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Absolution Is Out Of The Question

16 December 2021

“They got as far as they did only because they hungered: for attention, for love, for sanction, for volume, for chaos.” —Bob Mehr, introduction to Trouble Boys: The True Story of The Replacements

The last decade has delivered an embarrassment of riches for fans of The Replacements. Starting with Gorman Bechard’s fan-driven 2011 documentary, Color Me Obsessed, supporters of the Minneapolis punk-turned-pop quartet have been treated to reunion tours, album remixes and remasters, deluxe edition box sets, an unlikely Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nomination, and renewed attention across the music press.

Not bad for a group that broke up in 1991, barely cracked the singles or album charts, and never had an album go platinum. So why the sustained reverence? It boils down to two things: unbelievably great songs and the power of myth.

For my money, there has never been another mid-level band that so completely captured the hearts and imaginations of underground music lovers. Their songwriting was disarmingly smart, their underdog image was endearing, and the self-destructive band members were pure rock ‘n roll. The Replacements gave us the guts to form our own bands, license to live however we wanted, and permission to fail triumphantly.

Even 30 years after they broke up—and 40 since the release of their debut album, Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash —die-hard fans still can’t get enough of their anti-heroes. Most of this fawning attention is focused on the original line up of Paul Westerberg (guitar, vocals), Bob Stinson (guitar), Tommy Stinson (bass) and Chris Mars (drums), although second guitarist, Slim Dunlap, has plenty of adoring fans as well.

We’ve long devoured the music, mainlined the band’s dangerous energy, and seen ourselves reflected in their loveable loser image throughout the various stages of our lives. But something else seems to be brewing among some middle-aged Replacements fans these days, a reluctant reckoning partially fueled by uncomfortable truths. It’s by no means universal, but hard to ignore once you notice the dark clouds gathering over certain parts of the ‘Mats fanscape.

For example, consider a lengthy reply to a 1984 Village Voice article (“Going Down With The Replacements”) that I posted on Facebook along with this Westerberg quote above the link: “We went up there and did what we wanted to do, and they [the record industry] wanted us to play our best songs as best we could. And we didn’t feel like it. And so they figure, ‘They’re a small-time bunch of amateurs.’ That’s one way to look at it, and that’s partly true. But I think it’s also the spirit that makes rock exciting and immediate.”

My friend’s reply (posted with permission):

That sounds like a cop-out. It’s an amazing article and clearly articulates their dynamic in a crystalline way. They were awesome, but at the same time, the level of contempt they had for all of it, including the fans, was about a step or two above G.G. Allin’s—I saw them twice, once a half-decent show that started well and ended up one of those shit show, half-assed cover routines and then another, on their last tour before the reunion, which was way more polished, but also made clear they were toast. These were maybe four years apart.

I’ve grown to have a much more complicated relationship to the band than I used to. I was a flannel-wearing, heartsick, bitter romantic and Westerberg’s music with the Mats hit all my sweet spots—but the more I read about them the less I find them charming. So I hang with their music and it holds up for me. I haven’t changed that much, really. But the amateur-hour “immediacy” of hostile shows and open contempt for the people who went to go see them feels a lot less ballsy and relatable to me in retrospect.

My knee-jerk response was a punker-than-thou charge of revisionism, but further reflection revealed an ugly truth: I kind of understood where my friend was coming from. I’ve heard and read the same sentiments from many other Replacements fans in recent years, and I’ve even felt it myself on some level; most acutely while reading Bob Mehr’s definitive biography from 2016, Trouble Boys: The True Story of The Replacements.

In the book, Mehr carefully pulls the curtain back to reveal the reasons behind some of the questionable choices and actions that fuel the band’s complicated mythology. He deftly threads the needle between the band members’ heartbreaking backstories and the fantastic tales of rock ‘n roll debauchery that have become their non-musical legacy.

