The following is drawn from Bob Mehr’s book “Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements,” which hits stores Tuesday.
After changing their band name from Dogbreath to the Impediments in early 1980, the four misfit south Minneapolis youths who would become the Replacements started to click under singer/guitarist Paul Westerberg’s somewhat self-imposed leadership in a new rehearsal space: the basement of a house that Anita Stinson newly rented with her sons, guitarist Bob Stinson and his 13-year-old bassist brother Tommy. It’s where the quartet first dabbled in original songs. It’s also where they turned to another ingredient that would be all too integral to the band.
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The Stinson family had found some stability on 36th St. and Bryant. But in early 1980, the property owners decided to move back in, forcing the Stinsons to pick up stakes again.
Gary Bowman was a regular at the Uptown Bar and heard Anita was looking for a place and didn’t have a lot of money. His family owned a two-story frame house on 22nd and Bryant that he could rent to her at a discount. She warned him that her boys had a band and that it could get noisy. Bowman assured her the place was big: six bedrooms, 4,000-plus square feet — it had actually once been a rooming house. The band could practice in the large unfinished basement. Bowman didn’t mention that the basement was also where his father had committed suicide.
Down a rickety staircase, the basement was a cramped brick-and-concrete bunker dominated by a giant octopus furnace and surrounded by exposed piping. “The guy had hung himself from the pipes, and the boys played right next to that,” said Anita, who noted that the house was haunted. “You definitely heard things at night. But [the ghost] was friendly. He enjoyed us being there.”
Despite sharing space with the undead, 2215 Bryant Avenue South would become the band’s headquarters.
“Maybe being a little hipper than [my] older parents, she figured, ‘Well, if they’re going to do this stuff, at least they’re under my roof,’ ” said Westerberg. “We wouldn’t have gotten off the ground but for Anita allowing us to play in the basement. And she had to … put up with that noise.”
Though Dogbreath had started out as a weed-centric band, the fuel for the Impediments soon became alcohol. Westerberg wasn’t drinking when he joined; in fact, he’d been toting a bottle of grapefruit juice when he met them. “I was on one of my first spells on the wagon,” he said. “I was determined to grab the bull by the horns a little bit as far as finding a band to play with. Before that, it felt like a band just was something to do in between partying.”
Having been a drug guinea pig through adolescence — taking double hits of whatever his friends dared him to — Westerberg’s reaction to pot had become distorted. “If I drank beer and smoked weed, I would get a weird LSD-type high. So I stopped.”
Chris Mars [the band’s drummer] had stopped smoking pot, too. Booze offered a better buzz for the kind of fast, raucous, rowdy music they were making anyway. They drank cheap domestic brew: Mickey’s Big Mouths from the Hum’s liquor store around the corner, with occasional bottles of Arriba: “One of those Thunderbird-Mad Dog 20/20-Ripple lighter fluid wines,” said Westerberg.
Though the band’s drinking would come to define and even consume them in later years, in the beginning it was a perfect lubricant for the long hours of practice and their burgeoning friendship. “That was the glue that held us — ol’ Jack Daniels,” said Mars. Westerberg noted: “They weren’t heavy fall-down drunks when I met them. None of us were. We learned to be that together.”
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Early on, Chris Mars passed along a tape of his tunes to Westerberg. “One of the songs, I believe, was called ‘Down in the Basement,’ ” Westerberg said. “There were two or three other things. They had a lot of stops and starts and chord changes.” Paul rebelled at learning them: “It’s no different than playing ‘Aqualung’ or the Allman Brothers. I said, ‘[Screw] this. Why don’t I just write my own?’ ”
Westerberg’s immersion in punk and garage rock had slowly liberated him from his mind-set as a guitar geek. His years reading music magazines heavily informed the type of songs he would write. “I started to get a sense of what critics think is cool,” said Westerberg. “I was very hip to what they’d liked about the New York Dolls. The Dolls’ songs were classic rock-and-roll because they had beginnings, middles and ends.”
Westerberg wasn’t sure he could really come up with anything truly original, but a Ritchie Blackmore quote in Guitar Player magazine — “You’re either a genius or a clever thief” — provided a spark. “I thought, Okay, I’m no genius, so I went and ripped off a bunch of Johnny Thunders songs and rewrote them. If Johnny can make two chords for ‘All by Myself,’ I’ll just change the key and call it something else.”
There would be other influences, too: “The Who, the Raspberries, the Sex Pistols, the rockabilly revival, and all the ’70s pop radio [crap] I used to love,” said Westerberg. “It was all mashed in there.”
Westerberg wrote in his parents’ basement in the daytime. By summer he’d amassed nearly 30 tunes. “It was out of necessity. I figured if we’re going to have to play an hour set, as fast as we play, we’ll need 30 songs.”
“Paul’s songs were together, rockin’ numbers,” said Bob. “He basically came with all the words and maybe the bridge, and he’d stumble onto something, and I’d throw something in, and he’d say, ‘That’s it, that’s it!’ ”
“It was bubblegum garage music sung by a guy who couldn’t sing,” said Westerberg, “and they sort of harnessed that with their loud rock chops and made it better.”
The leitmotif of Westerberg’s first songs was searching: looking for girls, drugs, jobs, rides. Others were written as tacit rejections: of school, authority figures, any kind of community ideal. “I can’t write happy songs, so I write about the things that make me the most frustrated,” Westerberg said.
His greatest frustration was women. He’d always been consumed by romantic crushes on unapproachable figures. “Try Me” was about a curvaceous waitress he’d admired from afar; “Customer” was inspired by the clerk who sold him cigarettes. “Near my house, there was SuperAmerica, a gas station,” he said. “There was a cute girl who worked behind the counter who never had time for anything. There was always a line of five truck drivers, and you’d have to get your thing and go.”
He also mined the band itself. Bob Stinson’s history of juvenile delinquency, Tommy’s snotty adolescent antics, and the mad dashes clinging to the back of Chris Mars’ motorcycle were the basis for some of his most memorable numbers. “I figured if I’m gonna sing these tunes, it’s gotta be something they can relate to,” said Westerberg. “If I wasn’t specifically writing about them, I would use something they said, their terminology or a phrase, to sew the whole thing together.”
The band would become his muse, characters for him to play with in song, and ultimately a kind of myth to promulgate. “I could tell you right now that those things wouldn’t have gotten written without them. It’s taken me years to realize what they facilitated,” he said. “It was the four of us; it was an attitude that made those songs.”
Excerpted from “Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements,” by Bob Mehr. Available from Da Capo Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2016.
Read more of our stories about the book at startribune.com/music.