WHEN THE REPLACEMENTS played the Hollywood Palladium in April 2015, part of their “Back By Unpopular Demand” reunion tour, lead singer Paul Westerberg came out in a checked button-down shirt that, a few songs in, he discarded to reveal a white V-neck T-shirt inexplicably spray-painted with the letters E and M on the front and the back. For obsessive fans of the band — and let’s be clear, I’m in that camp — the lettering on Paul’s T-shirt was fast becoming a thing of much discussion: there was a Facebook page; there were conversations on Twitter. Fan sites were already hypothesizing — what did it mean? Was Paul talking to us? Was he talking to the band? Was this a middle finger to the recording industry, to mainstream radio, to the bands who’d been ripping him off since the 1980s? Was it just another bratty joke? It would take two months to crack the code in its entirety — he was spelling something out, two new letters a show — but by then it hardly mattered. The Replacements had decamped for a few festivals in Europe and the gist was clear well before Westerberg announced onstage, in Portugal of all places, that the band was over — again. I Have Always Loved You, the accumulated T-shirts read, Now I Must Whore My Past.

In terms of passive-aggressive messages, it was a pretty good one. You can read a lot into it, it’s different for every person, and it reveals a level of old school self-loathing today’s modern rock stars could learn a lot from: Why express yourselves in 140 characters every single day on social media when you could prolong the process and make your fans feel a little sad and frustrated in the process? Though, the fact is, if you’re a fan of the Replacements, you’re probably used to feeling a little sad and frustrated. Not because the Replacements were vile or remote — at their best, original members Paul Westerberg, Tommy Stinson, Bob Stinson, and Chris Mars were glorious and unbridled, a soundtrack for parties and mistakes and driving by yourself in a shitty car wishing you had a better life; which is to say they played music you could scream along to and music you could cry with as well — but because when they were their very best, particularly in concert, you could see for yourself that they were four young men who were wrecking their lives for our entertainment.

Since their first breakup in 1991, a surprising amount of scholarship has gone into the semi-rise, full-collapse, and lasting relevance of the Replacements. There’s Jim Walsh’s excellent oral history, All Over But The Shoutin’, for instance, followed by Walsh’s book of photos, Waxed Up Hair and Painted Shoes. Plus, Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azerrad, which looked at the Replacements as well as contemporaries like Hüsker Dü, Dinosaur Jr., and Fugazi while examining the spread of indie rock in the 1980s, and Colin Meloy’s thoughtful 33 1/3 examination of Let It Be, the band’s third (and arguably best) studio album. There is also an exceptional documentary, Color Me Obsessed, which is as notable for what it contains — comprehensive interviews with every living person related to the band as well as a litany of artists influenced by their work — as for what it doesn’t: not a single member of the group appeared on camera, nor was there a note of their music. Combined together, these books and films — plus the countless feature stories on everything from Bob Stinson’s descent into addiction and madness, to the meaning of the cover art on Let It Be and Tim — painted a picture that, if you listened to the music, you could have probably colored yourself.

But that’s the thing. For the most part, no one listened to their music. Their biggest album — 1989’s major label swing for the commercial fences, Don’t Tell A Soul — sold 319,444 copies, which as Bob Mehr notes late in his meticulously researched and exhaustive biography, Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements, simply wasn’t a number befitting a rock band in the time of Bon Jovi and Madonna. “In the Warner Bros. label file,” Mehr writes, “someone scrawled and underlined: ‘Not enough.’”

It wasn’t for lack of trying. Starting with their 1981 Twin/Tone release Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash, through the end of the reunion tour in 2015, people lined up to help the Replacements make it big, which often meant otherwise sane individuals put their careers and, frequently, their health and well-being on the line for songs they loved, even when it became apparent that the members of the band were uniquely ill-suited for the spotlight. Given every opportunity to become the biggest thing, the Replacements — in particular lead singer/songwriter Westerberg — instead alienated every person who might reasonably have been in their corner, habitually destroyed relationships, hotel rooms, tour buses, and themselves, and burned through (often literally) money and opportunity, including a notably disastrous turn on Saturday Night Live which kept them off network TV for years. The previous books and films have all postulated on the why of it all — usually settling on the easy answer that Westerberg, the Stinsons, and Mars were drug addicts and drunks — but Mehr digs deeper, thanks to a decade’s worth of exclusive interviews with the musicians, their families, their friends, their lovers, and seemingly every person who ever worked with them — or sat down to drink a case or 10 of beer with them — and the end result isn’t just a historical document about a band that should have been called the What Could Have Beens, but also an essential look into the machinery of artistry, and the foibles of trying to make music into business … especially when those charged with making the music, and those handling the business, are so irredeemably fucked up.

