LET IT BE: A Q&A With ‘Mats Biographer Bob Mehr

Trouble Boys Cover

mecroppedsharp_1BY JONATHAN VALANIA In the Amerindie rock underground  of the mid-80s, The Replacements, along with Husker Du and REM, formed a troika of indie-rock royalty that produced some of the greatest music of that decade or any other. Nineteen eighty-four was their annus mirabilis. REM released Reckoning, and Husker Du released Zen Arcade and New Day Rising. The Replacements released Let It Be, which despite the co-opting of the Beatles song for its title was in fact their Beggars Banquet.  All three soon signed major label deals with varying results. Husker Du lasted just two albums, the uneven Candy Apple Grey and the overlong and underwhelming Warehouse: Songs And Stories, having peaked creatively with 1986’s Flip Your Wig. Come 1987 the band was history. REM would, of course, go on to global stardom before eventually calling it a career in 2011.

The Replacements released four major label albums of increasingly diminished returns before limping across the finish line in 1991, not with a bang but a whimper. (A reconstituted version of the surviving ‘Mats has been playing select dates since 2012.) None of this was truly unexpected by anyone bothering to pay attention. The Replacements were made to be broken. And they were good at breaking things: themselves mostly but also the will of their audience, their unshakeable bond with rock critics, their indie cred, the unrealistic expectations of major labels and the maxed out Bob Mehrexpense accounts that went with them, and on a good night, the ceiling on greatness. At the height of their powers, The Replacements were a perfect storm of glitter, hairspray and doom. All of which is captured, codified and contextualized in biblical detail in Trouble Boys, Bob Mehr’s acclaimed biography of The Replacements. Mehr [pictured, right], a music critic for The Commercial Appeal, the Memphis daily of record, and a longstanding scribe for Mojo, started working on the book thinking it would take a year or two to complete. Seven years, 250 interviews and 400 pages later, he has delivered one of the great rock biographs about rock greats.

Admittedly, I am biased. Bob is a friend and, in the interest of full disclosure, he quotes at length from a 2002 interview I did with Paul Westerberg in the book. None of which changes the fact that, as the book argues persuasively, The Replacements were — when the booze was in the seventh house and Westerberg and the Brothers Stinson aligned with Chris Mars — the greatest rock n’ roll band on Earth. Read it and weep. Bob will be at Main Street Music on Friday for a Replacements Rock ‘n’ Reading event with ‘Mats music from Dave Hause (The Loved Ones) and Frank Brown (Travel Lanes). “We’ll be talking about the ‘Mats and playing their music and celebrating the release of the band’s vinyl box set The Sire Years,” he says. A few weeks ago, we got Bob on the horn to talk shop.

PHAWKER: You did a great job on the book, my friend. Be proud. How did it come about? What made you want to do it in the first place?

BOB MEHR: Well, I guess my instinct was that as much as The Replacements had been written about, and romanticized, and thought about, analyzed and everything else, it still seemed like there was something very fundamental missing from their story, and that was answering the question of “Why?” You always hear about all the things they did: the chaotic shows, the drinking, the sort of antics towards the record company and the music business in general. But I never felt I got a satisfactory answer as to why they did all that stuff. And so the curious part of my journalist brain said, “There has to be some deeper and maybe darker reason to explain their behavior, and thus also explain why their career unfolded the way it did, and why their music was so potent and affecting as well.” So, I guess, the story was incomplete somehow, despite the fact that they had been written about and romanticized as much as they have and had over the years. I guess I kind of set about doing that, and I’d be lying if I said I knew exactly where that investigation would take me. It took me to a bunch of different places that I wouldn’t have expected.

PHAWKER: Why did they behave the way they did? And why did their career play out the way it did? I realize you just spent eight years and 400 pages answering those questions but…LET IT BE

BOB MEHR: I think the same things that propelled them, that made them great, that made people connect with them, were the same things that held them back. They were so much a product of their environments. Both in terms of a regional, cultural, socioeconomic identity, as well as their own particular environments —  home lives, families, that kind of stuff. So much of that played into the fact that they found each other. I mean, these were four people that came from… each had things in their backgrounds that made them unsuitable for almost any other life. As Paul said, “There wasn’t a high school degree, or a driver’s license between us.” And that’s true. And I think that’s a kind of wisecrack, and a sort of self-deprecating thing to say, but it speaks to a bigger thing about the band. The thing that brought them together was a desperation of overcoming their station in life, and their limitations. And a desperation to do something, whether it was make noise, or wreak havoc, or be successful at times, which I think they did wanna be, despite all indications of the contrary. And desperation to just not be trapped by who they were, and what their circumstances were.

