They were a tragic group of misfits, the best band ever on some nights and barely able to stitch together a set of covers on another. But the Replacements – singer Paul Westerberg, guitarist Bob Stinson, bassist Tommy Stinson, and drummer Chris Mars – created some of the most lasting music of the 1980s, particularly on 1984’s “Let It Be” and 1987’s “Pleased to Meet Me.” Bob Stinson was kicked out in 1986 and the group fell apart in 1991. But Bob Mehr’s “Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements,” which comes out March 1, brings the band back to life. Over six years, Mehr interviewed more than 200 people, creating a narrative thick with detail, revelations and emotion. He spoke by phone from Memphis, where he’s the music critic for The Commercial Appeal.
Paul Westerberg is one of rock’s great mystery men. How did you get him to talk?
First, I made a formal pitch to Paul. He was sort of into it. I had dinner with Tommy and he said, “I’ll do it if Paul will.” As it happened, Paul and I, sort of, we had had enough substantive conversations and he had enough of a good feeling about me that he agreed. Now, that doesn’t mean he trusted me immediately. Everybody’s kind of been surprised. Why did he agree to do this? I don’t know that I have an absolute answer. I would go interview him a couple times a year and then come back to him. I think over those years of working on the book, six years in total, he ultimately, developed a real trust. Because one day in the mail he had sent me some family photos and along with the family photos he sent a tooth. One of the teeth he had had removed. A childhood molar.
Paul Westerberg sent you his tooth?
He had recently had it removed. For what, I’m not sure. Maybe you’ve got a piece of me. Either playing with my head or trying to send a message.
What about Tommy? You do this fascinating research into his older brother, Bob, who had such a short and tragic life.
With Tommy and his family, it was a process as well. These are guarded people. They’re kind of not emotionally showy, Midwestern folks. And the Replacements in general were never really trusting people. They were always closed off as a band. And as people. For an outsider to come in here, it was a big risk on their part. In interviews with their family, I’d do 2 or 3 interviews before I really got down to the darker stuff and the real emotional stuff.
The fact that Bob had been emotionally, physically and sexually abused as a child.
Those were in the Minnesota state juvenile records. [The sexual abuse, Mehr says, was blacked out but spoken about by the family.] Since he has been deceased for 10 years, I petitioned to have them released. It was really important for me to represent Bob in a real way. I really felt he was the heart of the band. I had to do everything I can to understand him as a three dimensional character. The portrait that’s been painted is a flat one. The wild and crazy Bob with no real explanation of why he was that way. In doing so, I get at a lot of uncomfortable family history and sort of dynamics there with the Stinsons. I felt like once I had that information and it was certainly a level of detail. There were also these years where Bob was kind of off in the state system. He talks about … you get a hint of his ambition and his drive to reconnect with the world of music at that point. Music was the salvation.
You try to get at the psychology of the band. I almost feel as if they had a desperate need to fail, to self-sabotage so they could let everyone know they really didn’t care.
And some of that was calculated on Paul’s part. Almost kind of a performance art presentation. And some of it was genuine. Their approach to things was really about playing everything from a gut level. Paul often said that when they performed live, ‘we played our mood. If we were bored, we played bored. If we were angry, we played angry.’ Their tendency was not to give people what they wanted. You could get into the deeper psychology behind that. I think Paul in a way had a realization about leaving a lasting impression that might have been hurting him in the moment professionally.
You talked to Paul and Tommy but what about Chris Mars? In the book, you recount how his relationship with the others soured to the point Paul openly antagonizes him. Did Mars talk to you?
I had done an interview from him in 2008 when I was doing a story on the Replacements. Chris had moved on from the Replacements. He had almost moved on when he was in the band. He was the most reluctant to go back.
Why would he be so reluctant?
He genuinely does have a hard and fast rule in talking about the Replacements. He’s trying to put a distance between his band life and art career. And I think there is some lingering animus. He was basically fired and was probably not well treated in the last couple of years within the group.
It’s very bizarre in the late ’80s, when he’s on the phone with Bill Flanagan and demanding an apology for Paul’s negative comments in an interview.
He was forcing the issue because he didn’t want to make that leap out of the band on his own. If you put Westerberg in an untenable position, you’re likely to know what the reaction will be. Having said that, I think his leaving the group was inevitable at a certain point. It wasn’t something that he was destined to do. It was something his kind of fell into and it became this much bigger thing. His first passion was visual arts.
So with Paul, were there any testy moments or things he didn’t like. You’re pretty unflinching about his drinking and drug use and also his sleeping around.
The two hardest moments and they were sort of almost the same. The first set of formal interviews we did for the book and after the first day, he was, by the end, when I went to sort of get together with him the next time it was very strained and awkward. He pulled out a letter he had written me and sat me down in his basement, in his studio and read me this letter where he had taken some shots at me. ‘What are you trying to do here. You’re trying to make me a villain.’ When it was over and he had read this whole thing, he just sort of sighed and slumped and said, ‘oh, I got that out of my system. What do you want to drink?’ I think he thought I had come with some agenda and he was uncomfortable with the process of reflecting on his life in a way he hadn’t done. He joked to me after that first interview that he was going to do this whole theatrical bit where he was going to have a buddy come in with a suit and read me the riot act and throw me out of the house. But it was in the middle of a blizzard and he said it was too cold for theater. The other part was when the book was done and he deiced he wanted to read it. I didn’t think he wanted to read it. But he changed his mind and I sent it to him. And again, kind of the same thing.
What in particular did he take issue with?
I think he felt like his relationship with Bob, that there were more laughs. It was more a friendship than it was portrayed. I think I portrayed that. Their relationship was one of mutual need. Musically they weren’t always a match. Temperamentally, they weren’t always a match. But I think what Paul came to recognize and realize in Bob was a fearlessness and that was kind of the Replacements’s rallying cry. Maybe he wanted to talk more about how they played their guitars more. Talk about the musicianship per se. But it’s not Goffin and King. The Replacements writing was very visceral and about the moment and the dynamics of the band. To understand the songs, you have to understand the characters and individuals involved.
But you know, everybody’s a book critic, including Paul Westerberg. I’ll be honest. I Fedexed him the book on a Saturday morning and then 3 am my phone rings. And of course, his call comes up unknown and I’m like I bet I know who that is. But we talked it out and I laid out the reasons I did what I did. He expressed his feelings about it and I think in the end, everything was fine.