Trouble Boys, journalist Bob Mehr’s excellently-researched and well-written 435-page bio of Minneapolis’s favorite indie-rock miscreants, the Replacements, isn’t just the story of a band, it’s the story of an era, and it’s a must-read for anyone who grew up in that time, not to mention anyone wishing to understand it, and its aftermath, whereby, as far as art goes, a lack of commitment, not to mention balls (call it chutzpah if you prefer), plus an overriding narcissism, and a built-in sense of irrelevance, pervades. Sad, but true, reading this narrative, it seems hard to believe there will ever be another movement as inherently iconoclastic as Punk.
Perhaps the most misunderstood of all major rock movements, Punk has come to mean many different things to many different people, and, for that matter, many different generations. And, in many ways, it was the Replacements and their indie-rock peers — Sonic Youth, Husker Du, REM, etc. — who forever altered the image of Punk so that it became something much more palatable to college kids. But that was no fault of the bands — it was a natural evolution, and while probably any of those bands could have served as this book’s template — as evidence by Michael Azzerad’s groundbreaking Our Band Could Be Your Life, which featured most of the aforementioned — it might as well be the Replacements: tough-but-vulnerable Midwesterners faithfully and recklessly living up to the Rock n’ Roll legend — so much so they earned the nickname “the ‘Mats” (as in “those that would be trod upon”).
Raised on seventies rock values, and riddled with alcoholism and mental illness in each of their respective families, the Replacements—whose origins Mehr traces with unparalleled (save Jimmy McDonough in his Neil Young opus Shakey) microscopic finesse — were unwittingly thrust into the post-MTV age of compromise: on the one hand, succumb to the niceties of the rock-video circus and smile all the way to the bank — maybe. Or maintain integrity, whatever your notion of it is (and, in the Replacements’ case, it was lots, and lots — and lots and lots — of drinking, not to mention other typical rock excess — they never met a hotel room, or, in one instance, rented RV, that they didn’t annihilate) and be doomed to failure.
If it seems quaint, in this facile and narcissistic age, that anyone would ever struggle with such internal conflicts, just ask Kurt Cobain, from beyond the grave, how important such conflicts were to him. And think of how he ended it all precisely because he was wrestling with such internal demons: fame vs. art vs. money etc. But even before Cobain became the martyr for the movement, the Replacements had among their ranks an equally self-destructive and doomed presence in the form of founding member, Bob Stinson, whose substance abuse and fragile mental state were untenable, even by Replacements standards.
Long after Stinson is edged out of the band — partly by his own brother, bassist Tommy — and guitarist/songwriter Paul Westerberg emerges as the undisputed leader/spokesman, the latter is still struggling with the duality of fame: “It’s been hard for me … to come to grips with the fact I’m an artist. For years I pretended that I wasn’t. I pretended I was a punk. I pretended that I was a drunk, and a hoodlum. I’m not a hoodlum. I’m a fucking artist.”
A young person nowadays, anxiously counting how many times he or she is “liked” on Facebook, will never understand a complex, sullen “genius” like Westerberg — who, basically, in his life, never “liked” anything, nor asked to be liked in return. But that was the essence of Punk, and, for this reason, the Replacements’ story, true to its ethos, really did turn out to be the story of Everyman, at least pre-internet, when the whole experience of being young was intimately shared in the pages of ‘zines, in shitty dives, or commiserated about in the local record store.
In one of the book’s most amusing vignettes, the band, on the verge of major label fame, finally invade New York and, from the legendary stage of CBGB’s, snap into a soused rendition of Kiss’s “Black Diamond” — tongues firmly in cheek — promptly sending Gene Simmons, who just happened to be in attendance, bolting for the door. At that moment, another opportunity lost … but for the Replacements, one gets the feeling, reading this book, even after they’d sobered up, they wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements | Bob Mehr | Da Capo Press | 474pp