Bob Mehr’s comprehensive new biography of the Replacements, “Trouble Boys,” is so full of Minneapolis geographic references – streets, neighborhoods, buildings, even specific bus routes – that you wonder how confusing it must be to someone not familiar with the layout of the city. This local specificity adds an extra layer of enjoyment for local readers, though the geography is also an important part of the narrative. The story of the Replacements is deeply connected to the geographic and cultural landscape of Minneapolis in the 1970s and ’80. All four of the original members were raised in the city, and all within the same close-knit, working-class neighborhoods of the south side. “Raised in the City” is, of course, the name of a Replacements song: “Raised in the city / ‘til I’m old / maybe buy a car / when I’m old.”
The origin story of the Replacements is, in fact, directly connected to walking through the urban landscape of south Minneapolis.
In 1979, Paul Westerberg was working as a janitor for Marsden Maintenance, headquartered then as now in the Midway area of St. Paul. Most of his jobs were in downtown Minneapolis office buildings, including the offices of Sen. David Durenberger, located in the Butler Square building on First Avenue. Westerberg would filch stationary from the office and reuse them: “There’d be songs like ‘We’re Gonna Get Drunk Tonight,’” he tells Mehr, “and at the top it would say ‘From the desk of US Senator …”
From Butler Square to his home at 41st and Garfield was a pretty straight four-mile shot down Lyndale Avenue on the No. 4 bus. Some days, instead of taking the bus home, Westerberg would just walk the hour and a half, mostly down Bryant Avenue. “I was trying to think of ways to build up my lung power,” he says in the book. “I’d read that Sinatra had swum laps. I always got good ideas when I walked, too.”
One night, while walking down Bryant, he passed the house at 3628, and noticed a racket emanating from the basement – a cover of Yes’ “Roundabout,” but “really fast and screaming.” He was duly impressed with the sound. The band rehearsing in the basement was called Dogbreath, led by two brothers named Bob and Tommy Stinson. Westerberg would later be introduced by a mutual friend at a band rehearsal at 3628 Bryant. He recognized the house as the one he’d passed on his walk: “we pull up and I’m thinking, This is the joint!” Westerberg would shortly thereafter join the band, and they’d go on to become the Replacements.
It’s incredible how much of the Replacements’ story takes place in and around Bryant Avenue. If the Replacements were the Beatles and Minneapolis was Liverpool, Bryant Avenue would be choked with signs and historical markers pointing out heritage sites along the way.
Of course, to many people, the Replacements were the Beatles and Minneapolis was Liverpool. The past few times an out-of-town visitor between the ages of 35 and 55 has visited me in Minneapolis, they’ve wanted to see at least one Replacements-related historic site. Thanks to Mehr’s book, I could now take them out for a full pilgrimage experience, and not stray more than two blocks off Bryant on either side.
As it did in the late 1970s, a walk from Butler Square still takes you down Hennepin Avenue, and under the cavernous freeway on-ramps between the Basilica and the Walker. With the exception of a spate of new condo development around the Midtown Greenway – very different from when it served as a gritty backdrop for photos of the band in the 1980s – much of the experience of walking down Bryant Avenue isn’t much different from what it might have been when Westerberg walked it.
The difficult part is clearing the nowhere around Interstate 94, Loring Park and the Walker Art Center. Once you’ve passed that and gotten on Bryant, it’s an uninterrupted walk south. Bryant Avenue is a bike boulevard now, and it’s heavily used in the warmer months, giving it a more lively quality than some of the residential streets running along Lyndale and Hennepin. There are at least two big public parks along the way, and on a recent March evening, both had full basketball courts and playgrounds. North of Lake Street, there are a lot of kids around.
The first site is probably the best-known Replacements address in town: 2215 Bryant Avenue, known far and wide locally as the “Let It Be” house. This was where the Stinsons lived with their mother, Anita, for much of the band’s early years. The cover of their 1984 album “Let It Be” was shot on the front roof, outside the window of his sister Lonnie’s room. You can see the softball trophies sitting on the windowsill. Remember, when the Stinsons moved into 2215, Bob was about 20, and Tommy was merely 14.
