Catching up with the Lovable Losers
When Ford Madox Ford wrote, “This is the saddest story I’ve ever heard” he was wrong. When he wrote that, he couldn’t have known about the Replacements either, so we have to give him a pass. Still, almost a century after he opened his novel about a soldier’s fall-apart life with that line, the historical record needs to be corrected: the saddest story ever is the story about Minnesota’s greatest band, the Replacements. This news shouldn’t be all that surprising, necessarily: the Replacements have been tinseled in almost and coulda-shoulda and if-only-they’d basically from their start, and the phrase often used to describe them is lovable losers, though Bob Mehr’s Trouble Boys to this reader obliterates the phrase altogether, leaving us with a group of guys—Paul Westerberg, Bob and Tommy Stinson, Chris Mars, Slim Dunlap—who made some of the best pop/rock songs ever but who were, as a whole, just fucking terrible.
(Da Capo Press, 2016)
And much as it pains me to note this, it’s impossible to read Mehr’s book and not come to some dark and sorrowful conclusions about Paul Westerberg. It’s been somewhat easy for thirty-five years now to believe he’s simply a tremendous songwriter who has been variously misunderstood and shafted by the music industry and audiences. To a measurable degree, he has been: the Replacements were ultimately never perfectly served by their labels, by MTV, and by their times, and it must sting endlessly—for Westerberg especially—to have witnessed the last twenty years of popular music basically cleave closer and closer to the Replacements model. There’s a strong argument to be made that the Replacements, along with REM, invented Alternative music, and Mehr makes clear that the Replacements considered themselves competitive with the Athens guys.
Yet what’s entirely missing in Mehr’s telling is any self-awareness on the part of the Replacements: they come off as bitter, shitty guys, dope-smoking morons more interested in Fucking Shit Up and Pissing On Chances every opportunity they had rather than—like REM, like U2, like Green Day, like any of the bands that lasted and signed multi-million dollar album deals while the Replacements self-destructed (twice!)—showing up and playing like professionals.
It’s on page 277 that this all comes to a sort of head, when Westerberg tells one of their countless managers “I'm not giving you a hundred percent.”
It had become his refrain, practically a mantra, during Pleased to Meet Me. When Westerberg said it to Jim Dickinson, it was a question of trust; as he acted it out with the record company, it was a matter of insecurity. But as he spit out the words again to Rieger, it went far deeper. “I can’t mean it every night,” admitted Westerberg, meeting Rieger’s eyes. “I just can’t fuckin’ mean it every night.”
Westerberg viewed performing, as he did everything, in stark black-and-white terms. He could live with drunken insouciance or bored incompetence, so long as it was real. What he couldn’t do was fake it. And he wasn’t willing to put himself on the line emotionally.
This exchange could in the very kindest light be seen as the remarks of an artist unwilling to compromise, and of course there’s plenty to be said of artists who refuse to compromise. But it’s worth unpacking that notion, the conception of the artist who refuses to compromise. Do we love an artist like Lucinda Williams who took ten years to make her perfect third album? Certainly that was uncompromising. Do we love Prince for chasing his strange visions wherever they’ve led him? I’d say yes to both. Yet in both of those examples, we’re talking about artists who refused to compromise in the making of their art. What Westerberg’s admission makes clear is that he’s unwilling (or incapable, though it amounts to the same thing) to compromise at all, not just in the making of his art, but also in its dispersal. Refusing to compromise in the moment of creation is laudable and necessary; refusing to compromise in how one’s art gets set free into culture is certainly up to the artist. But the Replacements had already compromised: they did so the minute they signed record contracts, agreeing to terms and rules and everything else. Lest we all get carried away at the notion of the uncompromising artist, too, let’s not forget that the music industry, with all its compromising demands, has allowed such strange artists as Tom Waits to flourish.
