If, like many fans, you think it’s one of the great rock injustices that The Replacements never really made it, you’ll have a whole new viewpoint after reading Bob Mehr’s exhaustive (and exhausting) new biography, Trouble Boys. Mehr spent several years interviewing not only Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson about the considerable legend and legacy of their band, but also band family members, label employees, and club owners. (Drummer Chris Mars declined to participate, but guitarist Slim Dunlap did. Dunlap had replaced Bob Stinson, Tommy’s brother who got kicked out of the group in 1986 and died in 1995.) The result is a fully formed portrait of a band that churned out four classic albums (and four near-classic) over the course of 12 years while drinking enough to pickle any normal person’s liver, and wrestling various levels of depression, as well as each other.
Mehr’s unblinking, guts-exposed, meticulously researched book can be read as the new high bar for rock biography. He’s doing a series of live events to promote Trouble Boys, including a Q&A session with MTV’s Jessica Hopper at Chicago’s The Hideout, where he screened live footage from shows like the ’Mats breakup performance at Grant Park in 1991 (below). While he was in town, he visited the A.V. Club office to dish with a ’Mats fangirl about what makes the band, and his book, so special.
The A.V. Club: So, you started this project 10 years ago. How did this come about?
Bob Mehr: The idea came to me about 12 years ago. I was actually living here in Chicago, working for the Reader, doing freelance, and I got a magazine assignment to go interview Westerberg in person. I’d talked to him a few times on the phone, and Tommy, and knew some people involved in their management, various camps. But it was the first time I went and saw him. It was around the time of his Folker album, and I did the interview with him face-to-face, and really hit it off.
AVC: That’s apparently not easy to do.
BM: He was at an interesting point; he wasn’t doing a lot of press for that record. And it was face-to-face, and he was maybe eight or 10 months removed from the death of his father, and his own kid was growing up, and he was sort of being a house husband, a Mr. Mom, at that point. And he was particularly gentle and reflective that day. So really, that was the first time I thought that you could actually get to the heart of the story with this guy. Because so much of his interviews in the past have been either cynical or flippant, answering in a way that obscured what the real truth of the band’s history and experience was. But I came away from that thinking, “Maybe he’s at a point now where he can look back on the band.”
That same day I called up Peter Jesperson, who was their long-time manager and Twin/Tone co-founder [The Replacements’ original label], and he lives out in L.A. But I was like, “Hey, I’m in Minneapolis, I have some time to kill until my flight back, what should I do?” He’s like, “I’m here, cleaning out the Twin/Tone offices. Come on over.” So I went over and he and Paul Stark were literally packing up the old offices they had had since the ’80s. It had mostly been in storage.
BM: Yeah, so there’s these banker boxes of clips and road receipts and tour logs and studio session logs and everything—there’s a paper trail to this story, too. And then I went to the Uptown Bar, and who’s behind the bar, but Anita Stinson, Bob and Tommy’s mother. She was still working there at that time, and the bar was still open.
Looking back now, it’s like—here’s the creative force of the band, here’s the people that enabled them to flourish on the label side, on the business side, and then here’s the family side. So that was the epiphany, but it would be several more years before I got to the starting gate. It was basically a couple of years of me trying to convince them to do the book, because so much stuff had been written about them without their direct input. For me, it was like, “I really only want to do this if you’re going to be involved.” That took some time to convince them, because they’re fairly guarded people, and not particularly trusting immediately. It was persistence and good luck on my part.
I think enough time had passed from the breakup of the band and Bob passing. I think for a lot of years immediately after the band, it was a millstone around both their necks, Paul and Tommy. Because they’re trying to move ahead with their life, and people want to talk about that. But 10, 15, almost 18, 20 years after, I think they were ready to it down and be like, “Okay, what was this experience we went through?” Because there was not a lot of reflection during the life of the band. And then I sold the book, and started a process, really started talking to them in ’07. Sold the book in ’09. It came out [this] March.
AVC: And of course you were working your regular job the whole time.
BM: Working the whole time. I ended up doing—I officially lost count—but it was 230 interviews. Some people I talked to 20 to 30 times. Jesperson, Paul, I talked to several times a year for a period of years, so I would say a thousand interviews, at least, overall. And part of it was like, I didn’t intend to do that. When my editor asked me how long it would take, I said a year to research and a year to write. Famous last words.
