Bastard of middle age

Paul Westerberg digs intoa deep, dark place and makes a brilliant, horrible record

Bob Stinson died alone on February 18, 1995. He was discovered on the couch of his Minneapolis home, a syringe laying next to his slumped-over corpse. Nine years after being adiosed as the Replacements' guitarist, good ol' Bob--dress-wearing Bob, fun guy Bob, crazy fuckin' Bob--kicked his drug habit the real hard way, leaving his friends and former bandmates to ponder a life well-lived but wasted nonetheless.

His funeral a few days after the 35-year-old's overdose would reunite the Replacements one final time: Paul Westerberg, Chris Mars, Bob's younger brother Tommy, and Bob all dressed up with no place to go. So much for getting the band back together. In the words of another famous Minnesota boy, the former Robert Zimmerman, "Death can be the result of a most underrated pain."

But as Westerberg sat there looking at his old friend lying in a coffin, he couldn't focus on the task at hand--grieving Bob, burying him in the hard ground. He was too busy trying not to listen to the music blaring from the speakers Bob's mother had set up--those old Replacements songs, especially the loud, fast, and sloppy early ones from Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash and The Replacements Stink, coming back to haunt the man who wrote them and barely sang them. As Bob lay in his coffin--"stiff as a board," Westerberg recalls now, his voice a deadpan drone bereft of sadness--it was all Paul could do to keep from leaping from his seat and bolting from the funeral parlor.

All Westerberg could think about was: I sound like shit. He felt foolish, selfish, like a real asshole. But still, Paul couldn't stop thinking it: I sound like shit.

"There is Bob, laying there, and then 'Fuck School' comes blaring over the speakers," Westerberg recalls. "God love him, God rest his soul. But I could only think, like, 'How could I have fucking sang like this?' To me, I was in hell. There's a guy I loved who's dead, and to punish me, they had to play my music, and that was really tough. If there's going to be a movie ever about the Replacements, that has to be included. That was one in a million, really. They played the entire catalog. I walked in as they were playing 'Johnny's Gonna Die.' There was some irony for sure."

And then Westerberg lets out a sad little chuckle.
"Please don't play my stuff when I die," he says, almost begging. "I want nothing but John Coltrane."

Westerberg, now 38, would like nothing more than to leave the Replacements behind him, a speck in the rear-view mirror. That band has been broken up for almost the entirety of the 1990s; its final album, 1990's All Shook Down, wasn't even a real Replacements record at all, more like a Westerberg solo record with some special guests, among them bassist Tommy Stinson and drummer Chris Mars, reduced to cameos where once they had been featured attractions. He participated in the assembling of Warner Bros. Records' 1997 two-disc best-and-rest-of All For Nothing, Nothing For All, but only because he was resigned to the fact that it would be done with or without his assistance. Better to choose your own fate than leave it in the hands of the label you abandoned when they couldn't sell your records.

Westerberg is on his third solo album now, Suicaine Gratifaction, due in stores February 23. It is a disc full of home demos recorded on piano, fleshed out later in a studio with old pro Don Was making things slick and shiny. The new album--its lyrics ambiguous and poetic, sung in hushed tones by a man who used to scream as though each performance were his next to last--is so far removed from the Replacements or even Westerberg's first two solo albums, it might as well have been made by someone else. And maybe it was.

Westerberg has no time or desire to look backward, to consider his past mistakes or his ancient triumphs. That's for other people to ponder--those of us who came of age with Hootenanny, Let it Be, Tim, and Pleased to Meet Me; those of us for whom songs such as "Unsatisfied" and "Within Your Reach" and "I Will Dare" and "Bastards of Young" were title tracks to the college years. No other 1980s band--save, perhaps, R.E.M., who stuck around too long to become legendary--has been so romanticized by the survivors of the Amerindie revolution. No other band back then wore its heart on its puke-stained sleeve, or sang unrelenting heartbreakers after getting fall-down drunk in the van, or got its kicks from playing slatternly Jackson 5 and T. Rex and Thin Lizzy covers before passing out on stage. The Replacements exist 19 years after their formation as a symbol now, an emblem--The Last Great American Rock and Roll Band. At least, that's what the Replacements' tombstone reads.

And while Westerberg is more than willing to engage in a discussion of his past, it's clear he would prefer to talk about the here and now--the new label after a decade on Warner Bros., the nervous breakdown and "dark places" that accompanied the making of Suicaine Gratifaction, his desire to stay away from the stage as long as possible.

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