The Current's Rock and Roll Book Club: Bob Mehr's 'Trouble Boys'

The Replacements
The Replacements (Greg Helgeson)

Bob Mehr's Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements rode two waves of buzz. The first came when it was revealed that the famously media-averse band were giving Mehr interviews; the second came when the book was released and everyone learned how good it is.

On a recent visit to Minnesota, Mehr stopped by The Current's studios to tell me about the book, which tells the story of one of the greatest bands ever to come out of our scene. You can also hear excerpts from our interview this Sunday on the Local Show.

We're obviously very excited to get the story of the Replacements. It is a gigantic book. I'm holding it in my hands. It is physically heavy and large, and what a triumph for you to have that out.

Yeah, it's one of those things. I made the fatal mistake when my editor asked me about seven years ago, "How long do you think it'll take?" I said, "Ah, couple years." So, add five to that and you have the book you have in your hands.

Yeah, so, you've been writing about music, obviously, for a long time — a lot of different publications over the years. You now work at a daily paper in Memphis?

Yes.

So what was it about the Replacements that first started you down this path of maybe this is more than, you know, an article or a series of articles. I actually want to devote a book to this.

I sort of came to it slowly in a sense. Really, the kind of moment of genesis for the book probably was 2004 — and it happened in Minneapolis. Having been a music critic, I had interviewed Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson over the years. I came out in August, I believe it was, of 2004 to do a magazine assignment face-to-face interview with Paul. First time I had met him. We sat outside a coffee shop and talked for a couple hours. I've mentioned this before, but I think it's really about perspective; [that's] why they decided to participate and do this book and timing to a great extent. Paul was, at that point I think, nine or ten months removed from the passing of his father. He was watching his own son grow up and I think that he was in an unusual, reflective mood that day and it sort of led me to believe that maybe he was maybe at a point where he was willing to look back on the history of the band and the life of the band in a way that would be kind of conducive to doing this kind of cooperative biography.

It's not authorized, I should stress; some people have kind of misreported it as that. When I approached Paul and Tommy and some of the guys in the band and some of the people involved, it was always with the idea that it would be full participation but that it ultimately would be my book to write. They wouldn't have any veto power or editorial control, because I felt that that was the only way I would really be able to tell the story — and they were fine with that from the start.

When I proposed it a few years later starting in '07, there was almost two years of kind of back and forth and trying to get everybody on board. When I proposed it, Paul said, "Yeah, if you're gonna do this, the only way to do it is to do it right and to do it seriously and to be honest and truthful and unvarnished in the whole thing." He said, "You know, frankly, that may not always reflect well on me or the band." So he was aware of that, I think, from the beginning and was willing to step up to the plate and put himself on the line. Same thing with Tommy.

So yeah, it started in '04 in terms of meeting Paul and then '07 I started meeting with Tommy and really kind of proposing the book formally. Then I didn't really begin writing it until about 2009. [Then] I had to sell the book [to a publisher] and that's a whole other process. Then began the real work, after years of kind of just working to be able to do the work and so I spent about — all told — I spent about six and a half years from the first interview to the last that I've had working on the project.

Wow, that is incredible. And you did, I think I read, 230 interviews?

Yeah, I interviewed 230 people. Actually, it's probably a little bit more than that. I lost count at the end. But that doesn't take into account [how many times I talked to each person]. Most people I talked to maybe once or twice, but then other people I talked to five times. 10 times. 30 times. In certain cases. You know, with Paul or Tommy or Peter Jesperson, their longtime manager. So, I shudder to think at how many interviews I actually did. How many hours and many hours I had to transcribe. It became kind of this herculean effort as it went on, but you know, part of that was — I felt like that was the story. I had to find the story out and it was a little bit like peeling away an onion, there was just layer after layer so I had to keep going until I had it all the way down to the end.

