Trouble Boys

The True Story of the Replacements


By Bob Mehr

Formats and Prices




$15.99 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around March 1, 2016. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.


Based on a decade of research and reporting–as well as access to the Replacements’ key principals, Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson–author Bob Mehr has fashioned something far more compelling than a conventional band bio. Trouble Boys is a deeply intimate portrait, revealing the primal factors and forces that shaped one of the most brilliant and notoriously self-destructive rock ‘n’ roll bands of all time.

Beginning with riveting revelations about the Replacements’ troubled early years, Trouble Boys follows the group as they rise within the early ’80s American underground. It uncovers the darker truths behind the band’s legendary drinking, showing how their addictions first came to define them, and then nearly destroyed them.

A roaring road adventure, a heartrending family drama, and a cautionary showbiz tale, Trouble Boys has deservedly been hailed as an instant classic of rock lit.


       PART I Jail, Death, or Janitor


[We were] miscreants who had no other choice, had no other road out. We were one of the few, the chosen, you know? It’s either this or . . . jail, death, or janitor.



Bob Stinson had dangerous bloodlines. His mother, Anita, came from Excelsior, Minnesota, a dozen miles outside of Minneapolis on Lake Minnetonka. Her father, Ernest Martin Hafner, was the first mystery in the family. “All I know is he left home when he was fifteen and started riding the rails,” said Anita.

Hafner spent time in the Navy and then settled near Lake Minnetonka, where he met his wife, Virginia Lebens, born 1919 in Shakopee. Her family was Dutch and Polish, and big drinkers. “I have a family genealogy that traces to the 1840s or something,” said Anita. “And every single relation was a drunk.”

Virginia Lebens also battled mental health issues, problems that would intensify among later generations of the family. Two of Bob Stinson’s cousins would commit suicide by hanging, one at the age of ten, the other at seventeen.

Ernest and Virginia had seven kids. Anita was the second oldest, born April 3, 1942, following big brother Tom and ahead of Mary, Eugene, Rosie, and twins Ronnie and Rita. Ernest was superintendent of the Water and Sewer Department of Excelsior; despite his fancy title, the Hafners led a modest existence. “Dad tried to feed seven of us on his little salary,” said Anita. “We weren’t poor, but it wasn’t easy, I’m sure.”

Anita was a fourteen-year-old eighth-grader when she met Neil Stinson at a dance. Some fifty years after the fact, she had difficulty recalling their initial spark: “Beats the bejeebers out of me. Can’t help you there.”

Granite-jawed, black eyes, dark crew cut, Neil wasn’t bad-looking—the strong, silent type. He was an introverted high school dropout; he was also functionally illiterate.

Neil’s family history was no less complicated than the Hafners’. Born in 1939 and raised in Mound, Minnesota, Neil was the fifth child of ten. His father disappeared early; his mother was such a severe alcoholic that the state eventually took her children away. Some were adopted, and some were put in foster care; those who were of age, or close, were left to fend for themselves.

After running away from foster homes a couple times, Neil moved in with his older sister Ruthie. Her husband, a roofer, taught him the trade, and Neil Stinson remained a roofer the rest of his life. His only other interests were hunting, fishing, and drinking.

Neil and Anita started going steady. “I was still in Catholic school then—I used to skip catechism class on Monday nights to meet him,” she said. In the spring of 1959, she got pregnant. “My family being Catholic, they didn’t talk about s-e-x. I hardly knew what was going on.” She quit Minnetonka High and accepted Neil’s shotgun marriage proposal.

On December 17, 1959, she went into labor. Since neither Excelsior nor Mound had a hospital, the baby was delivered one town over in Waconia. “Neil drove me there, then he left and got drunk with my brother for three days,” said Anita. “The only thing I remember is they put a mask on my face and when I woke up it was three days later and I had a kid. Then they tell you, ‘Now you have to nurse him.’ I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’”

Her firstborn son, Robert Neil Stinson, had blond hair, blue eyes, and a sweet disposition. “Bob was a prince, just a prince,” said Anita. A couple months later, Anita was pregnant again. In November 1960, she gave birth to a daughter, Lonnie. “Because we were so close in age, me and Bobby were almost like twins,” said Lonnie. “We were real close growing up.”

Not yet eighteen, Anita struggled to care for her young ones. “I was a child, trying to raise two children. It was overwhelming,” she said. What little social life she had revolved around drinking. “My parents took Bobby and Lonnie and said, ‘It’s time you got drunk.’ So that’s what I did. I was drunk for two days. That was the culture.” Over time Anita, too, became an alcoholic.

