(Author of Trouble Boys: The True Story of The Replacements with special musical guests: Bright Little Field and Tommy Womack)
Listening to Bob Mehr talk about The Replacements put me back under the spell that reading his fabulous book had me under. It was also like group therapy to be in a room full of “Mats” fans. Together we share an enduring love for this troubled band, along with perhaps a codependency with their issues. In the end, we all had a successful counseling session with Mehr. Like he did with his book, he helped us try to make better sense of the notoriously legendary antics of a band for years fueled on alcohol and misadventure who never hit the big top, but created one of rock music’s most impressive bodies of work.
As usual, Doyle Davis and the fine folks at Grimeys Too/ Howlin’ Books went way above and beyond the call of duty for this late Saturday afternoon event. This was no simple book signing, but one embellished with some related Nashville-based music.
Kicking things off with the author, Mehr spoke for 40 minutes in a relaxed manner while sipping on a can of Tecate beer. Mehr is from Memphis, and it was therefore easy for him to add local Nashville color to his discussion. He mentioned how The Mats had close ties to several Nashville-based bands, notably Jason & the Scorchers and the Georgia Satellites. While rivalries existed with their home town Minneapolis bands and certainly R.E.M., they considered these Southern bands to be buds.
He also talked about two horrendously awful Nashville Replacement shows: one in 1983 at rock club Cantrell’s (a bit of which can be seen here in a local news story) and the other in 1989 at the Starwood shed. The latter was on the infamous Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers tour about which Mehr emphasized that despite trying, they were not kicked off as myth may have it. After giving up trying to impress Petty’s audience, they decided instead to antagonize them! For the record, they played the Nashville show wearing dresses borrowed from the Heartbreakers’ wives.
I personally did not see the band live until their later years and missed those really awful shows. But, even having heard their legend, I simply was not prepared for what I read in Mehr’s book. The horrid stories, which this book details so well and so often, are simply sad and tragic. Hardest for me was just how cruel the band could be to the people who were simply trying to promote their career. A clear thread throughout the book though is how those in power with a good ear, despite all the mess, could not simply overlook songwriting genius of Replacement’s front man, Paul Westerberg.
But this afternoon and in the book, Mehr gave an insightful look into the why’s behind the band’s behavior (“their early roots, childhood and backgrounds”). That said, I’ll leave it to the book to flesh out the details. Mehr provides facts galore succinctly coloring and setting the stage for his prognosis.
Mehr once asked Westerberg how different things would have been if they had just had one big hit song. (Perhaps becoming the next R.E.M. which Warner Bros. Records seemed to be betting their money on.) He replied if that were the case, Mehr wouldn’t be interviewing him for a book. “All of the romance would have been gone had they not fallen short.”
While this book is not authorized in the strict sense (“It was my book to write.”), Mehr leveraged existing relationships with the key players to make it happen. It was an unexpected seven years in the making (“The story just kept unfolding.”) with Mehr interviewing over 250 people. This included time with Westerberg, band members Tommy Stinson and Slim Dunlap, late guitarist Bob Stinson’s family, and long-time Mats manager Peter Jesperson. While original drummer Chris Mars declined, wanting to put his history with the band to rest, Mehr fortunately had logged in considerable time with him in 2008.
Some other interesting tidbits:
- While initially insisting he wouldn’t read it, Westerberg finally accepted an advance copy of the book. Getting it at 8am (per the FedX tracking), he later left Mehr a 3am voice mail the next morning suggesting that he may have read it non-stop.
- The only one declining to be interviewed was Tom Petty: “Just talk with Benmont (Heartbreakers’ keyboardist Tench) – he knows everything.” Mehr was hoping to ask him about the “rebel without a clue” line from Westerberg’s “I’ll Be You” that later showed up in Petty’s “Into the Great Wide Open.”
- As for whether we’ve seen the last of the band, Mehr believes that there will be another round of something involving Paul and Tommy. Around the reunion tour, they did make a couple of attempts at new recordings.
- Paul has been playing “Mr. Mom” raising his son for the last 17 or so years. His son is about to go off to college in the fall, and with Paul in a very prolific writing stage, if he is going to get back on the road, this just might be the time.
Mehr’s talk was followed by live performances of five songs from one of the most enjoyably clever tribute records ever conceived: Jonathan Bright and Tom Littlefield’s 2012 collection, Treatment Bound: A Ukulele Tribute to The Replacements. These gentle “uke” and vocal renderings added a joyful and celebratory touch to our collective Mats moment. This joy was a reflection of what Mehr had earlier remarked about the recent Replacements reunion shows with fans loudly singing along to every word. “It was a really beautiful thing. Their victory wasn’t in the moment in the 80s, it was for all time.”
To close the event, the story of the band was poignantly portrayed in the eight-minute solo acoustic ballad by Tommy Womack: “The Replacements,” from his 2002 Circus Town record. You owe it to yourself if you’ve not yet heard this one.
Both musical acts also shed light on some of the Mehr’s Nashville tales. Tom Littlefield was at the Starwood show, and in the “you got to be kidding me” category, Jonathan Bright’s band actually opened for the Mats the next night at the surprisingly great show in Louisville. In Womack’s case, his song revisits the 1983 Cantrell’s show which he lyrically describes as “awful”.
My thanks go out to the folks at Grimey’s/Howling for a great afternoon celebrating one of my favorite bands. And of course special thanks to Bob Mehr for writing one of the best rock bios of all time. It was a page-turner that I look forward to reading again after its memory start to fade.
Bright Little Field
- I Will Dare
- I’ll Be You
- I Can’t Hardly Wait
- The Replacements