“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,” Mehr writes, but the fact also was that each of the men in the band came from a life where alcohol, substance abuse, and mental instability had already played a substantial role. Westerberg’s father was an alcoholic; the Stinsons’ father and stepfather were emotionally, physically, and/or sexually abusive addicts; Mars’s older brother Joe was schizophrenic; and all of them were running from the same worst fear — that they’d end up pushing a mop somewhere.

And, interestingly, they tended to attract the same kind of people. Mehr runs through thumbnails of every significant player in the Replacements’s professional and personal lives — from their parents to their managers to their lovers to the guy who had the unfortunate task of driving their tour bus — and the telling details which reoccur with startling frequency are that most came from “hard-drinking” parents, ended up abusing drugs and alcohol themselves, and, in way too many instances, found themselves dead way too early. This is the larger subtext of the book, the nut that Mehr manages to crack: Maybe it wasn’t just that the band was troubled. Maybe it was that the people who worked for them, the people who loved them the most, were troubled, too, creating a cycle of codependency that could only end in tragedy. “They weren’t heavy fall-down drunks when I met them,” Westerberg says of his bandmates, but he could have been talking about anyone in Trouble Boys. “None of us were. We learned to be that together.”

Where much punk rock music of the time spoke to larger political themes and general Reagan-era anger, the Replacements were foremost the sound of the suburbs, as much about small town America as Springsteen, but without the romanticism. As such, their songs quickly moved from the standard sort of rants and raves on Sorry Ma that initially put them in the punk category, to unabashed anthems (like “Bastards of Young,” notable for its, “We are the sons of no one, bastards of young / Not the daughters and the sons” middle finger-waving chorus), love songs and, later, in tunes like the alcoholic despair ballad “Here Comes A Regular” and the suicide rocker “The Ledge,” the kind of pained introspection that no self-respecting kid with a Mohawk and a Descendants T-shirt would ever admit to loving. The cracks showed early. By the time the Replacements released their third full album, Let It Be, you could see the crises that were coming. On one hand, there were songs like “Gary’s Got a Boner,” whose lyrics had the sophistication of a bathroom wall:

C’mon little Gary, get your head on right
C’mon little Gary, get your head on straight
You’re gonna get her down
You’re gonna finger to her
You’re gonna suck me down
You’re gonna see her out …

And on the other hand, there was “Androgynous,” a song that was a good 20 years ahead of its time:

Here comes Dick, he’s wearing a skirt
Here comes Jane, you know she’s sporting a chain
Same hair, revolution, same build, evolution
Tomorrow who’s gonna fuss

And they love each other so
Androgynous
Closer than you know, love each other so
Androgynous

Don’t get him wrong and don’t get him mad
He might be a father, but he sure ain’t a dad
And she don’t need advice that’s sent at her
She’s happy with the way she looks, she’s happy with her gender

The Replacements clearly had rage on their side — the “He might be a father, but he sure ain’t a dad” line could have applied to anyone in the band — but the longer they made music, the more that rage turned into depression. Their final album, All Shook Down, which was little more than Westerberg and a bottle of Jack Daniels, doesn’t just sound like a band breaking up, it sounds like a person crumbling apart, bar by bar, pun intended.