Despite the children, their marriage was soon failing. Neil was a heavy drinker and tightfisted. He was also emotionally distant, particularly toward his son. When Bob was three, Anita said, “Neil was outside working on his car and Bobby went to be around him. Neil literally picked him up by the britches and ran him back into the house and told me: ‘Take care of this kid.’ I thought, That’s your son too. There was no feeling there. Poor Bobby, it started young with him, when he was first rejected. I don’t know why that scene sticks in my mind so much, but it does. It’s still difficult. When I saw the way that was going, how Neil was, it just led me to think: I gotta get out of this mess.

The couple separated in 1963. Anita got a job waitressing at Skippers Café in Excelsior. “Neil wouldn’t give me any money for child support,” she said. “We went to court over that. Being a roofer, he was making fairly good money. The judge asked him what he did with it. He said: ‘I pay for groceries and rent, and I pay for my drinking and it’s gone.’”

Anita looked west for an escape route. “My brother Tom had been in the Marines, stationed in San Diego, and he just raved about the place. It sounded like there was opportunity there. And I wanted to travel. I wanted to see new things.” It was a major leap of faith: other than a few trips to Minneapolis, Anita had barely been out of her hometown.

“Leaving was an act of salvation and desperation,” said Lonnie. “She didn’t want to continue to live in a family of major dysfunction. Deep inside of her was that little piece of healthy rebellion. Her saying, ‘I’m not going to live this unhappy, suppressed life that you tell me I’m supposed to.’”

In December 1964, Anita forged Neil’s signature on his tax return check, went to the Super Value in Excelsior—where the clerks knew her—and cashed it. She had fifty bucks, two little kids, and three train tickets. They hopped aboard the Twin Star Rocket and headed for the Golden State.

When he finally noticed his wife and kids had disappeared without a word, Neil Stinson made some cursory efforts to locate them. “I think he called my mom’s brother Tom to get ahold of us,” said Lonnie. “I don’t know that he ever found out where we were.” Neil wouldn’t bother much more than that—in fact, he would not communicate with his two children for another decade. Anita never filed for divorce; technically, they remained married.

In San Diego, Anita and the kids settled into a little cottage near the ocean. First she was a receptionist for a rug cleaners; then she saw an ad for a job at Lyman’s Pizza & Bar, on C Street in downtown San Diego, a popular hangout for Navy and Marine men from the nearby ports and bases.

“I was a go-go dancer,” said Anita. “We’d dance to a jukebox. I guess it would be comparable to Hooters nowadays. I wore go-go boots and a bikini. It was fun.” It certainly beat slinging hash at Skippers Café in Excelsior.

Pert and pretty, Anita was popular among Lyman’s clientele. “At Christmas, the whole side of the bar was filled with toys for my kids [that] the sailors had brought.” Among them was a Kenner Close ’N Play record player that Bob claimed.

Life in San Diego was idyllic. “We’d go to the beach, catching starfish off the rocks, trapping crabs,” said Lonnie. “Bobby loved the water.”

Sun and sand, freedom and excitement—the move west had delivered Anita’s dream of finding a better future for herself and her family. But she would soon give up the liberated lifestyle, only to settle down again.

Everyone at Lyman’s knew him as Nick, the bartender. He was a shade under six feet, with jet-black hair and Gallic features. “He looked like a total Frenchman,” Anita Stinson would recall of the man she spent much of the next decade with.

His full given name was Neely Horton Griffin. His people had been among the early Irish and French settlers of Glascock County, Georgia, in the mid-1800s. His forefathers fought on the Confederate side during the Civil War, but could do little to stop William Sherman’s Union forces from scything through their home county. After the war, the Griffins remained in the area, farming the land for a couple more generations, until the Great Depression hit.

Born February 13, 1932, Nick moved to Cloud Lake, Florida, as a child, living there until he was nineteen, then joining the Marines during the Korean conflict. He trained at Parris Island and Camp Lejeune, but never made it overseas. Instead, he ended up at Camp Matthews outside San Diego, serving barely seven months before being discharged in 1952. He stayed in San Diego and eventually landed at Lyman’s.

Griffin also had a musical streak. “He did play drums, but not professionally,” Anita recalled. “He putzed around with them, I don’t know where, but he had played.”

Ten years older than Anita, Nick had been married twice and had three children from the first relationship. His boys, Billy and Alan, were grown, though another daughter, Linda, was still around in the midsixties, when he and Anita met. They were involved casually, then more seriously, and she and her children moved in with him. “I was raised in that era where there had to be a man in your life or you couldn’t do anything,” she said. “You couldn’t even write a check—that’s not a joke. You couldn’t go into a bank and open your own account.”

