Roadie Bill Sullivan takes you into the madness of touring with The Replacements in “Lemon Jail”
“I was a stooge and a clown for sure, the punk rock’s Jerome to Paul (Westerberg’s) Morris Day, but I knew it. It was my act. I could pick up a punter and airplane spin him into a pile driver, or I could save a damsel from hapless frat boys in the pit, all the time mixing whiskeys, chilling beers, and cutting out lines.”
— Bill Sullivan, Lemon Jail
He was christened “Father O’Ruckus” by Paul Westerberg, who would also sometimes introduce him as “Spilly.” He had one of the hardest jobs in rock-and-roll throughout most of the 1980s. He was driver, roadie, security, tech guy, procurer of beer, liquor, cigarettes, drugs and floors to sleep on. He broke up rousing games of “Beer Baseball” to get the band onstage and he also spread stink bombs in the middle of mosh pits (at the request of drummer Chris Mars and guitarist Bob Stinson) to clear the show. He was responsible for getting the band from city to city, show to show, on time and as sober as humanly possible. His name was Bill Sullivan and the band was The Replacements.
Bill Sullivan was born into a strict Irish Catholic family and raised in the same Southwest Minneapolis neighborhood as Replacements members Paul Westerberg and Chris Mars, as well as Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner. After high school and a stab at higher learning, he worked as a night security guard at The Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis, where he’d run from bar to bar before work, seeing local bands. After a brief time tagging along with The Replacements and lugging their equipment at local gigs, he talked his way onto the band’s first tour of the East Coast following the release of their EP, STINK.
Anyone who saw The Replacements in the early days will likely remember Bill Sullivan: Ratty hair, ripped t-shirt, painted shoes, and mascara. Bill could often be found on stage with the ‘Mats – throwing kids off-stage, fixing gear or guest-singing (“If I Only Had a Brain,” “Do the Clam,” and Alice Cooper’s “Eighteen” were favorites). After the show and breaking down the stage, he’d be behind the wheel of “Lemon Jail,” The Replacements’ van (named by Westerberg for its reliability and how much time was spent in it) steering his way to terrorize the next town on the tour schedule.
His new memoir, LEMON JAIL: ON THE ROAD WITH THE REPLACEMENTS (University of Minnesota Press) is a rollicking, boozy behind-the-scenes glimpse of the band’s touring days. More so than most bands, myth, legend, and lore preceded The Replacements. Who better to sort it out than the most sober (ahem) person in the room? Relying on “some half-ass journals and itinerary books,” as well as his memory, Sullivan says, “the funny thing about these stories is, at some point, somebody I’ve run into will say, ‘I was at that show. That was fucked up!’”
I caught up with Bill Sullivan recently and asked him about his time traveling with the ‘Mats, and the kind of things that jogged his memory. “One time, my mom was doing a garage sale, so I brought some boxes of crap down to her house. My sister was sorting through it and she pulls out a Speedo that said, ‘Landmark Hotel’ on it. She said, ‘What the hell is this?’ I said, ‘Oh, fuck, that’s a good story!’ Kinda hopin’ that one didn’t happen!”
Here’s the rest of what he had to say:
PKM: What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
Bill Sullivan: My family was pretty religious. My old man, he didn’t really understand the youth culture. [He] wouldn’t allow me to have anything for a long time. Of course, as soon as he let me go to the record store, I brought back glam – Alice Cooper, Slade, whatever. Whatever I could put on the stack that could be offensive to everybody.
My brothers would make me wait in line to buy tickets and they’d go out and get beer and just before the show they’d come back and get in line with me. I saw pretty much every show in Minneapolis in the 1970s. I was 13, 14 years old! I got to see Tom Waits, Ry Cooder, Bonnie Raitt, Joan Armatrading.
I started to listen to more punk rock after high school. I went to college for a while. First, I was hanging with these Deadheads, then I started running into these AC/DC, Cheap Trick kinda rocker kids in Wisconsin. Then some kid introduced me to the Ramones and then it was just all over. That’s when everything just started to go…downhill, good and downhill bad.
PKM: What years did you work with The Replacements?
Bill Sullivan: I met them in 1981 and just started shadowing and helping, then the 1983 tour was the first one I went on – April 1983 when they went to New York. They started paying me about halfway through that tour. I worked with them through 1989. I didn’t do the last tour, that’s the only one I didn’t do.
PKM: With The Replacements, what were your “responsibilities?
Bill Sullivan: I started out just driving and humpin’, just doing anything I could do to keep people off the stage and keep the shit from getting stolen. Back in ’83 on the Bowery in NYC, 100 percent of people who walked by were trying to steal your shit.
