A CONVERSATION WITH TROUBLE BOYS AUTHOR, BOB MEHR
by Todd McGovern
If ever there was a gig that was representative of the Replacements at their best – and their worst – it was their appearance on “Saturday Night Live” on January 18, 1986. Introduced by a besotted Harry Dean Stanton, the equally soused band took the stage by storm, the opening riff to “Bastards Of Young” off their new album, “Tim,” ringing across the airwaves. The Minneapolis foursome looked impossibly Midwestern, like they’d just come from a roll in the hay with the little sisters of Jack Daniels and Jim Beam. Drummer Chris Mars clad in denim overalls, hammered out the beat; bassist Tommy Stinson stomped around stage in black jacket, torn jeans and creepers, while older brother Bob Stinson peeled off guitar solos in some kind of form-fitting one-piece open to the navel. Then there was lead singer, Paul Westerberg, skinny in striped shirt one size too small, just rising hairdo, straining to reach the microphone… “It beats pickin’ cotton and waiting to be forgotten….”
Bob Mehr, author of the new biography, “Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements,” was only 11 years old at the time, but the ‘Mats [the band’s nickname, short for Placemats] performance that night left quite an impression on his young mind. “To see a band as loud and raw and ragged as that…at the time I didn’t know what the word ‘insouciant’ meant, but that’s kind of what it was when you look back at that performance. Paul was wandering around the stage, missing his vocal cue back on the mic. It was like they were rehearsing in the basement or playing at the 7th Street Entry, the little club in Minneapolis, rather than in New York on “Saturday Night Live” in front of 10 million sets of eyes.”
Over the course of ten years and seven albums, the Replacements inspired the kind of devotion rarely seen among rock bands. “Trouble Boys” gets beyond the one-dimensional drunken escapes that have been the slant of most stories and articles about the band, providing in-depth looks at the band members behind the caricatures. “The book is, in a sense, about the various brotherhoods in the context of the Replacements – the brotherhood of the band in general, the blood brotherhood of Bob and Tommy, and this new brotherhood that formed between Tommy and Paul, which is kind of the thing that carried the Replacements through the latter half of their career and continues to this day,” Mehr told me recently, in a phone interview from his home in Memphis.
Getting buy-in from the notoriously guarded members of the band didn’t come easy. Mehr got help from the band’s first manager, Peter Jesperson. “Peter, having been a crucial supporter from Day One of me doing the book brought Tommy into the fold. We had Sunday pot roast, (which Peter’s wife made and Tommy loved!) and we talked. Tommy’s answer was, ‘I’ll do it if Paul will….’ Looking back, I think it was maybe his way of getting out of doing it.”
After Mehr interviewed Paul for Spin magazine that turned into a long conversation about the book, he got a call from Westerberg’s manager, Darren Hill saying Paul was in. “I think [Paul] had a better sense, more than I did of where the story might go and how many twists and dark turns there might be in the process and in telling the tale. He was willing – to my surprise – to go down that path…. Nothing was ever off the table.”
There are few bands with a greater myth surrounding them than the Replacements. Was this an impediment for you – that piercing of the veil, so to speak?
In some ways it was an attraction to doing the project. I didn’t set out to de-mythologize or puncture anything because in a lot of instances, the most outrageous “myths” turned out to be true and certainly some others had been distorted or exaggerated over the years. In a sense, I felt like I had to set aside what I knew about the band and start building the story and the history from scratch. I knew I would have access to things and information that nobody else had previously, and was looking at it in a “scholarly or academic way.” I felt like I was writing a history of these people’s lives and also telling a good story and a good yarn. It was hard to completely throw out everything I knew about the band, but I didn’t take any of that at face value, any story that I’ve heard I felt like I needed to check out, confirm or reconfirm with multiple sources
What was it about the Replacements – the band and their music – that inspired such mad devotion among their fans?