I imagined Mehr’s biggest challenge during the decade he spent researching and writing Trouble Boys was balancing the facts he diligently uncovered with the self-perpetuating perceptions many longtime fans stubbornly cling to. It’s important to remember that The Replacements’ were a pre-internet band (Sorry Ma: Forgot to Take Out the Trash was released in 1981; their swan song, All Shook Down, in 1991), which means that many fans had their own version of the band’s story—Frankensteined together from old interviews, legendary live performance lore, years of rumors, and deep personal relationships with the music—that they carried around in their hearts and minds for a long time.

In that way, Trouble Boys was a neutron truth bomb. Facts from the book quickly flooded The Replacements’ ecosystem, generating endless conversations, debates and a fair amount of shock that continues to reverberate five years later. Many longtime fans, myself included, rooted for The Replacements’ self-sabotaging ways in the ‘80s, further romanticizing it in the ‘90s and beyond, but that support has gotten harder to justify in light of troubling Trouble Boys’ revelations. (See above: “the more I read about them the less I find them charming.”)

The result is a kind of cognitive dissonance. How can you look your kids in the eye and tell them to “make good choices” while lionizing a group of suspended adolescents who seemed to shit on every opportunity they ever had? How about your grandchildren? Spouse? Employees? Students? Oh my god. Is this how our parents felt about Jerry Lee Lewis, Jim Morrison or even Iggy Pop after a certain age?!

It’s a low-level conundrum that I playfully refer to as “The Mehr Effect.” So I shared my pet theory with Mehr and he generously agreed to indulge me with an interview.

“Trouble Boys is kind of a Rorschach test for whoever is reading it. People’s reactions to the book tell you a lot more about who and what they are then it really says about The Replacements,” Mehr told me by phone.

He might be right. Consider these Trouble Boys snippets from Amazon reader reviews:

“I found myself angry, more than once, while reading this very good profile of an important band to both the first and second wave of alternative rock music…”

“You probably won’t like most of the band after reading this, but you will feel like you know them and that you were along for the ride…”

“There were times reading this tome that I’d swear never to have a drink again. Why? The detailed descriptions of the ‘Mats’ drunken debauchery made me feel ill and hungover…”

“…as a long-time fan of the band, much of it was difficult to read. Even when things were going well for the ‘Mats, there’s a constant undertone of sadness on almost every page.”

“While I like the band and have collected all their music I became disgusted by their antics and self-destructive behavior described in this book. …Don’t get me wrong; I still love the band but I kinda wish I didn’t know all this detail.”

For the record, Mehr is, first and foremost, a Replacements fan. He discovered the band at the tender age of eleven when he stumbled on their legendary Saturday Night Live performance in 1986. He picked up a copy of Pleased To Meet Me a year later, which he says is “in many ways, the most complete album they made.” He thinks Sorry Ma might be their purest album, and Tim has “their best and most enduring songs,” but Hootenanny remains his favorite. Mehr loves Replacements songs where “Paul’s looking inward into the band, whether it’s ‘Treatment Bound,’ ‘Portland’ or ‘Talent Show.’ Or when he’s surveying things that are real, like ‘Here Comes a Regular.’”

‘Trouble Boys’ author, Bob Mehr

As a fan, Mehr knew Trouble Boys wouldn’t fit the traditional “ups and downs, drugs, failures and comeback” template of most rock biographies because The Replacements’ weren’t multiplatinum-selling stadium rockers like The Rolling Stones or Mötley Crüe. But that’s precisely why he thought their story was so relatable.

“Everybody always talked about all the crazy things they did, all the self-destructive stuff, all the self-sabotage—but nobody ever actually stopped to ask why. What was behind this? My belief when I started writing the book was that there was more behind this than just mayhem for the sake of mayhem,” Mehr said.