Griffin didn’t care for Anita’s kids, Bob in particular. Nick worked nights, slept and relaxed during the day, and didn’t want a six-year-old boy tearing around his home. “Bob was always told he couldn’t come in the house,” said Lonnie. “So he’d go out and wander the beach or the canyons nearby.”

The record player he’d gotten for Christmas offered a whole other world to explore. “He would save his money and buy these little 45 records of the Beatles,” said Lonnie. “Bobby and I would wander downtown and go to record stores.”

It didn’t take long for Anita to realize that she’d made a mistake: Nick was a drunk and a degenerate gambler whose moods swung with the betting results. The affair might have ended early on, except in the winter of 1966 she got pregnant.

Their son, Thomas Eugene, was born on October 6, 1966. Anita named him after her two brothers, but because of her marital status, the boy was given the Stinson last name.

Tommy Stinson would inherit his father Nick’s features—round-tipped nose, triangular jaw—but got his mother’s coloring and bright personality. “As a baby, he was a joy,” said Anita. “He had charisma from early on. You could tell from the look in his eye when he was little, he was full of spit and vinegar.”

Buried in the archives of the Minnesota Juvenile Court is a thick case file on Bob Stinson from the early 1970s. In the section focusing on his early life, there’s a one-paragraph description that sums up his decade living with Nick Griffin:

During the ten years that Mrs. Stinson lived with her boyfriend, Nick, Bobby was subjected to both physical and mental abuse at Nick’s hands. . . . Nick was an irascible man who singled Bobby out for abuse. She estimates he beat Bobby with a belt approximately once a month. Bobby was the family scapegoat. His sister, Lonnie, was a family favorite. Bobby must have felt like an outsider in his own family and he freely admits that he hated Nick. It was probably during these years that he retreated into fantasy. According to his mother he never had any really close friends, which seems to indicate that distrust was an early component of his personality structure.

What the report didn’t reveal was that for much of those ten years Nick Griffin was also abusing both Bob and Lonnie in far more serious ways.

“It was physical and sexual and verbal for both of us,” said Lonnie. “With me, it was more the sexual and Bobby more the verbal. But all of it, for sure: I caught him [molesting] Bobby when we were real young. But I only caught him once. So I don’t know how long or how extensive it was.”

Both children kept silent, largely out of fear—that they wouldn’t be believed, that they were the ones doing wrong.

At the time Anita was totally unaware; it went on while she was away at work. “You look back and you go, ‘God, how could I have not known?’” said Anita. “You feel like you failed.”

Griffin, who died in 1989, was possibly a serial child molester. Though he was never charged with any sex crimes, the Los Angeles County sheriff once held Griffin for a weekend in 1967 for loitering suspiciously near a grade school. “When he got back, he told me straight out that he’d been in jail because ‘they thought I was watching kids in the schoolyard,’” recalled Anita. “Why the heck didn’t that mean anything to me?”

Griffin’s sexual abuse of the children started when Bob was only seven. “I know exactly in my mind the first time,” said Anita. “I had been at work the night before and Nick was off. It had to have happened then, because the next day he was different. He wasn’t Bobby anymore.

“That night we were having dinner, and Bobby couldn’t eat. Then he started throwing up. He ended up throwing up all over the place. Lonnie and I took him to the doctor. He was throwing up nothing but bile. He had no fever, nothing. The doctor could not find a thing wrong with him.”

Compounding the physical trauma was Griffin’s belittling of Bob, in private and in front of the family. “Bobby never felt like he was worth anything because Nick always told him he wasn’t,” said Lonnie. “He grew up, even into his twenties and thirties, believing that. What hurts the most is what he did to my relationship with Bobby. We were tight until Nick came along. I was kept in the house, and Bobby was forced outside. That’s the part of my life that I hate the most, what he did to us. And I know my mom: she’ll probably take that to her grave.”

Beyond their frequent verbal arguments, Nick was sometimes physically abusive toward Anita as well. She tried to end their relationship several times. “She’d leave him and she’d go back to him, leave him and go back to him,” said Lonnie. “I think she knew in her heart it wasn’t the right thing, but she didn’t know how to not be there.”

In 1969, Nick Griffin’s mother died. He decided to move back to Florida and pledged to make a fresh start there with Anita and the kids. Eventually he got a job bartending at the Ramada Inn. Anita started working for Howard Johnson’s on Okeechobee Road. They got an apartment on M Street in West Palm Beach.