It’s worth noting that Mehr wrote Trouble Boys over a long stretch and with the full cooperation of Tommy Stinson and Paul Westerberg, the two still-performing Replacements (Chris Mars, the drummer, hasn’t taken part in the reunion stuff, and reading the story of the Replacements you can’t blame him for opting out; Bob Stinson, Tommy’s older brother, died in ’95), meaning simply that, in all likelihood, the Westerberg we get here is fairly close to the Real Deal. I read the book, all and more 400 pages, over two despondent days, and by the end of day one, I had a stomachache, and I wished desperately I wouldn’t have to finish the book the next day. Why? Because Westerberg’s such a shit, and because of how fervently I wished (and still wish) he wasn’t. Because he was caustic and awful and had all the self-awareness of a four year-old, and also because he wrote almost transcendently beautiful songs. Here’s what the Replacements did: they swore when given the chance to be on Saturday Night Live, and they got fucking plastered and plowed before big career-advancing shows (ones at which label heads were coming to see if this heralded band would be worth investing in), and these actions would be a whole lot more stomachable had the Replacements not then turned around and pissed about bands like REM getting bigger, and moaned about not getting enough label support. They literally lit money on fire—their per diems—and destroyed seemingly everything they could (vehicles, instruments, relationships) and then bitched about not having money. These are not the antics of lovable losers; they’re the antics of terrified, self-destructive hypocrites (Love us! They’re shouting one minute, and then, when people loved them, they’d do everything they could to test the new love) and, in the case of Westerberg, they’re the antics of selfish assholes.
Trouble Boys, the book, is largely good: it’s neither overly in love with its subject nor seeking some lurid lens through which to cast them. Mehr’s writing is almost inconspicuously good, which is a tremendous gift: he presents the story well and allows the reader to see all the characters in their fullness. Which is, of course, the rub.
While it’s useful to know about central characters, there is often a diminishing return on stories the further one gets from the nucleus, at least as far as musical biographies go. For instance, Bob Stinson, the first Replacements’ guitarist, was abused as a child—information Mehr acquired through digging into old records and interviewing Stinson’s mother. I care an unhealthy amount about the Replacements; I have old 7”s, too many bootlegs, saw their reunion show happily in a sea of several thousand iterations of myself (bearded, white, in their thirties) tearing up to songs I’ve sung along to since I was sixteen. Yet I’m not entirely sure that the knowledge of Stinson’s abuse is critical to my understanding of the band.
This, for me, is where the book gets at its weirdest: Mehr, I suspect, knows this will likely be the only bio ever written about the Replacements, and therefore included every damn last thing he discovered, like for example the background and college degrees of various managers, producers, friends, etc. What transpires in the reading because of this completeness is that the reader is left almost wondering if the Replacements had any other possible career trajectory than the one they hewed to. Each of the original four members came from households that featured some measure of trouble—drinking, poor financial situation, instability—and so none of them, Mehr makes clear, really had much practice functioning well with what most of us recognize as normal American stability. When Westerberg infamously pushed Bob Stinson—fresh out of rehab—to have a drink on stage (Westerberg disputes this; several other voices argue against Westerberg’s recall), the reader can’t help but think back to the pages, earlier in the book, that showed how Westerberg picked up this us-versus-them mentality. This doesn’t in any way excuse what Westerberg did, what any of them did, but it does contextualize it.
And so we’re left with a sort of classic story: the Replacements were what they were because they happened to be phenomenally talented at making nearly perfect rock and roll that featured aching,loneliness, and confusion—and they sure as hell seem to have learned this talent because of all the aching and loneliness and confusion they felt. They were outsiders and made devastatingly gorgeous music; there’s not one good argument against the majority of their albums, especially the classic quartet that starts with 1982’s Hootenany and runs through 1987’s Please to Meet Me. Mehr’s Trouble Boys seems to posit that what they seem to have most wanted—attention, acceptance, love—would have led to their undoing: their doubt and insecurity feel to be the fuel that led to their best art and, when it went missing, they were adrift. How to love a band that needs to feel unloved to make its best music? How to praise a group of insanely talented musicians who seem only able to be themselves when they feel ignored and underappreciated? It’s a tricky koan, unsanswerable. Mehr—wisely and kindly—paints a clear picture of one of the hardest bands to love in the world, and as much as you’ll burn in a sort of sad fury at how they spoiled their chances and burned bridges with glee, it’s impossible, in the end, to do anything other than what most of us (including the band members themselves) have always done regarding the Replacements: love the music and wish, desperately, that it could’ve worked out better.