Trouble Boys: Mehr and Jesperson Discuss
“Trouble Boys. The True Story Of The Replacements” Bob Mehr
Da Capo Press 2016 (hardback)
“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.”
Reading Bob Mehr’s exhaustive new book on The Replacements has made me reflect on the price our musical heroes pay for their fame and fortune – or in this case for their semi-obscurity and poverty. Mehr goes through the early lives of the band in forensic detail and is excellent at identifying how their family life had a massive influence on how their “career” has played out. Drummer Chris Mars seems to have had a reasonably stable upbringing and accordingly seems relatively unscathed – he is now a successful artist with no involvement with music. However for guitarist / singer / songwriter Paul Westerberg, bassist Tommy Stinson and guitarist Bob Stinson early-life trauma has lead to long-term problems with relationships, alcohol and drugs, with Bob dying tragically young as a result. Maybe happy, secure, well-adjusted, emotionally resilient individuals don’t form groups (or maybe they do and turn into Dire Straits or Level 42 or someone else equally unlistenable). The uncomfortable reality is that my record collection is peopled with screwed-up individuals who self-medicated themselves into oblivion and/or an early grave but made some fine rock’n’roll along the way.
Long-term Mats fan Mehr had a suspicion that the bands early lives were crucial. “I had a sense, instinctively, that there was more to the band’s personal stories that would shed light on their music and career. That was part of why I wanted to write the book in the first place. People so often talk about the Replacements’ wild behavior and self-destructive actions – they’ve been glorified and vilified in equal measure for that. But I felt like no one had really asked “why?” Why did they do what they did? Why did they live they way they did? So for me, I wanted to know the answer to that, and I sensed that I would find what I was looking for in their childhoods, formative years and early backgrounds. I didn’t know how deep and dark and difficult the story would be, but I was prepared to find out.”
This was only possible because Mehr took his time. “When I first sold the book to Da Capo in 2009, my editor there asked ‘How long do you think it will take?’ I told him, with undue confidence, ‘Two years – a year to research and a year to write.’ In the end it took me closer to seven years. But, as the saying goes, ‘Man makes plans and God laughs.’ The only disadvantage to the long gestation period was the pain I put my poor editor through with endless requests for deadline extensions. I think, however, that the book itself benefited tremendously from all the years of research and trust building that occurred between myself, the band, their families and the various other key principals in the story. Because I was able to develop relationships with them over time, and do such deep and ongoing research, I believe it prompted everyone to give of themselves – in terms of honesty and genuine reflection – just as seriously. Hence, why I think the book is such a penetrating portrait: the credit is really due to all those who decided to speak, often for the first time, about their lives with such depth and candour.’
The other consequence of so much research is that this is a lengthy read by rock bio standards – 474 pages. Did Mehr come under any pressure from publisher Da Capo to shorten the book? “The book certainly was much longer in its first draft – if you can believe that – than the finished version. That’s probably not an uncommon situation for a narrative biography. A writer’s tendency, having done all the research, is to want to show all that work off. Often that instinct doesn’t serve the bigger purpose of the narrative. I was fortunate to have great editors – including fellow author Michaelangelo Matos (a native Minnesotan, who penned the essential dance music history “The Underground is Massive”), who helped cut from the original longer manuscript without losing the essence of the book. In the end, everything that was important or critical to understanding the Replacements’ journey remained in the book. There were a selection of end notes that I had to cut at the last minute – these were more tangential, anecdotal or simply fun facts that were lost for the sake of space. But I’m hoping to include/restore them as ‘bonus material’, should there be a paperback edition.”
This is actually the third book on the Replacements, the first two (All Over But the Shouting: An Oral History / Waxed Up Hair And Pointed Shoes) having been written by Jim Walsh. What does Mehr make of them? “Jim is a good writer, friend and helped on my project, providing interview material and support. I think he was bold in that he made the first attempt to tell the band’s story with his oral history. Probably anyone who tried to do it first was going to be met with some combination of suspicion and derision from Paul and the group regardless of what the finished product was like. I think All Over was a legitimate effort to tell the story from Walsh’s particular perspective – that of a Minnesotan and contemporary of the band’s (Walsh’s own group REMs shared bills with the Replacements early on). But, obviously, I had the added advantage of the band’s participation and many years to develop the story as a narrative history.”
