'Men Out of Time': An Interview with Bob Mehr

The author of Trouble Boys, a new book about The Replacements, on creation myths, serendipitous reporting and opening on a funeral.

Adam Nayman is the author of It Doesn't Suck: Showgirls, published by ECW Press. He teaches cinema studies at the University of Toronto and Ryerson...

“How do you say ‘I’m ok' to an answering machine?” 

On the final track of The Replacements’ 1984 album Let it Be, Paul Westerberg moans about the indignity of trying to talk to his beloved by proxy. She’s not home, and all he can do is wait for the beep.

 “Answering Machine” gives the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” a run for its money as an anthem of millennial technophobia (“the message is plain/I hate your answering machine”) while also anticipating the drunk-dialing self-pity of  “Marvin’s Room,” even if the ever self-deprecating Westerberg would probably tweak Drake’s refrain to “I’m just saying you could do worse.”

 “Answering Machine"’s theme of troubled communication runs even deeper, however. For all their intimacy—and in the cases of two founding members, blood ties— The Replacements never could really hear each other. It’s not for nothing that Jim Walsh’s 2011 oral history of the group was titled All Over But the Shouting. The cranked-up din of their music couldn’t drown out the bickering and the barbs between them; when Westerberg fired guitarist Bob Stinson in 1986, he did it over the telephone. 

This painful exchange is one of many compelling scenes in Bob Mehr’s new book Trouble Boys, a six-years-in-the-making study of one of the great American rock bands. While not an official biography, Trouble Boys features original interview material with both Westerberg and Tommy Stinson alongside testimonies by hundreds of other musicians, industry people and friends and family, all integrated into a narrative that barrels along at the same breakneck pace set by its subjects both on and offstage. 

As a group portrait of four young men trying to outrun their respective adolescences, Trouble Boys is positively riddled with pathos, and yet Mehr, who holds down a day job as a music critic in Memphis, doesn’t succumb to sentimentality. Nor does he simply print the legend of The Replacements as brilliant fuck ups and call it a day. Instead, he sifts through the wreckage of their career and meticulously reconstructs a mid-'80s era when bar bands could still break on mainstream radio and major labels went looking for under-the-radar acts to primp for the big-time. Within this panoramic context, The Replacements’ simultaneous yearning for success—often measured haplessly against their former tour-mates in R.E.M.—and yen for self-destruction take on an allegorical dimension: like Westerberg in “Answering Machine,” they wanted to make themselves heard but rarely said (or did) the right things the right way when it really mattered. 

Adam Nayman: Do you remember the first time that you listened to The Replacements?

Bob Mehr: I saw them before I heard them. I experienced them on Saturday Night Live during their performance in 1986. I didn’t really know anything about the band, and I was watching the show because of Anthony Michael Hall, who had been in Weird Science. The band came on and from the first moment I realized that there was something different and special about them, the way that they approached the stage and the total disregard they had for the moment. If you watch that performance, you can see it in the way that Paul Westerberg is stalking around the stage and missing lyrical cues. He cursed off-mike at Bob Stinson before the guitar solo: he used the f-word on television. That attitude leapt off the TV screen. I kept that with me for a couple of years until I found the album Pleased to Meet Me. At that time, in the late '80s, American rock bands were sort of few and far between. In the '70s, there was more live and rock and roll music on television, for instance. In 1986, that was hard to find. The Replacements on SNL had volume and raggedness and an element of danger, especially for a twelve-year-old kid. It was a very visceral first exposure.

It’s funny that the moment you discovered them is also the performance that the book suggests set them back professionally for several years —and was sort of the beginning of the end of Bob Stinson playing in the band. 

It was a great moment if you look back at it as a performance, but the die was cast there. That was their first major label record, and a great opportunity for them to prove their willingness to play the game and they didn’t do that. I don’t think it was entirely their fault. I tried in the book to provide some context about why the people at Saturday Night Live might have been a little more uptight than usual that night, with Harry Dean Stanton and Sam Kinison in the house, and at a moment when the show’s own fate was a bit tenuous. Having such a powder-keg line-up [of guests] that night was very tense.

I think that by then, Saturday Night Live had become part of the entertainment-industry establishment that the show’s early seasons used to skewer mercilessly…

I talked to a lot of the people from the label who got The Replacements on Saturday Night Live, and they were surprised by the reaction there. For instance, Steven Baker, who was one of their product managers, says in the book that he ran into some of the cast members afterwards and they were berating him. He told them that if John Belushi had been on the show, he would have been up there jamming with the band.

So how did you go from being a twelve-year-old watching The Replacements on SNL to working for six years on a book about their members’ lives and careers?

