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5 Highlights From Trouble Boys, the New Biography of the Replacements

In the 25 years since the Replacements called it quits, the Minneapolis band’s legend and cult status has steadily grown, culminating in a short-lived, highly praised run of reunion shows in 2014. With a career defined by outlandish disorder and mishap, few acts are as deserving of a well-considered, definitive book than the Replacements. Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements (on sale March 1), which was assembled from extensive interviews with friends, associates, and founding members Tommy Stinson and Paul Westerberg, is the first authorized biography of the group.

The book, written by veteran music journalist Bob Mehr, is a 435-page account of the band’s half-triumph and eternal dysfunction. Perhaps Trouble Boys’ greatest feat is the way it strips the sense of myth and legend from the quartet’s mischief and uproarious self-sabotage, and instead grounds their troublemaking — namely, the group’s endless abuse of alcohol and pills — in things like psychological trauma and familial history of addiction. The result is the rare, honest, tragicomic music biography that has far too much sympathy for its subjects to ever reduce them to rock-and-roll caricature.

“They’d never had any clear-eyed ambition or direction,” Mehr writes of the band in the introduction. “They got as far as they did only because they hungered: for attention, for love, for sanction, for volume, for chaos.”

Trouble Boys is also a book full of revelations. Mehr fills his biography with little-known anecdotes, shocking quotes, and surprising accounts of interpersonal relations that will provide insight to even the most hard-core Replacements fans. Here are five of the most fascinating stories.

Bob Stinson’s Childhood
Too often the early sections of music biographies, which deal with the subject’s early upbringing, feel like a forced genre convention, a drawn-out prelude to the juicy material promised later on. The opposite is true in Trouble Boys, where Mehr handles the band’s various childhoods with a touching sensitivity, chronicling the immeasurable hardship, violence, and illness that Westerberg, Mars, and the Stinson Brothers endured as young boys growing up working class in Minnesota. Most upsetting is the account of the physical and sexual abuse suffered by Bob Stinson at the hands of Nick Griffin, the long-time boyfriend of his mother, Anita.

Griffin’s sexual abuse of the children started when Bob was only seven. “I know exactly in my mind the first time,” said Anita. “I had been at work the night before and Nick was off. It had to have happened then, because the next day he was different. He wasn’t Bobby anymore.”   

That night we were having dinner, and Bobby couldn’t eat. Then he started throwing up.

Tour-Bus Antics
The Replacements’ favorite object of their self-destructive tendencies was usually whatever vehicle they happened to be touring in. As the band eventually graduated from van to RV to touring bus, each successive vehicle would inevitably endure excessive amounts of damage at the hands of the foursome. The band’s early manager Peter Jesperson first discovered the scope of the band’s capacity for disruption when he rented the band a proper RV for their tour promoting Tim, the band’s first major label album, in 1985.

Jesperson’s mouth was agape as he surveyed the damage in the morning. In Toronto the band had stolen a couple of cans of paint backstage and turned the inside of the RV into a Jackson Pollock canvas. “They’d broken every window except the front windshield. Bob had been in the passenger seat and was about to give that a heave-ho too when somebody came to their senses and stopped him,” said Jesperson.     

The toilet was ripped out and tossed through the back door while speeding down the highway. Cabinets and fixtures were yanked out of the walls. All that was left were broken boards and lumber piled up in the back lounge.                          

The Mischief Continues
For those who might have thought the Replacements eventually outgrew their antics as they began experiencing tastes of mainstream success, Trouble Boys highlights the shocking degree to which the group simply doubled down on their debauched behavior as their career progressed. One of the bleakest, most out-of-control periods of the band’s career, according to Mehr, was during their recording sessions in upstate New York for their penultimate record, Don’t Tell a Soul.

Within a week the Replacements had come down with cabin fever, à la “The Shining”. “In each of our cottages there was a little kitchenette with knives,” said Stinson. “Every night we’d go to one of the cottages and start playing ‘Dodge Knife.’ That’s like dodgeball but with knives. It got very … troubling.”

One night Dunlap drunkenly spread cream cheese all over the raw pine walls of his cottage. According to Berg, “They had car accidents. They trashed the studio. They trashed the living quarters. They were on medication that you would normally prescribe for horses and bears. They were just a mess.”                     

Censorship Blues
The Replacements’ close brush with pop success is a central tenet of the band’s mythology. Mehr’s book does an excellent job at pinpointing exactly how close the band really did come to achieving mainstream popularity, and how they ended up coming short. The key breaking point was when several executives at MTV, concerned about a recent surge in high-profile teen suicides, decided to ban “The Ledge,” Westerberg’s tale of a boy contemplating suicide inspired in part by the singer’s own personal experience with the subject. “The Ledge” was the crucial lead single for what Warner Brothers hoped would be their breakthrough record, Pleased to Meet Me, and Mehr’s reporting illuminates the widespread feeling of outright defeat once the song was banned by MTV.

“MTV feels the lyrics are detrimental to the youth of America,” said Westerberg after the decision came down. “But for them to play Mötley Crüe and not play our video … if it had a bunch of sexist bullshit, they would’ve played it. But if it’s something deeper, if it’s emotions, it’s taboo.”              

High Noon was particularly angered by the decision: MTV’s rejection attached a stigma to the song. Soon many radio stations already spinning the track began to drop it from their playlists. “It all crumbled from there,” said Rieger.

By late June, Warner Bros. quietly moved on to “Alex Chilton.” “We had no choice,” said Rieger. “But in terms of radio and general perception, you can’t just switch to the next single two days later. It would look like there’s no commitment to the band … Internally, everyone knew the record was dead.”                      

Meeting Bob Dylan
Despite their consistent dysfunction, the Replacements began to develop an array of famous fans in the late ’80s, from Winona Ryder to Tom Petty, who, in a move that he would later regret, decided to take the group out as his opening act in 1989. During the recording of their final album, All Shook Down, fellow Minnesotan Bob Dylan paid the band an unexpected visit. Though Dylan and the group ended up spending several days together, their initial encounter did not go so well.

The ’Mats would encounter another musical hero while in Hollywood. At Ocean Way’s front studio, Bob Dylan was doing overdubs for his new album, “Under the Red Sky”. Looking like the Unibomber, he walked the halls in sunglasses and a hooded sweatshirt pulled tight around his head.                                            

On the first day of the session, as the group was setting up, Dylan suddenly materialized on the studio floor. “He just walked in and started talking to the band,” recalled engineer Clif Norrell. “He was saying, ‘My kid loves you; my son’s really into your band.’ You could see their eyes light up, and then Dylan goes: ‘You’re R.E.M., right?’”

5 Highlights From the Replacements’ Biography