Mehr challenges, or at least re-positions, some of the key incidents in Walsh’s books, notably the alleged “take a drink or get off my stage” altercation between Westerberg and a newly-sober Bob Stinson. “I don’t refute that the incident itself took place. What I was trying to correct was the chronology and actual relevance of the incident, which was misreported and misunderstood. I had to do that with many episodes in the band’s history. In telling Bob Stinson’s story it was crucial for people to realize that his life and death were far greater and more complex than anything that happened in the Replacements or on a stage somewhere. I wanted to humanize him, to make him whole, so that people could grasp what a tragic and in many ways triumphant life he led during his 35 years.”
First Replacements manager Peter Jesperson was another key figure whose personal struggles are described in great detail here. “Peter Jesperson was absolutely key in making this project possible from the very beginning. And yes, the book does get into some difficult, often painful aspects of his life and personal history. That was a sacrifice on his part, but I believe that his love for the band, and his desire to give people a better understanding of their creative contributions and legacy, was more important to him than anything. Peter is that sort of person: he’s a true believer in music and in the Replacements, so I feel he’s happy or proud of the book, even though it’s a probably a difficult read in some ways, because it cuts so close to the bone. I would say the reactions from Paul and Tommy have been much the same. Tommy was particularly gratified – “inspired” was his word – about the first section of the book (which is all I know he’s read for certain), and how I dealt with the very sensitive Stinson family history and his relationship with Bob and the early roots of the band. Paul read the whole book – or so he told me. I would never use the word “pleased” to describe Paul – and, honestly, I don’t think normal emotional responses could possibly apply to seeing your entire life, including the very woolly years of your 20s, described in such detail. But as a reader and student of biographies and history, I think Paul understands what my job was and that I took my responsibility seriously. And that I tried to give the band a book worthy of the band’s legacy”
How about a movie, maybe along the lines of the Runaways pic? “I don’t have any expectation that this story will make it to the screen, big or small. It’s probably too tough and complex a tale to be given a Hollywood treatment. I would love to see someone like Andrew Dominik direct – I think he could make a very exciting rock and roll film. Casting the parts would be the toughest aspect – as I can’t think of any working actors offhand who have the requisite charm and humor and danger in them to accurately portray the Replacements. That’s kind of what makes the band so great – they were more charismatic and exciting than any actor could ever be.”
What did Mehr think of the Replacements reunion tour? “I went to a handful including the first show at Riot Fest in Toronto in 2013, and the band’s big Twin Cities’ homecoming at Midway Stadium. I was there both as a fan and their biographer. But having those dual roles did nothing to diminish my enjoyment. Each of the shows I saw was fantastic for different reasons. I think the most remarkable thing about the reunion is that the Replacements did not diminish their legend at all, but actually enhanced it. That’s a neat trick for any group to pull off, especially after 20-plus years away.”
These days does Mehr prefer Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson solo or as part of the Mats ? “Oh, I find everything each of them does fascinating on a musical and personal level – particularly after the experience of becoming the ‘Mats biographer. I feel towards Westerberg as I do Dylan — I’m always curious and excited for anything he puts out. Even if I don’t ultimately love it, it’s still infinitely interesting to me to see where his muse and music go. Tommy is someone who deserves far more credit for his music and songwriting than he gets. The Bash & Pop record and the Perfect LP (which I have the original 1996 mix, which I prefer to the belatedly released and remixed version) are among my most beloved albums. I’m very eager to hear his next solo record – which based on some early material I’ve heard – is shaping up to be his absolute masterpiece.”
So what’s next ? “I think it’s evident, given Paul’s work with Juliana Hatfield in the I Don’t Cares and Tommy’s solo efforts, that the Replacements are on hold for the time being. But my gut sense – and it’s pure speculation – is that there might be more to their story yet. As for me, given the years I spent writing the book, I feel duty bound to promote it, with events and appearances for the balance of this year at least. Then I’ll look to get started on my next project. Frankly, I’ll have a hard time finding a subject as rich, colorful and fascinating as the Replacements. They’re a tough act to follow.”
The Replacements Fan Questionnaire, completed by Bob Mehr and Peter Jesperson
- Favourite LP
Mehr “I’ll go with Tim – it was the record that hit me hardest during my teen years, and which remains closest to my heart (and contains some of Westerberg’s finest songs). Though I have soft spot for the sheer musical and stylistic abandon of Hootenanny as well.”
