The Upshot: ‘Mats bio is also a requiem for rock and roll
BY DENISE SULLIVAN
Five or so years into the deeply troubled history of the Replacements, the band was set to make its fifth album and second for Sire Records at Ardent Studios in Memphis. On the eve of production, songwriter and frontman Paul Westerberg told producer Jim Dickinson, “I’m not going to give you one hundred percent, ’cause you don’t deserve it.” Dickinson, who died in 2009, was a Memphis music legend, a confidante of Keith Richards, Bob Dylan, and Alex Chilton with an arm’s length of credits dating back to Bo Diddley. He knew better than to sweat a remark by a smart ass kid from Minneapolis.
“When you’re making a punk record, you can’t do it without punks. I pretty much let ’em do what they wanted to do,” remembered Dickinson in Trouble Boys. The new and definitive authorized biography of the band by Commercial Appeal music critic Bob Mehr was written with the cooperation of Westerberg, bassist Tommy Stinson, and pretty much all the people of note (and then some), who worked with, slept with, or fell in love with the band, despite its best efforts to alienate everyone with whom it ever came into contact.
Faultily wired from the womb, like all true rockers from Little Richard to Johnny Thunders, the things that were wrong with the Replacements were precisely what was so right about them. Forming in the late ’70s, a time before rock became the domain of the pasty and privileged college set, problem child Stinson slapped a bass on his baby brother Tommy in an effort to save him from a similar juvenile delinquent fate. A girl, and there were always girls around, introduced them to drummer Chris Mars. Eventually, Westerberg, the child of an alcoholic with his own disobedience disorder, heard the din coming from the practice house, and the games would commence.
“It was the four of us. It was an attitude that made those songs,” says Westerberg in the book.
And what songs they were: The stories of “I’m in Trouble” and “Take Me Down to the Hospital,” are just a couple of examples spelled out in the book; there are plenty more. Whether the bitter tears of “Little Mascara,” the sweet romance of “Kiss Me on the Bus” and “I Will Dare,” the desperation of “Answering Machine,” the prescient vision of “Androgynous” or the documentary-like “Bastards of Young,” the Replacements gave a ton more to rock than it took. If they’d only ever made Let It Be, that would’ve been more than a merely average band contributes in a lifespan. Westerberg knew how to transmit the flavors and familial feelings of his bandmates, his love of girls, and his near-death, drunk, and o.d. experiences into part of the act and its lore, as well as into a repertoire.
By underground rock standards, signing to a local label like Twin/Tone was the equivalent of the big time. An embrace by college radio and an endorsement by Pete Buck of R.E.M. were bonuses (among the book’s revelations is acknowledgment of a fierce competition between the two bands, as well as with Hüsker Dü). Certainly the ‘Mats were the biggest thing out of Minneapolis since Prince, and they encouraged others, like Soul Asylum, to follow in their path. But five years in, around the time of a disastrous Saturday Night Live appearance and the period in which Tommy Ramone was booked to produce Tim, their major label debut, the wheels were falling off the wagon. Stinson the elder failed to show up for the recording sessions and officially got the sack in 1986 due to alcoholism and other challenges. The band never really got over the loss psychically, though his “Chinese guitar” was ably replaced by Bob “Slim” Dunlap, a guy everyone knew from the scene as an experienced sideman as well as the janitor at First Avenue nightclub (Stinson also found work there in his post-‘Mats years).
“Part of all our behavior was an act. But when Bob was gone, we were scared,” admits Westerberg.
It’s no spoiler alert to assert that rather than an auspicious career move, the Replacements’ major label years amounted to one hella hot mess. From debauched parties and torn-up tour buses, never before or since has indie rock had a band with so many tales of bad behavior circulating out of school. But on the printed page, the roll call of horrors is nearly too much: More is never enough and Trouble Boys comes perilously close to excessive. And yet, every last detail would appear to be necessary in Mehr’s ballad of a band so entirely unequipped for life that their story rightfully teeters on the ledge. Through the lenses of mental illness and shifting power dynamics, we follow the proverbial rebels without a clue from home, on to the road, and into adult life. It ain’t pretty.
While it’s difficult to ascertain a general audience’s metabolism for industry jargon and label personnel details, Trouble Boys is a time trip back to the heady days when bands definitely mattered and record labels kinda sorta did: The infrastructure for distributing, producing, and promoting music, for better and for worse, was still intact and the system generally was in service to its favorite players (when it wasn’t lifting the bar of financial return so high that nobody could win). Of course the rearview has a way of distorting the picture; nevertheless, the Replacements’ own story and its resonances qualify as American tragedy by any standards. Troubled behavior patterns emerge as members mature (or don’t, as the case may be); remaining and new players become alternately at odds and at risk on the accelerated track to riches, and in conflict with parental label figures, while most everyone save for a couple of truth tellers are trauma-bound to the past. Trouble Boys makes a very good case, without judgment, that there are no real villains here: We all and sundry are complicit in life’s drama, its dashed desires and crashed dreams be it of band, family, or career path; it happens to the best of us. And yet, if there is a sadder tale in rock ‘n’ roll, after reading Trouble Boys, I could not call it to mind.
“We were just kids,” Westerberg whispers to Carleen Krietler, Bob Stinson’s ex-wife, as the book opens at his 1995 funeral. “We didn’t know shit. We were…just kids.” For some of us, there is hardly any more that need be said. But for those in search of an authentic slice of ’80s music and music business history, this is the legit, horse’s mouth version. Soaking in a generation’s desperation for two decades, the Replacements wayward impulses, songs, ethos, and wild, romantic longing for something more is finally laid bare. The fact Westerberg and Co. were monumentally unimpressed with his gift for swoon-worthy words and high-powered melodies was all the more reason to love them: That they would more happily throw their talent into the rock and roll toilet than do anything with it was for some of us, the main attraction. Was that any kind of way to conduct a career? Probably not. But by all accounts they had no other choice in the matter. Absolution is pretty much out of the question.