BY JONATHAN VALANIA In the Amerindie rock underground of the mid-80s, The Replacements, along with Husker Du and REM, formed a troika of indie-rock royalty that produced some of the greatest music of that decade or any other. Nineteen eighty-four was their annus mirabilis. REM released Reckoning, and Husker Du released Zen Arcade and New Day Rising. The Replacements released Let It Be, which despite the co-opting of the Beatles song for its title was in fact their Beggars Banquet. All three soon signed major label deals with varying results. Husker Du lasted just two albums, the uneven Candy Apple Grey and the overlong and underwhelming Warehouse: Songs And Stories, having peaked creatively with 1986’s Flip Your Wig. Come 1987 the band was history. REM would, of course, go on to global stardom before eventually calling it a career in 2011.
The Replacements released four major label albums of increasingly diminished returns before limping across the finish line in 1991, not with a bang but a whimper. (A reconstituted version of the surviving ‘Mats has been playing select dates since 2012.) None of this was truly unexpected by anyone bothering to pay attention. The Replacements were made to be broken. And they were good at breaking things: themselves mostly but also the will of their audience, their unshakeable bond with rock critics, their indie cred, the unrealistic expectations of major labels and the maxed out expense accounts that went with them, and on a good night, the ceiling on greatness. At the height of their powers, The Replacements were a perfect storm of glitter, hairspray and doom. All of which is captured, codified and contextualized in biblical detail in Trouble Boys, Bob Mehr’s acclaimed biography of The Replacements. Mehr [pictured, right], a music critic for The Commercial Appeal, the Memphis daily of record, and a longstanding scribe for Mojo, started working on the book thinking it would take a year or two to complete. Seven years, 250 interviews and 400 pages later, he has delivered one of the great rock biographs about rock greats.
Admittedly, I am biased. Bob is a friend and, in the interest of full disclosure, he quotes at length from a 2002 interview I did with Paul Westerberg in the book. None of which changes the fact that, as the book argues persuasively, The Replacements were — when the booze was in the seventh house and Westerberg and the Brothers Stinson aligned with Chris Mars — the greatest rock n’ roll band on Earth. Read it and weep. Bob will be at Main Street Music on Friday for a Replacements Rock ‘n’ Reading event with ‘Mats music from Dave Hause (The Loved Ones) and Frank Brown (Travel Lanes). “We’ll be talking about the ‘Mats and playing their music and celebrating the release of the band’s vinyl box set The Sire Years,” he says. A few weeks ago, we got Bob on the horn to talk shop.
PHAWKER: You did a great job on the book, my friend. Be proud. How did it come about? What made you want to do it in the first place?
BOB MEHR: Well, I guess my instinct was that as much as The Replacements had been written about, and romanticized, and thought about, analyzed and everything else, it still seemed like there was something very fundamental missing from their story, and that was answering the question of “Why?” You always hear about all the things they did: the chaotic shows, the drinking, the sort of antics towards the record company and the music business in general. But I never felt I got a satisfactory answer as to why they did all that stuff. And so the curious part of my journalist brain said, “There has to be some deeper and maybe darker reason to explain their behavior, and thus also explain why their career unfolded the way it did, and why their music was so potent and affecting as well.” So, I guess, the story was incomplete somehow, despite the fact that they had been written about and romanticized as much as they have and had over the years. I guess I kind of set about doing that, and I’d be lying if I said I knew exactly where that investigation would take me. It took me to a bunch of different places that I wouldn’t have expected.
PHAWKER: Why did they behave the way they did? And why did their career play out the way it did? I realize you just spent eight years and 400 pages answering those questions but…
BOB MEHR: I think the same things that propelled them, that made them great, that made people connect with them, were the same things that held them back. They were so much a product of their environments. Both in terms of a regional, cultural, socioeconomic identity, as well as their own particular environments— home lives, families, that kind of stuff. So much of that played into the fact that they found each other. I mean, these were four people that came from… each had things in their backgrounds that made them unsuitable for almost any other life. As Paul said, “There wasn’t a high school degree, or a driver’s license between us.” And that’s true. And I think that’s a kind of wisecrack, and a sort of self-deprecating thing to say, but it speaks to a bigger thing about the band. The thing that brought them together was a desperation of overcoming their station in life, and their limitations. And a desperation to do something, whether it was make noise, or wreak havoc, or be successful at times, which I think they did wanna be, despite all indications of the contrary. And desperation to just not be trapped by who they were, and what their circumstances were.
PHAWKER: Is it not true that invariably the best rock n’ roll comes from people who have no other options?
BOB MEHR: Yeah, and I mean, that’s why the first section of the book is called “Jail, Death or Janitor.” I mean, that’s Westerberg’s answer when I was like, “What would your life have been like without The Replacements?” You know, that sounds like a flippant thing to say, but it’s quite possibly very true in all of their cases, to a man almost. I think that creates a different kind of band, a different kind of energy, a different kind of end result in terms of a career and a legacy, than somebody who can kind of take it or leave it. Westerberg was looking for that from the beginning. When he quit high school, he was searching for a couple of years, as he put it, for guys who had the same desperation as he did. Who weren’t in a band for the weekend, for the chicks, and were gonna go off and be accountants and go to college. Nah, he needed somebody with the same burning desperation and he found it in Chris Mars and the Stinson brothers. He found it in the Stinson brothers and Chris Mars. In a sense, everything that came after starts from that moment.
PHAWKER: Hypothetical question. Wave the magic wand. I’m a 22 year old Millennial. Tell me who The Replacements were and why they mattered, Dad.
BOB MEHR: They were a rock and roll band that existed largely in the eighties, formed in ’79, broke up in ’91. Even though they existed in the eighties, they weren’t a band of the eighties. They’re almost sort of timeless in the sense, both musically in that they kind of came out of the slipstream between ‘60s music and ‘70s punk and new wave. That’s where they sort of formed, and were informed by the detritus of so much of what we see as ‘70s trash culture. If you listen to their records — those eight records that they made, contain multitudes from the punk and hardcore of Sorry Ma Forgot To Take Out The Trash and Stink, to the style-grab of Hootenanny, to the avowed classics Let It Be, Tim and Pleased to Meet Me, to the evolved singer-songwriter and dark pop stuff that you get on the last two records. There’s something there for everyone. To me, they’re the last great rock and roll band that came before the era when everything became so stratified post-Nirvana. They kind of are a band from another time that was out of time in its own era. I think that’s why they lasted. I think that’s why I’m seeing, and have seen over the last decade, so many younger people getting into their music in a way that I don’t think a lot of bands who are their contemporaries have that same sort of phenomenon.