With the eagerly-anticipated Trouble Boys finally in stores and earning reams of critical acclaim, we sit down with the Memphis-based journalist, who holds forth on what turned eight years of hard research into a genuine labor of love.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
Music journalist Bob Mehr was about four years into his labor of love – writing the definitive biography on The Replacements, one of the most wildly underrated and misunderstood American rock bands of the past four decades – when the group surprised Mehr and just about everyone who knew them by offering up a proper ending to his book.
Twenty-two years after the Minneapolis band left the stage in Chicago’s Grant Park—a show that ended with them putting their instruments in the hands of roadies, who finished playing the last song as the members walked off—singer/guitarist Paul Westerberg and bassist Tommy Stinson took the stages at Riot Fest in Toronto, Denver and Chicago, along with hired guns Dave Minehan and Josh Freese. The sets were a little sloppy, but for those who had written off ever seeing their favorite band play live, it was worth the wait.
Energized, The Replacements went on a spring tour, playing sets across the U.S. that got better and better with each stop. They toured for the first time in Spain and Portugal, and as soon as it started, in typical Replacement fashion, it fell apart on stage one night at a show in Porto, Portugal, where Westerberg announced to the audience that this show would be the band’s last.
In the lead up to the latest split, Westerberg took to wearing different t-shirts on stage each night. When pieced together, the shirts spelled out the phrase: “I have always loved you. Now I must whore my past.” And for anyone who followed the band starting with their scrappy, punk rock beginnings in the early ‘80s and up to their uncomfortable tenure on a major label’s roster years later, it was actually a perfect ending to a very non-perfect musical career.
Mehr, who works as a music critic for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, lays out The Replacement’s story brilliantly in his new book Trouble Boys (Da Capo Press). Mehr was able to get just about every living member of the band (drummer Chris Mars was the only one to decline), former managers, producers, friends and family members to talk about the enigmatic cult music heroes. The result is one of the strongest music bios to come out in years, honest and surprisingly in depth. Mehr tells the story of one of the most influential American rock bands out there, that managed to serve as their own worst enemy, both craving and fighting widespread acceptance the entire way.
On a recent afternoon, Mehr spoke with BLURT—it should go without saying that the ‘Mats will always be close to this publication’s collective heart; we’ve written about them a number of times in the past, including this remembrance by our editor of the Let it Be tour, and this interview with filmmaker Gorman Bechard—about the genesis of the book, what he learned about the band, and whether he thinks the last one was really the last.
BLURT: How did this project first come about? Did a publisher approach you or did you bring this idea to the band first?
BOB MEHR: Yeah, I had some existing relationships with people in The Replacements and their camp and management and I’d done interviews with Paul and Tommy over the years. I’d met Paul in ’04 doing an interview for a defunct magazine called Harp [Ed. note: Harp was BLURT’s immediate processor, shutting down in 2008.], so I met him, and knew Tommy through Peter Jesperson, their longtime manager. And I had also done liner notes for the Rhino Records reissues, so I knew the band a little bit. But I first pitched the idea to Paul in a letter and I had dinner with Tommy and pitched it to him. He said, “Okay, I’ll do it if Paul does it.”
He might have been thinking that was his way out. But I sat with Paul in early 2008 for a Spin feature on the band and we had a long chat about what the book would entail, my approach and what I wanted to do with the book, and after that was over, a couple of days later I got the call that said he was in and thus began what would be a seven-and-half year journey. I sold the book in 2009 and have been working on it in earnest since then and finished at just the end of last year. It was a six-and-a-half year process.
I assumed Paul would be the most difficult to agree to this. How hard was it to get other people to talk to you for this book?
Well, Chris [Mars] didn’t participate and he was the only one in terms of member of the band who wasn’t involved. I had done some interviews with him in 2008 for the Spin story… I obviously wanted him involved, but because of reasons of his own he didn’t want to and had basically drawn a line in the sand between his past life in music and his current life as a very successful artist. But that just made it a challenge for me to represent him and make him a character in the book. It was a little harder, but you don’t always have the advantage of having direct access to the people you are writing about. I certainly didn’t in the case of Bob [Stinson]; he passed away some 20 years before. So it was just about making sure the story was told through as many perspectives, through as many sets of eyes as possible. Working on that is partially why it took so long. I didn’t want to put something out there that was half-assed or not the complete picture. That was really where the effort lay.
Was there anyone else that was hesitant to talk to you?
