Book Report: ‘Trouble Boys: The True Story of The Replacements’ by Bob Mehr

‘Though he’d avoided getting a diploma, Westerberg spent a lot of time self-educating. “Once school was out, I could wear my glasses till my heart was content. So I’d go to the public library every day.” If he wanted to be a song-writer, he figured he’d have to study. “I forced myself to read literature, even if I didn’t enjoy it, as a mental exercise: ‘I have to work this muscle a bit.’”’

‘Trouble Boys: The True Story of The Replacements’ by Bob Mehr is one of those rare books that will elevate you. The Replacements were some hard nut’s to crack back in the day.   To research and write a book documenting their legacy would be a feat in its self.  Bob Mehr curated a cohesive story and succeeded in writing a wonderland of ‘Mat’s history any music fan would enjoy.   ‘Trouble Boys: The True Story of The Replacements’  will enrapture  you as it spins you a complicated troubling, deeply emotional and charismatic tale about four young men in the 1980’s who formed one of the most pivotal rock bands in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

‘Trouble Boys: The True Story of The Replacements’ by Bob Mehr will fill in readers about the darkness, neglect, abuse and mental illness engulfed by Paul Westerberg, Bob and Tommy Stinson and Chris Mars in their youth. Running away from their individual deep rooted familial trauma was a goal.  Starting a band was a natural escape.  Some would have abandoned that idea over time with the pangs of home life mauling over the purity of the creative work.  Instead the boy’s resiliency pulled them on a rock n’roll respite journey with a collage of issues thrown into the mix for good measure.

‘The leitmotif of Westerberg’s first songs was searching: looking for girls, drugs, jobs, rides. Others were written as tacit rejections: of school, authority figures, any kind of community ideal. “I can’t write happy songs, so I write about the things that make me the most frustrated,” Westerberg said.

Where other groups evinced a certain artfulness or tried to present an idealized vision of themselves, the Replacements were all rough edges and struggle. That was part of the attraction: watching them, you couldn’t help but root for the band.’

As teenagers during that time and nostalgically as adults decades later, The Replacements songs spoke of the band’s cultural esthetic and those teenage souls who listened to their music all over the world. They were beautiful epithets full of those ‘you know what I mean’ strife and ‘why me?’ carved in a tree hearts that had a definitive punk rock edge.  It was rock music only boys from a tough wintered working class background could capture and spit out in enduring tones.  Teen boys loved their music for the aggression and bang your head bedroom rants.  Teen girls loved their music because the boys were dreamy, their lyrics were swoon worthy and hey, who wouldn’t want to fantasize taking Paul Westerberg to your Prom?

Sweet nothings aside The Replacements were intense. They knew it and worked their angles from negotiating record contracts, SNL blunders, inter-band relationship cock ups, road rider requirements of the Class A state of mind and walking into drama before it was cool to say so.  As an early listener to their music, one may not have known about how all those moments chalked up to the slow disintegration of the band’s framework.  How they worked well together on stage but off the stage it was a free fall.   The Replacements were protective of their art but didn’t know how to protect themselves and each other prior to the proverbial ‘shit hitting the fan’.

‘“The Hüskers drink coffee before their gigs, always stick to their song list (they have little choice, their set is like an avalanche), and are always emotion-ally and physically fatigued after a show,” he wrote.

The Replacements . . . play don’t-stand-in-my-way rock ’n’ roll. Westerberg sings and Westerberg thinks and the other three disagree with him. Jesperson makes out their song list, which they never follow. Their set is a series of sprints, of starts and stops. Once in a full moon, they maintain a sprint just for kicks, or so it seems, and on that night there is no better band in America. And, they drink beer before their gigs.’

It didn’t end there. ‘Playing nice’ was something that The Replacements had a hard time even with their cohorts on the scene.   Brotherhood was encouraged, but The Replacements wanted to do it ‘my way’ with a full Sid Vicious nod.

