Bob Mehr Q&A

April 4, 2022
Bob Mehr believes that the Replacements got plenty big, thank you.

“I think Trouble Boys is probably one of the most real band biographies ever written, because Paul and Tommy and everyone else involved was willing to be truly honest and didn’t feel the need to protect their egos or image and skew the story a certain way that would feel false. That’s a pretty rare quality in rock ‘n’ roll or show business. And I think that’s why the book has and continues to connect with people on a visceral level.”

The Replacements have been notoriously hard to pin down for interviews. How did you convince Paul and Tommy to talk to you?

Through a combination of timing, tenacity and dumb luck. I knew going in that for a biography of the Replacements to really work, to have any actual value, that I needed as many of the principals involved as possible, namely Paul and Tommy, who were the only ones involved from the very beginning to the bitter end.

I spent a lot of time and effort on the front end — around 2007-2008, before I even had a book deal — trying to secure their participation and that of all the other key figures in the story. I had the good fortune of having a relationship with the band’s original manager and Twin/Tone label head Peter Jesperson, who is really one of the heroes of the band’s story and mine. He got me into a dinner with Tommy where I pitched him the idea. His response — and his way of getting out it, I think — was to say, “I’ll do it if Paul will,” never thinking that Paul would agree.

With Paul I had pitched him separately, through his manager — an amazing guy by the name of Darren Hill — on the idea and how I would approach a book in a handwritten letter. He seemed interested. But it was an opportunity to interview him for a SPIN magazine story in early 2008, thankfully assigned by a great editor named Steve Kandell, that really gave me a chance to sit face to face with Paul at his home in Minneapolis make a case that the Replacements deserved, and needed a great book. We sat at his house talking for hours and something connected in that conversation.

A couple days later, much to everyone’s surprise, including mine, Paul agreed to participate, and so did Tommy, as he had promised. Thus began my nearly ten year odyssey of getting Trouble Boys researched, written and finally published in 2016.

That’s the how of it. The question of why did they agree ultimately? I can’t really say, nor do I ever try and guess what goes on in Paul’s mind. But I do think by 2007, when I really started pursing it, that Paul and Tommy were finally ready and willing to reflect on the very intense and deeply affecting experience they’d had being the Replacements for a decade plus.

I think every human being needs to process their life and experiences. For a lot of years, Paul and Tommy were trying to move on and away from the Replacements and the negative stuff surrounding the band — their relative commercial failure, the death of Bob Stinson, etc. But inevitably, there was a desire there to have some understanding of what the Replacements had been and what the band had meant, if only for themselves.

I was lucky enough to be the right guy at the right time and was given the opportunity to be the instrument for that examination.

How do you balance admiring a band and writing about them objectively? 

Well, from the outset I was given a kind of greenlight by Paul to really pursue the story honestly and without boundaries. In that same first conversation regarding the book, he basically said “It won’t all be pretty, or make us look very good, but if you’re going to do this, the only way to do it is to tell the truth.” He might regret that now — ha!

In reality, though, all books are a subjective version of the truth, filtered through the author’s viewpoint and the various narrative and editorial choices that he makes. That said, I think Trouble Boys gets at the heart of the story – not just the basic facts but the feeling of what was happening and the underlying reasons for certain choices and behaviors — as well as anything could.

At the risk of sounding immodest, I think Trouble Boys is probably one of the most real band biographies ever written, because Paul and Tommy and everyone else involved was willing to be truly honest and didn’t feel the need to protect their egos or image and skew the story a certain way that would feel false. That’s a pretty rare quality in rock ‘n’ roll or show business. And I think that’s why the book has and continues to connect with people on a visceral level.

There was always this mythology about the band that they could have been huge but never got a sufficient enough push from their label. But your book shows this isn’t necessarily true. Do you feel that if the band had played ball a bit more they could have had R.E.M.’s level of commercial success?

Certainly, they could have had a better chance of being successful if they had done the small things in terms of playing the label/radio/promotional game, or made different choices in terms of picking producers or taking certain opportunities that were presented. But I don’t know that any amount of glad-handing with radio or label execs would have made them massive, massive stars at that time in that context for a variety of reasons that I explore more fully in the book.

In Trouble Boys, I really address this idea through the Georgia Satellites, who were friends and contemporaries of the Replacements. The Satellites were a great rock ‘n’ roll band, and they actually enjoyed a sort of fluke hit in “Keep Your Hands to Yourself.” Their singer Dan Baird talks about how bands don’t always get to choose the kind of success they have. The Satellites had pop success, a number two Billboard hit and sold a ton of records, but all that ultimately didn’t last and their reputation doesn’t endure the way it should, and you could say the same about a couple dozen bands that were bigger and more commercially successful than the ‘Mats at the time.