Then eventually I was forced into doing guitars when (friend and fellow roadie) Carton left in the middle of a tour. So I had to take a crash course on guitars that were being thrown at my head, broken over knees and whatever the hell else happened to them. I wasn’t that great at it, but I knew I had reached a certain level one day in Texas when Alex Chilton broke a string and he walked over and he said, “You may change my string, but do not attempt to tune it!” I was like, “You’re lettin’ me change a string?” That’s pretty good for Alex! [Laughter] But I was never all that good at it.
I was literally on the stage most of the time. Not on the side of the stage. I was on the fuckin’ stage. I was pushing rats back off the monitors, I was fuckin’ picking up crap, replacing cables.
I did the drums for Chris Mars. I stage-managed. As they got bigger, I did one tour of tour managing. I got fired. You know, sometimes you can’t be the guy to police your friends. I had already spent years in the belt of their mischief, you know.
PKM: Young bands who tour constantly are known to play anywhere they can – house parties, VFW halls, community centers, etc. What are a few of the stranger places the ‘Mats played?
Bill Sullivan: In Indianapolis, we played a closed Taco Bell. It had gone out of business. I remember thinking, “How does a Taco Bell go out of business, man? What kind of place is this?” We’d pick up shows at clothing stores. We’d play outdoors at colleges in some common outdoor area, just standing on these bricks in the hot sun in the middle of Southern California, with people walking by.
The band had a lot of friends. They had fans that would show up everywhere. I tell some stories about nobody showing up, but that’s because they just weren’t smart bookings. Pretty much people came everywhere. They’d go out of their way to see the band. Some venues back then were very weird spots – like Sloss Furnaces in Birmingham, Alabama. That was an interesting venue back then. Now, 30 years later, it’s a national landmark. Another was Liberty Lunch in Texas. They had no walls, no ceiling, just plastic hanging everywhere, fires in big old oil barrels, portable heaters to keep people warm. I had to put shows in warehouses and clock museums and wherever, cuz…It’s rock and roll man.
PKM: How did the band interact with the audience?
Bill Sullivan: You never really knew for sure what the mood was. You try to read people’s moods; I’d try to. The ‘Mats love to be in the crowd, man. I know most bands like to be closer, but these guys really loved to be in the crowd.
In the early days, everybody in the audience were friends of the band and it was a lot of fun. People danced and had fun. The band was like knee deep in it, the stage was low. I used to stand right in front of the monitors and hold the monitors tight so that Paul could just sing and not have to worry about getting his teeth knocked out. Then later on, everything got trendy. Pretty soon, there’s college guys who didn’t make the football team out there in the mosh pit, thinking, “Oh, this is fun,” and they’d mix it up out there.
PKM: What was it like for the band when they became more popular and played larger venues?
Bill Sullivan: That was the biggest problem because all those venues keep the band far away from the crowd. That would set them off if they couldn’t interact with the crowd. But sometimes interacting with the crowd would set them off. You never quite knew what was going to set them off!
In the book I tell a story about a show in Rochester when the stage was so high. It was the new tour manager’s first day, as well as a couple other people on the tour. I drove all the gear out and met them all in Rochester. I walk in and see the height of the stage and said, “Are you serious.” They’re like, “Yeah, it’ll be fine.” I said, “OK, then.” I went to the music store and bought the longest length of cables they had and adapters and connecters of cables. I walked back and I connected everything up. I had about 40 ft. of guitar cable for everybody. I sat there quietly. Just before they went on, Westerberg said, “I want to play in the crowd.” I said, “No problem, go out that door there, you’ll walk out behind the barricade, I’ll lower your guitars down to you and I’ll tell Chris what songs you’re playing and flip the switches.
They went down in the crowd and as you can imagine, the place got DESTROYED. I pulled the guitars up. I’d taped the cables in there real good. Right when they went on, I turned to the tour manager and said, “Go get as much money as you can towards the guarantee cuz this is gonna be a mess!” I pulled up the van to the back door and when the band walked off stage, I handed the tour manager the keys and said, “Get out of here, see you at the next gig!”
They all hopped in the van and drove away.
The beauty was, I was just the dumb roadie. I had 5 guys with me and it was all their first day, we just loaded our stuff and got out of there. It’s like I said, sometimes you just knew something was gonna happen, but you didn’t know what. You had to be prepared for a lot of things. I had a little table if Paul wanted to sit at a table with a bottle of wine and sing to a girl. I had pillows if Paul wanted to lie down onstage and sing lying down on his back. I never really knew what he was gonna do.
“The Replacements’ mosh pits were like saloon brawls in a cowboy movie.”
PKM: What was your relationship like with Bob Stinson?