‘One particularly disgruntled figure was Bob Mould, singer-guitarist of Hüsker Dü. The demo for the fledgling St. Paul hard-core trio—which also featured drummer Grant Hart and bassist Greg Norton—had been turned down by Twin/Tone just a few months earlier. One night at the Longhorn, as the Replacements finished their set, Mould found Jesperson at the bar. “Well, Peter,” Mould said peevishly, “I guess now that you’re involved, the red carpet’s just going to roll out for these guys.”

“I was probably annoyed at him,” said Mould. “Like ‘What about our demos? What about our tape?’ But it was one of the best things that could’ve happened at the time. There’s nothing like being spurned by the cutest label in town to make you really suck it up and do it on your own terms. That’s pretty much what happened. We ended up starting our own label, pressed up a single, and started touring until we found sympathetic ears outside of Minneapolis.” Twin/Tone’s rejection of the Hüskers and its support of the Replacements would fundamentally determine the paths of both bands, as well as color a friendship and competition between them that would grow intense over the next few years.’

Mehr also balances his book with light moments as he unearthed gorgeous snapshots from song writing sessions. Westerberg deliberately never published any of his song lyrics in those early cassette and CD liner notes.  Decades later, Mehr tells us in Westerberg’s own words what illuminated his craft and what inspired those gritty and stunning masterpieces.

‘During a gig in Duluth that summer, a tipsy Westerberg pulled Jesperson aside. “I just came up with the best lyric I’ve ever written,” he told him. “I can live without your touch / If I can die within your reach.” The delicately poetic “Within Your Reach” would be another “signpost song” for Jesperson, heralding a further evolution in Westerberg’s work. But he began to worry that Paul’s best material was going undocumented and would be lost. So, in July, Jesperson called Steve Fjelstad at Blackberry Way to book a solo session for Westerberg— without telling him. When he finally laid out the offer to Paul, there was a long, nervous pause. “Fuck yeah,” said Westerberg finally. “Let’s do it.” But he was desperate to keep it secret from the band.

On the evening of the session, Westerberg met Jesperson at Oar Folk to head down to the studio. Just as they were about to leave, Chris Mars turned up unexpectedly. Mars took one look at Westerberg and his guitar case and figured something was up. They took Chris into their confidence and all headed down to Blackberry Way together. There Westerberg cut a trio of tracks: a version of Big Star’s “September Gurls” that he made Fjelstad erase immediately; a rough sketch called “Warning Sound” (which would eventually mutate into “We’re Comin’ Out”), and an exquisite take of “Within Your Reach.”’

‘Within Your Reach’ grabbed suburban youth’s attention in 1989 when Cameron Crowe with John Cusack’s encouragement added it to the ‘Say Anything’ soundtrack film score. The Replacements were creating a place for themselves on the mantle of homes across America, Canada and overseas.  These boys had a story to tell that was rough around the edges but could keep your feet moving in a movie theatre and then feel inspired enough to go out and buy their tape because they were Cusack approved.

Listening to ‘Unsatisfied’ as a teen perhaps also created a soft image of innocence with dashes of school drama fraught in one’s young mind.   In one’s adult mind the emotional death of broken relationships and missed opportunities has the capacity to grate at the ears but still is rich in its intent.

‘“Unsatisfied” may have been inspired by Westerberg’s developing interest in palmistry. Every palm reader he saw told him that the lines of his hand meant he was doomed to be unhappy forever. The song—keening folk-rock in the style of Rod Stewart’s early solo work—was a testament to the band’s seat-of-the-pants approach. Westerberg barely had any lyrics, save for the “I’m so unsatisfied” hook, and improvised as he sang.

Bob Stinson hadn’t even heard the song before cutting it. “We ran through it one time. Then [Bob] came in and played along for about half of it. Steve rolled the tape, and that was it,” said Westerberg. “That one was really nice because there was no time to think. He played real well on that—reserved, but with emotion.”

Bob disagreed: “If we’d put another five minutes’ worth of time into it, it would have sounded fifty times better,” he complained.

