The occasional hiccup in communication and weird timing means that stuff that I write winds up not making it to publication either in print or online. That's the case of my review of Bob Mehr's fantastic biography of The Replacements. I wrote this for Portland Mercury but because there wasn't a timely hook like a reading at a local bookshop or a concert, it was going to be dropped on their blog. But then my editor went on vacation and it sat for a while longer, so it was ultimately deemed to be too late to be bothered with. That's not a complaint. These things happen. Rather than let it totally die on the vine, I thought I'd just drop it here for all to see.
The Trouble With The Replacements
The Best and Final Word On The Underground Rock Icons
by Robert Ham
The fascinating and sordid history of The Replacements, one of the most notorious and influential rock bands of the past 30 years, has been told numerous times already. The best version to date has been the chapter devoted to the band in Our Band Could Be Your Life, Michael Azerrad’s fantastic history of the American underground rock scene. It perfectly chronicled their trajectory from snotty Minneapolis punk rockers to the exhausted and broken group that recorded their sadly beautiful 1990 swan song All Shook Down.
Others have gamely tried their hand at the same tale and come up strangely empty. Neither Jim Walsh’s 2008 oral history All Over But The Shouting nor the 2012 Kickstarter-funded documentary Color Me Impressed could score interviews with the founding members of the group, guitarist/vocalist Paul Westerberg, bassist Tommy Stinson, and drummer Chris Mars. (Worse still, the movie couldn’t use any of the band’s original music.)
In that respect, Trouble Boys, the new biography of The Replacements written by journalist Bob Mehr, has a leg up on them all. It goes far deeper than Azerrad’s otherwise fine retelling, and had the active participation of every surviving member of the group (founding guitarist Bob Stinson passed away in 1995). That, alone, would be enough to recommend the book, but the strength of the author’s research and writing further elevates this book above the steady stream of rock bios that hit bookstore and library shelves every year.
Mehr understands that, like many rubbernecking fans during the band’s ‘80s heyday, a lot of people are seeking the tales of The Replacements’ debauchery. He does give it to them, with a healthy amount of anecdotes of the band, fueled by drink, powder, and pills, causing all kinds of havoc (the story of their infamous 1987 performance at Portland’s Pine Street Theater, complete with the band throwing a couch out a second story window and pulling down a chandelier, is here). But Mehr doesn’t glorify these incidents. By emphasizing early on the genetic underpinnings for addiction like this and making sure the voices of the band members’ wives are heard throughout, the long term impact of their actions and imbibing is never far from your mind.
Trouble Boys is equally even-handed when it comes to discussing The Replacements’ music. Mehr knows that the quartet touched greatness on albums like 1984’s Let It Be and their major label debut Tim, but also recognizes how exhausted and shattered their final two albums sounded. He’s clearly fan but refuses to turn this book into hagiography.
If any theme of the book becomes exhausting, it’s the focus on the band’s penchant for self-sabotage. Even with Mehr returning to the fantastic metaphor of Westerberg and Stinson ripping up or setting fire to or quickly squandering their per diems in the studio, the “What if?” game drags the narrative down. Especially without acknowledging the serious musical compromises they would’ve needed to make to seriously compete with their unspoken rivals R.E.M. It also feels slightly awkward in light of how revered the group is now, and how successful their recent run of reunion shows were.
That is the only time that Mehr blinks throughout Trouble Boys. Otherwise, he sticks to the ugly truth of it all, including the heartbreaking last years of Bob Stinson, who never seemed to recover from being booted from the band in 1987. It’s not a new perspective on the band, but is instead a more detailed portrait that shines some fresh light on the strange alchemical (and chemical) reaction that needed to happen within The Replacements to help create some awe-inspiring sounds.