Paul, at various points in the book says, “We’re real.” I think in some ways, their career off-stage was a kind of sustained performance art for many years. Yet everything they did was genuine at the same time, if you can accept that kind of contradiction. I think they poured so much of themselves into everything they did. There was no moment or line of demarcation between who they really were and how they expressed themselves as a band on stage, in songs, in the studio, in record company offices…they were always the Replacements and they were always on or always off, however you want to look at it. That is the intangible quality that causes them to be so beloved. It’s the thing that people maybe sense instinctively or intuitively or even subconsciously – they look at that band and listen to them play or watch them live and they can tell, “OK, we’re not being bullshitted here. This is an actual true expression in whatever warped or occasionally demented way it might come out, at least at some level, we’re getting real blood, sweat and tears and other fluids from these guys. That was particularly refreshing at the time they were operating in the Eighties, where so much was about artifice and the burgeoning era of videos.
Desperation is a word that is often used when talking about the Replacements. Is that a fitting descriptor – and if so, how?
I think it is. That was the bond, initially for the band and in particular for Paul and Bob getting together. In a sense, they were all trying to outrun their past, outrun their childhoods, and outrun their station in life, with very little means of doing that. These were guys, as Paul said, who didn’t have a high school diploma or driver’s license between them. What are your options? For them, rock and roll became a real option. In Bob’s case, it was absolutely the only thing that could have saved him and it did for a time, anyway. In Paul’s case, it did the same and I think they both recognized that. Their union, initially – and Paul’s union into what was then “Dog Breath [the early incarnation of the Replacements],” but really the link-up between Paul and was about a shared sense of desperation and an ambition of sorts to rise about where they were each at respectively in their lives and to make something of themselves. That’s the thing about the Replacements – they’re always seen as this band that was not careerist and was self-sabotaging. Yet early on, in terms of the formation of the band, it was purely out of a kind of desperation and drive and ambition to move beyond where they were.
“These were guys, as Paul said, who didn’t have a high school diploma or driver’s license between them.”
For so long, the ‘Mats were viewed as “lovable losers” or “the little engine that could, but didn’t want to,” notorious for acting out, for purposely shooting themselves in the foot. They definitely played up that image – how much of this was a defense mechanism?
I think a big part of that was a defense mechanism. In the very first article written about the Replacements in August 1980, Paul says “We’d like to be famous without being stars, like a big cult.” The fact that he had an idea of what it was they were and maybe his own limitations for playing the game at such an early point that is almost remarkable. I think some of that goes back to their own psychology and Westerberg’s psychology. Tommy talked about that –that Paul would rather say, “I’m not willing to try,” rather than to try and be rejected. So that loveable losers idea comes to the fore. Initially, it might have been a kind of shield but in the end, it probably didn’t serve them very well.
Can you talk a bit about Paul’s aspirations before he met Chris Mars and the Stinson brothers?
There’s the story about the creation of the Replacements – where Paul was walking by the Stinson’s basement window and heard them playing. That story itself is true, but there was a lot more happening with Paul. He’d been kicking around for a number of years as a guitar player, initially. He always knew he wanted to be a musician. At a certain point, he decided that’s what he was going to do and cast his lot, so to speak. He quit high school before he could get his diploma. For a kid that’s 17 or 18 years old, that’s a pretty bold thing. He was saying at that point, “I’m going to make a career out of this, one way or another.” The two years that followed – after quitting high school and before he met the Stinson brothers and Chris Mars were kind of a search and a period of self-education for him. He was learning about show business in the library, learning about music, reading a lot of rock press, just trying to understand what it was that appeals to people in terms of show business and theatrics and attitude. That part of him is genuine – he is a charming, cranky contrarian and a witty guy, but I think a lot of what he brought into the Replacements he got through a kind of self-study for a couple years – trying to understand what is it that he could do that would set him apart, that would make him special. Some of it he absorbed, some of it was intuitive, but I think a lot of it came out in the Replacements and in his persona and performance in that group – onstage and off.
Paul’s interest in “singer-songwriter” music was evident early on – the B-side of the ‘Mats first single (“I’m In Trouble”) was “If Only You Were Lonely.” Why did he keep a lot of those songs to himself?
