Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements - Bob Mehr (2016)

My first exposure to Paul Westerberg came when I was about 9 when my older sister would play "Dyslexic Heart" (and to a lesser extent, "Waiting for Somebody") off the Singles soundtrack.  She introduced me to Pearl Jam and the Smashing Pumpkins and Vanilla Ice.  She did not introduce me to the Replacements but she gets tremendous cred for this. 

About 9 years later I met a girl at NYU my freshman year, which is when I met the most girls, which is when many of us would try to turn our crushes on to bands we liked in the hopes that they would say they liked them too and it would signal that we liked each other without being too awkward. One of the bands she told me to check out, in passing, was the Replacements, downloading "Can't Hardly Wait" from Audiogalaxy for me. Now I had seen the movie Can't Hardly Wait and actually liked it even though I thought I wouldn't, but the song didn't pop out at me.

A couple years later I read Our Band Could Be Your Life and became vaguely interested in the Replacements. Some other friends seemed to like them too, so we'd put on Let It Be or Pleased to Meet Me when we'd hang out. Another friend burnt me CDs of "All for Nothing/Nothing for All" (a greatest hits/rarities collection) and Stereo/Mono by Grandpaboy, the then-current Westerberg solo project. I thought they were all fine, I liked them, but still, they weren't my favorite band or anything.

A couple years later, I'd buy a CD copy of Tim and get Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash from a friend.

11 years later I read Trouble Boys and now terribly regret missing them play in Chicago a few years ago.

Sometimes I read a book and I finish it and I just go, "Fuck.....best books." At least I did with this. It's the most epic book I've ever read about a band (Everett True's Nirvana is in similar territory, but this is a greater labor of love). It's nearly 500 pages.  I'd heard about it when it came out, and I knew Pitchfork had put it on a year end best list or something, but I figured I'd get around to it eventually.  In this case it was because of listening to an episode of The Best Show that had Bob Mehr and "Replacements Steve" on.  There it was lauded as one of the best books ever written about rock and I have to concur that it really is quite an experience to be taken in.   

It opens up with the scene of guitarist Bob Stinson's death in 1995, and circles back to that point almost 400 pages later.  Deep biographies of each band member emerge, generally starting with the origins of their grandparents.  After getting into trouble with the law and shuttling in and out of several homes for troubled youth, Bob Stinson starts learning how to play music as an outlet for his anger.  He truly had a horrific childhood, marred by a father that left and a stepfather that abused him psychologically, physically, sexually, verbally, and emotionally.  This stepfather was his brother Tommy's birth father.  Tommy is about seven years younger than Bob, and Bob essentially forces him to learn how to play bass so they can play in a band together.  Tommy is like 10 or 11 when they form their first band, and he is like 12 when Paul Westerberg and Chris Mars join them and the Replacements are formed.  

This book is much more about Paul Westerberg than Tommy Stinson.  It is arguably more about Bob Stinson than Tommy Stinson.  Several themes emerge, foremost amongst them the band's obsession with alcohol.  Almost every rock band is affected in some way or another by the excesses of alcoholism, but they take it to another level.  There are a lot of outrageous scenes in this book.  A story about a really legendary, insane show (where Bob Stinson misbehaves incredibly) is told in Our Band Could Be Your Life and not repeated here, signalling that Mehr has certainly digested those source materials and given the reader something they haven't read or heard about before.  That kind of attention to detail and audience is one of the reasons it belongs on the Best Books list.

This could be a really long review if I wanted it to be but I'll just say what this book meant to me.  It made me listen to Don't Tell a Soul and All Shook Down.  I am glad for the former, and sort of indifferent about the latter.  This is my ranking of Replacements albums:

Pleased to Meet Me 
Let it Be
Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash
Don't Tell a Soul
All Shook Down

I don't want to get into all my justifications for this, but it colors my experience because the only real stories about the band I knew came from Our Band Could Be Your Life, and stopped after Let it Be.  The recording of Pleased to Meet Me is one of the highlights of the book, and I think it cements the album's place in the band's oeuvre.  It's such a short album and it's so densely packed and represents every style the band would run through in its time: loud fast punk, ballads, attempted pop singles, and genre experiments.  

So it got into that, and it also referenced the heavier demo version of "Kiss Me on the Bus," which is now on the Tim expanded edition, and is significantly more awesome than the album version.  It tells of how they came to jam with Tom Waits in a studio sometime in about 1990, partying late into the night (unfortunately there is no tape).  It tells of celebrity encounters with Keith Richards and Tom Petty and their rivalries with Husker Du and R.E.M.  It tells of Peter Jesperson.

