In that context, the beguiling and combustible rock ’n’ roll that the Replacements delivered – the joyous, defiant anthems and aching ballads found on records like Let It Be
, and Pleased to Meet Me
– were something to bond over, and feel protective about. It helped that the group’s chief songwriter and singer, Paul Westerberg, was obviously every bit as frustrated, disaffected, and recklessly romantic as we often were. They were funny, too. In addition to being the greatest band of their era, to their admirers, the Replacements were also the most relatable.
Consistency was not their strong suit. As Bob Mehr suggests in Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements
(Da Capo), which is the first proper biography of the group, some of their unruly behavior may have stemmed from their childhoods. Rooted in working-class in Minneapolis, none of the four original members had particularly rosy upbringings, and one of the book’s ghastly revelations is that Bob Stinson, the bands marvelous first guitarist, suffered sexual abuse from his stepfather. (The Replacements fired Bob in 1986, after which his many addictions only seemed to worsen. In 1995, he died from organ failure.)
It is also true, however, that the Replacements actively cultivated their reputations for bratty insouciance. “Westerberg would say, as a cockeyed boast … that there wasn’t a drivers license or a high school diploma among them,” Mehr writes. Wracked by self-doubt and substance abuse, they often seemed incapable of letting themselves catch a break. The group finally had a chance of earning greater mainstream success in the summer of 1989, when they landed a coveted spot opening for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, but they botched that opportunity as well, performing lackadaisically nearly every night. When the tour reached Nashville, Paul announced from the stage, “Tom Petty says if we fuck up one more time we’re fired. Well, fuck you Tom Petty, and fuck you Nashville.”
Rock fans of a certain age remember a time when the Replacements enjoyed cult-like status as the most vital and intoxicating band in the world. I suspect that sentiment was especially keenly felt among those of us who grew up in the Midwest (or at least someplace other than the major coastal cities). Remember, in the mid-1980s, when the Mats were in their prime, the Internet did not yet exist. College radio was a “thing,” but not everyone had access to it, and in huge swaths of the country, buzz-worthy bands earned their reputations largely through word of mouth.