Monday, June 20, 2016

Interview: Bob Mehr, Author of ‘Trouble Boys: The True Stories of The Replacements’

Originally published here

Bob Mehr has pulled off quite an accomplishment, writing a biography of one of my favorite bands, The Replacements. What
made the band’s story hard to tell, and the reason the book is a dense 435 pages, is what made the band hard to love at times. They seemed at times  to revel in disappointing fans at their shows. In Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements, Mehr chronicles how Paul Westerberg, leader singer and main songwriter, time after time would have the band up to hijinks ranging from switching instruments to playing covers instead of their own songs, during concerts that could help make their career and lives easier.
A big show with influential people who can help promote the album? They’d do a terrible job at that concert, driving everyone away. A show with few folks? Oh, that one they’d do amazing at. It was a pattern repeated throughout their career and chronicled in the book.

There are many bands who never hit it big but were loved and influenced many other musicians and bands who came after them. What makes The Replacements heartbreaking is they had the potential to become bigger. However, they kept hijacking their own career, sometimes with the hijinks I mentioned, sometimes by literally burning their earnings for a show, and other times by personally insulting producers, radio personalities and anyone else that could help them.

The band lived down to many rock group stereotypes and cliches: Destroying tour buses, vans, rooms and furniture (and even instruments of people they were working with), getting drunk and stoned often.

Sure, some of their obstacles to success came from events beyond their control, as was the case with one of their best songs, “The Ledge,” about a boy contemplating suicide. Westerberg wrote it about his own personal experience with the subject. The song was set to be the lead single of what Warner Brothers thought would be their breakthrough album, Pleased to Meet Me. But MTV banned the song after some recent high-profile suicides and even radio stations who had been playing the song soon stopped. Bad luck like that plagued the band.

At the same time they were living this hard life, Westerberg was writing some of his best songs, which were often slower with tender, thoughtful lyrics that did not match the hard-rocking style of the first few album. Those poignant tunes foreshadowed problems with the band’s direction.
Mehr meticiously describes the band’s evolution from album to album. How the band moved from rocking hard to having some slower numbers (still mixed with harder rocking songs), but ultimately moving from a band that would rehearse and record together to Paul Westerberg recording pretty much by himself to the band breaking up as Westerberg went solo.

Some rock band biographies glaze over the hard, emotionally challenging parts of a band’s career focusing on the fun stuff instead. And, sure, some of this is hilarious like the band’s behavior when they got their first big break on TV, performing on Saturday Night Live, and between being drunk and, more problematic for the live show, cussing on air, leaving them not appearing again on television for years.

But Mehr, a veteran music journalist, not only tackled the band members’ struggles with alcoholism and drug addiction but even chooses to start the book at a tough emotional place, namely the 1995 funeral of founding member Bob Stinson, the guitarist whose alcohol and drug problems grew so problematic that he was kicked out of the band. This was complicated even more by the fact that one of the other main and founding members was Bob’s little brother, Tommy. Detractors of the band considered Bob the soul of the band and his removal more proof the band was getting more mellow and common.

And with that let’s start the interview, which Mehr was gracious enough to conduct with me, about this book written with the participation of most of the band members.

Why do you think this band, without awards or great sales, are still so important to its fans?

The songs Paul Westerberg wrote, the legend the band carved out for itself, the fact that they fell short commercially in their time — all those things have kept them powerful and relevant. Also, there was some mysterious intangible quality to them — as people, as a band — that resonated so deeply with those who heard and saw the Replacements. I think that people connected with the Replacements musically, emotionally and almost spiritually. That’s largely due to the fact that they were so purely themselves. There was no “act” or image that they were flogging. They were who they were, onstage and off, in the songs, and in the street. That’s a rare quality in rock and roll, and even rarer in show business in general. That’s what’s precious about the band.

What do you think readers who are fans of the band will be most surprised to learn in your book?

Hopefully, everything. I tried to write the history of the band almost from scratch. To probe more deeply into their pasts and personal lives than anyone had ever done, in order to understand what each of them brought to the group, and how it impacted their career. Certainly, I think there are revelations about the early life of Bob Stinson that are difficult and shocking, but that holds true to varying degrees with all the members of the band. Also, I think people will come to understand the psychology and dynamics of a rock and roll band, and the politics of the music business of the 1980s in a way they haven’t before.

What were you most surprised to learn when researching this book?

Just how much went into the formation of the Replacements. That while the group seemed almost fated to come together, there was still years of pain and study and graft and so much life that had to come before the magic evening in 1979 when Paul Westerberg found the Stinson brothers and Chris Mars in that basement in South Minneapolis. It made me value and grasp the idea that there’s a whole lifetime of moments that lead to the birth of any great and important band. And the Replacements are a perfect example of that.

What’s your favorite song and album and why?

My favorite song is probably “Color Me Impressed” off of their third album, Hootenanny. I think that song and that album mark the key transitional point in the group’s musical evolution. They started out as a snotty punk band, and quickly decided that their real rebellion would come in their ability to try (and sometimes fail) playing any and every kind of music. So for those reasons Hootenanny, and its best and most quintessentially Westerbergian track, “Color Me Impressed’ rank as my favorites. At least for today — if you ask me tomorrow you’d probably get a different answer.

What did band members think of the finished product of the book and did they request and changes?

Part of my informal “deal” with the band at the outset was that although they would participate fully, they had no editorial control or veto power over the finished product. It was my book to write.
The only real allowances I made in that regard was with the Stinson family. Since I was dealing with such sensitive and painful matters from their past, I wanted to be sure I was portraying everything accurately and delicately, particularly since they weren’t part of the band and hadn’t signed up for this project as such. Fortunately, everyone involved on the family side approved of the job I’d done, even though the subject matter was very difficult.

