Books: Graduates unskilled

Bob Mehr’s definitive tome takes a look at the rise and fall of the Replacements.

The Replacements' Paul Westerberg (left) and Tommy Stinson (right) review ‘Trouble Boys’ with author Bob Mehr (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Replacements' Paul Westerberg (left) and Tommy Stinson (right) review ‘Trouble Boys’ with author Bob Mehr
(photo credit: Courtesy)
 They were legendary without being famous, a peculiar turn of events that in a perverse way typified their tumultuous 10-year existence on the rock ’n’ roll landscape from 1980-1990.
Unlike most teens who took up instruments, grew their hair long and played music as a hobby while developing other facets of their lives, the Replacements – Paul Westerberg, Bob Stinson, his 12-yearold stepbrother Tommy and Chris Mars – had nothing else.
They were misfits who found each other – ‘graduates unskilled,’ as a line went in one of their most enduring anthems, “Bastards of Young.” In fact, they weren’t even high school graduates, but rather dropouts who, without music, faced a future, according to Westerberg, of “jail, death or janitor.”
That jaded sense of desperation, a debauched Hard Day’s Night type of gang mentality, a general mistrust of authority and an inferiority complex (just look at the band’s name) that led to alcoholic acting out, defined the band as it made its way from the garages and dives of Minneapolis to national notoriety.
The saga of the Replacements, as detailed by Commercial Appeal music critic Bob Mehr in Trouble Boys, unfolds like a sprawling American novel that touches on everything from class disenfranchisement to child sexual abuse to the impact of alcohol and whether the American dream is worth pursuing. The linchpin for much of the drama is unhinged lead guitarist Bob Stinson, whose behavior becomes so out of control in a band without limits that he’s booted out in 1986.
Alternatively, the book stands as a page-turning psychological thriller chronicling the roller coaster decade that saw the band – in a philosophy described by Westerberg in the foreword as “controlling rage with humor” – bite every hand that fed them, blow every opportunity to hit the big time, yet still create moments of transcendence amid the madness.
The Replacements story would have been nothing more than a footnote in the annals of rock history, if not for the unlikely emergence of Westerberg as one of the all-time great songwriters and front men that produced a collection of albums that stand up against any American rockers.
The times when Westerberg, the Stinsons and Mars curbed their enthusiasm for overdoing the fun and substances, they could move worlds with their music.
While bands like Nirvana, Green Day, Soul Asylum and Goo Goo Dolls went on to reap the rewards on the road paved by the Replacements, Mehr reveals with painstaking accuracy and riveting narrative why it was inevitable that they should fail – and as fantastically as possible.
As chaotic and unbridled as the Replacements story is, Trouble Boys is focused, meticulously researched and thoughtfully written. Mehr writes with a fan’s enthusiasm and love, but also with a journalist’s sense of detail and detached eye. You don’t need to be familiar with the band or its music to be sucked into their world, but it’s guaranteed that you’ll be downloading everything they released by the time you finish the book.
The narrative of the band blindly zigzagging through the land mines of major label offers, terrorizing record producers with their behavior, alienating DJs live on the air, getting banned from Saturday Night Live in 1986 after a particularly raucous performance and constantly sabotaging efforts to make them fit into the mainstream is in equal parts hilarious and infuriating.
Their Brian Epstein was fellow Minnesota believer Peter Jesperson. However, despite blossoming in leaps and bounds like the Fab Four, the Replacements chose to remain in their own Hamburg until the end.
“We knew the show, and didn’t want to hear about the business. We were bound and determined to fight it,” said Westerberg, who along with Stinson, cooperated extensively with Mehr.
But behind the antics, the antagonism and the drinking, Mehr is able to reveal the vulnerability that was at the root of the band’s motives.
“One of the reasons we used to drink so much is that it was scary going up onstage… the funny thing is, people think you must have all this confidence to get up onstage,” said Westerberg.
Because of that lack of confidence, the band would rarely give 100% amid the fear of being rejected, and instead played the happy-go-luck clowns. Unlike most of their contemporaries, they were unwilling, or unable, to conform to music industry norms – refusing to make videos at the height of MTV-mania, eschewing set lists and often performing whatever oldie – from Frank Sinatra to Black Sabbath – crossed their minds.
When, in later years, the band did skirt with mainstream success and more radio- friendly material, it tore them apart and crushed their morale. A tour opening for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in 1988 made them realize that they could never play the show business game like Petty.
“The goal became simplistic and unrealistic, which was to have a hit. And that’s where we died. We weren’t made of the stuff that makes popular music,” said Westerberg.
But they were of the stuff that made great music that has withstood the test of time.
A generous afterword chronicles Westerberg’s quirky post-Replacements solo career, Bob Stinson’s drug-related death in 1995, Tommy Stinson’s long-term stint as a Guns N’ Roses replacement, Mars’s highly successful career as an artist and the debilitating stroke of latter-day guitarist Slim Dunlap, who spurred the Replacements’ triumphant reunion between 2013 and 2015, which finally confirmed their status as both famous and legends. The book ties up their story with bittersweet irony and rueful hopefulness, just like the best Replacements songs.
Trouble Boys – now a New York Times best-seller – stands along with the best rock biographies and does the Replacements legacy proud. It will suffice, at least until Hollywood gets around to taking on their spellbinding story, with Jesse Eisenberg preferably in the role of Paul Westerberg.