Which isn’t surprising, since Mehr postulates that Westerberg might have a “clinical degree of oppositional defiant disorder” and Westerberg himself admits to a variety of psychological issues, which might help explain why he comes off as equal parts charming genius, loveable comic, and complete and utter asshole content to ruin not just his own life, but everyone else’s, too. The genius part is easy enough. Westerberg’s songwriting in the 1980s, particularly in the four-year period which produced Let It Be, Pleased to Meet Me, and Tim, the Replacements set the template for a generation of far more successful bands: everyone from Nirvana to Green Day to Drive-By Truckers to Titus Andronicus, to the spate of alt-country groups who’ve co-opted Westerberg’s hard-drinking, hard-living tales of broken hearts and broken bottles owe a debt to the Replacements. But so, too, do pop singers like Lorde, who covered “Swingin’ Party” for a little indie credibility, or the hundreds of teenagers sneering through ironic KISS covers on YouTube. But like most geniuses, Westerberg wasn’t appreciated in his time, or at least wasn’t as appreciated as others. Westerberg and Tommy Stinson constantly seemed tweaked by the success of R.E.M., who, at the start had the same excessive love of substances and shared a similar punk-influenced early sound, and yet managed to get clean enough — and commercial enough — to become the biggest band in the United States. When the Replacements label, Warner Bros., signed R.E.M. to a record-setting $80 million dollar deal, a few short years after All Shook Down dramatically floundered, Westerberg said,

I’ve had to mention them in every interview I’ve done since 1981 […] The problem is, they don’t have to mention [the Replacements]. They simply don’t have to acknowledge us anymore. They won.

Of course, it was never a competition, and it can be argued that in terms of artistic influence, R.E.M. ended up on the losing side of things, whereas the Replacements found themselves in reverential conversations among the music literati. But you can’t pay your rent with acclaim. And while the royalties from having “Can’t Hardly Wait” and “Unsatisfied” rolling over the end credits of various teen romantic comedies for the last 15 years or so must help, one imagines the total earned income of the band is probably roughly equivalent to about a billionth of Michael Stipe’s net worth.

Not that it seemed, at first, that anyone in the band was in it to get rich. Likewise, they didn’t want anyone to get rich off them, either. When it came to finding a producer, for instance, it wasn’t so much about finding a person who might take their work to the next level as much as it was about finding someone who could tolerate them — personally, chemically, and sonically. “[T]he band wasn’t going to repeat takes endlessly, play to click tracks, or work banker’s hours,” Mehr writes. “The band needed someone flexible, not technique-driven, and someone who’d be willing to charm, distract, and cajole them into making a record.”

Which is where the asshole part becomes more complicated. If you’re in a band and your goal is to record music, why should the actual making of a record be such a battle of wills? That’s as much of a cliché as trashing your hotel room, the idea of great art only coming out of torture — but maybe the Replacements needed to constantly be in opposition to some authority in order to make great records. Mehr wonderfully draws out Paul and Tommy’s constant anger at producers, managers, and promoters, but at some point it stops being funny. Where the Replacements were bratty young punks in 1981 (on Sorry Ma) from whom you might reasonably expect bad behavior, by the mid to late-’80s they were already devolving into caricatures of themselves. With Bob Stinson obviously losing what tenuous grasp he had on sanity amid increased addiction issues, aborted suicide attempts, and spousal abuse, the band pushed him out of most of their recordings, or he didn’t bother to show up on his own; and yet they still brought him out on the road, which only exacerbated his troubles. It makes you wonder why, particularly when Bob’s own brother Tommy was with him each night, someone didn’t, to quote one of their own song titles, “take the wheel.” But then direction from the top probably didn’t help mitigate such matters. Mehr quotes Seymour Stein as saying, “I thought they were all a little crazy. But there’s degrees of crazy.”

Stein, the head of Sire Records, which put out the final four Replacements albums, knew from crazy, having worked with bands like the Ramones and Dead Boys. In an interview he told Mehr, “When the Replacements’ issues first started, I said, ‘You guys gotta try and work it out; there’s two brothers here.’ I tried to let nature takes its course.”