A lot of it was building up trust with not just Paul and Tommy, but families, people I talked to. Some people were open from the start, and some people, when you get into darker, personal stuff, you have to convince them that you’re the person they should tell these things to. And certainly with Bob and Tommy’s family, there was a lot of stuff that they hadn’t even talked to with each other, so it was a process of building some trust with someone who was basically a stranger.
AVC: You add a lot of details—you’re in the detention center, where Bob is, or in the garage, with the band practicing in its earliest days. You get to these minutiae, these details that really describe it well.
BM: That was the toughest part, because that was a big gap in story. Bob isn’t around, obviously, and there was that period of several years where he was away from his family and in the state system. And that was dumb luck on my part: I just thought, if he was in this state system for as many years, there’s probably some record of it. So I petitioned the Minnesota state juvenile system, and Bob had been passed away long enough, and I went through a lawyer to do it. I thought maybe there will be a few pages that would give some insight. They sent back a 200-page file: It’s daily reports, it’s background history on everything that was going on. And even though I had access to his family, his mom, and his sisters, they’re not going to remember everything. And certainly, [there was a lot] they didn’t even know, in terms of Bob’s experience away.
AVC: It’s not surprising that it took you that long to write it.
BM: I think it’s because The Replacements, as you read, were not a real self-determining group of people. Like, their way of conducting their career was to not conduct it, or just do things either to see how people would react, or they were doing things in reaction to other people. So the people around them, the label, the producers, all along the way, become more important, so I felt it important to understand the backgrounds of these people. If it was a band that had a super strong leader or manager or whatever, then those people are maybe less important. But in The Replacements story, there was always this pitched battle with themselves and the people around them, so I felt like it was important to give that context more than with other bands.
AVC: Were they your favorite band? This is the band you wanted to write about?
BM: Yeah. It’s funny, talking about this stuff, and having actually written the book, I’m realizing a lot of things now that should have been obvious to me at the time. Looking back, I realized probably just instinctively or subconsciously, there’s more to this story. As I’m sure you’ve read everything out there about The Replacements—they weren’t a band that was obscure, they weren’t really a cult band, they were written about a lot, they were critics’ darlings, they had major magazine features in their whole career, and have been anthologized and everything afterward. But I still felt like that’s clearly just scratching the surface, and there’s something very obvious here that we’re all getting a sense of, but we don’t really know what it is. And of course, that all goes back to their childhoods, and their family stuff. The aspects of their career, their major label career, that were hidden in plain sight. What was really going on behind the scenes? What was really going on within the band? There were all these hints of it. But for me, once I did it, it was like, of course this was going on, or why didn’t I know that? On some level, I think that’s why I pushed hard on certain aspects of the story.
And some of it didn’t get used. I talked to way more label people at Warner Bros. than ended up in the book. But it was important for me to understand, what was this company like that these guys walk in to in 1985? And how were they perceived? Because The Replacements were almost guinea pigs for the way the alternative music was going to be marketed. It was the very early days of that stuff being sold at a major label level, from the indie bands in the early ’80s. It was them, Hüsker Dü got signed, then R.E.M. signed and moved over, and then of course, you get every other band from Jane’s Addiction to ultimately Nirvana signing in rapid succession. So a lot of what happened with The Replacements, it was almost like this lab experiment from the label side. I wanted to understand that part of it.
I had to do a lot of that, too, with the early Minneapolis stuff. I’m not from the area, so I needed to understand what was the scene that they were coming out of. In the ’60s it was thriving, by the early ’70s it was dead, in the mid-’70s there’s this new wave, punk movement being willed into existence. And they came into that really out of nowhere. So all these different contexts and environment became things that I wanted and needed to understand to make more sense of the band’s experience.
AVC: They were my favorite band, and for years I thought it was so unfair that they were never played on the radio, or weren’t better known. Your book changed my perception of the whole Replacements history. Like, Jesus, they pissed off WXRT? ’XRT loved them! No wonder they didn’t get any radio play.
BM: That’s the weird dichotomy. It’s like—you sign this band because they’re rebellious and they have this image and this reputation, but then by signing them you’re asking them to sort of not be that anymore. It’s not just art and commerce, it’s about that world in the era of major labels and commercial radio, and how do you work within that? And that was a legitimate struggle for them. A lot of it was their doing, a lot of it is bad choices by the label for a first single, or it was them being unwilling or unable to work with the right producer. I don’t think it’s 50/50—it’s probably 70/30 their fault why they didn’t get further.
