the Band that Could,
By GREG BEAUBIEN Oct. 26, 2018
“FOREVER ON THE BRINK,” was a phrase that summed up the Replacements, the legendary 1980s indie-rock band from Minneapolis that wrote incomparable songs but never achieved mainstream success. That line, from “Someone Take the Wheel” on the band’s last studio album, 1990’s All Shook Down, can be taken several ways, and they’d all be correct: The Replacements were forever on the brink of stardom but also teetered constantly on the edge of breaking up, of losing their minds, of overdosing on drugs and alcohol, of dying.
For his excellent book Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements (Da Capo Press), author Bob Mehr spent more than a decade researching and reporting the band’s almost-rise and definitive fall. Anchored by direct quotes from Paul Westerberg, the Replacements’ singer, songwriter and rhythm guitarist—and bassist Tommy Stinson, among hundreds of other sources—the book recounts the experiences of a band plagued by bad timing, bad luck and deliberate self-sabotage.
From punk songs on the early Replacements records Sorry Ma: Forgot to Take Out the Trash and Stink to power pop and mournful ballads on the band’s later albums Pleased to Meet Me, Don’t Tell a Soul and All Shook Down, Westerberg delivered hooks and clever, ironic lyrics that expressed an underdog’s longing, rebellion and self-doubt. With its spirited—if not always technically accomplished—playing, the band brought the music to life on buoyant songs like “I Will Dare,” “Can’t Hardly Wait” and “Waitress in the Sky”; on the rockers “Left of the Dial,” “Bastards of Young,” “I.O.U.,” “The Ledge,” “Alex Chilton,” “I’ll Be You,” “Talent Show,” “Merry Go Round” and “Bent Out of Shape”; on the jazzy lounge numbers “Swingin Party” and “Nightclub Jitters”; and on plaintive acoustic-guitar tunes like “Here Comes a Regular,” “Skyway” and “Sadly Beautiful.”
The Replacements were infamous for their boorish behavior and the unpredictability of their live shows, which veered from brilliant bursts to drunken debacles. Audiences came to Replacements concerts hoping to witness chaos as much as enjoy the music. The band consumed massive quantities of booze and cocaine and seemed determined to prevent their own success by spitting in the faces of everyone who ever tried to help them—managers, record labels, radio stations, TV shows like Saturday Night Live, even fans.
Lead guitarist Bob Stinson, Tommy’s older half-brother, had been abused as a child and carried his psychological scars into adulthood. He resented Westerberg’s prominence in the band. Bob’s erratic behavior and addictions weren’t much worse than those of his bandmates, but the Replacements fired him before recording their 1987 album Pleased to Meet Me. Bob Stinson was replaced by fellow Minneapolis guitarist Bob “Slim” Dunlap, who would record and tour with the band until they broke up—and fell apart—onstage during an afternoon performance in Chicago’s Grant Park on the Fourth of July, 1991. By then, original drummer Chris Mars had already quit the group in disgust. After years of abusing his body with liquor, cocaine and heroin, Bob Stinson died in 1995, at the age of 35.
A book that will entertain and amuse die-hard Replacements fans, and then break their hearts
Mehr, a music critic for the daily newspaper The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, has written a book for die-hard Replacements fans that will entertain and amuse them, and then break their hearts. The exhaustively researched, compellingly written history of one of rock ’n’ roll’s all-time great groups will leave readers shaking their heads at the details it reveals. We see how easy the band’s beginning was—Westerberg took a demo cassette to a record store manager, hoping it would help them get a gig opening for a more established act in a Minneapolis bar or club, and was offered a record deal instead—and how hard, impossible, in fact, it would be for the Replacements to ever rise above their status as critics’ darlings and cult favorites.
Mehr gives us an inside look at the strange, drunken lives of the Replacements on the road, where even at their peak they were each earning less than $800 a month. Exacerbating their impecunious pay, Westerberg and Stinson developed a bizarre habit of ripping up or burning their per diem cash allowances. After the band crumbled, a flat-broke Tommy Stinson wound up working as a telemarketer, and Paul Westerberg moved back in with his parents and later became a playground monitor at his son’s elementary school.
Mehr occasionally gives us more information than we might want to know, such as the story of Bob Stinson’s ancestors or the family backgrounds of band managers and other peripheral figures. But the nearly 500-page book never drags. The Replacements’ story was one waiting to be told, and Mehr has done a fine job of chronicling a band that fans still love while helping make sense of its confounding legacy.
After all of their travails, craziness and disappointments, the Replacements “did leave a mark,” Paul Westerberg says. “We were a great little band.”