Right, yeah, that's such a fascinating process to me. I'm in the process of writing my first book now and I think, you know you set out to do something, you have a strong image in your mind of what the goal of the book is going to be, what the kind of themes are going to be and then it immediately starts shifting as you talk to people.

Absolutely, and that was the case for me. I mean, I had some vague idea of what I wanted to do and the way I wanted to approach it in terms of the access and their candor and telling the bigger story as well as a smaller story. You know, the bigger business and music story, and the more intimate personal story. So all that was in my head going into it. But once you actually start the process, you know, it takes you to some very strange places and some very deep places and some dark places and some beautiful places.

I don't think, if you're writing a long article or anything, you should go in with any kind of preconceived notion of what the end result is going to be, because this is a far different book than what I had anticipated and hopefully it's a lot better than what I originally had in mind.

Speaking of dark material, one thing that I think that you do really masterfully is diving into to these very personal elements and really taking the time to report [on]. You start the book with Bob Stinson's passing and really dive into his back story. Why start the book there? What was it about that story that you wanted to kind of set the scene with?

Well, it was in its own way a moment of very harrowing pause and reflection for the band. It was a kind of reunion of sorts. I toyed with starting at various other points. But, you know, it just felt to me as I went on so much of the heart of the story is Bob's life and ultimately his death and his experiences and how that touched everybody around him. It touched the Replacements. It seemed to start with anything else almost would have been a cop-out, to start with them triumphant on stage — because to me, that wasn't the story. The story was as much in those painful moments as it was in the triumphant moments, and hopefully throughout the book I achieve a balance.

So that's why I went ahead and did that, even though I guess part of me was worried, does that work? You start with a funeral and it gets more depressing from there, in some ways. But I felt like, again, anything else would have been a copout. [I wanted to establish that] it's going to be this kind of book. This is the depth we're going to go to. This is where we're going to sort of approach things from. That felt like the absolute truth there.

One thing I really appreciate is that you're coming in as not only just a journalist that is obviously going to approach things factually but also as kind of an outsider to the whole Minneapolis punk rock community. People in Minnesota hear the mythology about the Replacements from a very early age. It's one of the first things [you] learn about this scene when you're starting to get into local music. Do you think that was an advantage for you to come in from the outside?

I think it ended up being an advantage in a lot of ways. I think it was an advantage from the perspective of the band wanting to be involved, feeling like, okay this guy doesn't have any axe to grind like he's going to report it the way he finds it. I don't know, I'm of two minds. I'd like to think that if I'd grown up here that I could still approach it [objectively], but certainly my sense of the band and my sense of place would have been informed differently. I was starting with kind of a blank canvas, so I had to research things and learn about things in probably a more objective or curious way as an outsider, and I think that probably helped the book.

Maybe I missed some of the local nuances; hopefully I didn't. I had a lot of Minneapolis people reading as I was writing and advising me on that sort of stuff — and I came out here quite a bit. I was making two, three trips out here a year for sometimes a week or two a time, and so I got some sense of place and the people and the environment and a sense I was stepping back in time because I wasn't writing about Minneapolis in the 2000s but writing about Minneapolis in the '50s, '60s, and '70s and ultimately the '80s.

So, I think...yeah, I think ultimately it was an advantage even if it looks like it might not have been, because much of it is about this culture, regional culture, local culture and the environment is so central to the story. In some ways, it was harder and maybe that's why partly it took so long too, because I had to just learn all that stuff from scratch.

So, as you were gathering these stories and thinking about Minneapolis and then visiting here, what were the places — the physical locations — that you wanted to see for yourself?

Well, the corner where the CC is, or where Oar Folkjokeopus used to be, and just down the street, the Modesto. That was kind of Replacements central. Peter Jesperson, their manager and Twin/Tone co-founder, lived at the Modest, he worked at Oar Folkjokeopus, the CC Club was their hang and where they had their business meetings, and of course the band — the various members — lived within a handful of blocks of all those places.