As Paul puts it, that’s kind of the thing that kept them pure, and kept them interesting—is they just fell short. Some of it was his fear of success and his fear of failure. But some of it was his design to do all these things that seem like self-sabotage at the time, but kept their reputation going for the next 30 years. So there is this weird push and pull. That’s the thing with the book, I think a lot of people thought like, “Oh, they got a bum rap from the label.” They couldn’t have existed on another label other than Sire and Warner Bros., which was very artist-friendly.
AVC: It seems to be a big conflict, like they’re constantly at war with each other. They wanted to be successful, but they were terrified of it. And it wasn’t just Paul; it was all of them. So they had this solidified unit of self-destruction.
BM: Yeah, and that goes back to family, and that also to regional identity, a class thing in terms of the way they grew up. They weren’t people that were bred for success. The cynicism that Paul’s father imbued in him about sales and business, and that kind of stuff. That left an impression on him, and I think it affected the way he saw the world, and his own career, and the world at large, of selling himself. And certainly with Tommy and Bob, they had no context or role model for anything like that. Maybe Chris had some understanding of it, but he had a disdain for it, because he’s an artist. So he had a disdain for the commercial aspect. So every one of them, for different reasons, had different backgrounds, that made them ill suited to being successful, or willing to play the game in the ways that other bands who were successful did. Even Slim: One of their managers says that Slim joined the band, he was older, he was wiser, he was different, yet he was a Replacement to his core. He was suspicious of the label; he was suspicious of everything. He was a born Replacement. So as different as Slim was, even he had the same mindset when it came to their career.
AVC: Right. So we all knew stuff about them, but then you write about this unbelievable self-defeating mass destruction. Like destroying their favorite guitars, or ripping the toilet right out of their tour bus.
BM: Yeah, some things that they did that are both literal and metaphorical that are pretty amazing. Burning per diems when you don’t really have a lot of money.
AVC: Yes, why would you burn your money?
BM: Well, that’s the thing that everyone talks about. You have to put yourself in their mindset and under Replacements logic. When I asked Paul about that, I said, “What? Why would you do that?” And he’s like, “You know, it wasn’t like we were so crass that we thought, ‘Oh, we have so much money to burn.’ We didn’t. That was the whole point. It doesn’t matter. We’ll burn this money and it doesn’t matter what happens, because I’ve got you, and you’ve got me,” meaning Tommy. And he’s like, “We’ll get along together.” So in some weird ways, even the most negative things they did that to the outside person would seem like totally stupid, negative acts were actually these weird, ritualistic expressions of their brotherhood and solidarity with each other. For people who didn’t really communicate directly, that’s how they communicated. That’s how they expressed their love for one another. And it sort of still continues to this day.
But that’s the other underlying thing, that there was so little direct communication within this band, that a lot of the things they did became ways of communicating amongst themselves or to the world or the people that they were working with. If you take a step back from it and you’re looking at it from the outside, it just seems like madness or bad behavior. That’s one of those things that being able to come in from the outside and also have a little bit of a longer perspective. I tried to make sense of the most ridiculous things they did, and put it in some kind of logical context.
AVC: So, I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but I almost wish I hadn’t read it.
BM: I’m hearing that.
AVC: And only because we idolize these guys. Like so many people, I feel like Paul Westerberg got me through adolescence. And the story about him giving Bob champagne after rehab—there are a lot of horrible Paul stories in there, but that’s one of the worst. So we put these people up on pedestals, but hardly anyone deserves it.
BM: And that being one of the the key things, I dispel that in a way. The way that that was originally reported in the Spin story in ’93 and then repeated, it has a different meaning than really what happened. It’s like, the idea of, they said, “drink champagne right out of rehab,” and he didn’t, and they fired him from the band. Well, that sequence of events isn’t that—it was like a whole year afterward until Bob left the group. Paul certainly never intended it that way. It’s not even clear if it exactly happened that way. That’s one example.
I will say this: Paul is a wonderful guy. He is completely empathetic, capable of great generosity and all that stuff. But also, this is in his 20s, he also was depressed, self-medicating, dealing with a lot of pressures he probably wasn’t comfortable with. He was dealing with a bunch of other people who had all kinds of emotional and addiction problems as well. To the bigger point of people regretting reading it and finding out, I can understand that. But the other part of me is like, when you look back and now know what their lives were like, and what kind of desperation really fueled the band, and was the foundation upon which it was built, it’s amazing they lasted a year, much less 12 years and made eight great albums and touched so many people.