Peter Jesperson is the unofficial "fifth member" of the Replacements, though he never played.  He is co-founder of Twin/Tone Records which put out all their albums through Let it Be (basically the first half of their career).  He tours with the band and cheers for them in the crowd and parties with them and manages them.  He develops his own drinking problem, and the chapter detailing his breakdown that led to rehab is another highlight (or perhaps "lowlight" is more appropriate).  Recently the only critique I had for a book was mentioning the same thing twice, with the second time acting as though the first had never happened.  This is probably an editorial oversight (and a nitpicky thing to criticize).  Many may not mind such repetitions, as they tend to freshen one's impressions.  Yet they stand out to me as a thing that is easy to fix, and a clear example of addition by subtraction.  In this case, it only happens once, and it's about the last time Tommy Stinson and Paul Jesperson speak for very many years:

"When he showed up at the bar, it was just Paul and Tommy there.  
'One thing I remember was Tommy, he was smirking a little bit before Paul dropped the bomb,' said Jesperson.  'He was sitting there like, "I know something you don't know."  We were so tight, and had been such close friends.  I harbored a really deep resentment towards him after that.'" (214)

Then much later:

"Much as the pain of being booted out of the 'Mats' inner circle lingered, Jesperson had been hard-pressed to totally avoid the band.  By the time of Don't Tell a Soul, he'd built back up a tentative friendship with Paul Westerberg.  However, he remained estranged from his former 'little brother' Tommy Stinson.  He simply couldn't shake the image of Stinson's smirking face that day at the Uptown when they'd dumped him.  'I held a grudge against Tommy for a long time because of that,' said Jesperson.  (392)

This is a pretty soul-shattering event and this supposed editorial oversight may be forgiven where (as here) the language is not identical.  It's a significant betrayal and it bears reiterating 170 pages later.  If it had been a few pages later, it might be less forgivable. 

My favorite phrase to come out of the book is "putting himself on the line emotionally" to describe what Paul Westerberg was not willing to do:

"The next day, at the band's hotel, Rieger got into a heated discussion with Westerberg, telling him: 'This car-crash mentality is something you have to move away from.  You write these amazing songs.  Why are you sabotaging your own songs?'
Rieger's platonic ideal of a performer was Bruce Springsteen: someone who wrung emotion out of every lyric, put himself on the line with each show, and gave 100 percent night after night.  That's what he wanted out of the Replacements.
'I'm not giving you a hundred percent,' replied Westerberg.
It had become his refrain, practically a mantra, during Please to Meet Me.  When Westerberg said it to Jim Dickinson, it was a question of trust; as he acted it out with the record company, it was a matter of insecurity.  But as he spit out the words again to Rieger, it went far deeper.  'I can't mean it every night,' admitted Westerberg, meeting Rieger's eyes. 'I just can't fuckin' mean it every night.'
Westerberg viewed performing, as he did everything, in stark black-and-white terms.  He could live with drunken insouciance or bored incompetence, so long as it was real.  What he couldn't do was fake it.  And he wasn't willing to put himself on the line emotionally.  'For him there was no middle ground,' said Rieger.  'That's part of the reason people gravitated to him as an artist.  It was all or nothing.'" (277)

On the podcast episode that may or may never be released, I talked about how this book did not mention a specific outrageous concert mentioned in Our Band Could Be Your Life and I read the short excerpt of it from that volume we were discussing.  And I also talked about some of the things in here, like lighting their money on fire and throwing toilets out of tour buses.  So perhaps one mention of that before the end will be in order.

The podcast episode arguably centered around the Replacements as an excuse for me to talk about this as well.  And I mainly talked about how the book made me reassess Don't Tell a Soul and gain a deeper appreciation for (read: no longer completely ignore) it.  My guest said that he preferred All Shook Down and I told him I disagreed.  This was perhaps the highlight of the episode.  I do think he is wrong about this.

The book goes some pretty unseemly places and that is probably why it categorizes itself as unauthorized.  This precisely the problem my guest referenced about Azerrad's earlier "authorized" biography of Nirvana, Come as You Are (still a pretty good book from what I recall).  I believe we agreed that Everett True's Nirvana was the superior book.  We also talked about the ways in which Paul Westerberg was similar to Kurt Cobain.  Now I think that Kurt was a big Replacements fan as well (though they are hardly cited as an influence along any of the same lines as Melvins, Black Flag, Black Sabbath, Pixies, Wipers, etc.) and I do believe this book captures the one and only meeting between them.

