Greg Helgeson

Telling The True Story Of The Replacements

Bob Mehr discusses his new biography of the Minneapolis band, plus unseen footage from the MTV vault

The Replacements are a band with multiple legacies. They are, at once, the quintessential independent rock band of the '80s, drunk genius kids that blew it in the homestretch, and a band that sought infamy the way most seek fame. Through the four recordings they made for Twin/Tone and those made after signing to Sire/Warner Bros., the Minneapolis quartet turned from puerile basement-bred punks to setting an impossibly high bar for how smart and heartbroken and drunk indie rock could get. Led by songwriter Paul Westerberg, the band was born out of working-class teenage ennui, quickly becoming notorious after its live debut at teen parties in Minneapolis exurbs in 1979. The lineup of guitarist Bob Stinson, his then-tweenage brother Tommy on bass, and drummer Chris Mars held together for the first five releases, including Let It Be and Tim, both widely acclaimed classics. Through the entire duration of their initial 12-year run, the band’s reputation for genius went hand in hand with them being willful, calamitous fuck-ups who prided themselves on pissing on opportunity; they forged an incredible career in spite of themselves.

In a new biography of the group, Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements, the Last Rock 'n' Roll Band, rock critic Bob Mehr reveals the untold and often unflattering story of the band, unearthing the trauma that fueled their artistry and their addictions. The complexity of what drove The Replacements is illuminated over the course of 520-plus meticulously researched pages. An essential tome for anyone who ever loved the band, it also serves as a heartbreaking requiem for Bob Stinson and maps the explosion of the Minneapolis music scene in the '80s.

When did you decide you were going to write this book?

Bob Mehr: I kind of had an epiphany back in 2004. I was out in Minneapolis to meet and interview Westerberg in person, late summer of 2004. He was maybe 10 months removed from the death of his father, his own son was growing up — he was 4 or 5 at that time. I think losing a parent and raising a kid — [Westerberg] was at a point where he was really reflective about his life and his path in a way that was fairly unguarded. My first experience with him was a really great interview and we hit it off. That same day, I called Peter Jesperson, his longtime manager and Twin/Tone’s founder, and I say, “Hey, I got some time to kill. What should I do?” and he said, “Well, I actually happen to be in Minneapolis right now packing up the Twin/Tone offices. Come on over.”

So I went from Westerberg’s to there, and basically saw a visual history of the band. Old clippings, studio tapes, receipts from the road, all of this documentation. After that, I wanted to have a drink, so I went to the Uptown Bar. Who was behind the bar? Bob and Tommy Stinson’s mom, Anita. It just came in my mind like, This is really a book. It wasn’t until 2007 that I started pitching formally to Paul. He was receptive to the initial proposal. Then I had dinner with Tommy out in L.A. I told him what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it and he said, “OK, I’ll do it if Paul will.” I think that was maybe his way of trying to get out of it, if Paul wouldn’t agree.

A few months later, I was back in Minneapolis doing a story for Spin on The Replacements around the time their albums were being reissued, and Paul and I did a long interview for that, and when it was over, he said, “Turn off the recorder and let’s talk about the book.” He was pretty aware that telling the story was going to be difficult for him and the band. But we talked about it, and a couple of days later I got the word that he was in and everyone was in. I started the book in 2009, so it was about six and a half years of research, interviews, writing, and editing to where it is now.

What made you want to write that book? Why were The Replacements a band that you cared about in that way that one has to in order to write a book?

Mehr: I was a fan. For Replacements fans, I don’t think there’s any middle ground — there is a kind of emotional attachment there. I always felt that as many times as their story has been told, it was still a surface story. I felt that if you dug a little deeper, you would find stuff that was a lot more powerful than this caricature of this crazy, drunken rock and roll band. I’d hear all of these stories about the things they did and how they behaved, and always thought, OK, That’s all interesting, but why? Where did all of this come from?

Reading the book, I was reminded that they were infamous for purposely doing very obnoxious interviews and obscuring any narrative that a journalist could try to distill from them or their work. [They were] the kind of band where you have to get the source tapes on everything, essentially, to even know what really happened.

Mehr: Luckily, I had this amazing archive from their Twin/Tone years. There’s lots of interviews in there that are otherwise gone, college newspapers that aren’t archived. It was important for me to see who they were and how they represented themselves at the moment, in addition to talking to Paul and Tommy now. It was also important for me to talk to everybody. Two hundred and fifty people — label employees, managers, producers, fellow musicians, wives, girlfriends. One of the things that was attractive about The Replacements is there wasn’t a whole lot of separation between who and what they were, personally, behind the scenes, and what they were onstage and on record. There was no artifice. They were who they were all the time.

It’s easy to understand why it might be problematic to rely on their memories, given how hard everyone was drinking and drugging. The other issue is that natural inclination we all have toward being self-protective, and how that orders memory. Did you have to battle that?

Mehr: In our first conversation, Paul said, “If you’re going to do this, it is not going to make me or us look very good.” He knew that from the outside, so he wasn’t doing a whole lot during the interview process as far as self-protection. I hate to say that there were some elements of catharsis, but I think they were at a point where they were ready to come clean about the things they have done, and weren’t interested in bullshitting me. It was a little harder with some of the other people — people who worked at the label or family members who weren’t part of the band.

