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Rock Reads: Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements by Bob Mehr

Reviewed by Dan MacIntosh

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Bob Mehr's exhaustive Replacements biography is guaranteed to fill in most all the blanks for diehard band fans. The band's story, which began pre-internet and petered out just as grunge was breaking, has - up until this point - been shrouded in both mystery and legend. For most of us, following the group's rocky career trajectory was primarily ascertained through album/concert reviews, magazine interviews and personal experience/word of mouth. And as every true fan will tell you, a Replacements concert was usually either the most screwed up, drunken debacle you've ever witnessed, or a truly thrilling cathartic, Springsteen-esque rock & roll experience -- with little wiggle room in between.

Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements helps explain just why, for instance, the Replacements would many times 'throw' concerts. Yes, it could have been due to excessive boozing. But then again, the band was always, shall we say, lubricated to the hilt. Over their approximately 11-year career they mastered well the practice of rocking-while-drunk. One thing Mehr does particularly well with his book is explain, or try to explain, just why the group behaved the way it did. He's not, for instance, kidding when he describes the four original band members as "trouble boys." They all came from dysfunctional homes, which included mental illness, alcohol/drug abuse, sexual abuse and other sundry bad home dynamics. To call rock music an escape from bad homes for these hardscrabble youths, would be an understatement. Although these difficult early circumstances don't excuse their self-destructive tendencies, they all suffered from the sort of low self-esteem that - not surprisingly - could lead to, for instance, career apathy.

Although the group evolved from an indie act to a major label player, with recording budgets to objectively prove record company support, the individual band members were unafraid to accuse label bosses of not loving or respecting the band - and sometimes right to their faces. The best example of the Replacements biting the hand that fed them, though, occurred when they were offered the opener slot for Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers while supporting their Don't Tell a Soul album. This trek had potential to introduce the Replacements to a whole new audience. However, as soon as the group realized that they'd be performing while it was still daylight, usually in front of hundreds, not the thousands Petty would be playing to, they pouted like babies. Mehr fills his chapter on this unsuccessful tour with story after story that included cracks singer/songwriter Paul Westerberg made about Petty during their ill-fated sets. Instead of being professionals and paying their dues, they behaved like prima donnas and tried (and failed, by the way) to get fired from this promising tour.

In addition to the Replacements' 'us against the world' attitude, there were many internal struggles that oftentimes tore them apart. Original guitarist, Bob Stinson, was fired from the band due to drug/alcohol problems and general unreliability, even though he was the man that actually started the band. Drummer Chris Mar was dismissed toward the group's latter days, as Westerberg's musicality became more sophisticated. Even the non-sibling brotherhood shared by Tommy Stinson and Westerberg was many time strained by the young Stinson's desire to contribute songs to a band where Paul saw himself as the lone songwriter.

Back in the day, it was natural to trumpet the group's 'lovable losers' image and reputation - at least from the outside. Who couldn't get behind a band that was so willing to rage against the music business machine? However, when you read about some of the downright mean-spirited acts the band committed - especially when they 'ganged up' on various music business entities - such an image becomes far less lovable. One instance when Tommy and Paul tricked a radio DJ into playing a profanity-filled blues track, which could have caused the station to lose its license, the joke is just not funny anymore.

What's particularly difficult to believe is how these - at times - complete jerks could create such a memorable body of work. Westerberg has a special ability to create sensitive character studies; ones that reveal a sincere and loving heart. And yet, this book suggests that the songwriter Westerberg and the real life Westerberg are two entirely different people, most of the time.

Could the Replacements have been rock superstars? Sure. They had talent in spades. A bigger question, though, was if they really wanted to be stars. The jury is still out on that one, but Mehr's book strongly suggests the complicated individuals comprising the Replacements were destined to screw up their music careers together, while all the while creating the most debauchery as humanly possible.

The Replacements example is not the recommended formula for the creation of great art. Yet against all odds, it somehow worked.

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