Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Book Review: Trouble Boys: The True Story of The Replacements by Bob Mehr

The Replacements were Paul Westerberg, Bob Stinson, Tommy Stinson, and Chris Mars. All from Minneapolis. Author Bob Mehr spent 10 years working on the book that tells their entire story. Mehr immerses you in their world, allowing the reader to be a fly on the wall in their wild journey through the Midwest and beyond.

Bob and Tommy Stinson were half brothers who grew up in a climate of abuse and alcoholism. On the path to juvenile delinquency, they found purpose in music. Paul Westerberg came from a more stable background, finding music to be salve for the repression of the Midwest. Tommy was only 13 when he started playing bass for the band, his brother Bob was the unpredictable lead guitarist. Westerberg wrote his own material and honed a charismatic stage presence, confrontational, but never boring. Chris Mars was the drummer, always a bit more restrained than his band mates  (except when he sometimes appeared as his crazed alter ego Pappy the Clown).

The Replacements emerged out of punk and their early performance style was anarchic, but their influences were far more varied than most punk bands, something that made it difficult to put them in a box. It's as if the Beatles began their recording career during the Hamburg days. Above all, alcohol fueled their stage presence. Some nights they were brilliant, other nights they could barely stand as they played. 

Always a critical darling, the Replacements never managed to hit the massive popularity that always seemed to be within their reach. While all their albums are excellent their string of records from 1983-1987 included Hootenanny, Let it Be, Tim, and, Pleased to Meet Me all represent the best of 1980s alternative rock. They refused to make videos until the end of their run and had habit of sabotaging themselves at key moments. A 1986 appearance on Saturday Night Live was marred by their drunken backstage behavior, trashing dressing rooms and saying the "F" word during their performance. In 1988 they opened for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and failed to connect with stadium crowds so they began to parody Petty who they found to be a bore (Petty made 250 grand a show, while the Mats made a mere fraction of that amount)

The band prided themselves on being great when they felt like it. If crowds were indifferent they got confrontational. Melancholy also followed the band, in 1986 they forced Bob out of the band due to his erratic behavior, replacing him with Slim Dunlap who proved a more calming presence. Bob passed away in 1995. The book opens with a heartbreaking account of his funeral, a scene that haunts the entire book.

The later albums were more polished and somewhat overproduced, made with the intention of recording a hit, the closest they came was the perfect power pop of "Achin' to Be." Things came apart slowly as they came to terms with their addictions and moved on. Many familiar faces make an appearance. REM is set up as their rival, the more successful counterpart of the 1980s alternative scene. Devoted fans included Tom Waits (their drunken adventures with Waits are another highlight) and Bob Dylan. They found a kindred soul in Alex Chilton, member of the legendary band Big Star, who served as a mentor to the Mats. Rumor had it their fellow Minnesotan Prince sometimes sneaked into their shows. 

Trouble Boys is a hardscrabble tale of Midwest guys who went for it all and almost made it. Beautiful loser tales have an undeniable glory and luster and this book has it. Mehr never gets judgmental about their reckless and often dangerous behavior, it's miracle they all survived. But in between all the debauchery are genuine moments of humanity, desperation, and existential foolishness. And great music.