So I feel like I almost have more admiration and respect for what they were able to accomplish. Now, maybe that’s me being cynical and knowing or feeling like, well of course these are guys in their 20s who couldn’t communicate. There was probably a lot of stuff that seems and feels ugly to somebody who romanticized and lionized them. I get that. But I also feel like, man, if I thought they were underdogs before, after reading what it took for them to just get formed, much less continue on for another dozen years, and touch people in a way that’s very unlikely for a group that literally couldn’t even get to their own gigs because none of them drove, to see that they’re nominated for the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame and can come back in a reunion 25 years later and fill up baseball stadiums and sports stadiums, that’s a pretty amazing legacy. Yes, it’s a tragic story, there’s a lot of sad things, there’s death, you know. But I couldn’t change that. And I felt like to put a happy face on that part of it, that felt like a cop-out. I could have made it more warm and cuddly, but the reality of the story is it’s a sad, fucked-up, twisted story, that has a glimmer of triumph in it. It’s a human story at the end of the day. It wasn’t my idea to demythologize them or demonize them at all, and I can understand why someone thinks that, but I hope that’s ultimately not people’s takeaways, that in fact it’s like, you admire them even more for the effort and what they did accomplish.
AVC: That’s a good way to look at it. I think that’s mostly on me, making them heroes in my mind. I just figured they were drunk all the time; I had no idea how dark it went.
BM: They were a band of excess, but I think it was different than, say, Mötley Crüe. It wasn’t this mindless excess; there were reasons for everything they did, even the things that seemed completely meaningless, or just odd or abhorrent. And again, I think all of that goes back to the roots and to their early lives, and the die was so cast for them as kids and young men. The reason that they found each other, as Paul put it, “We understand each other in ways that normal guys didn’t.” I think that’s what drew them together, that’s what gave them their spark and their power, and that’s what carried them on for so long. And I think, on an instinctive level, I think that’s what people relate to. There was so much of who and what they were, including all the damaged parts and all the ugly parts, and the beautiful parts in their show, in their music, in their songs. That’s why people have such an intense devotion to this band. Because you know it’s not bullshit. You’re getting the reality of these people. That’s a pretty rare commodity in show business, even in rock ’n’ roll where authenticity is so important. There’s still a line that people draw between their private and public selves, between the person that’s offstage and onstage. With The Replacements, there was no line. It was the same thing all the time, on stage, off stage. They were who they were a 100 percent of the time.
And that’s not to say they didn’t do things that were calculated, because Paul is a showman, and he had a very canny understanding of showmanship and doing little weird things that people would remember for decades to come, but I think so much of their struggle, too, was show business as a rule was designed so you have this protective armor when you go on stage. I am an act, I am putting on an act. Whereas, The Replacements didn’t have an act. And that’s why I think it was hard for Paul and hard for the band to carry on, and why it was so tortuous sometimes, because they didn’t have the ability to do that or the desire to do that, where as most performers do, and it’s kind of a protective thing. But they either didn’t have it or didn’t want to have it.
AVC: Their emotions were wide open on the stage every single night. What was the most surprising thing that you discovered in all this research? Was there something that you thought it was going to go a different way, and you found this out, and you’re like, wow, this is going to be a different kind of book?
BM: There was some stuff about Paul’s early years, the idea that with the band, Bob, Tommy, and Chris, it was their first band, and that really is true. And Paul was looking outside the bushes and heard them playing. But Paul had been kicking around for a number of years, playing in little garage bands, or ad hoc combos, he was the lead guitar player. Paul’s pre-history to me was really interesting. Here’s a guy who basically decides to quit high school and is casting his lot, like, “I am making a living doing this, because I have no skills otherwise, other than being a janitor. And I’m gonna go look and find this band.” And he did that for a couple of years, actively trying to find this thing. Ultimately, he found it in the Stinson brothers and Chris Mars and they formed that band. The idea that it wasn’t just an accident, in a way. I mean, it was, it was a charmed collision of these guys. But there was some intention on Paul’s part.