PHAWKER: Is it not true that invariably the best rock n’ roll comes from people who have no other options?

BOB MEHR: Yeah, and I mean, that’s why the first section of the book is called “Jail, Death or Janitor.” I mean, that’s Westerberg’s answer when I was like, “What would your life have been like without The Replacements?” You know, that sounds like a flippant thing to say, but it’s quite possibly very true in all of their cases, to a man almost. I think that creates a different kind of band, a different kind of energy, a different kind of end result in terms of a career and a legacy, than somebody who can kind of take it or leave it. Westerberg was looking for that from the beginning. When he quit high school, he was searching for a couple of years, as he put it, for guys who had the same desperation as he did. Who weren’t in a band for the weekend, for the chicks, and were gonna go off and be accountants and go to college. Nah, he needed somebody with the same burning desperation and he found it in Chris Mars and the Stinson brothers. He found it in the Stinson brothers and Chris Mars. In a sense, everything that came after starts from that moment.

PHAWKER: Hypothetical question. Wave the magic wand. I’m a 22 year old Millennial. Tell me who The Replacements were and why they mattered, Dad.

BOB MEHR: They were a rock and roll band that existed largely in the eighties, formed in The-Replacements-Pleased-to-Meet-Me-Front’79, broke up in ’91. Even though they existed in the eighties, they weren’t a band of the eighties. They’re almost sort of timeless in the sense, both musically in that they kind of came out of the slipstream between ‘60s music and ‘70s punk and new wave. That’s where they sort of formed, and were informed by the detritus of so much of what we see as ‘70s trash culture. If you listen to their records — those eight records that they made, contain multitudes from the punk and hardcore of Sorry Ma Forgot To Take Out The Trash and Stink, to the style-grab of Hootenanny, to the avowed classics Let It Be, Tim and Pleased to Meet Me, to the evolved singer-songwriter and dark pop stuff that you get on the last two records. There’s something there for everyone. To me, they’re the last great rock and roll band that came before the era when everything became so stratified post-Nirvana. They kind of are a band from another time that was out of time in its own era. I think that’s why they lasted. I think that’s why I’m seeing, and have seen over the last decade, so many younger people getting into their music in a way that I don’t think a lot of bands who are their contemporaries have that same sort of phenomenon.

PHAWKER: I too was shocked to see the enormity of the crowd here in Philadelphia when they came. I mean, it was double-sold-out. It was a lot of younger people, too. Great explanation for who they were and why they matter, although the one thing that I would question though is the notion that now is a more stratified time genre or format-wise. I would argue that it is the opposite. That a lot of those walls have disappeared, and that there’s a lot of anything goes.

BOB MEHR: Frankly that’s why I didn’t stick with the original subtitle of the book, “The last rock and roll band.” I never felt like I really developed that idea sufficiently. But I do think post-grunge, when alternative music was, let’s say, commercialized or commodified, I think something was either lost or changed in terms of what people saw or took as rock and roll. What’s great about The Replacements — Paul says it about himself in a self-deprecating way. He says, “We were ten years behind and five years ahead.” I think it’s true. You can see them sitting in with bands like Mott the Hoople, or Slade, or the Faces ten years earlier. And at the same time, you can see them almost having had more success in some ways if they were making their great records in the early to middle nineties, after the environment was maybe a little more suited, the radio formats and marketing of alternative music was a little more advanced than it was when they were sort of at their peak in the ‘80s. I think what they were doing was always going to be out of step, inevitably. Yet, being out out of step is what kept it fresh and sorryma-560x560timeless, and why people can still tap into it, and it doesn’t feel dated or old for the most part. Or fixed to a period in musical history.

PHAWKER: Let’s talk about your personal connection to their music. Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you first heard their music, and what you made of it?

BOB MEHR: I was a kid, 11 or something, when I caught them on SNL, and I didn’t know who they were. At that point, they were just a band that was playing Saturday Night Live. But I distinctly remember how I felt watching them, and the effect they had on me. I think it was largely because it was so unlike the performances I had seen from rock bands, or any kind of bands on television especially at that point. We’re talking ’86, the era of polish and lip syncing, and all that sort of stuff. There just wasn’t a lot of live rock and roll on TV. If you go back and look at that Saturday Night Live performance, to see how loud they are, to see how loose they are, to see how little heed they pay to the stage and the show they’re on in the moment. That was jarring. It’s almost still jarring when you look at it now, particularly the first song they played on there, “Bastards of Young.” Pauls like sort of stepping away from the mic, and missing cues, cursing off mic, and Bob’s throwing his guitar in the air, and what they were wearing. All of that had a profound effect. Of course, they got dressed down by Lorne Michaels backstage in between songs. And then on the second song, you watch them, and they fuck up the count-off. So they have to count it off twice. When have you ever seen that on Saturday Night Live, or any other TV show? On a visceral level, that was so weird to me as a kid that it hit me. I would find their music, with Pleased to Meet Me first a couple of years later as a preteen, which I think is a pretty good time, and that’s a pretty good record. I think it’s fairly accessible and a sustained performance from the band. At that point, I was hooked and sold and have kind of been a fan ever since. A hardcore fan, and then eventually a critic who was writing about them and interviewing them. Ultimately, all of those things led to me wanting to do the book.

