Bastard of middle age

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

He is a far, far different man than he was during his days in the Replacements. He's a father of a son less than a year old. He has been sober for almost a decade. And now, when he rocks, Westerberg does so only as a side project and in the shadows. In 1997, on a tiny label out of Boston, he released a five-song EP called Grandpaboy, with Westerberg assuming all the parts. The disc, credited to "Winthorpe Marion Percival V," sounds more like an echo or a vestige than the real thing, like B-sides recorded around the time of Pleased to Meet Me in 1987--lots of horns, lots of silly jokes, songs titled "Homelessexual" and "Psychopharmacology." Yet the latter also hints at the mood-enhancers Westerberg took during the recording of Suicaine Gratifaction: "I need somethin' to calm me down / I need somethin' to keep me focused / Narcoleptic and paranoid...ADD, PCP, F-U-C-K-E-D, that's me."

"I like that Grandpaboy junk," Westerberg says. "I like it, I miss it, I love it. But to think that it matters or means anything is ridiculous. I don't know if the stuff on Suicaine Gratifaction does either, but I'm just sort of betting on the smart money, hoping that in the long run, someday I'm going to touch somebody or influence somebody deeper with the music of the new records as opposed to 'Homelessexual.' I think I finally came to the point where I've made my bed: I'm a solo artist. Rock and roll can no longer be my forte if I'm going to be doing this alone. I'd love to do it for a weekend, but, you know..." His voice trails off.

As far as he is concerned, the new record is his most honest, vulnerable work. No more hiding behind the band; no more ducking out of sentimental moments by throwing in the bad wisecrack; no more giving the fans what they want. It's the sort of record made by a guy who has only now figured out what he wants to do--which, in this case, means writing songs about growing up and growing out of rock and roll and trading in the guitar for piano.

The album begins with a song, "It's a Wonderful Lie," about a man trying to figure out whether he's "past my prime" while wondering "was that just a pose?" And it ends with a song about a father who abandons his family, crushing his daughter "like the petals of a flower between the pages of a novel." In between are signposts that lead the way to a songwriter conflicted about where he's been and where he's going: Westerberg portrays himself as "an idiot and a genius," "the best thing that never happened," "a bad idea whose time has come"; and he's a man who believes "I've started to go out of my head."

"It has to do with depression, and it has to do with like, to use a scenario, like a dark place in your mind where you go," Westerberg says of Suicaine Gratifaction, a record that has confounded even his oldest, closest friends. "I went deeper in there than I've ever gone before, and the only danger is that you don't know exactly how you're going to come back out, and I just kept going in deeper and deeper and deeper. I had a good two months, almost like a hermit at home. It was very stressful for whoever was around me. It led to medication and treatment and whatever. But through it all I knew that that's kind of where the gold lay.

"It was like, I could stop now and pull myself back and go up and read a book and watch TV, or I can keep hunting for this thing that's gnawing away inside of me. I kind of chose to go deep. I hate to think that every single time, one would have to go that dark to get it, but if that is the case, then I guess you deal with it or make the decision to do what I really can at the risk of my own mental health. That's kind of why I feel like I'm starting over again.

"I'm not prepared to go to that dark place again and again. I don't know what my next move is. I'm not prepared to reproduce these songs or go perform these. The other day, someone asked me, 'If this was your last record, would you be satisfied with it?' And I guess I would. It never crossed my mind that this was my final record, my swan song. But if I was hit by a truck tomorrow, it would sort of appear that way, because I went as deep as I've ever gone before. Who knows where I was supposed to go?"

To answer that question, you have to go back to where he's been--Minneapolis in May of 1980. It was then that a 19-year-old Paul Westerberg gave a four-song demo to Peter Jesperson, who was then working at a local record store and running a Minneapolis record label, Twin/Tone. Jesperson has told the story so often it's become myth, a tale too good to be even a fraction of the truth, but he repeats it once more: Peter didn't even get halfway through the first song on the cassette, "Raised in the City," before he stopped the tape, phoned three friends, and begged them to come down and listen to the damned thing. He told them he was either crazy, or this brand-new band called the Replacements was the best thing he'd heard since the Rolling Stones.

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