The Replacements Straddled Line Between Fame And Failure
When the Replacements got together for a long-wished-for reunion in 2013, I wrote: “The Replacements are the band that saved my life. Their songs were messy and sentimental and they came around when I was scuffling along in my life in the ’80s. As I listen to them decades later, I still feel like Paul Westerberg is wearing my heart on his flannel sleeve.”
Now that I’ve read “Trouble Boys: The True Story Of The Replacements,” Bob Mehr‘s excellent new biography (excerpt below), I feel that even more strongly. And I understand that in many ways the music I thought they were making for me was really for them. It may have saved their lives.
The band formed in Minneapolis in the late 1970s. They were all high school dropouts. Brothers Bob and Tommy Stinson on guitar and bass, respectively, drummer Chris Mars and singer, songwriter and guitarist Paul Westerberg found their sound when they rehearsed a version of the Dave Edmunds’ song “Trouble Boys,” hence the title of Mehr’s new book.
They released their first record, “Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out The Trash,” in 1981. That album features a song called “I Hate Music,” which includes the lyrics: “I hate music, sometimes I don’t. I hate music, it’s got too many notes.” That pretty much sums up their relationship with the music business over their career, which ended when they splintered in 1991.
The Replacements reached that point after years of brilliance and chaos, often playing drunken shows that disappointed fans while at the same time attracting them. Going to see them was something like going to a car race to watch the crashes. They often crashed. They were drunk for some of their biggest opportunities, including a coveted 1986 gig on Saturday Night Live, during which Paul Westerberg dropped a word you can’t say on TV.
Behavior like that doesn’t really make sense. But knowing now how troubled their families were, how Bob Stinson endured abuse as a child, how they were all affected by alcoholism, I can empathize.
Bob Mehr says Paul Westerberg was looking for desperation and he found it with the Stinsons and Chris Mars.
The Replacements fired Bob Stinson as their guitarist before they went to Ardent Studios in Memphis in late 1986 to record “Pleased To Meet Me.” Ironically, in a band you couldn’t always rely on, he had become too unreliable, thanks to drink and drugs. His hard life eventually caught up with him. He died from what the doctors called natural causes in 1995.
His younger brother Tommy, the brother Bob had tried to save from the sort of trouble he had gotten in by putting a bass guitar in his hands, told author Bob Mehr “who knows how much the heart can take? I think his gave up because he was tired.”
“We tend to think of bands as these idealized little units but of course there’s so much more to them, both good and bad,” Mehr told me. “Fundamentally we all love the idea of rock and roll bands, from The Beatles on down, these characters that become sort of like our friends. But there’s a whole other side to it beyond what we see and are presented with on the stage or on record.”
In this piece, I speak with Bob Mehr at Ardent Studios in Memphis, where the Replacements recorded one of their albums, “Pleased To Meet Me.”
Book Excerpt: ‘Trouble Boys’
By Bob Mehr
February 22, 1995, McDivitt-Hauge Funeral Home, South Minneapolis
The family made sure his sleeves were rolled up so everyone could see the tattoos.
He’d gotten them as a kid, after being locked up in the cursed halls of the Red Wing State Training School. His left arm said luv her—for Kim, his first girlfriend, who’d broken his heart. On his right arm was a mystery: his initials, with three arrows shooting in different directions. He never told anyone what the arrows symbolized, though friends would tease him that they represented the three things he cared about most in life: music, beer, and drugs.
For several days, local newspapers had reported the basic facts: Bob Stinson, former “lunatic guitarist” of the Replacements, found dead in his Uptown apartment. He’d founded the group, then been fired from it in 1986, when he couldn’t “curb his out-of-control lifestyle.” A couple of stories hinted at his troubled background: broken home, in and out of juvenile institutions, long-standing addiction problems, recent diagnosis as bipolar.
A syringe had been discovered near where he lay in his apartment. Given his history, everyone assumed he’d expired from an overdose, or even committed suicide. Later, the coroner’s final report would contradict the initial suspicions—not an OD but organ failure. Just thirty-five, Bob Stinson died of natural causes, his body and heart simply worn out. He’d gone to sleep and never awoke.
“When he died, he had a turntable in front of him, a bunch of records . . . a Yes record might’ve been playing, I think,” said his brother, Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson. “That’s the way he would want to go. He’d put a hunk of vinyl on and sit and listen and study. He was probably going, ‘Fucking A—this is great.’”
The tone of the subsequent outpouring—memorials and obituaries in Rolling Stone and SPIN, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times—was revealing. Nine years after Bob’s firing, and four since the group’s breakup, the Replacements were suddenly spoken of in reverential terms. They had become “legends” without ever really becoming stars, an epitaph as unlikely as their beginnings.
They had come together as the children of war veterans and alcoholics, from families steeped in mental illness and abuse, products of Midwestern recalcitrance and repression. “That held the bond in a peculiar way,” said front man Paul Westerberg. “We hit it off in ways that normal guys don’t. We understood each other.” Back when they got their first little flush of fame, Westerberg would say, as a cockeyed boast, that they were losers, that there wasn’t a high school diploma or a driver’s license among them. They’d never had any clear-eyed ambition or direction. They got as far as they did only because they hungered: for attention, for love, for sanction, for volume, for chaos.
The band’s music filled the funeral chapel that day, an insolent soundtrack for a send-off. Bob’s mother, Anita Stinson, had asked Peter Jesperson—the man who’d discovered the group and been their closest ally—to make a tape of their early albums. He felt funny about a song like “Fuck School” blaring in a mortuary, but you don’t deny a grieving family’s request. One by one, the surviving Replacements arrived: Paul, Tommy, drummer Chris Mars, and guitarist Slim Dunlap. This was the reunion none of them had wanted and all of them had feared. And there was Bob, still the center of attention, lying in his casket. When Westerberg walked in, “Johnny’s Gonna Die” was playing. It hit him square in the face.
