In the very first chapter of Trouble Boys, Bob Mehr decoys his readers, rolling out the formative stages of guitarist Bob Stinson’s life in such granular detail that The True Story of The Replacements seems bound for territory as dry as a Wikipedia entry. As it turns out, though, Mehr has written one of the best rock bios in recent years, its readability equaled only by the wealth of information contained in its four-hundred plus pages. He should be proud of how he has done equal justice to both his subject and himself as a writer.
And it isn’t so much that once you start reading it you can’t put it down, though as Mehr recounts the inexorable dissolution of the group, beginning with Stinson’s ouster, he generates a palpable level of suspense. In fact, it’s important to take breaks from reading this tome, one large chunk at a time, because there is so much to process: the author does an absolutely remarkable job interweaving his own healthily detached passion for the Replacements with observations insight and analysis from bandmembers and other principals in this convoluted story, like Twin Tone records co-founder Peter Jesperson. A plethora of photographs capturing band members in and outside their musical roles acts as a prism to illuminate their individual personalities and the collective persona of the quartet.
In fact, there’s so much light shed on the various aspects of the true story of the Replacements, it’s remarkable how Mehr’s writing flows in such an obtrusive way. But his organizational sense is key: while it doesn’t quite become literally painful to read the retrospective comments offered by guitarist/songwriter Paul Westerberg and bassist Tommy Stinson, surrounded by depictions of their willful dismissal of assistance and support to gain the band the popularity it deserves, they nevertheless come to define petulance and immaturity. One of Mehr’s most laudable accomplishments in telling The True Story of the Replacements is that these musicians become far less than sympathetic figures, but they’re worth rooting for anyway.
Perhaps it’s the increasingly somber tone the author uses in describing their alcohol consumption that prompts the inevitable question of why no one in the band (or anyone close to them) confronted them with the truth of what they seemed bound and determined to do–sabotage their career. Or maybe Trouble Boys is simply a cautionary tale pure and simple, its truth lying in the recurring comparison of the career arc of the Replacements and R.E.M.: the latter band became not just the darlings of alternative music of the Eighties, but one of the most commercially successful bands of the era, eventually signing the richest major label contract in history (to that date) with Warner Bros, the parent company of the Sire boutique label for which the ‘Mats(as they were nicknamed by some female fans) recorded after four outings on the aforementioned indie label.
Given the two bands were part of the same generation, the contrast between Westerberg et.al. and Peter Buck and company couldn’t be more clear: the Athens Georgia band knew how and when to compromise for a greater good, while simultaneously keeping their other self-indulgences in check, whereas the Replacements flaunted their self-deceptive integrity as camouflage for their appetite for waste. In so doing, they deliberately alienated those who would support them, such as staunch WB label loyalist Michael Hill as well as, eventually each other. It becomes absolutely confounding to read of the continuously willful self-destruction which undermined the Replacements art, especially in concert, as well as their finances, especially taking note of the otherwise intelligent perspective of Westerberg, Stinson et. al.:–the latter two persevered in maintaining the group as drummer Chris Mars became increasingly estranged in pursuit of his passion for painting and, perhaps more significantly, as began to abstain from alcohol
Admitting to fear of failure, or more accurately, the fear of what success might bring in recent interviews Mehr conducted, Paul Westerberg, like Tommy Stinson and, in his own damaged fashion, his brother Bob, have all apparently reached some measure of self-aware clarity by dint of eventually facing up to their frailties in earnest attempts to transcend them. Ironically, Tommy turns into a highly-paid journeyman musician, going solo and becoming a linchpin in the latter-day Guns ‘n’ Roses, while Westerberg quit drinking, then went back to it, married to see the relationship rent asunder by his own dalliances, then discovered his solo career was, as the writer intimates, even more frustrating in its lack of impact than his shepherding of the Replacements.
That said, it’s all the more enervating to watch and imagine the self-protective comfort zone the group created for itself, instead of bringing to bear the courage necessary to face the potential fallout of real success. Willful immersion in drunken depravity remains comical only to a point, that crucial juncture perhaps arriving unusually early in this sequence of events when fate conspires to keep Westerberg’s prescient tale of teen suicide, “The Ledge,” from becoming the MTV-fueled breakthrough it seemed destined to become with the release of Tim, the group’s first post-independent label album.
By the time Trouble Boys is through, The True Story of The Replacements almost begs for a more melodramatic subtitle—except that its declarative tone suits the finality of the circumstances of the collaboration. Unlike his strained summary on the last page, as the writer, who worked on this book for over a decade, tries and fails to apply a coup de grace summary when, in fact, none is needed, Mehr patiently recounts how Westerberg and Stinson find their passion for the band reignited in preparation of expanded reissues of all their records, then proceed to summon a reunion tour ultimately fraught with as much collectively suicidal tension and bitterness as their original go-round(s). Emphasizing the Replacements abiding love of pop music in all forms—from Westerberg’s crafty composing to his inebriated disc jockeying on tour and their regular choices of cover material in concert– might’ve brightened the ending of the book, as much as it would the excruciating deflation of the latter days of the group in modified form, circa All Shook Down.
But that’s a comparatively minor blemish, because, instead of giving short shrift to the most recent activities of the subjects, as is usually the case with rock bios, Bob Mehr probes as bravely and candidly in the final chapters as he does in covering the early stages of the Replacements’ growth. In doing so, he make his work here not unlike that of the group itself, deceptively conventional and wholly successful on its own terms.