And that’s kind of the thing with Paul throughout: He is very instinctive, very natural, very gut instinct. But he’s also a very intelligent guy, and early on had a real ambition. I think in some ways his ambition was satisfied when he found the band. He hadn’t written any songs, within a few months of meeting Stinsons and Chris Mars, he had written 30, 40, 50 songs, so now he’s a songwriter. And everything was on an upward trajectory for him, like after that point. People always say The Replacements had no ambition. I think Paul had a lot of ambition, but I think his greatest ambition was in that early period and the triumph was finding these guys that he could play with and fall back on, on stage. So that was interesting, his pre-history.
There’s random, weird little things. Like I found out in “Kids Don’t Follow,” the lyric, which I don’t think anybody really knows, when he says, “kids don’t want that, kids don’t do that, whatever” and he’s like, “kids don’t” and then “NRBQ.” And I never knew what it was, but he was saying NRBQ, because they were NRBQ fans, so there’s an NRBQ mention in one of the most famous hardcore songs. It’s just random things like that, that I threw into the book.
AVC: Just so fun. I love when he goes off and starts reading, because he realizes you have to read good writers to be a good writer. I didn’t know that part about him.
BM: Yeah, he’s self-educated. That period, when he quit high school, before he found The Replacements, is really a pivotal time, because he forms himself through his reading. And he forms his idea about bands and music and what kind of band he needs to be in, so that period between ’77 and ’79 was really interesting. Because so much of that carries on through the history of The Replacements, and even to this day in Paul’s career.
AVC: What has the reaction been like from fans? Have they been traumatized like me? But also very effusive like me?
BM: Yeah, the reaction, I think more online, has been, “Oh god, I wish I hadn’t read this.” But even within the same breath, people will say, “but I’m so glad.” That’s been the reaction. It’s been amazing. I think I probably underestimated the response. I think the reunion certainly helped put the band back on people’s radars in a way it hadn’t been for years. They always had a big fan base, but we’re into the fifth printing of the book. It made the New York Times celebrities bestsellers list—it’s like Kardashians, William Shatner, and The Replacements.
You get so deep into doing something, you kind of lose sight. But as a fan—because first and foremost that’s what I am and what I was for a long time before I ever started writing the book or trying to tell their story—some of this stuff I find out and I’m like, “God damn, people are going to go crazy when they find out about this stuff.” So I always felt like, if I ever finish this, people will respond favorably to it, and they have. Probably the book is a little sadder and a little darker that I anticipated. Of course, when I started, Slim hadn’t even fallen ill. I think people are reacting in kind to that, that you get a whole lot of experiences in this book and in this band’s life.
AVC: You hint at it at the end of the book, but was is it just like Paul and Tommy’s old personalities getting back together, that’s why the reunion didn’t take?
BM: I think they only originally intended to do the three shows. But the thing had such a momentum of its own, they did the festival round, and they did these headlining shows. The headlining shows in Minneapolis and in New York, which I think was the best show of the thing. There’s like 13,000 people just really embracing them and singing their songs back to them. I think even as cynical as they may have been, it was so validating, they kept going. I just think it’s hard to reactivate a band as a going concern when you’ve been away for that long. They made some attempts to record, but it wasn’t serious. It probably wasn’t intended to be what maybe people thought after they kept going for awhile.
That’s not to say they won’t do anything again. That’s my standard line. I always felt like the reunion was inevitable, that Paul and Tommy would have to do something together again because I knew the connection between them was so strong. And I still feel like what they have is so rare that there’s probably something else in their collaboration that will happen. But if it doesn’t, I think they did what they set out to do. They proved the point. They did their victory lap, and people got to see them, and I think everybody went away feeling good for the experience. If it didn’t go exactly as everybody might have thought with a new record and a whole tour and the band’s alive again. I think any way they end it now is fine.
AVC: And Paul still has all those tapes. He has just tons and tons of songs, his demos.
BM: Solo stuff in recent years. He has a lot of stuff he hasn’t put out. He’s still writing stuff, as far as I know, and recording things at home and elsewhere. So I think you’ll probably see more stuff from him. Tommy’s working on a solo record that will definitely be out either later this year or next.
AVC: Because he’s not doing the Guns ’N Roses reunion, right?
BM: No, he’s not doing the Guns ’N Roses thing anymore. And Paul has that I Don’t Cares record with Juliana Hatfield that came out earlier last year, but I think he’s working on some solo stuff. So I think they’ll both have music, so there will probably be some stuff that they put out solo before they ever do anything again. You know, I think there’s more to their personal stories—and hopefully the story of the two of them together.