Part of the song’s charm was its off-the-cuff quality, coupled with the intensity of Westerberg’s vocal delivery. Still, to its author, “Unsatisfied” is “one of the most overrated, half-assed, half-baked songs. It doesn’t have nothing but one line.” Perhaps it cut too close to the bone. “It’s about as melancholy as we want to get,” he said, “and [still] be alive.”’

Mehr blended a stable mix of the sweet and sour into   ‘Trouble Boys: The True Story of The Replacements’.  The juiciest part of ‘Trouble Boys: The True Story of The Replacements’ is a section that no teen magazine could have told you at the time.  Westerberg’s vices were well documented but his love affairs were quiet and were kept on the down low.  This proved to be a perfect recipe to lure a girl into his web.  Aching rock stars, burned, bruised and brimming with poetic notes.

‘Born just a couple hours outside the Twin Cities, Winona Laura Horowitz was the daughter of a hippie-beatnik family. She was raised on a farm located in the bluff country along the Mississippi; her godfathers were Timothy Leary and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The family left Minnesota for South America, then moved on to a commune in Northern California before settling in nearby Petaluma, where she began acting. She took her stage name, Ryder, from one of her father’s Mitch Ryder LPs.

An older cousin exposed her to ’80s American indie rock when she was twelve, and she went to her first Replacements show, also in the Bay Area, when Bob Stinson was still in the band. “They were very drunk, and pissing the audience off,” she recalled. “I had never seen anything like it. There was a sense of wanting to root for them.”

On set, Ryder blasted the ’Mats on her Walkman to prepare for scenes— ballads for the emotional stuff, rockers for the arguments. “Paul’s music was so important to me, so critical and seminal to my work,” she said. “It was this Salinger-esque thing: you feel like he’s singing directly to you and these songs are about your life.”

The Replacements played LA’s Palladium in the spring of 1989. That day Ryder bumped into Westerberg at the Mondrian Hotel. “I was completely star-struck,” she said. Westerberg thought she was “cute as hell” and invited her to the Mondrian bar. He drank; she didn’t. After an awkward silence, Ryder finally worked up the nerve to ask Westerberg about his songs, quizzing him about “Here Comes a Regular.” Their conversation ended abruptly when Paul headed to sound check.

Ryder and her boyfriend, Johnny Depp—then starring on Fox’s hit 21 Jump Street—saw the show that night. “I was dancing and jumping up and down, and he was sitting back,” she said. Ryder allowed that her fascination with Westerberg became a mild annoyance to Depp after a while.

Later that year, Ryder went to a ’Mats show in New York on her own. Afterwards, Westerberg walked her back home. “It was the first time we ever had a real conversation,” she recalled. “It was very, very sweet.”

Their socializing made at least one gossip column at the time. (The paper noted, falsely, that Westerberg was separated from his wife.) “He was married and I was with Johnny,” said Ryder. “It always felt like there was this secret-type feeling, like not wanting anyone to know. I guess it was because . . . he didn’t want rumors.”

The press would eventually begin asking Westerberg about her. “Wait ’til they hear about me and Phyllis Diller,” he told SPIN, annoyed. Nevertheless, the hearsay was torrid. “For years I felt I got this really bad rap, when in reality it was a handful of times of hanging out with him,” said Ryder. “It was not this love affair at all.”

There were glimmers of something more. “I definitely own up to having romantic feelings at certain points, but the timing just didn’t happen,” said Ryder. “Later on, Paul would joke and say, ‘Everyone thinks we had this thing. Why didn’t we just have it?’”’

If you are a fan of The Replacements, ‘Trouble Boys: The True Story of The Replacements’ will make you swoon, satisfy you and instantly make you check your smart phone to see if you can find their rarities on eBay to replace frayed tapes in your folks basement. If you aren’t a fan and are yearning for a music biography that provides a narrative that will keep you glued in far better a style than any VH1 Behind The Scenes  – pick up ‘Trouble Boys: The True Story of The Replacements’ for your Easter long weekend reads.  It will guarantee to keep you glued to your bar seat with 6 pints in tow- tops.

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