Also, you know, I was fortunate enough as I was doing this and coming and interviewing Paul, one day I said, "Hey, how 'bout we go for a drive?" See, he doesn't drive himself, even to this day I don't believe. So I was behind the wheel and I said, "Let's go to these various points of interest." House you grew up. The Catholic school you sort of attended early on.

I also said, "Take me to the place where you first heard the band." Which a lot of people think is the Let it Be house, which is on Bryant, further up on Bryant. But actually the original house that Paul — very famously — was listening in the bushes, was also on Bryant but a little closer to 40th Street, so he took me there. It was a pretty remarkable moment to have him talking and almost narrating his walk back from downtown from his janitor job to what he heard and what drew him in, and talking about the neighborhood, the first Stinson house as it were, on Bryant.

So, you know, I had a tremendous advantage there in kind of walking in his footsteps or or walking side by side with him as we went over some of that stuff, so that was really cool and interesting and I did some of that on my own too. You want to touch and taste and feel and see the things they did growing up. Even if it doesn't end up in the book, it informs your understanding of other aspects that do end up in the book.

Right. Gives you that sense of authority a little bit, like at least you've seen it. One thing I wanted to ask about too is kind of setting the tone of the book, because I mentioned I can appreciate that there's no hyperbole and kind of flowery language about this romantic element of the band. How did you go about setting the tone for the book?

Well, I tried to, I think, not overwrite — some of that was out of necessity. There was a lot of narrative. There was a lot of story to tell, and while there are some digressions and tangents that are valuable, I wasn't trying to be all over the place. I try and give a lot of backstory on the individual people who are important. I try and give context, as much as possible, and I do try to talk about the music and specifics of the songs — but I didn't want it necessarily to be a showcase for me or a showcase for my writing.

There was so much to pack in, having the advantage of having firsthand accounts and the band's involvement. I wanted to let them tell the story — so I tried to step outside as a narrator, not interject myself into it too much, not try and make it a showcase for my writing. It's hopefully well-written and flows together, but I was really piecing together a story and trying to put together an understanding of these people and this band and this experience, and so I didn't want to get in the way of that. Yeah, it's probably written differently than I would have written a book about any other band or any other story, and that was conscious. From the outside I think it certainly developed and I was trying to fit in everything that happened to them and their career.

Sure. One really beautiful element of the book for me to go back and visit was getting to hear Slim Dunlap speaking about the band — and just getting to hear Slim Dunlap talk about anything. There's something really touching about the fact that his memories were able to be documented in this way before he suffered his stroke back in 2012. I'm wondering, after you got that news that that had happened, did it add a sense of urgency to this book?

Yeah, and you know there was a lot of that — I mean with Slim obviously still with us, but the stroke was very difficult. Actually I was out here and I was supposed to have dinner with Slim and Chrissie the night before that, didn't make it, we didn't hook it up. Then the next day I was flying back to Memphis and I heard. So, yeah, there was a sense of that. There was a sense with a lot of the people that I interviewed in the book.

In the back of the book, there's a dedication saying in memoriam to — here are the people that I interviewed and died in the interim, which is kind of hard to think about. People like Jim Dickinson and Jef Jodell, who was one of Paul's early guitar players that he played with. All kinds of people, and obviously I didn't get a chance to even talk to Steve Foley personally before it started — before I really started working in earnest. So there were all kinds of people who sort of fell by the wayside, unfortunately. That added, I guess, an element to it — but I was lucky in that I did several long interview sessions with Slim as well his wife Chrissie — [a] longtime booker at First Avenue — so yeah, I mean there was always a sense of urgency with this book, but at the same time, I was trying to do the best work possible and that's why it took, you know, as long as it did.

Anything else you want to add [for] the Minnesota music fan population?

Well, I'm going to try and keep going. There was so much stuff that I wasn't able to get in the book. The book, believe it or not, was actually quite a bit longer prior to the edit. Some of that stuff I'm going to put on my website. I have a website for the book: replacementsbook.com.

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