Actually, there are 3 pages that reference Cobain and this first one had a better first-ever meeting story, with Prince:

"Although seemingly polar opposites, Prince's and the Replacements' sense of showmanship had a common root.  'We experienced the same weather and a lot of the same things growing up,' said Paul Westerberg. 'Minneapolis audiences are mighty reserved, and learning to command an audience in a place where people are notorious for being quiet will either make you a wallflower, quiet artist, or it will make you a really boisterous, aggressive, or flamboyant, which is what it did for both of us.  I really think a lot of his flamboyance came from the suppression of the place that we live.  It's a cold place to live in more ways than one.'
The 'Mats genuinely admired Prince.  On one occasion, Tommy Stinson was watching Prince perform from the wings at First Avenue while standing next to Ric Ocasek of the Cars, who were also at their pop chart zenith that year.  After the Purple One peeled off a breathtaking Hendrix-like solo, then danced his way across the stage and into a leg split, Tommy slapped Ocasek on the back hard, pointed at Prince, and said, with a measure of Minneapolis pride, 'Let's see ya top that, buddy!'
Prince was rumored to have lurked in the shadows at some of the Replacements' shows at First Avenue, but it was in the bathroom of a club in St. Paul where Westerberg finally ran into him.
'Oh, hey,' said Westerberg, seeing the dolled-up singer standing next to him at the urinal. 'What's up, man?'
Prince turned and responded in cryptic fashion: 'Life.'" (152-153)

Actually it is Bob Stinson who becomes fixated on Kurt Cobain, not Paul Westerberg, and it is true that they perhaps have more than a few things in common.  But there are definitely a ton of parallels with Westerberg.  The excerpt probably says everything that need be said:

"Pundits would suggest Nirvana had picked up the proverbial torch that the Replacements had fumbled away.  'Cobain sings and writes about romantic complexities and youthful apathy with much of the intensity and insight of...Paul Westerberg,' wrote Robert Hillburn of the Los Angeles Times.  'Cobain, indeed, could be the Paul Westerberg of the 90's.'  But Westerberg thought they had little in common: 'I guess I wore a plaid shirt, and yes, I played real loud,' he said, 'but Nirvana sounds to me like Boston with a hair up its ass.'
Cobain and Westerberg would cross paths just once, in late 1992, in San Francisco.  Westerberg was in town recording, Cobain was there producing an album for the Melvins, and they were both staying at the Triton Hotel.  One evening they rode up an elevator together in awkward silence, exited on the same floor, walked to neighboring rooms, then shut their doors without acknowledging one another.
Days later, Westerberg would dash out a song called 'World Class Fad' ('You wax poetic about things pathetic, as long as you look so cute/Don't be sad, you're a world class fad') that many, including Cobain, interpreted as a diss.  'I never respected Kurt Cobain enough to write something about him,' said Westerberg.  'Maybe he felt he was a world class fad.'" (404)

That seems like a harsh choice of words, but okay!  In any case, this is a great book if you want to justify all sorts of bad behavior to yourself, if, for example, your ex is in the process of replacing you, and you think about the nature of your replacement, and the Replacements, and what it really means to be faithful.  Infidelity is casually strewn about without major drama, though there would also be divorce. There was one passage I wanted to excerpt.  But actually I couldn't find it, and it's probably for the best because its not a very appealing thing to highlight unless you get excited by the idea of two guys deciding to make out so they can follow through with a partner-swap more readily.  There are certainly better things to highlight.  From the very beginning, Flying Houses has endeavored to only excerpt the most beautiful writing from each book it documents, and perhaps we have lost sight of that lodestar over time.

Suffice to say, incredibly bad behavior has its place in the lives of the pantheons of culture.  Few bands today could do what the Replacements did in the 80's (and 90's) and get away with it. Notably I remember it being mentioned that Robert Christgau gave Stink an A+.  Here is just one quick example of how they lived:

"The band's first vehicle--the Chevy van financed by Tom Carlson--quickly wore out.  They replaced it with a beat-up Ford Econoline that they dubbed Otis, after the drunk on The Andy Griffith Show.  It didn't take long for the 'Mats to turn it into a second home, ripping out its seats and staining the interior with beer, trash, and urine.  (The band was constantly pissing out of the step down to the side door, which came to be called 'the trough.') Its walls were soon marked with all manner of lewd graffiti and inside jokes.  Westerberg insisted that an image if the van's guts adorn the back cover of Let It Be:  'To give people a sense of what life with us was like,' he said. (144)

There's little more I could add to the topic, so we'll leave it there.  Give yourself a good couple weeks to finish this, though it also reads very quickly.  It's hard to find the time to read a lot these days.  Easier to listen.  Give the Replacements a listen and if you're not interested at all, maybe you won't care at all about the book.  Or don't listen to them at all and just trust me when I say this is a great book and give it a chance and then give the Replacements a listen and totally alter your interpretation of them.  This book may be long, and at time obsessive, but I think everyone who encounters it will acknowledge that it is a great achievement and that they will never think about the band the same way after reading it.  In a good way.  

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