Johnny always takes more than he needs
Knows a couple chords, knows a couple leads
He’d written those lines about the doomed ex–New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders after seeing him looking wasted and sounding brilliant at a concert back in 1980.
And everybody tells me that Johnny is hot
Johnny needs somethin’, what he ain’t got
“Bob picked up guitar, learned how to play a few rock songs, and then just beat the shit out of the thing for all the frustrations in his life,” noted Westerberg. “He was a lot like Thunders. In his hands the guitar didn’t scream; it cried for help, practically. We used to say Johnny made a guitar sound like an animal in pain. Bob had that too.”
Two hundred or so mourners filled the pews. Bob’s acoustic guitar leaned against the casket. In a quiet corner the Replacements gathered with Jesperson. The air was heavy for a moment. The group had fired Peter, then Bob, then Chris, and they’d sniped at one another in the press and in song lyrics. All of that was forgotten now.
“They say death brings you together,” said Mars. “I hadn’t seen Tommy for a long time, and I hadn’t really seen Paul for a long time. We were talkin’, shootin’ the shit for a bit. But it was bathed in this sad, sad thing.” Mars had done an etching for the cover of the memorial program: a Stratocaster with wings.
Bob’s mother had asked Jesperson to deliver the eulogy, but Peter demurred—he didn’t think he could get through it. The duty went to local musician–turned–rock writer Jim Walsh, who’d known the group since its early days. He spoke of Stinson’s great appetite for life and noted how un-Bob-like the occasion felt: “He would’ve laughed at us in our suits today, the pomp and circumstance. He would’ve wanted to know where the beer was.” Babes in Toyland drummer Lori Barbero, one of Bob’s close friends, sobbed through a reading of the Lord’s Prayer. Afterwards, people stood up and told “Bob stories,” among them the young musicians he’d worked with after the Replacements.
Ray Reigstad had played with Bob for five years in Static Taxi, the band that had given Stinson new life after the heartbreak of his Replacements exit. (“That was like his new family,” said Barbero. “They were all like brothers, and they treated him really wonderfully. It covered up the sore spot.”) “It was the only time I was ever laughing and crying at the same time in my life,” said Reigstad. Mike Leonard, who shared an apartment and a group, the Bleeding Hearts, with Bob for several years before his passing, recalled, “It was such a rock-and-roll funeral. Every musician that knew him was there paying their respects.”
Anita Stinson sat stoically through it all. She’d been gripped by terror when she got the call about Bob a few nights earlier. “Then that passed. I don’t think I got sad until, I bet, a month after the funeral . . . before the sadness and missing Bobby really hit me,” she said. As she accepted condolences and sympathy, heard and felt the stories’ emotion, a peculiar pride seized her: “As hard as Bobby had it, he did amazing things. He was loved by a lot of people.” Bob’s sister Lonnie would remember “sadness, because you’d always hoped for more for him,” she said. “And guilt, especially because of the way we were raised, what happened to us as kids, and feeling like I could’ve made a difference, or changed him somehow. And yet . . . there was relief that maybe his torture is over.”
“The one thing I know when he died, and that was pretty immediate, was that he was safer,” said Tommy. “He had a hard fucking time. He had a hard existence, just trying to be a human.”
Up front, near the casket, was Bob’s ex-wife Carleen and their six-year-old son, Joey. Bob’s only child was a quadriplegic with cerebral palsy, unable to walk or talk. “But Joe was always very receptive to Bob, and he loved taking Joe around,” said Carleen. “When Joe saw his dad at the funeral, he just reached out for his hand like he always did. He squeezed that great big hand of his. And when he didn’t squeeze back, he knew his dad was gone.”
A few rows behind, Paul Westerberg hung his head and wiped away tears. “I went downstairs for a cigarette, ’cause I couldn’t bear it,” he said. Westerberg had been vilified when Bob had been fired from the band; the pall was especially heavy now.
As he stood smoking, a couple girls who’d known Bob in his final days approached him. “They made a point to come down and talk to me. They said, ‘Bob loved you. Whenever he asked you for anything, he said you always gave it to him.’ For those girls to seek me out and tell me that . . . I was like, ‘Let the world think I’m a villain as long as I know what Bob thought and felt.’
“I knew we didn’t hate each other. We were close and I loved him. He was Tommy’s brother, but he was my brother too. And when he died, it all made us feel that much more vulnerable.”
As the service concluded, Paul called to Carleen. He leaned in and whispered to her in a broken voice: “We were just kids. We didn’t know shit. We were . . . just kids.”
From Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements by Bob Mehr. Reprinted courtesy of Da Capo Press.
Songs In This Segment
- “I Hate Music,” written and performed by the Replacements
- “Bastards of Young,” written by Paul Westerberg, performed by the Replacements
- “Can’t Hardly Wait,” written by Paul Westerberg and performed by the Replacements
- “Alex Chilton,” written by Paul Westerberg, Tommy Stinson and Chris Mars and performed by the Replacements
- “I Will Dare,” written by Paul Westerberg, performed by the Replacements
- “Left of The Dial,” written by Paul Westerberg, performed by the Replacements
- “Answering Machine,” written by Paul Westerberg, performed by the Replacements
- “Here Comes A Regular,” written by Paul Westerberg, performed by the Replacements
- “Trouble Boys,” written by Billy Murray, performed by Dave Edmunds
- Bob Mehr, author of “Trouble Boys: The True Story Of The Replacements.” He tweets @bobmehr.
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