The Replacements Get a Clear, Mostly Sober Telling

trouble_boys_book_WEBThere’s no such thing as rock ’n’ roll anymore. Sure, there’s glam, grunge, alternative, arena, emo, experimental—all of the hundreds of subgenres it’s been Balkanized into. But the rock ’n’ roll that embraced every style from funk to country and every misfit from stoner to nerd? It died with the Replacements.

The Replacements were a band that almost made it big in the ’80s, but never quite got to stadium size thanks to a mixture of bad breaks, bad timing and plenty of self-sabotage. It’s a compelling tale, and Bob Mehr does it justice in Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements (Da Capo Press, $27.50), a 400+ page account of the band’s birth, bloom, rise and… wait, how did we get down here?!

As Black Francis of the Pixies says, “Dean Martin had swagger, the Rolling Stones had swagger … the Replacements had swagger.” They also had Paul Westerberg, a gifted songwriter who could put the deft wordplay and incisive observations of a short story inside the thumping, reeling rhythm of a booze-sodden rock song. Oh, yes, the booze—that’s the other thing that made the Replacements unlike other bands. Theirs was a level of liquor consumption that would make Keith Richards seem like a sorority girl clutching her first wine cooler.

The drinking of the Replacements’ rock-star run does lead to some good stories. The boys play their early gigs at “sober house” parties in Minnesota—until somebody notices that the guitars have pot leaves painted on them, and the band is shitfaced. Gene Simmons wanders into a CBGB’s gig and the band jams on an inebriated version of KISS’ “Black Diamond” until he flees. They go on Saturday Night Live, get drunk with host Harry Dean Stanton and wind up staggering and cursing through their set with guitarist Bob Stinson in a dress—which got them banned from 30 Rock and gave Warner Bros.  another reason to drop them.

But the Replacements’ story starts and ends at the bottom of the bottle. Mehr documents the members’ backgrounds—all of them came from families troubled by alcoholism and/or mental illness. Founder and guitarist Bob Stinson fights both and gets fired from the band. Drummer Chris Mars flees to save what’s left of his sanity. And Westerberg eventually white-knuckles, cold-turkeys himself straight. Then there’s Tommy Stinson, “a 12-year-old who played guitar like a motherfucker” under his brother’s tutelage. He supplies many of Trouble Boys’ lighter moments, as the kid who spent his sophomore year of high school playing club gigs and being fawned over by groupies or the adult who, when Bob Dylan drops by the recording studio for a cold one, shouts, “Hey fucker, that beer’s two bucks!” at Mr. Tambourine Man.

The Replacements were a band that not only embraced contradiction, but also seemed incapable of existing without it. Their gigs were sharp, impassioned and life-changing or surly, passive-aggressive shitshows. They were geniuses on the edge of international stardom or they were incompetent born losers. They were a bunch of goofy Midwestern boys or they were a gang of arrogant assholes. This push-pull also characterizes their career: Throughout Trouble Boys, Westerberg constantly frets about why the Replacements aren’t superstar chart-toppers—but consistently piss off audiences, insult other musicians, alienate executives and make sure every step forward is followed by at least one step back.

While the Replacements may never have had platinum records or private jets, their influence lingers. Everyone from Glen Campbell to Lorde, Wilco to Green Day has covered the Replacements’ songs. Westerberg never wrote “the hit” he always wished for, but tunes like the punk anthem “Bastards of Young,” the pop gem “Kiss Me on the Bus,” and the acoustic melancholy of  “Here Comes a Regular” gave fans not just a song for a summer, but a soundtrack for their lives, and Trouble Boys supplies the story behind every note. ★★★★☆