As for Paul and Tommy, their reactions were much as I expected: discomfort with much of what was depicted in the book, but also a sense that I had taken the task seriously, and created a biography worthy of their legacy. It’s not an easy book by any stretch – certainly not for those closest to the story. But as Paul told me many years ago when he agreed to be a part of this, the only way to do the Replacements tale any justice is to tell everything honestly.

Do you recommend the book be read while listening to the band’s albums?

Absolutely. One of the things I’ve been most pleased about in hearing from people who’ve read the book is that it’s given them a new appreciation for the music and songs, or that they’ve been able to hear the albums in a new way. Or even that it’s made them reconsider records or tunes they’d once dismissed. Given that I go into the writing and record of each album in depth, I think absorbing the music along with the story is an ideal way to immerse yourself in the Replacements world.

Why did you decide to start the book with the funeral for Bob Stinson?

Ultimately, Bob’s life and death are pivotal to both the book’s narrative and the history of the band. Although it might seem a counter-intuitive or bold choice to begin that way, it felt like starting the story with anything else would almost be a cop out. For the book to really function the way I wanted it to, it was essential for readers to understand the stakes for this group from the very first page.

Do you think there will be any future reunions?

That’s not something I could ever speculate on with any insight. Paul and Tommy tend to march to their own beat. I think the recent 2013-2015 reunion started fairly spontaneously, and continued on because of the tremendous creative momentum and public demand. If they never play another show, I think the reunion served its purpose: to show that the Replacements are a deeply beloved group, that they have reached a critical mass in terms of their popularity (as proven by the tens of thousands who showed up to see them), and most importantly that their music will live on long after we’re all gone.

For those who have not read this book how would describe your own relationship with the Replacements? Were you really one of their drivers on some of their tours?
No, I was just a fan, first and foremost — one of those great many people who loved the band as much for what seemed to be their philosophy as their music. Then I became a professional music critic and journalist and developed casual connections with the group. I had no real relationship with them beyond that before starting this project. But I think that’s probably what allowed me to write the book as I did. I came at it with an outsider’s curiosity, but wanting to tell an insider’s story. I hope I succeeded in that.
Which do you prefer, writing magazine articles or a book?
I tend to have a kind of monomaniacal focus when it comes to writing. So anything that can satisfy or appease that — whether it’s a book or long form magazine feature is something I enjoy.
The whole idea of immersing yourself in a subject — be it for a couple weeks for an article, or eight years, like it was with Trouble Boys, is what I love most.

Friday, June 3, 2016

How My Position On the Death Penalty Wavered While Covering A Serial Killer's Trial

After graduating from college in 1991 I worked as a newspaper reporter in Southern California. Often the newspaper's sole reporter I covered a variety of beats. Looking back on the work, though, the stories I remember the best are the ones I covered as a police reporter. On that beat you see the best and worst of people - well, more often the latter - and are left with memories, some good and some bad. This is part of a series of memoir pieces I'm writing about some of those events, thoughts and emotions.
It has been said that a conservative is a liberal who got mugged. I thought about that saying after covering a murder trial and sentencing for a serial killer.

I'd read arguments on both sides of the capital punishment argument and I knew where I stood. I was a good liberal - I'd quote Mahatma Gandhi at the drop of a conservative speaker's hat. I did speeches on the issues and probably annoyed my parents with my rantings on the matter.

But after seeing the death penalty actually being considred, as I covered murder trials for the Hemet News, that I began to question things... a process I'm still continuing to this day.
There was a man in Riverside County named William Suff. He was accused of murdering 13 prostitutes. It took the county 18 months to figure out who the serial killer was. It turned out he was a county employee. There was a lovely picture of him on a county newsletter, praising him for carpooling.

I grew up fascinated by mysterials. And legal thrillers. With a copy of my latest Robert Parker or Scott Turow I'd sometimes go by the courthouse on the way to work. Who wants to cover a city council meeting when a crime hearing that is somehow related to that town is going on?
After some pleading, my editor said I could cover portions of the Suff trial. After all, one of the victims was from the area. But I also had to cover my usual government beat.

I thought that by seeing people like Suff, people doing deeds that seemed like pure evil, I could better understand people. But if there are people of pure evil, then where did that leave ideas like rehabilitation?

And what about people I'd later cover like Dora Buenrostro, who would stab to death her three children, blame the crimes on her husband and then scream in the middle of a courtroom that there were snakes coming right at her? The court said she was mentally competent to stand trial.The prosecutor said the crimes came about because of passion and jealousy.

Is this the best way to understand human weaknesses? I wondered. I'm not sure now. I just know I had some sleepless nites then.

The first and the last days were the worst, both to watch and to describe in print.

On the first day of the Suff trial they began showing photos of the victims. I guess they wanted to shock the jury with his callousness of his actions. I was sitting between two elderly couples. figured they were families of the victims but I didn't ask them.

In thinking and writing about war crimes and torture the other day the way I put it is this: "We should not use extreme circumstances, real or imaginary, to make policy decisions or take ultimate stands on a complicated issues. Better to make those decisions in unemotional circumstances."

I still think that makes sense. But who would I tell these relatives, who seem to be almost blood-thirsty in their quest for revenge, that they should wait until calmer times to stake out a position on the issue? I can't. Can you?

If I had to try to sum up what I learned it is this - taking absolute positions is easy, provided you don't have to actually test those positions in sticky emotional situations like this one.