Here’s a Replacements “mayhem” highlight reel (spoilers!): Westerberg yelling “Come on, fucker” on SNL; stealing master tapes from the Twin/Tone Records offices and dumping them into the river; saying “motherfucker” live on WBRU; gambling per diems away, tearing them up, and eventually lighting them on fire; playing dodge ball with knives during the recording of Don’t Tell a Soul; challenging the band, roadies and crowds nightly as the opening act for Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers; destroying tour vehicles, etc. …all fueled by flagrant drug and alcohol abuse.

I admit that when confronted with these scenarios, I briefly felt complicit in their commercial failure (Replacements fans often indulge in a “they should’ve, would’ve, could’ve been huge” form of magical thinking, as if mainstream success was guaranteed if not for all their shambolic shenanigans). I shared all of this with Mehr who listened patiently before letting me—and any other Trouble Boys readers who had similar reactions—off the hook.

“The Replacements didn’t need anybody to egg them on,” Mehr said. “The fundamental truth is, they did what they did, the way they did it. Some of it was kind of crazy and pointless, and some of it was a genuine expression of their even deeper emotional stuff in their backgrounds. But Paul Westerberg doesn’t need anybody to egg him on.”

To be sure, The Replacements never made any bones about their dysfunction and their willingness to indulge it. (This is, after all, the same band that released a cassette-only live show in 1985 called The Shit Hits The Fans.) But Mehr is quick to point out that Westerberg studied P.T. Barnum and fully understood the power of spectacle.

In fact, the foundational myths about the band are pretty clearly spelled out in some of the earliest tracks from Sorry Ma, like “Shut Up”:

Well, Tommy’s too young
Bobby’s too drunk
I only can shout one note
Chris needs a watch to keep time…

Likewise, consider the musical heroes they chose to worship in song: guitarist Johnny Thunders, self-destructive junkie genius of the New York Dolls and front man for the (other) Heartbreakers (“Johnny’s Gonna Die” from Sorry Ma); and iconoclastic anti-star Alex Chilton, best known for his work with the Box Tops, Big Star, Panther Burns and a handful of eclectic solo albums (“Alex Chilton” from Pleased To Meet Me).

“It’s a trick of misdirection, you know. ‘We don’t care, we suck as musicians, no one cares, we’re no good’—the whole self-effacing Replacements thing wasn’t the truth,” Mehr said. “They were really good musicians, (Paul) was a good songwriter and they were—when they wanted to be—a really great band. Paul’s a really canny performer and showman who also happens to be somebody who is completely in the moment and can’t fake it. Even for his own benefit.”

In the end, that authenticity might be the biggest reason so many fans have stuck around for so long, even after everything we’ve learned about our deeply flawed musical heroes. It reverberates throughout the band’s catalog, across their strange career and feeds their ever-deepening mythology. Or, as Paul so succinctly put it in the song “Never Mind” from Pleased To Meet Me: “Absolution is out of the question. It makes no sense to apologize…”

In other words, they were human—maybe to a fault. Trouble Boys may have forced fans to confront some uncomfortable truths, but that ultimately might be more about looking in the mirror than it is about the band. The great news is that on the other side of those reflections is the incredible songwriting and fantastic music that got and held our attention in the first place.

“The Replacements weren’t a band for their time, they were a band for all time. Their victories and the place they earned in the rock ‘n roll pantheon has only come over time. And maybe they’re better for it. Maybe there success is more well-earned as a result of that,” Mehr said.

Perhaps the same is true for Replacements fans. We like the music we like, but artists don’t owe us consistent live shows or perfect albums simply because we demand them. And they certainly don’t owe us successful careers just because we want it so badly for them, for so long, that it almost hurts.

Especially not a dangerous rock ‘n roll band like The Replacements.

“Nothing was ever sacred to The Replacements—the music, the show or themselves,” Mehr said in conclusion. “Nothing was off limits, so why would the fans be any different?”

More Writing About The Replacements
The Replacements’ Sorry Ma at 40
Sorry Ma Box Set: Top 10 Bonus Tracks