IF YOU WERE a fan of alternative rock in the ’80s, the Replacements were a source of many delights. There was the Minneapolis-based band’s impassioned music: Fast and loose with punk and power pop tropes, it also served as a platform for frontman Paul Westerberg’s withered yet hopeful romanticism. And there were the quartet’s drug-and-alcohol-fueled antics: An infamous 1987 tour stop in Portland resulted in a torn-down chandelier and a couch pushed out the window of the Pine Street Theater.
The full story is deeper and more nuanced. But it hadn’t been meaningfully revealed until the recent publication of Bob Mehr’s Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements.
Packing six years of research and over 200 interviews into 500 pages, Mehr reveals a group of young men driven to escape desperate circumstances through music, only to implode under the weight of industry expectations and their own self-aware yet self-destructive behavior.
“A lot of what they did was fueled by their fears and insecurities and limitations,” Mehr says. “But it was also a little knowing on their part. One of the first articles published about them in a local music mag in Minneapolis quoted Paul as saying that the band’s goal was to become famous without ever becoming professional. This was the summer of 1980 and he was already predicting fairly accurately what the Replacements’ career and legacy was.”
Mehr’s heavy lifting lies in balancing tales of debauchery with a more sober look into the band’s often-tortured past. Nowhere is this more poignant than the story of the late guitarist Bob Stinson, who passed in 1995. A brilliant player with an erratic and sometimes volatile personality, Stinson saw the Replacements as a way to reckon with past demons, including sexual abuse and stints in juvenile detention.
“Bob’s life had really been portrayed as a caricature,” Mehr says. “‘Smoking and drinking Bob Stinson wearing a dress.’ I wanted to make him whole, so to speak, by making it about the really wonderful things he achieved and the painful things he went through to get there.”
Equally impressive is the amount of unflinching detail the author was able to pull from notoriously cagey Westerberg and bandmate Tommy Stinson, Bob Stinson’s younger brother. Luckily, Mehr had already built up a great deal of trust with the two when he interviewed them for SPIN in 2008, but he also says they “[wanted] to tell their story and [were] at a point where they were comfortable to do it. They exhibited a great deal of faith in me to tell the story and give me a look inside in ways that were unflattering and genuine. That meant a lot as a fan and as a biographer.”