PHAWKER: Do you have a legendary Replacements concert train wreck story of your own?

BOB MEHR: Not really. I saw them opening for Petty, and then on the last tour, the All Shook Down Tour, they played at this theater in Phoenix. They were relatively straight shows. I think the Phoenix show on the Petty tour was, as you’ll read, that whole Petty tour was a weird push and pull between the band and Petty’s road crew, and the band trying to, first impress, and failing that, then alienate Petty’s audiences. I got a kind of relatively tame show in my recollection there.

For me, the moment that was most peculiar or surreal was seeing the Toronto reunion show, the first reunion Hootenanny-album-covershow. At that point I had been working on the book for three, four years. Maybe more. I was knee-deep in this world of The Replacements and their history. For them to reunite, to suddenly be back onstage bringing this band back to life was kind of a weird experience for me personally. And the energy from that show… I saw many of the other reunion shows. Down the line, they sounded better, or tighter, more this or more that. But the first night, what carried them was this insane and intense energy that they had and the crowd had. That would be my most legendary story, I suppose.

PHAWKER: I have one. I was at the two-night stand at The Ritz right before Tim came out. Back then, they would give you a can of beer, not pour it in a cup. Everyone had these big tallboys in the audience. They were doing “Waitress In The Sky.” Paul was smoking a cigarette and singing at the same time, as he was wont to do. From the very back of the crowd, someone launched this full can of Bud and it bounced off Westerberg’s forehead and he just keeps singing, does not miss a beat, doesn’t even lose his cigarette, and it was just like “Yes! These guys are the real thing.” What is your favorite/the best Replacements album and why?

BOB MEHR: You know, I vacillate between Tim, which was the one that kind of captured me, was closest to my heart for a lot of reasons, like listening to it in my car constantly. Driving around in high school. In fact, I’m looking at the cassette copy that’s on my desk, that I’ve had for my whole life, that’s faded. As a dark horse, I really like Hootenanny. I think in a weird way, Hootenanny is a record that finds the band sort of becoming who they were. The first couple records are great, I love them, I think they’re classics in their own right. But the fact that they try everything and anything on Hootenanny, and sound so fearless in terms of attempting different styles, different things, or copping and stealing and borrowing and doing everything you can think of on that record. That’s the purest in a way. It’s the first time, as Paul says in the book, even though it’s a bunch of different styles, it’s the first record that sounds like “us.” And “us” meaning the band that ultimately was able to try anything, and be fearless about it.

PHAWKER: How about favorite song, and why?

BOB MEHR: “Color Me Impressed” is amazing. I have feelings for some of the songs Paul allshookdown-560x560wrote about the band, and maybe things that are more obscure like “Portland,” which was a song they did for the first attempt at making Don’t Tell A Soul. It came out on that All For Nothing/Nothing For All compilation. It’s really a story of the band, and in some ways it’s a kind of spiritual continuation of “Treatment Bound,” except it’s set six years later. It’s kind of a bittersweet look at the band as it was at that point, which was in a state of emotional and psychological decay. I always feel strongest or most affected by the songs that Paul is writing about the things that are right in front of him, songs about the band. “Someone Take The Wheel” or “Treatment Bound” or “Portland.” I think that category of song means the most to me, for whatever reason.

PHAWKER: Any blowback from Pete Buck about being outed as a knife-wielding speed freak back in the day?

BOB MEHR: I sent him the book, actually just the other day, which I assume he’s gotten, but I haven’t heard back from Pete. The reaction, frankly, I was scared of what the reaction was gonna be from a lot of people. So far, it’s actually been pretty good, and I think that’s a good sign. Because I think people feel like it’s pretty accurate, you know? There’s quibbles and small errors, little typo kind of things that you’d get in a 500-page book that I’m fixing in the repress. Generally speaking, in terms of how close it was, how accurate this is to the story and the experiences and the feeling of the time and being around the band, it’s been pretty heartening. That’s the thing I was most worried about, almost more than “Is this an interesting book or will anybody buy it?” it was almost like, “Did I capture this accurately?” I think in as much as any book you can capture as ephemeral as the life of a rock and roll band accurately, I think I did that. The testimonies of people who were around and them agreeing makes me feel good. That’s good. Hopefully there’s nothing in there that anybody will object to.