According to an article in City Pages a few years ago, the owner seems to receive semi-regular requests to recreate the famous cover on the roof – something he’s tried not to encourage, so there’s no plaque or marker of any kind. It was, then as now, a rental property, as are many of the properties in the area. Anita Stinson moved in with her sons in 1980, on the tip of a regular from the Uptown Bar, where she waitressed. One of the perks was that it had an unfinished basement for the band to rehearse. Many of the surrounding houses are also rental properties. The average house in this area appears to have been built in the early 20th century, and more than a few of them by homeowners with some money to throw around – Bryant has a number of impressive mansions with stained glass Palladian windows and colonnades. However, nearly all of these larger houses have been divided into apartments for the past several decades. There’s also a lot of ’60s-era apartment complexes mixed in, as well, from the city’s postwar apartment boom.
Paul Westerberg’s destination on the No. 4 bus was his parents’ home at 4126 Garfield Avenue. Mehr describes it as a “stately, four-bedroom, three-level prairie style home with a wrought iron fence. ‘My dad couldn’t really afford it,’ said Paul. ‘But people would see the car and the house and go, ‘Aha, your dad’s rich.’ I used to be so embarrassed by that.” Mehr describes the neighborhood in the 1960s and ’70s as “working-class, Catholic, heavily Irish.” Based on the lawn signs and cars parked on the street, the neighborhood is not particularly working class or Catholic anymore, though it’s still dominated by the Church of the Incarnation – the bell tower looms over the area around 38th Street, and both the Westerbergs and drummer Chris Mars went to Catholic school nearby.
While on one of his walks home from work, though, is when he first encountered the band that would go on to become the Replacements. Before the Stinsons moved up Bryant a few blocks, they lived at a rental property at 3628 Bryant Avenue. As in the later house, the Stinsons rehearsed in the basement. The sound, evidently, could be heard all over the neighborhood. If the neighborhoods south of Lake were anywhere near as quiet then as they are today, it must have been difficult to ignore. The neighborhoods south of Lake are some of the quietest places in the city.
“What got me was the sheer volume and the wild thunder,” Westerberg recounts to Mehr. “I think I heard them once or twice more, and then I finally decided to take a look down in the basement.” Mehr takes it from there: “Westerberg skulked around the left side of the house. He knelt down near a little basement window surrounded by shrubs. He tried but couldn’t get a good look at who was making the noise.”
Like accessing the roof at 2215 Bryant, peering into the basement is another Stations of the Replacements it would be difficult to recreate. First, upon seeing the house at 3628 Bryant, you have to admire Westerberg’s initiative. It’s quite a bit further back from the street than the houses on either side – perhaps this is because it’s a few years older than its neighbors. Westerberg would have had to pretty conspicuously cross the lawn and peer into the house, which makes you wonder if any nosy neighbors spotted him. (Of course, in the annals of Replacements’ public transgressions, traipsing across a lawn to look in a basement window wouldn’t even rank in the top 5,000.) This would not be possible now: There’s a pretty high fence surrounding the south side of the property around the front to prevent any potential Westerbergs from peering into the basement.
And there’s the early history of the Replacements, in one 45-minute walk. This isn’t all – both the CC Club and Treehouse Records, known then as Oar Folkjokeopus, are institutions that feature prominently in the Replacements’ early history, and both are located on 26th Street and Lyndale, two blocks off of Bryant. Tommy Stinson and his wife, Daune, lived for a few years in an apartment on Bryant, and later in a house at 39th and Lyndale. Bob Stinson’s last apartment, before his death at 35 in 1995, was over the shoe repair shop on Lake Street and Bryant Avenue, across from the Bryant-Lake Bowl.
What’s striking is how much of the Replacements’ lives occurred within such a relatively small area. None of the members of the Replacements, early on, had a driver’s license, and so their daily lives were contained within the boundaries of their neighborhood. A favorite anecdote in Mehr’s book is that when Westerberg finally met Stinson at a party in the neighborhood, he recognized him from the No. 4: “‘the stoned, weird-looking guy’ from the Bryant Avenue bus.”
So many of the songs are connected to the city’s streets, to the point where you can run through half of the Replacements’ catalog in your head while walking down Bryant and point to the shops, street corners, buildings and vehicles where they play out: early songs like “Run It” (“Lyndale! / Garfield! / Back up now / ‘Cept engine stopped running”) and “Customer” (about a clerk who sold Westerberg cigarettes at the SuperAmerica at Lyndale and 40th: “I’m in love with the girl who works at the store / Where I’m nothing but a customer”), or later ones like “Kiss Me on the Bus” (“Oooo, if you knew how I felt now / You wouldn’t act so adult now / Hurry hurry, here comes my stop”) and “Nightclub Jitters” (“The nightlife critters / What’s the cover? / Where should we park? / Stay at home once for a lark”). They all point to the same two-and-a-half mile stretch of the city along Bryant Avenue.