It started with an old Speedo swimsuit he found at his mom’s garage sale. That prompted a best-kept-untold memory from a tour stop at the Landmark Hotel in London.
“I thought, ‘Oh [bleep], that really did happen!’ ” Bill Sullivan said. “I was kind of hoping I’d made that up.”
“It Really Did Happen” could have been the title of Sullivan’s highly entertaining new book. The former owner of Minneapolis’ once-vital rock club the 400 Bar instead came up with “Lemon Jail: On the Road With the Replacements.”
Named after the Replacements’ ramshackle, graffiti-and-urine-coated tour van from the mid-1980s, Sullivan’s breezy, bawdy, 160-page tome chronicles seven years and about eight lifetimes’ worth of adventures serving as a roadie and tour manager for Minnesota’s notoriously unmanageable rock legends.
A well-known fixture/character in the Twin Cities music scene, Sullivan, 57, began writing down some of the memories that came to him as he sorted through keepsakes and notes from his 1980s-era adventures. The best of those stories — at least the best ones not too incriminating, like the Speedo tale — and 100 of Sullivan’s random snapshot photos were pieced together for the book, publishing this month by University of Minnesota Press.
“A lot of the stories in it are intentionally things that I alone saw,” Sullivan said with a smirk. “That way, no one else can dispute them.”
The most surprising thing about “Lemon Jail” probably isn’t its many shock-and-awe moments of mayhem, like the time late guitarist Bob Stinson left a very unpleasant surprise in an ice bucket on a hotel elevator. Or the time a marijuana smuggler with a police radar smuggled the band away from a college campus where they had been particularly destructive.
More shocking than all that is the mere fact that Sullivan would even write “Lemon Jail.”
Taking readers for a ride
Sullivan has been relatively closed-mouthed to the press about his Replacements war stories over the years. He did not even grant an interview to author Bob Mehr for his acclaimed 2016 biography on the band, “Trouble Boys” — which explored the band’s darker underpinnings and dramatic elements, whereas Sullivan’s book sticks to the most lighthearted and block-headed stuff.
Some of Sullivan’s tall tour tales would get cajoled out of him by the Replacements-worshiping younger musicians he later worked for, such as Bright Eyes and Cat Power (he also toured with Jimmie Vaughan and Yo La Tengo in recent years). But the book is mostly made up of tales not yet heard even by die-hard ’Mats fans.
“People to this day still ask me for Replacements stories,” he said. “It was an annoyance at one point in my life.”
So why the book, then? Seemingly just another contradiction in the ever-boggling Replacements realm, Sullivan’s intentions with “Lemon Jail” are actually quite simple and applaudable.
“I really did just want to express how much fun it was, and how great that era of rock ’n’ roll was,” he said.
“Especially in Minneapolis. I mean, Hüsker Dü played every [bleeping] week in Minneapolis back then. People were going to see cover bands in most other cities in America, but we were going to see Hüsker Dü. And then along came the Replacements.”
A music-head from an early age — his affection for Alice Cooper is especially well known — Sullivan dropped out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison when he got turned on to the Minneapolis music scene.
Sullivan humorously recounts in the book how little he knew about music gear when he started working with the Replacements around 1982; at first, he would tune guitars based just on the tightness of the strings. But he had a rarer asset that earned him long-term status with the band.
“I think it was just because Paul liked me,” he said, referring to ’Mats frontman Paul Westerberg. “I still really don’t know if he likes me, but he knew I would back him up in any situation. And I certainly did on many occasion.”
While he doesn’t offer a whole lot of personal insight into the Replacements’ members — the book is more about the job than the band — Sullivan makes his affection apparent. Remembering the relationship between bassist Tommy Stinson and his late guitar-playing brother Bob, for instance, Sullivan writes:
“Bob really cared for and protected his little brother, and even if he was heavy-handed in his tutorship of Tommy, the result speaks for itself, as Tommy would become one of America’s great rock musicians and an iconic star in his own right.”
A Heartbreaker ending
Sullivan was the last of the Replacements’ original crew members to stay aboard until 1990, when the band made a mostly futile push into the corporate music mainstream and toured arenas as Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ opening act — a telling moment that kicks off the book but marked Sullivan’s last stint with them.
“It didn’t really end, it just kind of rolled over,” he said of his tenure. He could’ve been talking about the band itself, too.
By then, Sullivan was also working for Soul Asylum, with whom he would serve throughout their early-’90s commercial heyday. When his dad died, though, he opted to stay off the road for a while and spend more time with his mom. That’s how he wound up buying the 400 Bar in 1996.
“I had a couple shows I wanted to bring to town, so I thought, ‘Why not?’ ”
He would go on to book early Minneapolis gigs by Spoon, Arcade Fire, Elliott Smith, the White Stripes and many others until shuttering the bar in 2012. Then came the head-scratcher decision to reopen the 400 with a music museum attached at the Mall of America. He and his partners were evicted for unpaid rent even before they restocked the bar in 2013.
“I thought it was a good idea to pair it with the museum, but things didn’t work out the way they were supposed to,” he said, declining to comment further. “That’s not really part of the book.”
In fact, very little of Sullivan’s post-Replacements life is mentioned in the book.
He has been helping his brother Dave run a coffee shop in Raleigh, N.C., in recent years, and taking sporadic music jobs in Austin, Texas, with Vaughan and the company that puts on the Austin City Limits festival. He rarely signs on for a full-blown tour anymore, though, and showed a tinge of regret over all those years spent on the road.
“I never really had a chance at settling into a more normal life,” he said. “The van was always waiting outside. Like Paul said, ‘If we keep the roller coaster moving fast enough, nobody can get off.’ ”
But Sullivan didn’t show too much regret.
“You’d get home for a day or two, and it was nice, but then somebody would say, ‘Hey, you want to go out to California and hang out with X?’ Oh, OK. How do you say no to that?”
Here’s more of what Bill Sullivan had to say ahead of his “Lemon Jail” book appearance Wednesday at the Loon Cafe in Minneapolis.
On the Replacements’ wild reputation: “The band might seem like they were crazy, but the times were pretty crazy. Like [drummer] Chris Mars said: Everybody in the band took their day at [being crazy]. People often overplay that part of the story and don’t understand now how good a band they often were, too. People who were there will tell you: They tore a lot of those places up.”
On his final stint with the band, after guitarist Slim Dunlap joined and Mars quit: “Me and Mars kind of simpatico-left at the same time. I was basically just stage managing and taking care of his stuff at the time. I was taking care of Slim, too, but no one really takes care of Slim; he was more of a roadie than any of us. It just seemed like it was time.”
On the band members’ reaction (or lack thereof) to his book: “Mars asked for a couple small changes, but otherwise he said he liked it. He didn’t seem to think I’d done anything wrong or in bad taste, which felt good. Of course, both Paul and Tommy aren’t the type to call you up and give you feedback. It’s probably still in Paul’s mailbox.”
On his 17-year run post-Replacements as the 400 Bar’s owner: “I’ve had so many bands say so many nice things about how we helped them early on. And we put so many crew members out into the world too. A lot of successful sound men, club managers and crew members came out of that bar. It was like an internship for all of them.”