In a way, he tailored both his musicianship and his playing and the songs he was writing to The Replacements. Coming into the Replacements, Paul wasn’t really a writer. He had aspirations, but he’d only written a handful of things. But there was something in the chemistry of the band that unlocked the writer in him. He went from having a handful of songs to having 20, 30, 40, 50 songs in a matter of months and becoming a really accomplished, smart, canny sort of pop/punk writer. But another evolution was really happening privately and part of that was inspired by Peter Jesperson, who both encouraged this hidden singer/songwriter side and also exposed Paul to a number of different types of music and artists through his massive record collection. I think all of that shaped this other side of him. Jesperson is crucial and deserves a lot of credit in that early period, because as the band’s manager and label-guy, he could have just said, “Keep doing what you’re doing, just focus on that.”
We learn a lot in the book about the band members’ childhoods. Bob and Tommy Stinson’s childhoods are especially traumatic and unsettling. What effect did the sexual and physical abuse Bob experienced at the hands of his step-father have play out through their music?
With Bob and Tommy, there was a sense that music was the only way to rise above their circumstance. For Bob, certainly music and rock and roll and playing in a band were the ways he reconnected with the world after the trauma he experienced and the years he’d been away in the state system. For him, it was a matter of sheer survival. As a human being, music was the thing that kept him going and kept him from going mad in a sense and surviving that really painful period of his teenage years.
For Tommy, I mean, Bob put a bass in Tommy’s hands – it was more about saving Tommy from a delinquent path. As Tommy puts it, he was already getting popped for petty theft. The next step was to rob a liquor store or gas station. He wasn’t a very good petty criminal but that’s where things certainly were heading. But he had these natural gifts. Bob maybe recognized that or maybe it was a stroke of luck when he said, “You’re gonna play bass in this band.” I think for both of them, the band and music was essential.
People throw that out a lot, “Rock and roll is a salvation.” But in this case, it really is kind of true – for the band in general, but specifically for the Stinson brothers – rock and roll saved them in so many profound ways that it’s hard to compare it to most situations or people in other bands.
“Pleased to Meet Me” producer Jim Dickinson famously said about Tommy Stinson, “People say Keith Richards is the living embodiment of rock-and-roll? I’m sorry, but I know Keith, and it’s Tommy.” What is it about Tommy that makes him the quintessential rock star?
He has a certain magnetism, a charisma…a certain quality to him. Some of that comes from that he’s been in bands since age 12, playing nightclubs since 13, on the road since age 15…some of that comes from having lived nothing but that kind of life, that rock and roll life. Some of it goes back to the fact that he was in a sense, spared some of the abuses that Bob faced, his mother said that when he came out of the womb, you could tell he was special and that may be true, too. But I think there is something to the experience of having survived something horrific and been untouched and unscarred by it that gives you a certain kind of power. And I think he has that as a performer and as a musician and he carried that on into this very unusual rock and roll life he’s had that started early on and graduating from that to the Replacements and his own things and then to Guns and Roses. It’s a funny through-line from Tommy’s childhood to his career now that kind of makes him this…Dickinson used to say that he thought Tommy was an existential hero in the sense that he had no choice but to play the bass. It was put into his hands – it was either that or this other fate that wouldn’t have been so pleasant. There’s something special about the guy. Paul recognized that instantly when he describes the moment he laid eyes on Tommy for the first time as a 12 year-old kid with a bowl haircut and said, “Man, I knew instantly he was a star.”
A lot of longtime fans felt that Bob Stinson was really the heart of the Replacements. What kind of push-pull dynamic existed between Bob and Paul over control and direction of the band?
Paul bought into what Bob was doing. I think initially, maybe their styles didn’t fit, maybe their personalities didn’t fit, although I think they did have that shared desperation in terms of purpose. But I think what brought Paul to Bob’s side in the early days was his fearlessness. Paul said that when Bob would fuck up, he’d fuck up with majesty. His approach to everything was like, “Floor it!” And Paul could get behind that. That’s really where the sparks happened. Musically, when you listen to the guitars on the early records, they really do play off each other in really interesting ways. Sometimes it’s an odd fit because Bob was such a distinctive and singular player, but Paul was a really accomplished guitar player too, so there’s a really interesting push-and-pull musically. As it evolved over time, Bob probably couldn’t help but feel some sense of his band being overtaken, although that was never articulated really, except maybe in one or two instances, and even then it was really Bob asserting control, saying “We’re not going to record this song.” So, that was kind of the nature of the band. The guy who’s the singer and the songwriter and the public face and the voice of the band in interviews eventually is going to be the guy whose band it is. I think that was difficult for Bob on some level. I think eventually Paul shared that role with Tommy. I think that alienated Bob. It eventually kind of alienated Chris, too.
