didn’t blow off or insult, a booker or promoter they didn’t piss off for lackluster shows or trashing hotel and hospitality rooms, or a record-company exec they didn’t get on the bad side of with their boorish, angry or obnoxious behavior, including onstage brawls and incitement to riot. Even paying audiences would sometimes be punished with bizarre sets of slow-tempoed country covers or sloppy-drunk sets.

The band got banned from Saturday Night Live after uttering the word “fuck” during their performance, and lost most of their proceeds from a 1985 tour replacing a rented RV they destroyed. They refused to release videos at a time when videos were everything, then filmed one that consisted entirely of a stereo blaring their song “Bastards of Young.” And while many bands would want to ingratiate themselves with overseas audiences, the ’Mats (as they were called for short) would open with the U.S. Marine Hymn.

All of this while living every single day in rivers of booze, pyramids of cocaine and mountains of pills.

Longtime music journo Mehr’s masterful, comprehensive and engrossing bio chronicles scores of these bizarre lowlights, but also the creation of a catalogue of music whose reputation and influence have only increased in time.

In addition to massive research, Mehr conducted more than 200 original interviews with band members, their families, wives, lovers, scenesters and those in their orbit. One is with the pivotal figure of record-store owner and Twin/Tone label head Peter Jesperson, the Mats' first and most ardent champion (who nonetheless was sacked). But it's a rare accomplishment that an “authorized” book still holds a steely-eyed objectivity.

“We were always outsiders — even among the other outsiders,” singer/guitarist Paul Westerberg has said about himself and his bandmates Bob Stinson (guitar), Stinson's teenage half-brother Tommy Stinson (bass) and Chris Mars (drums).

Originally the elder Stinson’s band (with the original name “Dogbreath”), the Replacements rapidly fell under Westerberg’s guidance and leadership. He had also basically maneuvered two other lead singers out of the group, while as the main songwriter (after shifting from Mars to him), he had to appease his bandmates. 

“If it doesn’t rock enough, Bob will scoff at it, and if it isn’t catchy enough, Chris won’t like it, and if it isn’t modern enough, Tommy won’t like it,” Westerberg complained.

That Westerberg was perhaps the prickliest band member, with an air of snotty insouciance, is sometimes lost on himself. He once proclaimed that the band’s next record would be titled by the next song that came on the radio one day, hence their effort Let It Be.

Houston appears once in the book, as the location of a famous incident in band lore.

It was here during the tour to support 1985’s Tim when the group was invited to play a gig at the unusual location of the Lawndale Art Annex on the University of Houston campus. And in a weird twist, cult rocker Alex Chilton (subject of the band’s song “Alex Chilton”) would also be there, along with former Velvet Underground guitarist Sterling Morrison.

A head-scratching ad in the student newspaper bellowed, “Hey Greeks! If you like Springsteen, R.E.M., or U2, you’ll love the Replacements!” Cover for the show was $8.

The band got super-loaded before the gig, and wandered among fans lined up outside – with Westerberg and Tommy Stinson sitting in an empty kiddie pool. The subsequent show was a shambolic affair, with Westerberg barely able to stand as the audience booed and shouted, launching half-full beer cans to the stage.

Westerberg then snarkily offered the audience their money back, and threw some bills into the crowd. Things degenerated, the box office was stormed and UH police were called. Westerberg continued to bait the audience by calling them “a buncha fucking ignorant rednecks.”

After the singer got a literal boot up his ass from someone, police attempted to shut things down and physically took instruments out of the band’s hands. Ultimately, UH’s finest saved the group from getting their asses kicked by several dozen students, and the promoter was stuck with a bill for all the damage.
Bob Stinson was kicked out of the band he founded in 1986 for his substance abuse (that reason alone telling how bad it was). He died a decade later from accumulated excesses, though was diagnosed late with bipolar schizophrenia.

That he had been horribly sexually and physically abused by his stepfather (Tommy’s biological father) was also something that hung over his entire life. Slim Dunlap would eventually take his place, just as Steve Foley would when Mars was axed because of friction with Westerberg and Stinson.

And by the time the band thought they might want a little taste of success, with major-label releases and a more commercial sound — “I’ll Be You,” with a more traditional video supporting it, became their sole alternative chart hit and almost hit the Top 40 —  they would, insanely, continue sabotaging themselves.

This included a high-profile gig opening for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in large sheds and venues, during which the band inexplicably showed high levels of disdain for both the audiences and the headliners.

By 1991, the wheels had truly come off, and the group dissolved. Westerberg would put out solo material and get sober, but would battle depression. Stinson would play in a series of groups before joining Guns N' Roses. And Mars would turn to painting and visual art with huge success.

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As the band’s reputation increased over the past two decades, and expanded editions of all their albums and an anthology appeared, calls for some sort of reunion grew louder.

Westerberg and Stinson finally came together and toured as the Replacements to great acclaim from 2013 to 2015, even recording some new material in the studio. But old resentments resurfaced, the two fought bitterly and the whole thing came crashing down. Again.

At its core, Mehr’s book is an incredibly insightful and complete piece of music journalism. And like watching a horror movie you’ve seen before, there are so many instances and incidents he relates in the band’s story where the reader wants to scream “don’t go in the basement!” even as you know the killer is hiding in the shadows.

Hindsight being what it is, perhaps the Replacements could have been a huge band: snarlier, grittier, more fatalistic and aching than rivals R.E.M. But maybe it’s better that they weren’t.

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