Trouble Boys: The Real Story of the Replacements

Trouble Boys: The Real Story of The Replacements
By Bob Mehr
[Da Capo Press]

OK, let’s begin here by stating what I’ll assume to be taken as fundamental truths and/or givens for the bulk of Stomp and Stammer readers: 1.) The Replacements were a damned fine band, 2.) in a perfect world, The Replacements would’ve been chart-topping megastars, and 3.) The Replacements were a damned fine band.

But this is not a perfect world. And a perfect world would be boring. If The Replacements had been megastars and been everybody’s band, well, they wouldn’t have been our band. And if this was a “perfect world” where The Replacements were chart-topping megastars, well, they’d have been The Goo Goo Dolls.

Now, I’ll continue with the myth-dissolving tack of this review. The mythology that The Replacements never made it big is only that – only mythology. I know this doesn’t seem nearly as romantic, but The Replacements did “make it”: 1.) they put our three (count ‘em!) albums (Sorry Ma…, Hootenanny and Let it Be) on a respected, boutique indie label (Twin Tone), all of which were critically acclaimed and got heaps of college radio airplay, 2.) their third album, Let it Be, was then picked up by a universally respected, kinda/sorta major label (Sire), 3.) then they released three (count ‘em!) albums (Tim, Don’t Tell A Soul, and All Shook Down) on a kinda/sorta major label (again Sire) which sold reasonably well, were critically acclaimed and got heaps of college radio airplay, 4.) they toured in a huge bus and regularly drew crowds of around 1,000, 5.) they snorted giant mounds of cocaine daily, 6.) They were on freakin’ Saturday Night Live fer chrissakes, and 7.) none of them (except Bob Stinson, the dead guy) has ever worked a real job – ever. And if riding around the country on a giant chrome bus, smashing guitars, getting drunk and snorting rails, playing for large appreciative crowds and never holding a conventional job isn’t “making it” for a rock ’n’ roll band, well, what is? And what is “making it,” for that matter? The Goo Goo Dolls “made it” – and they suck. At least The Replacements didn’t suck.

Memory and mythology are utterly elastic constructs. We shape and reshape stories to fit whatever our own interpretation and/or agenda might be at the moment. We tell and retell lies so often that they become truths.

If you’re looking for The Story of The Replacements etched into stone tablets as capital-T Truth, well, you’re never gonna find it – not really. The Replacements saga, a saga of singing, strumming, boozing and (not necessarily) losing is a tragicomedy of epic proportions that never really happened – or at least didn’t happen as neatly and romantically as in the lore of the indie rock canon, whatever that might be.

So, Bob Mehr’s Trouble Boys: The True Story of The Replacements is probably about as good as you’re gonna get. Mehr lovingly and exhaustively researched The Replacements history for around a decade. And I’m pretty sure he encountered a bunch of kooks and bitter old geezers (such as Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson) with rather tenuous grasps of “reality” in the process. Whether or not the book’s accounts are absolutely true, well, who could really know? Still, the book is deftly written and Mehr’s sincere, tenacious work to get (or at least get at) “the real story” of The Replacements is laudable. Plus, Trouble Boys unearths a lot of good, new (or new-to-me) dirt. It’s a fun, funny and sometimes sad read.

“History/truth” or no, the primary conflict of Trouble Boys’ narrative arc is lead guitarist Bob Stinson’s expulsion from the band after the release of Tim and his subsequent dissolution and death. Of course Bob Stinson’s firing/death is troubling for brother/bassist Tommy Stinson and for Westerberg, who more or less engineered Bob’s firing. To his credit, Mehr’s account addresses Bob Stinson’s firing/death unflinchingly – but with necessary compassion and tact. (Jim Walsh’s 2009 oral history, The Replacements: All Over But The Shouting sort of danced around the controversy rather than addressing it more directly.)

Trouble Boys kind of mirrors The Replacements’ career in that it gets a bit tedious after Tim. The post-Bob, post-Tim Replacements wasn’t nearly as edgy, unpredictable and thrilling of a band live or on record – and Mehr’s account likewise becomes a bit tedious. After Tim, The Replacements were pretty much on the predictable treadmill of tippling, taping, touring and trashing tapes (sorry). The tales of Westerberg and Tommy Stinson, who by then had become the “Toxic Twins” of the ‘Mats, incessantly getting loaded and basically self-sabotaging the band become tiresome with iteration. (This is a problem with most rock books: Rock ’n’ rollers are basically overgrown, coddled children. And reading about tantrum after tantrum gets a bit boring. After a while, the readers find themselves almost wishing the band would just break up, OD or die – just to end the book. And I won’t even mention that nobody wants to read about the band getting back together as ugly old farts decades later. Well, I guess I just did.)

Still, Trouble Boys is a worthwhile read that offers telling glimpses of The Replacements’ intra-band struggles. Westerberg, the prime mover of The Replacements, is certainly a tragic figure who could be both sensitive and cruel: He was (and is) in many ways his own worst enemy. This is the stuff of legend, right? Yeah, whatever, nevermind.

So, after reading Mehr’s exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) Trouble Boys, the reader is left with unanswerable questions that (thankfully) Mehr had the good sense not to address: Westerberg and Co. worked very hard at their art, so why did they throw it all away on purpose? Was their self-sabotage a stubborn act of refusal, purposeful transgression, nihilism, or just inner craziness made external in ways they couldn’t control?

Of course, such questions can’t truly be answered. No one (not even the insightful deity, Paul Westerberg himself) can really explain their motives – and even if they can, 20/20 hindsight is never exactly The Truth. Still, Mehr’s Trouble Boys adeptly captures a unique moment in the American indie rock underground that can never be, aargh, Replaced. If you will dare, I will dare.