Initially, things were stable, relatively speaking. The couple had a daughter, Lisa—whom Nick favored most—in 1971. “Lisa was the only child that I ever saw him be even a touch nurturing with,” said Anita. Not so Bobby and Lonnie, who were reaching adolescence. “We tried not to have friends, we didn’t want to bring them home because of Nick,” said Lonnie. “I was in the house taking care of Tommy or Lisa, and Bobby was outside most of the time.”

Nick began taking fewer bartending shifts and tried to earn his living instead as a gambler betting on greyhounds at the Palm Beach Kennel Club. Only in his early forties, he’d already developed emphysema because of heavy smoking. He was prone to dark rages, or worse.

Anita had become the family’s main breadwinner. She served as a hostess for PGA Tour events as well as the fairly lucrative Howard Johnson’s gig. “I made big tips, sometimes a hundred bucks a night—which was amazing back then,” she said. Anita began socking the money away, eventually saving enough for down payments on a new car and a three-bedroom trailer home—but the banks wouldn’t guarantee her loans, so everything was put in Nick’s name.

Despite this new stability, Bob had started ditching classes in sixth grade and ran away for short periods of time. Once, he broke into a house and vandalized it. None of it came to the attention of the juvenile authorities.

Bob also developed into a bit of a shut-in, holing up in his room to avoid his drunken stepfather and to listen to and play music—first the Beatles and the Jackson 5, then the era’s wilder rock artists he’d developed an adolescent affection for, in particular the albino blues guitarist Johnny Winter. Bob badgered his mother to buy him a guitar for Christmas; the instrument quickly became an obsession. “It was nothing for him to sit and plunk away at his guitar for eight, nine hours,” said Lonnie. “That was his escape.”

From there Bob found his way to prog rock and the band Yes, whose guitarist Steve Howe became his musical idol. The band’s top 20 hit from 1972, “Roundabout,” featuring Howe’s furious electric runs and atonal soloing, would exert a profound influence on Bob’s playing. He put together a couple of bands with neighborhood kids, staging some shows at the clubhouse of the trailer court. “Bob was only twelve or thirteen,” said Lonnie, “but because he had such a passion, he would find people around him who would play.”

In November 1973, Anita’s father died. Ernest Hafner had left his wife and family not long after Anita had bolted for California. He spent a decade living and drinking in Colorado, then succumbed to cirrhosis.

“When Daddy died, it just dawned on me: ‘What’s left of my family is in Minnesota,’” said Anita. Her mother, Virginia, had relocated to Minneapolis. Their relationship was strained, but things with Nick had so deteriorated that Anita was considering every escape route.

An attorney informed Anita that her common-law relationship with Nick wouldn’t be recognized by the state. She would have to battle for everything she wanted in court. But she was ready to cut her losses.

As Nick grew drunker and more belligerent than usual over the 1973 holiday season he raised his hand to Anita again. “I’d already told him, ‘If you ever touch me again, I’m gone.’”

This time she meant it. Anita bought a couple of sea trunks and waited until she knew Nick would be gone for the night. Then she threw everything she could fit into them, gathered her four children, and fled to the Greyhound station.

“I had this one train with a little battery pack. That was my favorite toy,” said Tommy. “It was so tight getting out of there that I couldn’t bring that. And it was a thing I could’ve put in my pocket. It was like: ‘We gotta go now.’” Bob was even more upset: “My mom made him leave his fucking guitar,” said Tommy.

Bob and Lonnie, thankfully, would never see Nick Griffin again. But the damage he’d caused would not disappear. “My sister, she grew up and worked through all the shit my father did to her,” said Tommy. “But my brother . . . he was such a broken kid at such a young age. He never really got past it.”


Paul Harold Westerberg was a child of the 1950s, just barely. The second son of Harold Robert Westerberg and Mary Louise Philipp, he hit the sheets on December 31, 1959, though he wasn’t due for a few more days. “My ma always told me that she flipped a mattress that day to hurry up the process—so I would make it there in time to be a tax deduction,” said Paul. Years later, in the song “Bastards of Young,” he’d write: “Income tax deduction / One hell of a function.”

His father Hal was born in 1918, the oldest of Robert Westerberg and Margaret Harris’s six boys, and spent his first year in South Dakota before the family resettled in Minneapolis. “I don’t remember a whole lot of him talking about his youth,” said Paul of his father. “We’ve got a picture of him when he was four. Then it’s pretty much blank until he hits the service.”