The problem, it seems, is that nature did take its course. When I was a kid first listening to the Replacements, the stories of debauchery I’d read about in magazines made me think the Replacements were cool, though of course all they were doing was aping the likes of Keith Richards and Johnny Thunders to the point that, eventually, they became their idols in the sense that they turned into a shorthand for insolence and excess. Their music became less notable than their lore. In Mehr’s retelling, which spares no bottle, no fight, no bad decision, no violent or wretched behavior, the idea that this was cool at all fades pretty quickly and what we’re left with is … sad and frustrating. Because after finally kicking Bob Stinson out of the band, years too late, amazingly, the band’s behavior got even worse:

“Part of all our behavior was an act,” said Westerberg. “But when Bob was gone, we were scared. It was just the three of us then, and we were trying to do every kind of weird, wild thing to distract ourselves from that.”

In a few years, Bob Stinson would be dead, Chris Mars would trade in his drumsticks for a paint brush, Tommy Stinson would be playing bass in Guns N’ Roses, and Paul Westerberg, critically hailed as one of the greatest songwriters of our time, would, in his solo career, be most notable for his complete lack of commercial success.

But then, just when one would think the catalog of the Replacements’s never-hits (well, save for “I’ll Be You,” from Don’t Tell A Soul, which peaked at #51 on the Hot 100, but was a modern rock staple; all the more ironic since it sounds almost nothing like any other Replacements song) and near-misses would disappear into the dollar bin at the used record store, something strange started to happen.

All those great songs somehow became bigger than the band itself: they came to emblemize an entire period of indie rock that would later morph into the worst corporate rock schlock — the Third Eye Blinds and Gin Blossoms of the world — and then, 20 years later, morph back into purist concerns like Lucero and Deer Tick, which embraced the punk, blues, and country tendencies that began with the Replacements. These bands were not afraid of a guitar solo, or a horn section, or a stray cowboy chord, and became known for riotous live shows, too; except these new bands actually stayed upright and played the damn songs, which wasn’t something the Replacements were always capable of doing. Also along the way, songs like “Bastards of Young” and “Left of the Dial,” written by a self-sabotaging group of alcoholics, began to resonate for a generation who had plenty of wars to name them and barely any radio at all, much less one with indie rock stations on the left of the dial, so it only made sense that eventually the band would reunite to give the kids what they wanted — and to give forty- and fiftysomethings a chance to relive their youth.

Except, of course, that the Replacements would never reunite for reasons like that. That would suggest a career arc with some degree of planning and execution. In fact, it took the near death of Slim Dunlap, the guitarist who replaced Bob Stinson after he was kicked out of the band, to get them back together, first to record a benefit album to help with Dunlap’s medical bills — he’d had a major stroke, which left him partially paralyzed and barely able to speak — and then to play a series of big-pay-day festivals like Coachella. Even still, Mehr says Westerberg was “leery of … spoiling the legend that had built up around the band.” But on the road they went and another funny thing happened.

They were great.

Backed up by Josh Freese on drums (Chris Mars wasn’t interested in returning to the fold) and Dave Minehan on guitar (since their other guitarists were dead and nearly dead, respectively), the Replacements played loose and fast and in-tune and for a good long time every night —at the Hollywood Palladium, they played 29 songs — and seemed to honestly enjoy themselves, encoded T-shirts be damned. That they were sober and had clearly practiced and Paul actually seemed to know the words to most of his songs was a benefit few could have imagined: on stage, for those two hours, anyway, the Replacements made good on the promises they never could have handled back when their future was still in front of them. Children by the millions (well, thousands) sang for Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson, since Alex Chilton was dead by this point, too, and so what if most of those children had to get home to tuck their own kids in?

Suffice to say, Trouble Boys is essential reading for their fans. Mehr’s ability to spend years interviewing Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson about every dark facet of their lives, as well as to get them to break down some of their most famous songs and infamous shows (both have remarkably good memories for the amount of blunt damage they did to their brains), is the sort of geek-level insight that had at least one fan — this one — rereading the book with his headphones on and his stack of bootlegs nearby. But more than that, Trouble Boys is the true story of a great American failure; of a band that should have been huge — they probably could be huge right now, really — except for that small problem that real people, with real problems, were never able to get out of their own damn way.

¤

Tod Goldberg’s most recent book is Gangsterland (from Counterpoint). His essays, journalism, and criticism have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, and, most recently, Best American Essays 2013.