Review of “Trouble Boys: The True Story of The Replacements”

FotoFlexer_KetelReplacementsAs chronicled in Bob Behr’s excellent history “Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements,” the band were often self-sabotaging drunken louts who performed to their audiences basest desires to see a head-on pile up. Yet in 1987 at the Graffiti, Paul Westerburg and his mates put on an inspired gem of a show playing an ungodly 28-song set plus a few encores that included Westerburg taking and playing requests. Someone yelled out a Christmas song and one of rock’s greatest lyricists indulged.

In 1987, the ‘Mats (as they’re affectionately known) were on the verge of super stardom. On the road to promote their highly anticipated second major label release (“Pleased to Meet Me”), they inexplicably chose chaos and destruction rather than playing it straight. And that’s the point of Behr’s book. In a calculated choice between dominating the airwaves and destroying their livers, the Minneapolis kids picked up the bottle and rarely set it down.

The band always had trouble reconciling their hard scrabble upbringings with a desire to be accepted. They were four high school drop outs (with the exception of their 12-year old bassist, who may have dropped out of middle school at some point) working menial jobs and making tremendous racket in a basement who somehow crafted some of the most beautiful songs of their generation. Always fortunate to find friends willing to take a chance on their talent and overlook their glaring alcoholism and drug use, they were propelled into legend if not exactly fame.

While “Trouble Boys” explores psychological factors, including child abuse, that lead to many of the challenges the band faced on their career trajectory, it doesn’t delve deeply enough to explore how such a talented songwriter as Westerburg came to blow up what should have been a brilliant career. He both craved fame and urinated all over it, including shouting a profanity on Saturday Night Live that lead to a television ban.

The Replacements three record output of “Let it Be,” “Tim” and “Pleased to Meet Me” rank as one of the greatest runs ever by a band, yet they struggled to escape the confines of college radio. Meanwhile, their colleagues R.E.M. were able to reach the top of the charts, infuriating and confusing the ‘Mats. It’s not that Westerburg was against “selling out,” he just couldn’t get his demons under control long enough to make people like him.

An American soul singer who could bang out classics like “Unsatisfied” and “Here Comes a Regular,” Westerburg started chasing the dream and further alienating all of his allies. Firing band mates, management and even bringing in session players, he became prophetic in writing “A dream too tired to come true.” With the release of “All Shook Down” and it’s single “When it Began”, the dream had come to a close.

It’s difficult to read their post-Replacements lives, especially the half-brother Stinsons. Tommy gets his first non-musical job as a telemarketer selling office supplies and Bob dies of “natural” causes before the age of fifty. For his part, Westerburg got sober and embarked on a somewhat successful solo career, though the big hit remained elusive. One of the joys he finds in sobriety is being able to coach his son’s little league team.

To his credit, Behr interviews nearly everyone involved in the Replacements family, from the earliest days in Minneapolis to the final tour. Reading each and every drunken miscue becomes exhausting. You keep hoping that they’ll straighten out long enough to taste success even though you know the ending. By the early 90s, as the torch of the Replacements’ sound gets passed to bands like Nirvana and the Pixies, it’s too late.

In a final ditch effort to cash in on renewed interest in their music, the Replacements reformed in 2012 to tour the world. They played in front of their largest crowds ever, and even talked about recording together again. But, in staying true to themselves, the project devolved and was canceled before it could can go further. A May 2015 show scheduled at Stage AE was canceled due to illness, and by June the tour was over. Even in sobriety they found a way to disappoint their fans. The troubled legacy would remain intact.

Review of “The Strange Library”

Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami’s follow up to his brilliant “1Q84”is a slight fable that reads like a condemnation of Common Core, the education system that promotes memorization over critical thinking.

As in most fables, Murakami gives us a young protagonist who finds himself on a quest. In “The Strange Library,” our nameless narrator visits the city library to return books and to learn about tax collection during the Ottoman Empire. To fulfill his quest, he is lead through a labyrinthine basement by a menacing library assistant and confined to a cell.

Often criticized in his native Japan for using western story-telling techniques, “The Strange Library” incorporates elements of fabulism and folklore that feel rooted in Japan. The book is also peppered with drawings that give the feel of being a picture book for adults. The drawings have the coloration of anime or pop art, bold and hypnotic. I imagine Guillermo Del Toro is already working on the screenplay.

Our narrator chides himself constantly for his own politeness, and his willingness to please others. His desire to learn about the tax collecting policies of the Ottomans is more a whim born from loneliness than an actual intellectual pursuit. He arrives at the library near to closing time to return 2 titles, “How to Build a Submarine” and “Memoirs of a Shepherd.”

Which brings us to the man in the sheep skin suit. A variation of this character has appeared in other Murakami’s books, and in “The Strange Library” he appears as a slave to the brutish library assistant. Our narrator empathizes with the man’s plight and invites the man in the sheep skin suit to escape with him.

Surely Murakami, with his fascination for Western culture, would know the significance of the “sheep skin” symbolism, and how Westerners refer to diplomas as sheep skin. The boy is aided in his assignment to memorize three books about tax collection by the man in the sheep skin. The boy is told that he cannot leave the library until he can recite the books verbatim.

As in “1Q84,” Murakami plays with a notion of parallel universes where actions in one universe can affect outcomes in another world. Like a liberal education, the narrator elects to study a subject and then is forced to commit to that choice. In this case, the commitment takes the form of being confined to a part of the library he did not know existed. The narrator fears his surroundings, but also fears for the worry he will cause his mother if he does not return home in time for dinner.

Like most good fantasies, there is a love interest. Here our narrator meets a wraith like young woman of incredible beauty who nurtures him in his confinement by bringing him his meals. How many productive educations have been lost to the pursuit of romance?

The grandson of a Buddhist priest, Murakami also generously peppers this tale with Christian imagery. From the boy returning a book titled “Memoirs of a Shepherd” to him losing his new, leather shoes during his escape. He also discovers his pet starling has escaped while he has been away. The transference of freedom. What does he gain from losing?

Of course, this book implies that the memorization of obscure details may in fact be liberating, but does this “liberal education” truly produce freedom? Isn’t our narrator now imprisoned by a stifling knowledge of impractical facts and details. Are we, like our narrator, filling our heads with useless information merely to pass our time through our days. Instead of Ottoman tax collectors, we share information about talent show contestants and PED participants.

“The Strange Library” is certainly accessible by Murakami standards, but is not as satisfying as his master works. While it does offer an allegory for the pursuit of an education, including the harrowing experiences with pedagogues and taskmasters, it leaves the reader wanting for a more fleshed out story. This story story has a place in the Murakami canon but not at the top.