In 1990, Minneapolis rockers the Replacements were in Los Angles recording what would be their final album. During the preceding ten years they had recorded seven critically acclaimed albums and played thousands of one-nighters, building a loyal and fanatical fan base, but mainstream success continued to elude them. As Memphis author Bob Mehr relates in his new book, Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements, the decade of accumulated frustrations haunted the band, and defeat was the mood in the studio when a surprise visitor turned up:
As the group was setting up, [Bob] Dylan suddenly materialized on the studio floor. “He just walked in and started talking to the band,” recalled engineer Clif Norrell. “He was saying, ‘My kid loves you; my son’s really into your band.’ You could see their eyes light up, and then Dylan goes: ‘You’re R.E.M., right?’”
That sense of absurdist irony, of victory swallowed whole at the last possible moment, is a theme that runs throughout Mehr’s thoroughly researched and skillfully written biography of rock’s most lovable losers. The Replacements—lead singer and songwriter Paul Westerberg, original guitarist Bob Stinson, bass player Tommy Stinson, drummer Chris Mars, and literal-replacement guitarist Slim Dunlap—blazed an epic and drunken path through the 1980s alternative rock scene. No other band embodied the archetypal appeal of rock’n’roll rebellion, the bratty-ness of punk rock, and the classic sense of pop songwriting quite like the Replacements.
Mehr begins the story by sketching in-depth portrayals of the band members’ childhood years in dysfunctional working-class families. The four were brought together by their mutual love for rock’n’roll and the desperate sense that music provided the only escape from a dead-end life of menial labor.
The two poles of the band are embodied in the personalities of Stinson and Westerberg. Stinson’s nightmarish childhood left him with behavioral problems and mental-health issues that only music provided a respite from. It also instilled in him a boundless, infectious energy and a willingness to try almost anything. Westerberg’s contrarian nature, sharp intellect, wit, and rebellious attitude bridged a seemingly insurmountable divide between deeply introspective songwriting and the spit and fury of punk rock. The Replacements seemed to be in a never-ending race to become the biggest thing in rock—or to self-destruct completely in a flame-out of catastrophic glory. The result was a career destined to fail with a mainstream audience while simultaneously producing powerful music and inspiring fanatical devotion among similarly-minded music lovers.
The band’s fourth album was a true artistic breakthrough that would eventually be considered one of the greatest albums of the 1980s, but its title was born from a snotty-nosed fit of punk humor: “We thought, ‘The next song that comes on the radio, we’ll name it after that,’” Westerberg told Mehr. The next song was the Beatles’ “Let It Be,” and the band settled on that title despite their manager’s objection—or perhaps because of it: “We did it pretty much to piss him off,” Westerberg said, and “just to figure how many feathers we can ruffle.”
Being a Replacements fan was to be a connoisseur of such dichotomies: monumental performances of powerhouse rock’n’roll contrasted with disastrous, drunken shows purposely aimed at pissing off audiences; albums that contained juvenile songs of pure punk humor like “Gary’s Got a Boner” butting up against ballads of transcendental beauty like “Sixteen Blue”; and enormous ambition paired with jaw-dropping examples of bad behavior directed at music-industry personnel who might have provided the means of real success.
Mehr chronicles the band’s career through in-depth interviews with surviving bandmates, associates, and family members. Resisting the temptation to editorialize or pass judgement on the band’s often outrageous behavior, he allows the story to demonstrate how the Replacements’ brilliance, ambition, and self-destructiveness all played a part in creating their reputation as one of the most influential bands in rock history. The resulting story is by turns heartbreaking, hilarious, frustrating, and triumphant—a combination that’s wholly appropriate for musicians who never became stars but inadvertently became legends.
Randy Fox is a freelance writer whose writing on music and pop culture has appeared in Vintage Rock, Record Collector, East Nashvillian, Nashville Scene, Jack Kirby Collector, Hardboiled, and many other publications. He lives in Nashville.