PHAWKER: I’m curious, who else were you concerned about what their reaction to the book would be?

BOB MEHR: Well, in terms of Tommy’s family, because some of that stuff is so sensitive and so personal, and they were taking a tremendous risk in trusting me, talking about stuff that they haven’t talked about publicly, and maybe not even privately amongst each other, to trust a stranger with that kind of story in that way. It was a huge gamble for them. The reaction from them has been really good in that sense. That was probably what I was worried about most. Just in terms of, you know, the things you want to get right as a journalist: Am I describing the environment at Warner Brothers circa 1985 correctly? Am I The_Replacements_-_The_Replacements_Stink_covertalking about the feeling at some of these shows in ’83 or ’84 in a way that seems evocative of the time? Did I get the early stuff that people don’t know about? Were the periods where there was less witnesses and less accounts for, do I have that stuff right? My concerns were more from a journalistic perspective than anything else. I also felt like, I thought I’d spend two years on this book. I spent seven years, and I interviewed 250 people, and had access to the Twin/Tone and Warner Brothers’ archives, and listened to every recording and bootleg. I figured, I’m gonna be pretty close to some kind of real depth and real understanding of this band and their experience.

PHAWKER: Where does the reunion stand currently?

BOB MEHR: I think the reunion… the intention was just to do a handful of shows, but the response was so great that they kept going beyond the first three Riot Fest shows. Then they did the festival circuit, and did these two huge stadium-headlining shows in Minneapolis and New York with like 10-15,000 people, and then decided to do a headlining club tour. It just kind of kept going and going, more than they probably had intended or should’ve done. They made a couple attempts to record new songs. I don’t think it was anything as formal as “We’re gonna make an album,” but I just think it went on longer, so they’re taking a break from it now. The whole idea that Paul said onstage in Portugal, “This is our last show,” well that was the last show of the tour. Paul Westerberg has said onstage with The Replacements “This is our last show” probably 50 times over the years. I wouldn’t take that as gospel—or anything he says when he’s in front of a microphone. But I also think it’s pretty clear that Paul and Tommy have other things they want to do. Paul’s put out that I Don’t Cares’ record. Tommy’s working on a solo record. My sense is that iteration of the reunion ran its course, but that’s not to say that there won’t be something else down the line, or that they won’t work together again in some form. I feel like, just as I always felt, that a reunion was always inevitable between them. It feels like there’s still more there that can and maybe should be done. Will it? That’s anybody’s guess.

PHAWKER: In the final shows, Westerberg wore a t-shirt with different letters on it every night that spelled out “I have always loved you, now I must whore my past.” What’s the story on that?

BOB MEHR: Yes, I have no great insight as to the meaning of that, except I’ll say this: tim-the-replacements_91people took it negatively as some message to the fans, or maybe to his ex-wife, or to his current girlfriend, or something like that. I would say this about Paul: as with his songs, they’re multilayered, and probably are about more than one person. I think he’s always kind of written that way for the most part. The songs are never about one thing or person. I think consequently, any message he might have been trying to send wasn’t necessarily to any one person. That’s my answer. I honestly don’t have any better insight than that. I think the unfortunate thing is that the fans took it as some slight, because I actually think the reunion was really a very healthy and positive thing, in terms of Paul’s relationship and Tommy’s, but especially Paul’s, with the idea and legacy of The Replacements. I think they felt incredible validation as you would if you’re coming back after 20 years, and you’re playing a stadium with 15,000 people singing your songs back to you. I think the reunion was actually really good for them, and good for him dealing with The Replacements as a concept. I think for a long time it was a millstone around his neck, and Tommy’s neck, after the band broke up. That’s the only thing that I think is unfortunate about the t-shirt thing, is that maybe some people took it as like, he doesn’t give a shit about The Replacements, or that he views The Replacements in a mercenary way. I know that’s not actually true. He loves and cares about the band, and the legacy, and that’s why he was actually hesitant to do the reunion. I think unlike a lot of bands who get back together, the reunion actually enhanced their reputation. They played great, sounded great, looked great. And with the exception of maybe a couple of shows, I think every show was pretty great, uniformly received that way. That’s the only kind of bummer about the whole t-shirt thing was that maybe people took it the wrong way. That’s not uncommon with Paul.