I was a fan. I saw them live a couple of times when I was in high school, opening for Tom Petty, and also on their final tour, with the later line-ups of the band. I followed Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson during their solo careers as well. When I became a music critic, I interviewed them for various things. I was in some of the same circles. In 2004, I went out to meet Paul for the first time. I’d talked to him on the phone, but this was the first actual meeting, because I was doing a magazine feature on him. It was when he put out his Folker album. I found him in Minneapolis, and it was interesting because he had this gargantuan reputation—especially in my mind—as a guy who could be caustic and acerbic, but what I found was somebody reflective. This was nine or ten months after the death of his father, and his son was four or five years old. He was between these two moments: the loss of a parent and watching his own child grow up. He was very reflective that afternoon, and open in a way he might not have been at some other point. That same day, I called up Peter Jesperson, who had been The Replacements’ manager, and I asked him if he had any time to kill and if he wanted to hang out. And he told me that he was clearing out the old Twin/Tone offices. I went with him and there were these bankers’ boxes just filled with old Replacements clippings, and receipts from the road and all this other ephemera. It was pure serendipity—getting to go through this paper trail, which put their whole career right in front of my eyes. And then I went to go have a drink at a bar, and behind the bar was Anita Stinson—Bob and Tommy Stinson’s mother. In this one afternoon, all the elements of the book came to life. Two or three years later, we started talking formally about doing the book, and then in 2009, I began working on it in earnest. I can look back on that day and say that’s where the book was born, and where the dimensions of the book—the creative side, the industry side, and the family side—all came together. 

How did you feel about being entrusted with so much sensitive information about your subjects’ lives? Was there ever a moment where you thought about holding back?

I had a general awareness, from instinctiveness and from reading between the lines that these guys, to a man, had come from these troubled environments, and that informed who they were. I think I realized that there was more pre-history to the band. There’s always been a bit of a creation myth about The Replacements, that Paul was walking home and he heard this band rehearsing and hid in the bushes listening and then went up and joined them and the magic was born. That’s true in the abstract but there was a lot more that led him to that moment. Talking to Paul, I learned a lot more about what came before that, about him kicking around and playing with different groups and quitting high school to commit himself to a life of music, which was a pretty bold thing for a 17-year-old kid without other options, to box himself in for life. In talking to Tommy early on, I came to realize the depth of how unsettled his childhood had been, and his brother’s as well. The journey of that family for the first twelve or thirteen years of Bob’s life led to him getting lost in the state juvenile system, in rehab and in group homes.

Reading about their various backstories indicates why the band members often thrived on getting negative attention…

Or any attention at all, really. They didn’t have a lot of positive reinforcement in their lives, and I think that’s why, a little farther down the line, somebody like Peter Jesperson was so important to them beyond the business. For people who’d never had that kind of attention, it was a big thing. It gave them a faith and belief in what they were doing that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. Maybe in some ways that was unrealistic, and contributed to the way they behaved later. By their second gig, they had somebody taking care of them and exposing them to the world, which was good in the short term but in the long term, they were less self-determining than they could have been.

Jesperson strikes me as one of the tragic heroes of the book; he did everything he could for the band, and he was the first major casualty of the infighting. 

They did not trust people easily. So when they gave their trust over to Peter, and then felt that he had betrayed their trust by going on the road with R.E.M.—which was really so he could learn the business—they held it against him. They were kids, in a way. They weren’t mature emotionally for a variety of reasons. You see that in their relationship with Peter. He was the ultimate true believer. He loved that band and wanted to do all he could for them. He was a much more evolved person emotionally, and I think that same [dynamic] coloured a lot of their other business relationships moving forward. 

How did you sort through the different, conflicting anecdotes and determine what actually happened?

I tried to triangulate the truth whenever possible, and to get multiple perspectives on everything. I wanted to see where people agreed and where they differed and to create an objective reality out of that. In some cases, things were more subjective and about perception, whether it was feelings or relationships, and that’s always a hard thing to determine. It’s in the eye of the beholder. When it comes to incidents, that’s always a problem in rock biographies, because as you say, things tend to blur. Tours and shows and vans and dressing rooms…all that stuff. Paul and Tommy had vivid recall about some stuff, and were cloudy on other things. That’s why I did so many interviews. Some of it was also verifiable just via audio recordings of their shows. I didn’t want to just rely on what Paul and Tommy said in 2010 or 2011, but also what they said in 1985 and 1986. 

It’s interesting that you open the book by focusing on Bob Stinson instead of Paul Westerberg…

That was a choice that I had to make. At one point, I was going to start the book with Paul circa 1996, coming off of his last major-label tour at the end of his contract and at a really low ebb in his solo career. He thought he had failed at that part of his life and his dream to be a rock and roller was over. He described it like an athlete at the end of his career, wondering what to do next. He said that he’d achieved his dream, and it wasn’t as successful as he’d wanted it to be, and that he didn’t have another dream, and that was terrifying to him. I think it almost plunged him into a depressive state. I thought about starting there. But that moment, as profound as it was for Paul, wasn’t the most profound moment for The Replacements. That, for me, was Bob Stinson’s passing. That’s the thread that goes through the book. Bob’s tragedies were the foundation of the band—how he took what happened to him as a child and used music to reconnect with the world, and for him and his brother to escape their past. Bob was this spectral presence in the group even when he wasn’t in the band anymore. I felt like starting with anything else was a cop out, even if it was  a risk to open on a funeral and then get more depressing from there. It wasn’t done for shock value; it was because that was the story.

Do you think that Bob Stinson is underrated as a guitar player?

Bob gets overlooked as a musician because people remember his outrageousness onstage, like wearing a dress, or his antics, or the fact that he got kicked out. I wanted to restore him and make him whole, both through his personal difficulties and his musical genius. One of the guys he played with later on pointed out that he could play something beautiful one moment and something very strange and off putting two seconds later. The inclines were so steep in his playing. That’s very reflective of his life. The way he approached the guitar was the same way he approached everything.

I was very moved by the section on the recording of “Within Your Reach,” where Chris Mars worries that he’s been replaced by a drum machine; the song is about making a connection, but it’s as if Westerberg is also distancing himself from the rest of the band…

That was a time bomb that was set to go off between Chris and Paul, and also between Paul and the rest of the band. Paul’s songs were advancing in a way and he thought that the rest of the guys wouldn’t be able to keep up with that. In the moment, it was a passing thing, and it produced an amazing song, but it was the first fissure or crack in the band, even if it took a while for it to totally open up and become structural damage. 

As a fan, would you stick up for the later albums after Bob Stinson left? A lot of critics think they lost something essential; I know that Robert Christgau hates the song “Aching to Be,” for instance.

I stick up for that stuff as a fan and from a historical perspective. That song in particular is perhaps the most autobiographical thing Paul ever wrote, and one of the most genuine. He does change the gender of the protagonist, but the song is about him. It’s also possibly about Chris Mars, or about Paul’s sister. The fact that it sounds softer or a bit more country and that people perceived that as a sell out is totally wrong headed. When Paul hired Slim Dunlap to replace Bob Stinson, it was a point when they were at their wildest, performance-wise, with a lot of loud, raucous songs, it was because Slim was a blues player—a roots player. Paul wanted to take his music in that direction. It was a genuine artistic impulse, and didn’t have much to do with being commercial. “Aching to Be” wasn’t the right single to follow “I’ll Be You,” which was more of an attempt to do a pop record. “Aching to Be” torpedoed the record in a way. And yet it was a great song. By the end, a lot of the songs that Paul liked best weren’t the best songs for the band, or for his career. 

One of the sharpest points of your book is that The Replacements missed their moment on either side. They were too late and too early at the same time.

It speaks to a larger change in the music industry, and how the pendulum swings. I think The Replacements could have been successful in the 1970s in the same way as The Faces, or Mott the Hoople, or Slade, who were all groups that The Replacements admired. They would have fit in with them. Or if they’d come along five years later, during the rise of alternative music and alternative radio, it would have meant a lot more. They were men out of time. I think about the original poster for The Wild Bunch: “these are men out of time.” They were in the wrong moment for their sound and attitude and approach. That’s a hard thing to deal with, to see some bands come along and be celebrated for what they were scolded for.

Do you think they’ll ever make the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

They were put on the nominee list in 2013. From what I gather, they got pretty close [to getting in]. Right now, I think [The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame] is trying to skew a bit younger, and how that affects The Replacements’ chances…I don’t know. I don’t know if the book affects their chances. Frankly, the fact that they got on the short list probably had more to do with this massive reunion in 2013, and the fact that Seymour Stein, their old label head, is an influential figure in that process. Seymour always says that the signings he was proudest of were Madonna and The Replacements. I think getting in would matter more for The Replacements, for a band at their level, than for someone like Lou Reed.

It’s fun to imagine them getting in and blowing the whole thing off.

Well the Sex Pistols didn’t show up for their thing. I think Paul would like to do something like that, but since it’s such an underdog story in the first place, they’d have to appreciate it if they got in. 

See also: Hazlitt contributors talk about their favourite Replacements songs. 

Adam Nayman is the author of It Doesn't Suck: Showgirls, published by ECW Press. He teaches cinema studies at the University of Toronto and Ryerson and is a contributing editor for Cinema Scope and a staff writer for Reverse Shot.