The generosity of spirit that the book has toward Bob Stinson, the way Bob is like this beautiful, horrible ghost in the book, is incredibly moving. Paul is the mercurial genius, but in a weird way, Bob is the true protagonist. He’s the heart. Talk to me about uncovering his story and his nature.

Mehr: Bob is the link. The energy, the desperation the band had — a lot of that comes from Bob. When Bob and Paul hooked up, the link there wasn’t so much musical or even personal. It was a shared desperation to achieve something and get out of their circumstances. That’s a big part of it. In terms of researching Bob — because of his death at 35 and his well-detailed addiction and the fact that he was kicked out of the band, there was this idea of him as a troubled person, but there was never an explanation of why.

I didn’t know the depths of it — the child abuse and trauma he suffered, and how that led directly into the juvenile system, group homes, and juvenile jails. All that, ultimately, led to him trying to reconnect to the world through music. That really is the story. The reason Bob played guitar, and played guitar the way he did, was as a means of reconnecting himself to the world after having been traumatized as a kid. That was a heavy process, but it became a driving force of the book — to explain this man’s life and who he was and what he went through. In the end, you couldn’t separate that from what the Replacements story was. Bob’s experiences and his life are absolutely central to everything about The Replacements.

The book gets at that duality — that an artist’s talent and trouble very often originate from the same place. In the book, you confront it all — yes, he was an abuser, yes, he had been abused as a child, and yet he was really still uniquely gifted and all he wanted to do was play. That he was sweet and compassionate but also horrible and violent. Maybe the weight of that gift, and all that the world expected from him as a result, was too much for him. You handle it all so evenly in the book.

Mehr: His experiences were a big factor in him not wanting to let Tommy go down the same road in terms of getting in trouble with the law. Bob, whatever his limitations, he knew enough to put the bass in Tommy’s hands and say, this is what you are going to do with your life. In a way, he saved Tommy. He gave him a life, and that’s a pretty ... I get emotional just thinking about it. For someone who has so many problems on his own, he still had a big enough heart and enough sense of the world to save his kid brother. And again, that happens through music. It’s a cliché to say “I was saved by music” — but in this case, they were. What would have been the options? For Bob, in spite of all his frailties and problems, to be able to make a life for himself and his brother and to leave a legacy behind through music — that is pretty profound.

One of the things that I laughed [at] every time it happened in the book — even thinking about all of the things bands do to show they do not give a shit — Paul and Tommy burning money is really next-level. And not just once, but all the time. Their nature was just to turn the blade of being a fuck-up at any given opportunity. What do you feel the true nature of The Replacements was?

Mehr: In terms of their behavior, some of it was genuine and rude. It was fear of success, fear of failure, fear of being signed and being rejected. Part of it was genuine. “Calculated” might not be the right word, but I think Paul knew that if they did these things, they might get attention, and maybe those things would live on beyond the band. And he desperately wanted the band to be remembered from the very first, early months. There is a quote in the book where he talks about how after a Replacements show, the next morning, he didn’t want people saying “Did you hear The Replacements?” but rather, “Did you see The Replacements?!” He was always keenly aware of the showbiz aspect and the power of certain gestures, certain acts, to resonate. People still talk about some small thing Paul did onstage 30 years later.

There was an element of performance art to the way they handled themselves, onstage and off. Part of that is based in real fear, part of it is kind of a performance instinct, and the third part is more ritualistic. Negative or destructive things were some strange form of bonding between them. "We don’t have any money. So what — we have each other." They were not able to express themselves emotionally with each other, so sometimes it came out in these weird ritualistic acts. So much was unsaid, unspoken, uncommunicated. A lot of the things we think were self-sabotage were them trying to express themselves as people, and this was the only way they knew how.

Sometimes, looking deeply at things we really love gets tricky, especially with something as capricious as a band. Was there ever a point in looking at The Replacements and their behavior where you thought, Fuck these guys?

Mehr: Once I knew the weight of what was behind their lives and experiences in their formative years, that actually made me appreciate them more, because whatever they won, whatever they did, whatever they achieved was so hard.

I appreciated that when you introduced people, you would say, “So-and-so is from South Minneapolis, they’re second-generation Polish-American, they’re the eighth of 10 kids, they’re Catholic, and their dad was a fall-down drunk.” It seems like about 70 percent of the people in the book have that same background. It shows you another context for how punk rock got born — how people came up in Minneapolis and what they were rebelling against. People were coming out of these lineages where their dad was in the war and would come home and never spoke about anything, bestowing all of this freighted manhood on their sons. What else were they going to do but start a screamy punk band?

Mehr: That is it. The book is about American families, damaged American families, what happens to those children, and how they relate to the world through rock and roll.

Toward the end, it was all completely in spite of themselves.

Mehr: That’s the funny thing I came away with. This isn’t true for every band, and maybe wasn’t true for The Replacements, but you understand just how complex a band relationship is. You’re talking about the four people — not just their relationship with each other and the music they’re making, but every bit of their lives leading up to that point, which goes into what the music is, how everything plays out. For me, that’s the complexity, the places they can go — from [Omaha Beach], where Paul’s father was walking after D-Day, and how that affected his father and how that affected Paul. Obviously, people are the sum of their lives, but sometimes we think a band is just four guys who got together in a garage, and sometimes it’s a lot more than that.