The story of the Replacements was about more than rock 'n' roll, and author Bob Mehr's Trouble Boys: The True Story of The Replacements makes that clear.
It's got everything you want in a rock bio — crazy antics, detailed history, extensive background — but it goes deeper. Unlike so many biographies, it's neither a sensationalist romp nor a staid, by-the-numbers history of the band, which teenagers Paul Westerberg, the late Bob Stinson, his younger brother Tommy, and drummer Chris Mars formed in 1979. It reveals the deepest inspirations that informed the music, walking a tightrope the way only the best rock books can: tempering empathy with insight, sadness with comedy, Mehr’s fandom with thoughtful, dedicated scrutiny.
"It's not just about a rock 'n' roll band; it’s a story of family, of addiction, of desperation, of trying to transcend your limitations and succeeding on one level and maybe failing on another," Mehr says via the phone from his place in Memphis, where he’s the music critic for the daily newspaper Commercial Appeal. "It wasn't just about reporting and telling the great stories and anecdotes about the music and the behavior. I wanted to know what was compelling and propelling them to do these things in the moment. That's a messy story. They weren't simple people; they're complex and contradictory guys."
Mehr's attraction to "messy stories" has inspired much of his best work. A native of Los Angeles, he got his start in Phoenix, penning a profile of the late Gin Blossoms guitarist/songwriter Doug Hopkins for the New Times in 1998, five years after his death. The piece painted vivid scenes of who Hopkins was — a difficult, erratic, melodic genius who was as funny as he was bleak, and the story was informed by those who knew him best. Not long after publication, at 24, he became the music editor of the paper. His best stories continued to be about music just shy of a breakthrough, particularly the saga of Tempe band Dead Hot Workshop, which signed to Atlantic Records for its 1995 album 1001 but fell short of achieving stardom.
"I have very rarely ever been in awe or starstruck or worshipful of anybody, but I was that way with Brent [Babb] and Dead Hot," says Mehr, who became a fan in high school. "Their story, in kind of a weird microcosm, being on Atlantic, having that moment and not really capturing it, informed my understanding of music and the music business, and I think a lot of that I took to telling the Replacements story."
From Phoenix, Mehr headed to the Seattle Weekly and the Chicago Reader before settling in Memphis in 2006, writing for the Commercial Appeal and British rock magazine Mojo. In 2008, he maintained his streak of writing definitive pieces on jangly rockers beset by hard luck, penning the liner notes for Rhino Records' Big Star boxset Keep An Eye on the Sky, documenting the rise and fall of the power pop group Big Star.
His attraction to these kinds of stories is matched by a dedication to deep research. For Trouble Boys, he conducted "as many as a thousand different interviews," talking to upward of "230 different people,"including revealing discussions with Westerberg and Stinson (former drummer Chris Mars declined to take part in the interview sessions, though Mehr interviewed him before writing the book). He pondered the book for more than a decade, and the actual writing took nearly six and a half years.
Trouble Boys digs up, examines, and explores the pain and desperation that fueled and ultimately undid the great rock 'n' roll band: the rough childhoods, the abuse, the addictions, and ultimately, the transcendent art created by a couple of guys who by all rights should never have made it as far as they did. "Death, jail, or janitor," reads a Westerberg quote at the start of the book as options should the rock ’n’ roll thing not work out. Over the book's 400-some pages, Mehr confirms that unlike so many self-mythologizing musicians, Westerberg wasn’t being hyperbolic.
Mehr documents the band from its youthful roots to the scrappy Twin/Tone Records era, during which the band established its reputation as a combustible live act and established the footing to move to a major label in the mid-'80s, releasing a string of classics for Sire. Like the band's songs, the book is wild and ecstatic, but also brutal. It opens, tellingly, at the funeral of Bob Stinson in 1995, following his death due to complications from years of substance abuse.
"It turned into a sprawling epic, but that's kind of what the story was," Mehr says.
Mehr takes particular care to unpack the reasons the Replacements never became hit makers like their contemporaries R.E.M. or Soul Asylum or the acts they inspired like the Goo Goo Dolls or Green Day. From the outside, it might have looked like the band stubbornly refused to play industry games or alter its sound, maintaining artistic credibility even as it fell apart. There's some truth to that, Mehr explains, but not the whole truth.
"I think the Replacements in many cases were stubborn and sort of prone to their philosophical and emotional limitations, [and] it came across to the general public as them preserving their integrity," Mehr says.
The real story was never as simple as "the Replacements didn't do X because of Y," he continues.
"I think Paul would have loved to have had a hit," he says. "My understanding of Paul as a person is that he's willing to do things, but ultimately on his own terms."
Perhaps more than anything, Trouble Boys is a book about timing. The author circles back to a quote in the book from Westerberg that the Replacements "were five years ahead and 10 years behind."
"They would have fit much better alongside the Faces, Mott the Hoople, and Slade a decade earlier, or their path would have been easier in the post-Nirvana boom of the early '90s than where they were stuck," Mehr says.
But time works both ways, and by the book's epilogue, the Replacements have embarked on a massive reunion tour, playing to festival crowds at Coachella bigger than the group did in the '80s (though Tempe got a rare club show at Marquee Theatre in 2014, after inclement weather forced the cancellation of their headlining set at the Summer Ends Music Festival at Tempe Beach Park). With young bands like Hop Along and Beach Slang proudly proclaiming their influence, the band's legacy as one of the all-time great rock bands has never been clearer.
"Who's to say all the things they did that seemed self-sabotaging at the time didn't help to create this legend, keep them romantic and pure?" Mehr asks. "Twenty-five years later, here they are."
Mehr laughs when asked where he's going with his next book. As far as the stories he likes to tell, this one is hard to top. As he preps to visit Phoenix on his book tour, Trouble Boys feels like the culmination of work he started here.
"For me, it's always more interesting to tell the story of a band that didn't quite make it or almost got there, bands who were so supremely gifted and beloved … but didn't explode into the mainstream," Mehr says. "For me, in kind of a weird way, the Doug story and early Blossoms story and the Dead Hot story informed my understanding and writing this book."
Bob Mehr is scheduled to appear Saturday, July 16, at Changing Hands Phoenix.
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