No, I think once it was clear that I had Paul and Tommy’s approval, the approval of “The Replacements,” everyone was pretty much in line. And I had done the liner notes for them and had been a music journalist for more than 20 years, so the people I needed to reach out to I already knew or they knew me… I talked to family, I talked to friends, former managers, producers, fellow musicians all along the way going from their childhoods up to the reunion these past few years.
I think one of the most interesting parts of the book was when they go down to Memphis in the mid-‘80s to work on Pleased to Meet Me and their connection to Alex Chilton. You live and work in Memphis now: do you think that gave you any more insight into that scenario?
To be honest, I’ve been in Memphis almost 10 years, but when I really started proposing the book I’d only been here a year, a year-and-a-half maybe, so I’m not a lifelong Memphis guy. I don’t know how much that helped. I know it may have for Tommy who had a really strong relationship with [Memphis producer] Jim Dickinson and then with his sons. I don’t think it hurt, but quite honestly I don’t think it helped much either.
During these interviews and your research, was there anything that really surprised you? Obviously not much about Tommy and Bob’s childhood has been written about before now.
There’s a million things from little funny factoids to really bigger picture stuff that was interesting. I think I found the perception that many had of Paul as being self-sabotaging or unambitious in terms of his career was partly true, what really struck me was that in the years before he found The Replacements how really ambitious he was and what a drive he had to first be the lead guitarist and then he wanted to be a singer. And to find a band that had the right energy and desperation and he, of course, found that in the Stinson brothers and Chris Mars. There was a lot of years for Paul leading up to The Replacements trying to figure out who and what he wanted to be and he was pretty relentless in pursuing that in his own way. The fact that he had a drive early on to find this special band that he had in his mind was a surprise.
Certainly understanding how The Replacements were viewed by the music industry in the mid-‘80s by the top A&R guys and the process by which they got signed was always presented as a moment of revelation; Seymour Stein saw them and signed them and that was it. But there was obviously a lot leading up to that and to understand how that process played out for a band that probably scared a few A&R people off early on.
And the third thing was what they were really like in the studio and the making of the records individually. Certainly the major label years were interesting because the record making process was more involved and there was more riding on the records and who they were going to work with; some of the producers that were thrown out there over the years, people like Glyn Johns and even Ry Cooder and all these names. It was interesting to hear the “what if” scenarios. Those are the kinds of things I found out that were most surprising to me.
The last couple of Replacements albums have always been polarizing, labeled by many as Westerberg solo records. In researching and talking to others about how each album was made, did you go back and listen to the records again? Did you change your opinion about any of them?
Yeah, I like all of The Replacement’s albums for different reasons. When you have a band that’s been together for 12 years that goes through as many stages and changes as The Replacements did… I don’t think they ever made two records that sounded the same. It doesn’t surprise me that they gained and lost some fans along the way, particular the last couple of records where the sound was a little different and the last record, All Shook Down, was more of a singer-songwriter record. I re-visited them as records and some of the recording sessions, listening to outtakes to get a gist of everything. I don’t know if it changed my opinion of any of those records, it just gave me a deeper appreciation of the songs. There’s just more love there when you know the stories behind the songs or what was going on with the band at the time the record was being made.
I’m assuming you saw Paul and Tommy last year when The Replacements reunited to tour?
Yeah, I saw the first couple of shows and four or five total which was interesting, because at that point I was kind of still in the middle of finishing the book. I hadn’t written the epilogue yet, but had been living and breathing Replacements for the last four years and at that point they were an entity again… They gave me a great ending to the book which I really didn’t have, coming full circle as they did with the reunion. They did a real favor for me.
Based on the final show last summer it seems like they are officially over, with Paul saying they will never play together again and Tommy mentioning they scrapped the songs they had been recording. Do you think this is finally it for the band?
You know, I like to answer that in an open-ended way and that’s my honest answer: I feel like the reunion went on longer than either of them had planned for or expected and it was obviously a tremendous, tremendous success on every level and I think naturally they have been doing their own things these past 20 years when they weren’t in The Replacements. I think it’s hard to resume a band like that full time. It’s never going to be the same as when you were 19, 20 or 21.
I wouldn’t entirely—and this is totally just my opinion, not based on anything else— discount the fact that they might do something together again in one form or another whether its records or a show or whatever. I just feel like what they have is so special and unique between the two of them and obviously people love and appreciate what they have together and the demand is there.
It’s hard for me to think you can walk away from something like that. But, then again, they did once for 20-something years. In my heart I hope they’re not done.
Below: author Mehr. Go HERE to read our review of Trouble Boys.