“Paul said that when Bob would fuck up, he’d fuck up with majesty. His approach to everything was like, `Floor it!’”
Why did Chris Mars choose not to be interviewed for the book?
As to why Chris declined to be involved directly, I can only speculate. I think primarily he is a very successful and well-respected visual artist now, and has left the rock and roll part of his life behind. And as a serious artist I don’t think he wants to cloud his current career with his former one. That said, I was fortunate to get many previously unpublished interviews with Chris from fellow writers and so I feel I was able to represent him fully and accurately in the story. Sometimes, as with Bob Stinson, who sadly passed in 1995, a biographer doesn’t have the luxury of direct input from all his subjects. That’s where the work – doing the research to flesh out a three-dimensional character – comes in.
How did the firing of Bob from the band affect the relationship between Paul and Tommy Stinson?
Well, I think that in some ways, it strengthened it. They had to close ranks. They had made the decision – really Tommy had made the decision. At that point, it was “Do we end the Replacements or do we fire Bob?” That was the choice. Paul didn’t really want to fire Bob. His instinct was to just quit the whole thing. But when Chris and Tommy wanted to carry on, they were faced with the decision, “What do we do about Bob?” It drew them closer together. They were in it, as Tommy said, “Come hell or high water.”
How did Slim Dunlap’s addition to the band change the dynamics, both musically and personally?
Slim’s arrival saved the group in many ways. Slim was almost a decade older, wiser, and provided an element of stability in an otherwise chaotic situation. As Paul put it once, “we’re three loose screws and Slim is the screwdriver.” He served as a paternal figure to Tommy, he could talk sensitively to Chris (who was becoming more frustrated with his role in the band, or lack of it), and he was the rare person that Paul actually trusted and would (sometimes, anyway) listen to. At that time, circa early ’87 when he joined, Slim’s presence and personality was a really salve that helped heal the wounds the band had suffered with the departures of longtime manager Peter Jesperson and guitarist Bob Stinson. And yet, in his own way Slim was very much a Replacement – in terms of his suspicions about the music business and the nature of commercial success and fame. Musically, he added a different dimension to the band’s sound, particularly on their next studio album, “Don’t Tell a Soul.” Also, at that time, Paul felt his songs should evolve, move into different areas – more bluesy, more country, more dark pop – and Slim’s talents as a player, and his atmospheric guitar style really helped in aiding that vision.
After meeting with producer Jim Dickinson, Westerberg told him “I’m not gonna give you a hundred percent, ‘cause you don’t deserve it.” What do you think is behind this attitude and how did Jim react?
I’ll tell you exactly where I think that comes from. There was an interview that Bob Dylan did with Mikal Gilmore in 1986. Dylan was expressing similar thoughts about performance and his willingness to give. I think Dylan was talking about more in terms of putting yourself on the line for an audience night after night and how you can end up an empty husk, like Judy Garland or something. I think Paul often took his cues from Dylan in terms of how he wanted to preserve the mystery of what he was doing in terms of his writing and his music. I think it probably struck a chord with Paul because that’s an impulse of self-preservation. Also, the Replacements in general – that was how they operated. They would challenge people…producers, managers, whoever and who responded the best, or stuck around, was who they ended up working with. In that case, Paul challenged Dickinson and Dickinson responded really well. Jim had an ability to connect with artists on that level. Having worked with Alex Chilton, he knew someone who creates with the left hand and destroys with the right, so to speak. That’s why Jim was able to make that record and get a sustained performance and get a really great, complete record out of them.
During the “Pleased To Meet Me” sessions, you quote Paul as saying, “It’s been hard for me to do, but I’ve come to grips with the fact that I’m an artist. For years, I pretended I wasn’t. I pretended I was a punk. I pretended that I was a rocker, and a drunk, and a hoodlum. I’m not a hoodlum. I’m a fucking artist. And now I can deal with that.” What do you think this says about Westerberg?