Bill Sullivan: Bob wasn’t someone I hung out with a lot. I roomed with him a lot, but that’s not the same as hanging out. He tried pretty hard for a while. I told some Bob stories. I hope I got across how much he loved rock and roll and what a joy he was when he was being that way. He wasn’t the kind of guy who didn’t take things seriously. He was taking it pretty seriously. There’s no reason to dig too deeply into tearing up Bob, that’s for sure.
PKM: If I had to pick one performance that sums up The Replacements in all their ragged glory, it would have to be their infamous performance on Saturday Night Live in January 1986 that got them banned from the show. What the hell happened?
Replacements play “Bastards of Young” on Saturday Night Live:
Bill Sullivan: It [the environment] was not their…what’s the word, milieu? It’s difficult to be a rock and roll band and perform on a TV show. The Replacements were natural. They did what they did, naturally. A lot of people can’t do that. They got up in front of those cameras and all those people, and what you saw was what you got!
People remember that show in different ways. I don’t remember anybody being too happy with our volume or our behavior. There is so much down time on those shows – a lot of sitting around waiting, which leads to a lot of boredom. Plus, SNL had a lot of rules and we just weren’t very good at rules. We just got banned for being ourselves. It just happened, man. It just happened!
PKM: If memory serves me, the host, Harry Dean Stanton, appeared a bit intoxicated also, no?
Bill Sullivan: As you can imagine, the band got along really well with Harry Dean. Sam Kineson was also on that show. I’ll tell you, Sam Kineson and Bob Stinson in the same room, that’s uh, a disaster waiting to happen.
The Replacements play “Kiss Me on the Bus,” on Saturday Night Live, 1986:
PKM: The ban didn’t last long. In 1993, Paul Westerberg was invited back to SNL as the musical guest shortly after the release of 14 Songs. Charlton Heston was the guest host. At the end of the show when they sign off, Moses himself thanks Paul. What does Paul do? He coughs into his hand, then uses that same hand to shake Heston’s.
Bill Sullivan: Yeah, Paul had a lot of affectations of respect and disrespect for people. But still, people tend to like him and want to talk to him. People come up to me and tell me they think he’s an asshole. My feeling is that to be able to write and to do what he’s done, he’s not the same person as the guy on the street, man. That’s just the way it is.
I hear all the time from people I know, “how can you take that shit from him” Or “her” or “them.” I say, “I’m not takin’ shit, It’s just the job I got hired to do and this is the way I have to do it, cuz this is how they are.” The bottom line is get to the end of the tour and keep it under budget, and as long as I keep doing that, I keep workin’. If it gets too much for you, move on to a different artist. Personally, I like to be there when bands are breaking, you know –the rush of being there when The Replacements were breaking, when Soul Asylum was breaking, when Bright Eyes were breaking. To be there when the throng is at its loudest, not the biggest crowd the band’s gonna play for but they’re definitely the loudest.
PKM: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about Jefferson’s Cock! What were the origins of the band and where did the name come from?
Bill Sullivan: Paul came up with the name of the band. Jefferson’s Cock was me and Paul and then Tommy and Carton were in it a couple times and Chris a couple times. If we had a day off between shows, Jefferson’s Cock might play a [surprise] show. It was a way to get free drinks. Paul loved The Dolls and Thunders and all that, so we thought putting on make-up and dresses and playing covers that punk rock band covered would be fun.
Yeah, The Cock! We played for free drinks.
PKM: Can you talk about Tom Petty’s one-time appearance in Jefferson’s Cock?
Bill Sullivan: We got onstage at some club and Petty and Benmont Tench got up with us and we did that Cherokee Nation song. It was really one of our better tunes, thankfully. We never really had keyboards on it before so having Benmont Tench jam the keyboards? That’s some serious juice, baby!
PKM: Were The Replacements taken seriously by the record industry?
Bill Sullivan: I think the band was taken seriously, professionally…especially Paul. But I didn’t tell the story of when club owners turned the power off at a number of their shows. I mean, if you think turning the power off on a band is treating them like they’re welcome or respected.…I ran a club for 20 years. Bands like the Brian Jonestown Massacre used to play past hours and I’d be told to turn the power off and I’d be like, “You gotta fuckin’ be kidding me man, I’m not turning the power off!”
The Replacements were not just a regular band, they were budding stars. People were approaching them early on.
PKM: What made you leave The Replacements?
Bill Sullivan: Oddly enough, Soul Asylum had a tour and I was gonna make the switch to tour managing anyway. I was doing both bands. It was the first time I had anything that was gonna overlap. I had to make a choice. It was when [Soul Asylum’s] And The Horse They Rode In On came out. Dan Murphy called me up and said they were starting up a tour with shows in Chicago in a couple weeks, do you wanna come. I was like “Damn, straight.” Then later, the whole “Runaway Train,” thing happened and it was just nuts.