Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Lemon Jail: On the Road with the Replacements'

'Lemon Jail: On the Road with the Replacements.'
'Lemon Jail: On the Road with the Replacements.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

It's easy to recommend what to do with Lemon Jail: keep it in your bathroom. Not only is it a fragmented, episodic book that perfectly suits the episodic nature of toilet sits, it has more stories about actual pooping and peeing than any other notable music book in recent memory.

Of course, this is a book subtitled On the Road with the Replacements. For the 'Mats, it seems, bodily fluids were essentially props. Whether Paul Westerberg's wizzing out a van door (with a bandmate holding his belt) or author Bill Sullivan's trying frantically to score a roll of toilet paper to use in a rock club ladies' room (because the men's room doesn't have toilet seats), Lemon Jail runs on human excretions.

The champion in this respect, of course, is Bob Stinson, who urinates in beer cups (oblivious fans slug the fluid down), defecates in ice buckets (then sends them downstairs in hotel dumbwaiters), and pukes up tuna sandwiches ill-advisedly consumed after languishing on the dashboard for an entire tour.

Lemon Jail is nothing more nor less than what it presents itself as: 160 pages of stories about what you see and do when you're the Replacements' roadie. Sullivan cuts right to the chase: literally by page one, the 'Mats are huddling in the back of the eponymous Ford Econoline, shivering, smoking, and relieving themselves on the chicken bones accumulating in the door well. On the book's last page, the band are sitting in a cinder-block dressing room at a hockey arena and Paul Westerberg is musing, "The ones who love us least are the ones we die to please."

A little background, then, is in order. Sullivan got involved with the Replacements as a young punk fan in Minneapolis in the late '70s. He'd moved from Madison to work security at the Walker and generally rock out, and his junior high classmate Tom Carlson was the Replacements' road manager. Sullivan had been volunteering as a gear-lugger for the band, and when they headed out east in 1983, they brought him along.

"My mom gave me bags of clean jockeys and socks along with a one-way airline ticket voucher, 'in case you don't like it,'" Sullivan writes. "My father? He wrote me a 'group accidental death' policy at his insurance company."

No one died on any of he Replacements' tours, but it wasn't for lack of trying. By Sullivan's account, the 'Mats' subversive attitude towards life generally manifested itself in the form of disregarding as many rules as possible when touring. They liked to bring Sullivan up on stage to belt cover songs (his signature jam was Alice Cooper's "I'm Eighteen"), and one of the first stories in Lemon Jail regards the band's tour with Tom Petty in 1989.

The band's management dictated that on this high-profile arena tour, bringing the roadie out to bellow glam rock wasn't going to fly. "Unfortunately for them," remembers Sullivan, "whatever you asked for with the Replacements, you usually got the opposite." So Sullivan sang, a fact that made it into the first paragraph of a Rolling Stone feature about the Petty tour.

"The Petty tour was seen as the band's big break," writes Sullivan, "but I had been there for all of the band's 'big breaks' — the cover of Village Voice, a major record deal — only to see the band remain in the same mid-level cutout bin reserved for bands that no one understood, bands that the industry veterans despised and envied at the same time."

By 2018, of course, the legend of the Replacements' undiscovered status looms so large that Sullivan feels the need to correct a mistaken impression. "Many people don't know this," he writes without apparent irony, "but the Replacements played to big crowds in their day." Yes, people knew who the Replacements were, and yes, they paid to see them play — even finding the band at last-minute out-of-town shows scheduled in the days before social media made it possible to instantly announce a gig.

Still, the Replacements never had that R.E.M. breakthrough, or that Tom Petty breakthrough: they just remained one of R.E.M.'s favorite bands, and Tom Petty's favorite bands. They toured with both artists, who come off well in Sullivan's book. Sullivan was touched that Michael Stipe even bothered to at least appear to care about who his openers' roadies were, and the two shared an amiable breakfast one morning.

Westerberg, we learn, wasn't one for breakfasts: just coffee and cigarettes, and booze if it was there. The Replacements on the road, in Sullivan's account, weren't so much high-maintenance as they were anti-maintenance: venues would try to keep backstage amenities as minimal as possible because furniture was apt to get broken, decorations were liable to be stolen, and alcohol was likely to be quickly consumed, whatever state that meant the guys were in when it was time to play.

At one point, Petty discovers his openers sitting on a makeup counter for lack of other seating and asks, "Is this how you're treated every night?" The 'Mats confess that it was "kind of a high point, actually."

Sullivan paints tours with the Replacements as shambling affairs, with the band running behind their critical acclaim and trying to stay ahead of their reputation for smashing fish tanks and stealing booze. Manager Peter Jesperson kept the books in order, while Carlson and Sullivan took care of whatever other needs the guys might have.

Booze, as much as possible. Drugs, often. Women? Seemingly, although there's almost no talk of sex in Lemon Jail. It happened, but womanizing wasn't really part of the 'Mats' brand, and intimacy requires both privacy and sobriety. When those two things coincided, Sullivan tended not to be around.

One thing he did have to worry about was keeping the band stocked with working instruments. They were so careless about their guitars, Sullivan took to creating tape ridges in front of the amps so that when Westerberg and the Stinsons leaned their instruments against the amps, they wouldn't slide down and break.

Often, that trick didn't work, but Westerberg steadfastly refused to use guitar stands. "First, it's guitar stands," Sullivan remembers him saying, "and next thing you know, you have backup singers."

Although the Replacements were a Minneapolis band and Sullivan is a local music legend in his own right — he went on to serve as tour manager for artists including Bright Eyes, the New Pornographers, and Soul Asylum, and co-owned the late great 400 Bar — there's very little about Minnesota in the book. As the subtitle indicates, it's a roughly chronological tour through America's alt rock scene in the '80s.

Sullivan reminisces about CBGB's, where he suspects Bob Stinson was "86ed" (ejected) earlier in the evening than anyone else in the history of the club. He remembers the Rat in Boston's Kenmore Square, where in those pre-GPS days you'd just point your van towards the towering Citgo sign. He remembers a converted bank in Houston where a boa constrictor worked its way out of a tank and Sullivan had to intervene to keep it from strangling a nervous Chris Mars at his drum kit.

The book is illustrated with plenty of grainy photos and scanned souvenirs: Mars illustrations, sardonic Westerberg autographs ("Falldownsterberg"), set lists, gig posters. There's even a shot of the inside of the tour van door, heavily decorated with epigraphs like, "WE STANK/ THEY STANKER."

What's the best story? Pick your favorite. It might be the tale about the Replacements sharing a bill with Dave Grohl's pre-Nirvana band Scream, at a Kansas City venue so crowded that the windows started to literally pop out of their frames. It might be the story of Westerberg dropping into Steve Earle's dressing room to shoot the breeze — while casually reaching an arm behind his chair to rummage in the beer cooler, not much caring whether or not he was noticed. It could be the anecdote about how everywhere they'd go, the 'Mats would try to figure out who was "the Curtiss A of each town," because that was the guy you'd want to hang out with.

Sullivan quit his roadie job just before the Replacements embarked upon their swan song tour. Why? The perfect rock-and-roll reason: the stakes were higher, and it just wasn't fun any more. "I read somewhere that Paul reckoned that I got in when it was fun and got out when it ceased to be fun," Sullivan muses. "Sounds to me like it was only fun when I was there."

Lemon Jail is now available from the University of Minnesota Press. Bill Sullivan will present a book launch on April 18 at the Loon Cafe in Minneapolis.

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