The Replacements didn’t have that radio and album sales success in the moment. But 30 years later they are as important and revered a rock ‘n’ roll band as America has ever produced. The Replacements played baseball and tennis stadiums and headlined festivals when they reunited in 2013-2015, they are the subject of books, tributes, box sets and catalog retrospectives, their music turns up in countless films and TV shows and they are continually being discovered and lionized by successive generations of fans. If that’s not success then what is? Like Baird says, you don’t get to choose the kind of success you have or when you have it. It didn’t happen for the Replacements during the ‘80s, but time has proven to be the great equalizer.

Do you feel the Replacements belong in the Hall of Fame?

Yes, they belong in the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas, Nevada. Seriously, though, they were nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, but didn’t get in. That organization works in mysterious ways. I’m not sure if they were only nominated because of the heat of the reunion at the time, and perhaps as a sop to Seymour Stein, the Sire label head who signed the ‘Mats and who is also a key Rock Hall figure. Anyway, I always heard that the Replacements got the least amount of votes of any nominee ever (which is fitting somehow) and that’s why they haven’t reappeared on the ballot since. I would say it’s a long shot. But I think — again immodestly — that the success of Trouble Boys and the various offshoot reissues projects I’ve helped put together have maybe given some voters an increased interest and respect for the band and their work and influence. I’m hoping that, over time, and maybe with a couple other projects, that the Hall will recognize them again and they’ll get in. But I don’t think anyone in the band is losing any sleep over it.

The level of abuse that Bob Stinson endured as a young person was heartbreaking to read about. Was all that new to you when you did the research?

Going into it, I had a sense that Bob and his personal journey was going to be key to unlocking the real story of the band. I always knew that the Stinsons had a vaguely troubled upbringing, but it wasn’t until I really dug into the research and interviews that I came to understand the depth and impact Bob’s childhood had on the whole story. I mean, everything he went through had a direct relationship to how and why the Replacements formed. But that’s also true of the backgrounds/childhoods of Paul, Chris and Tommy and ever Peter Jesperson. Bands like the Replacements – ones with that kind of peculiarly powerful chemistry and magic  – don’t just happen by accident. There are usually greater and hidden forces and factors (not always pleasant ones) that go all the way back to the beginning, that determine a great rock ‘n’ roll band’s path and destiny.

You worked on the book for a decade. How do you keep the finish line in mind when you’re reporting and writing? Was it hard to maintain your enthusiasm during this long gestation period?

I joke that at this point I’ve spent 15 years majoring in Replacements studies. I’ve earned a double Ph.D in Matsology. Imagine if I’d used that time to really do something beneficial for myself or society? No, strangely enough, even with the book and the extended work I’ve done with the band’s catalog, I still am utterly fascinated by their story and still in love with their music. Other than being a lifelong fan of the Los Angeles Lakers it’s the thing I’ve devoted most of my life to – sad as that sounds. But there is something endlessly fascinating about groups and this group in particular. I am convinced that the very notion of a rock ‘n’ roll band is one of the great human experiments of all time. I guess the idea of that, understanding those dynamics and complexities, appeals to me in some strange way that I never tire of.

Fans have long argued the merits of Let It Be vs. Tim. Where do you come down?

I think Let It Be is still the more well regarded album overall in terms of public consensus  — due in no small part to its superior production and a very iconic cover photo (don’t discount how valuable that can be in determining the legacy of a record). But Tim is my personal favorite. Had the band switched out a couple songs on Tim — dropping “Lay Down Clown” and “Dose of Thunder” in favor of the original “Can’t Hardly Wait” and “Nowhere Is My Home” — and had a better cover photo then I think it would be head and shoulders above LIB and in the discussion of greatest albums of all time, which it still should be.

What are you working on now?

Since the paperback edition of Trouble Boys came out in 2017, I’ve been helping oversee a series of Replacements reissues and new archival releases for Warner Bros.’ catalog division, Rhino. This includes For Sale: Live at Maxwell’s 1986, deluxe versions of Pleased to Meet Me and Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take out the Trash, and our reimagining/expansion of Don’t Tell a Soul, Dead Man’s Pop, which won a Grammy last year. We’re taking a break in 2022 from any new Replacements projects, save for a Record Store Day breakout from the Sorry Ma box, a 1981 live recording of the band from the 7th St. Entry, titled Unsuitable for Airplay, which will get a vinyl release in April.

Personally, I’ve got a few other projects, including some Replacements related stuff, in the offing, I hope. We’ll see. I recently finished a set of liner notes — the biggest thing I’ve done since the book — for another band that will be part of a 90-page hardbound book accompanying a big anniversary box set later this year. Also, I continue to write regularly for MOJO magazine in the U.K., the last great music publication in the world, which is a source of great pride for me; the current issue has a long interview I did with Bonnie Raitt.

I’m still trying to figure out what my next book will be. The Replacements story and all the work I’ve done on and for the band has spoiled me. They’re going to be a tough act to follow.

Photo by Kevin Scanlon

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