Given the Replacements’ superhuman consumption of alcohol and drugs — well documented in Bob Mehr’s meaty biography, Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements — it’s remarkable they didn’t send a member to the emergency room every week or two. Instead, they staggered through the 1980s, making masterpieces like Tim and Let It Be almost as an afterthought.
One time that the band did visit the hospital: on the way home from a gig, Paul Westerberg began thrashing around in the backseat of the car driven by manager Peter Jesperson. Westerberg, the band’s singer/songwriter/guitarist, was having a bad reaction to some pharmaceutical amphetamine he had taken earlier in the evening. While he heaved and hyperventilated, the other Replacements — the erratic but electrifying guitarist Bob Stinson, his kid brother Tommy Stinson, and drummer Chris Mars — couldn’t do anything but hope their leader wouldn’t die. As Jesperson ran one red light after another, Westerberg grabbed him and delivered his last request: “If I die . . . don’t let Bob sing.”
The Replacements perpetually had one foot on greatness and the other foot on a banana peel. On some nights, the Mats (as fans called them) were all joy and chaotic energy and loud guitars. But if they thought the crowd was full of punk purists, or if they just weren’t in the mood, they would deliver a set of half-assed covers of songs by the Jackson 5 or Bachman-Turner Overdrive — on occasion, literally starting a riot. What made them more than drunken punk rock provocateurs was that Westerberg was one of the finest songwriters of his generation, capable of passion, bruised yearning, and lyrics full of self-lacerating humor: “I hate music / It’s got too many notes.”
Mehr, a critic at the Memphis Commercial Appeal, conducted over 200 interviews for this book — just about everybody associated with the band, including Westerberg and Tommy Stinson. While only the most devoted fans will cherish the digressions on Minneapolis’s leading nightclubs in the 1980s, Mehr’s tendency toward over-documentation also gives the story behind just about every crucial Replacements song. The chorus of the almost-a-hit “Alex Chilton,” asking, “What’s that song?”: the answer was Big Star’s “Watch the Sunrise.” The inspiration for “Androgynous”: a period when Westerberg was hanging with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, drinking and messing around with eye shadow. The target of “Waitress in the Sky,” seemingly a stewardess who stopped serving Westerberg: it’s actually the obnoxious narrator, as Westerberg intended the song as a gesture of solidarity with his sister, a career flight attendant.
The stories of mayhem on the road are as entertaining as one would hope for — the band almost tips over their van on the highway by moshing to the Bad Brains, Bob Stinson arrives at a gig in Genoa pursued by an Italian mob brandishing knives — but as they accumulate through the pages of Trouble Boys, it becomes clear that even more than music or booze, the band loved self-sabotage. Any time they had an opportunity to make an alliance — with a radio station, with a producer, with a label — they found a way to foul their nest instead. “If they were an ordinary band, they would have been dropped,” observed one of their managers. “But it was the brilliance of Paul’s writing, and the humanity that would come out of him, and the magic of the group, that would keep everyone believing . . . even when you wanted to kill them.”
The Replacements left behind an expensive trail of chaos: tour buses systematically dismembered, hotel rooms trashed, favorite guitars destroyed. “That’s the difference between you and me,” Westerberg told a horrified soundman. “You cherish things that you love. Me? I destroy ’em.” Eventually the band took this profligate philosophy to its logical conclusion: when given a per diem on the road, they would pull out a lighter and burn the cash.
The tragic foundation of the Replacements and their anarchic trajectory was the story of Bob Stinson, who started the band, contributed wild-man guitar on its early records, and would hit the stage wearing a dress — or nothing except Ben-Gay ointment on his balls. Interviewing the Stinson family and drawing from Bob’s juvenile case file, Mehr sensitively but unflinchingly lays out what happened: over a ten-year period when Bob was young, his mother’s boyfriend (Tommy’s father) regularly abused him, physically, verbally, and sexually. Music gave Bob something to live for — but in many ways, he never recovered from the abuse. As the Replacements became more successful, Bob lost his way. Mehr quotes a heartbroken Tommy as saying, “Well, I guess we gotta fire my brother.” Leaving the band in 1986, Bob then slid further into addiction; he died of organ failure in 1995.
After the Replacements broke up, Tommy Stinson spent nearly two decades playing in Guns N’ Roses, Westerberg released a bunch of middling solo albums, and they all watched as R.E.M. capitalized on the opportunities the Mats had squandered. During the 1990s indie rock boom, the Goo Goo Dolls, who shamelessly aped the Replacements’ sound, had far more chart success with it than the originals ever did.
I never saw the Replacements in their heyday. The closest I got was being in the same room as a document Tommy Stinson’s mom signed when he was fifteen years old, after the release of their debut album, Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash: a permission slip designating manager Peter Jesperson as his legal guardian when he was on the road with the Replacements. In 2014, however, Westerberg and Stinson came together for a lucrative reunion, and I finally caught the Replacements at the Coachella festival in Indio, California. Slotted on a side stage, the band was treated as a curiosity: most of the younger crowd was more interested in the contemporaneous set by Dutch DJ Martin Garrix. When Westerberg tried to lead audience members in a sing-along to “Androgynous,” the vast majority had no idea what the lyrics were. But after a sloppy beginning, sating any desire I had ever had to see the Replacements play an erratic set, they started throwing fastballs: perfect versions of “Left of the Dial,” “Can’t Hardly Wait,” “Bastards of Young.”
Not coincidentally, those songs are all about the Replacements themselves: “Left of the Dial” is an ode to the college radio culture that nurtured them; “Alex Chilton,” while nominally about the Memphis singer, is a fantasy that pictures millions of fans nationwide screaming for a cult musical act; “Bastards of Young” is Westerberg’s finest screw-up manifesto (“God, what a mess / On the ladder of success / Where you take one step and miss the whole first rung”). Westerberg’s greatest musical subject was always his own band, and he added to their lore with each song — just like every time they insulted a radio programmer or cursed on live TV, they were burnishing their legend rather than striving for stardom. That anti-commercial attitude made their wallets lighter, but it also made them worthy of a 474-page biography. Trouble Boys is a Bulfinch’s Mythology for a time of indie rock legend (swapping Minneapolis for Olympus, beer for ambrosia, and reportage for the oral tradition). The Goo Goo Dolls had hit singles; the Replacements became immortal.