Jesperson “My favourite Mats LP is Let It Be, though I love all of the first four, from top to bottom”
- Favourite Gig
Mehr “The first reunion show in Toronto. Having, at that point, been working on the book for several years, to suddenly be whisked to Canada, and be standing side stage as the band came back to life before my very eyes was a truly surreal and remarkable experience.”
Jesperson “So hard to pick a favourite gig, I saw them play hundreds of times, there were so many phenomenal ones … on the nights they did the brilliant shows they were capable of, I didn’t think it possible there was a better rock & roll band on the planet at that moment. A couple of shows that stand out to me are – one, in 1982, the Mats were opening for the premier Twin/Tone band of the day, The Suburbs, at my old high school. I was standing with one of my former English teachers and the school Principal when the band walked onstage and opened with “Fuck School.” I don’t know why I didn’t see that coming, it seems so obvious now but, it caught me completely off-guard. We all, my then-present company included, had a good laugh! Another gig that sticks in my mind was the show they did at Irving Plaza in NYC in December of 1984. That was the week the band was on the cover of the Village Voice and just days after they got shit-faced drunk and did one of their all-cover-songs sets in front of many of the city’s A&R community at what was supposed to have been an “unannounced” gig at CBGB (they played under a pseudonym – Gary & The Boners). They came out on stage at Irving Plaza like they had something to prove and opened with a blazing version of the Kiss song “Rock and Roll All Nite.” I happened to be up in the balcony VIP section when they came on and it was hilarious to see the expressions on everyone’s faces there – a number of them clearly thought at first that the band was making fun of the song. But they played it straight and delivered a balls-to-the-wall version that was, no matter how you looked at it, undeniably great rock and roll. And they kept it up for the whole set – it was one of the best I ever saw them do.
- Favourite Incident That Turned Out To Be Untrue
Mehr “During the making of All Shook Down, the Replacements’ were staying at the Hyatt House on Sunset. Another guest there was the King (and Queen) of rock and roll, Little Richard. He kept a permanent residence, two suites in fact, at the hotel that happened to be on either side of Paul Westerberg’s room. One story that made the rounds suggested a rather close encounter between Little Richard and Tommy Stinson. As the tale went, Stinson came to Westerberg’s room one night, in a messy state, demanding more of whatever they’d ingested earlier in the evening. It turned out he was pounding on the wrong door, when it opened to reveal Little Richard in a silk kimono. The flamboyant Richard looked Tommy up and down and exclaimed “Well, hell-o room service. Come on in!” Stinson was frozen. He had not been prepared to meet a giant bi-sexual rock legend in full readiness at the Riot House, and made haste back to his room. Alas, this story – related by several people, most colorfully by the Georgia Satellites’ Dan Baird – proved to be apocryphal. As far as Stinson could remember the only encounters he had with Little Richard were in the lobby of the hotel, where they chatted and he got him to sign an autograph.”
- Favourite Story That Turned Out To Be True
Mehr “Too many to count. That’s the funny thing with the Replacements – most of the famous stories one would totally assume were embellished, exaggerated or apocryphal, turned out to be absolutely true.”
Jesperson “There are just so many it’s hard to choose just one … but the time very early on when Longhorn owner Hartley Frank pulled us all outside of the bar to try to convince the band that the gig he was offering them on short notice for little money and with no time to promote it was a good idea. I opposed it, the band trusted me and effectively told Hartley that, from then on, he had to talk to me when he wanted to book the band … it was funny and it was one of the first great moments of solidarity between the band and I.”
- What would have happened if Rod Stewart had recorded Sixteen Blue?
Jesperson “Geez, the mind reels. It could have been great, in terms of validation and made other people take them more seriously. But it also could have been detrimental – a large influx of money to them in 1984, especially since the largest portion would’ve gone to Paul as the only writer on that song, may have driven a wedge between them. “
- There is still good unreleased Twin Tone material, both studio and live – would you ever put it out ?
Jesperson “I don’t think there is much good unreleased Twin/Tone material any more. We used the good stuff on the reissues we did for Rhino in 2008. Though we suspect that Paul has a lot of unreleased home recordings and there could be some real gems there. It’s just taken a while to get around to putting out unreleased Replacements recordings of any kind, partially because there wasn’t a huge demand and partially because live tapes and bootlegs have circulated for years so the real fans already have a lot of it. But I think there will be some cool archival Replacements releases in the years to come.”
Simon Wright 24.03.16