Hal’s passion was golf; he was a zero handicap as an amateur and played in regional tournaments. “He had illusions that he would be a professional golfer,” said Paul. “That was his love and what he wanted to pursue.” But after college came World War II, and Hal never got a chance to fulfill his dream.

The war deeply affected the Westerberg family: Hal’s younger brother Billy was killed at Iwo Jima in the spring of 1944, and Hal fought in the Normandy Invasion that June. “He got off the boat and there was thousands of guys blown to bits,” said Paul. “They had to walk through all the carcasses. It probably wrecked every guy who saw that for the rest of their lives.”

After a few scotches, Hal would let slip that his particular duty had been to walk among the corpses of the fallen soldiers, collecting dog tags and personal items and prying wedding rings off bloated fingers to send to their wives and families back home. But otherwise, he didn’t speak about the war. Hal was tight-lipped, period: “He was never a great communicator via words,” said his son. “It was always a twinkle of the eye, or a roll of the eyes. He’s a very smart guy. He’s just quiet.”

So were the Westerbergs generally. Primarily of Swedish and Finnish ancestry, with some Scotch and English blood added later, they became farmers and railroad workers in America. What showbiz there was came from Paul’s mother, Mary Louise Philipp, who was German and Prussian on one side, Austrian on the other, and Catholic going back many generations.

Her brothers were musicians: Paul Philipp was a part-time trombonist (and full-time bus driver), and Bob Philipp was a pianist, first with his own band and then as a lounge entertainer working in downtown Minneapolis. Mary Lou also played a little piano: “I knew every word to every song that ever came out in my day,” she said.

After his discharge, Hal returned to Minneapolis and worked at a department store. Nearly thirty, he was ruggedly handsome with dark hair and piercing eyes. He spied Mary Lou at the Minnesota State Fair in 1948, where her brother was playing a gig. “I had wanted to go to a baseball game, but my mother said, ‘For once in your life you’re going with your family,’” recalled Mary Lou. She was a ravishing twenty-four-year-old with warm features and a knowing smile, and Hal asked her to dance. They married later that year. A year after that, in 1949, she gave birth to Anne, the first of their five children; Julie followed in 1951, then Philipp in 1954. Paul and Mary came five and then eight years later.

Hal spent the bulk of his life in the auto business, mainly working for Warren Cadillac in Golden Valley. But he was inherently cynical about the business world, something he bred into Paul. “He’d come home and tell me, ‘There’s larceny in every salesman’s heart.’ Things like that stuck with me.” So did the dealer-demo Cadillac Hal drove, which, Paul recalled, “always had a sticker in the window: FOR SALE.”

Paul’s first years were spent at 3734 Pleasant Avenue, kitty-corner from the Church of the Incarnation, where Hal and Mary Lou had been married. It was known as the Cathedral in the Pines, a working-class, Catholic, heavily Irish South Minneapolis neighborhood where the Westerbergs were surrounded by Patricks, Gallaghers, and Malarkeys. The house was within eyesight of the Catholic school that Paul attended until he was a teenager.

One of Westerberg’s childhood friends was a roughneck named Scotty Williams. Williams came from a “wild-ass family of nine boys, who’d all served in the Marines,” he recalled. Scotty was Paul’s bad-boy buddy, his corrupting influence from an early age. “Me and Scotty smoked our first cigarettes in kindergarten, used an old Marine helmet for an ashtray,” he said. “Nobody over at his house gave a shit.”

A number of neighborhood kids played music, including Kevin Patrick, a gifted drummer who’d later join the Prince-affiliated band Mazarati. One of Paul’s schoolmates was Jimmy Mars, whose little brother Chris played drums too. “Chris was a couple years younger, which at that age is an eternity,” said Paul. “I didn’t really know him, but I was always aware of him.”

In 1965 the Westerbergs moved nearby to 4126 Garfield Avenue—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 embarrassed by that.”


On Sale
Mar 1, 2016
Page Count
520 pages
Da Capo Press

Bob Mehr

About the Author

Bob Mehr is an award-winning music critic for the Gannett-owned newspaper The Commercial Appeal and a longtime contributor to MOJO magazine. He’s also served as an editor, writer, and columnist for Village Voice Media, New Times Inc., and Chicago Reader. He contributed liner notes to the Grammy-winning Big Star box set Keep an Eye on the Sky and has written essays for reissues by the Replacements, Kinks, Warren Zevon, Dixie Chicks, Al Green, and many others. A native of Los Angeles, he lives in Memphis, Tennessee.

Learn more about this author