I think that working with Jim Dickinson on that record, outside of Minneapolis [in Memphis] and the record company putting a focus on them, I think that forced him to face up to these things. That’s not to say he became a precious artist. There are other things about his temperament and personality that keep him from ever doing anything generally too precious. That was a moment, too, of him growing up, age-wise. By that point he’s 27 or 28 and he’s been doing it 7 or 8 years and I think he realized he wasn’t a kid in his parents’ basement
How aware is Paul of his place in the pantheon of great songwriters?
Very aware. I think he’s way more self-aware than he ever leads on. Again, he’s incredibly smart, intimidatingly so, and intuitive at the same time. That’s part of why they did some of the things they did is because he got bored, the way really intelligent people do and they have to entertain themselves by fucking things up or creating situations that are entertaining. On one hand, that self-deprecating side of him is genuine, but then there’s part of him that takes great pride in being a songwriter. I think part of him wonders why more people don’t cut his songs. Glen Campbell has done it and some other folks. There was a time in the Replacements career, near the end, where he thought well, maybe I can just be a songwriter and people will record my songs. He has a writer’s mind, it’s not linear and maybe some of it is jumbled in the way he processes things, but he’s a writer and a thinker.
How do you think Paul’s mental health and his open struggle with depression have affected his songwriting?
I think it’s another part of his personality – who and what he is. Early on in the band’s career, part of why he drank so much was self-medicating. It was only later after he was done with his major label career at Warner Brothers that he really started to explore that, deal with mental health issues and pharmaceuticals to treat that – he has that song, “Psychopharmacology.” It doesn’t come out in the music so much, except in the general sense that there are a lot of sad or depressive moments and a kind of ache present in a lot of his work going all the way back. I think it only came out in a specific sense when he did the record for Capital “Suicane Gratifaction.” That was really his “post-breakdown” record, written in the midst of his having his issues coming to a head. And I think he deals with his mental health issues and also his isolation of being a solo artist, a guy making his records in his basement in Minneapolis on Stereo/Mono and those other records.
When “Let It Be” came out in 1984, there were all these regional bands happening – in Athens, GA and Minneapolis. The Replacements seemed very Midwestern in their outlook.
They were a very insular bunch – even within the community they came up with in Minneapolis. As people, as a band, in terms of their attitudes, they were very much informed by their region, by their socio-economic status, by their religion. They’re basically blue collar to middle class Catholic Midwesterners from South Minneapolis. That’s a pretty specific identity. One of the great and interesting things about that Eighties period and why we tend to romanticize that time was that sense of regionalism had returned to rock and roll. It was present in the Sixties, got lost in the Seventies and came back with indie rock in the Eighties. There’s just something cool about that – the regionalism – it gives bands a distinct flavor – and for bands that were very successful at that time to come out of these smaller or mid-sized cities outside of New York or LA was kind of a cool thing.
What does Paul think about the book?
Paul’s been asked to comment on the book but I think he wants to let the book stand as its own thing and he’s probably said his piece. After the Replacements reunion and this book he probably just wants to get his head out of the Replacements world, he’s very happy doing what he’s doing with Juliana Hatfield and the “I Don’t Cares.”
He seems like he’s in a pretty good place.
How was the chemistry between Paul and Tommy during the span of two years of reunion shows?
It looked pretty great from the stage. I think they were both at a point where they were kind of at loose ends in their lives, marriages breaking up, and at points in their career where they needed each other again in a way they hadn’t…I mean, they’ve always been in contact, they’ve always periodically done stuff together, but I think there was more of a sense of how important they were – and are – to one another during that reunion. I think some of that was spurred by the situation with Slim Dunlap and initially getting together to do those songs for him. When you look back at the band – Bob is gone, later drummer Steve Foley is gone and Slim has suffered a stroke, how could you not have a sense of your own mortality and what it is you value over the course of your life.
Paul and Tommy have something that is unique and extraordinary and special in terms of the chemistry they have between them. Paul said they never even need to make small talk, when you have a telepathic connection with someone. What they have is instant and always there. Some people said the New York show was the best show – everybody I know was blown away by how good they were, how ON they were and how beautiful the whole spirit was between them and the crowd. I know they were really affected by that – like, “Holy shit, here we are, all these years later playing to 13,000 people in New York.” How can you come away from that feeling anything other than happy? Even Paul…
Todd McGovern is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY.