March 24, 2016


Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements. By Bob Mehr. Da Capo. $27.95.

     There are lessons to be learned from the persistent belief that pop music has deep meaning and that, as a result, there is something special about angst-ridden, drugged or alcohol-saturated groups of young people who come together, fight, make up, fight again, become fast friends, become bitter enemies, make money, blow it all, and so on and on – and on and on. Anyone interested in such lessons will not find them in Trouble Boys. Bob Mehr, a music critic and columnist, is not concerned with the Replacements as an entirely typical, genre-bound group whose foibles mirror those of dozens, if not hundreds, of other would-be rock stars. His interest is in showing that the band was important, that it was significant, that its story has meaning. Yawn.  Well, not “yawn” for those who buy into pop-life hagiography and standard rise-and-fall storytelling, but given the fact that the Replacements were scarcely an “A list” group, it is hard to escape the notion that the audience for Trouble Boys is very severely limited, no matter how well the book is written.

     It is written well, and researched well, too. But it all leads to such a boringly predictable conclusion, which – for potential readers who cannot stand all the suspense – goes as follows: “In the end, the pain and desperation, the chaos and the noise, it had meant something. ‘However finite and small,’ observed Tommy Stinson, ‘we left a mark.’ ‘We did leave a mark,’ said Paul Westerberg. ‘And no one can take that away. We were a great little band.’” Well, “little” is the operative word here, and the formulaic banality of Mehr’s lines about “the pain and desperation, the chaos and the noise” is reflected through all of the book’s nearly 500 pages. That includes the obligatory photo spread, with captions such as “Bob, age 7, at the start of his troubles”; “Paul Westerberg’s 1975 yearbook photo from the Academy of Holy Angels”; and “Paul’s high school friend and mentor John Zika, who would commit suicide in 1977.”

     Trouble Boys is factual, but its story arc is as predictable as that of a Tolkien-inspired heroic fantasy. There are the “touring” tales: “Between their first national outing in the spring of ’83 and the end of the Let It Be tour two years later, the Replacements would play some 200-plus shows in forty states, crisscrossing the country half a dozen times.” These come with cute little revelatory snippets: the band’s name for its “beat-up Ford Econoline” was “Otis, after the drunk on The Andy Griffith Show.” Then there are the “verge of success” elements, as when “the Replacements were included in Rolling Stone’s first annual ‘Hot Issue.’ Alongside 1986’s other rising talents (actress Laura Dern, director James Cameron, boxer Mike Tyson), the ’Mats were named the year’s ‘Hot Band’…” And there are the life-is-tough observations: “The Replacements might have been recording at a $10,000-a-week studio, but after seven years, they were still scraping by.” Also, there are the usual problems associated with replacing a departed band member, handled in the usual quirky manner: “No, a full-fledged band member needed to be able to get the Replacements’ sense of humor and tolerate their drinking. And he had to be from Minneapolis. Naturally, they began looking in their local tavern.”

     So Trouble Boys progresses through its suitable-for-parody story, which Mehr insists be taken extremely seriously. Actually, potential readers might consider watching This Is Spinal Tap and deciding whether they would like to peruse an exhaustive rock-band story that is as serious as the 1984 movie is comical. Things here are very serious indeed – one book chapter even begins, “With most of the Replacements’ new material having been written during the physical and spiritual hangover following the Pleased to Meet Me tour, the songs were downbeat, if not downright defeated. ‘Anger is not on the top of my list anymore,’ Westerberg admitted at the time. ‘It’s been replaced by despair.’”

     Most of the troubles enumerated and explored at length in Trouble Boys are ones of the Replacements’ own making; the rest are endemic to the industry in which they operated. And it is an industry, not some deeply meaningful and emotionally significant artistic expression of the intensity of human connection. As they are presented in this book, the band’s small successes and larger failures, however significant they may be to Mehr, to whatever fans still remember this particular band, and to the band members themselves, have nothing existential to tell anyone. Mehr’s insistence on the uniqueness of a group that, objectively speaking, was not the slightest bit out of the ordinary in its particular field, prevents the author from seeking grand lessons from the Replacements’ modest ascension and precipitous descent – much less finding any. Paradoxically, the more specific detail Mehr provides about the ins and outs of the band’s existence – and there is a plethora of detail here – the more Trouble Boys seems like an oft-told tale rather than a one-of-a-kind story. This is a (++) book in terms of its content, raised to (+++) level only because of the quality of its research and, in the main, of its writing. One chapter ends with a reference to the band finding “solace with a kindred spirit, a fellow traveler down the road of life.” That cliché scarcely shows Mehr’s best style, but it is indicative of how the author apparently sees himself. This book is for others who also deem themselves “fellow traveler[s] down the road of life,” and who think their journey more meaningful to the extent that it includes the trials and tribulations of the Replacements.

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