Bastard of middle age

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

Westerberg was always a wimp deep down, a softie, a broken-down romantic; the later records on Warner Bros., including 1987's Pleased to Meet Me and 1989's Don't Tell a Soul, were full of such lullaby moments: "The Ledge," "Skyway," "Achin' to Be." But the way Westerberg explains it now, he was almost too ashamed of those songs, afraid the guys in the band wouldn't understand that he didn't always want to write stoopid drunk-rock songs the rest of his life.

"I'm proud of something like 'Unsatisfied,' but I probably would have written lyrics to the thing if I had written it now, and I probably would have ruined it rather than just screaming out," Westerberg says. "It's like, that was my way of making it appeal to the guys. Now, I probably would have written more. You'd have to go back to, like, 'Answering Machine' and stuff like that. You can hear me trying to include the group in almost everything. It's like...I don't know. Does it fucking matter?"

Jesperson says that every now and then during the early days of the Replacements, Westerberg would write a ballad, record it at home, rush the tape 20 blocks down to Jesperson's apartment and slip it in the mailbox, then disappear before Peter ever got to the door. Jesperson explains that Westerberg was too afraid that he would either erase the tape or that one of the other Replacements would find the song and laugh at it. One such song, the Paul-alone "If Only You Were Lonely," made it to the B-side of a single in 1982.

Another such track actually made it to a band rehearsal, a song titled "You're Getting Married," which features among its lyrics such lines as "You're like a guitar in the hands of some fool who can't play." But when Paul offered it to the band for inclusion on Hootenanny, Jesperson says, Bob Stinson stopped him cold. Bob is said to have told Westerberg, "That's not a Replacements song. Keep it for your solo record, Paul."

"I have a live recording of them doing 'You're Getting Married' made on February 11, 1984, in Trenton, New Jersey," says Jesperson, who has spent the past several months compiling dozens and dozens of unreleased Replacements songs for a Twin/Tone boxed set he hopes to release within a year's time. "They attempted to do it in a completely drunken stupor, and it's one of the most precious things they did in their entire history. Paul makes up words, and I remember him singing this to a really hardcore crowd, this mohawk audience, and I thought at the time, 'They're gonna kill him.' But by the end of the song they're transfixed. And at the end of the song, Paul tells them, 'At least you fuckers ain't enemies. That's nice to know.'"

Eventually, Westerberg would begin slowly dismantling the band, crawling toward the inevitable solo career. When he finally debuted all alone on 1993's 14 Songs, he sounded very much like a man still trying to reconcile who he wanted to be with who he thought he should be. Half the songs were tepid ballads; the other half, tepid rockers. It was ironic that when he toured for 14 Songs with a four-piece band--the Replacements' replacements--the songs came alive, sounding whole instead of like fragments of old reverberations.

Eventually, released in 1996, was even more dull; Lord only knows how many times the words "James Taylor" appeared in reviews for the album, which can now be purchased for $4.91 in local used-CD bins, alongside his contributions to the soundtracks for Singles, Friends, and Melrose Place. Replacements fans couldn't help but shrug at the sad irony that while Chris Mars--booted from the band because he wanted the band to perform a few of his own songs--was recording in quick succession some brilliant, Ray Davies-fronting-the Replacements mini-gems, Westerberg was struggling without his old bandmates to prop him up.

"On those first two solo records, I needed to prove that I could do what the Replacements did--and maybe what I did was prove that I couldn't," he says. "But either one, it's history. This is what I do. Now, people will say, 'What would the Replacements have added to this?' Well, we wouldn't have gotten around to doing 90 percent of it. When you have the guys of the group--even if it's just a small group, three or four people--it frees you a little more to make statements like, 'We are this,' or, 'We're gonna do this.' When you're all alone, you realize you've got to lay yourself on the line, because that's all you've got. No one is really covering you from behind anymore."

Even less so now: Suicaine Gratifaction, his first album for Capitol Records, is the sound of a man so far out on a limb, even a fireman couldn't rescue him. It's a confusing, beautiful, unlistenable contradiction--the former Replacement recording with cellos and guitars turned down to one and guest vocalist Shawn Colvin brought in to sweeten up the sour moments. It's the sort of record that reveals the world about a man so many indie-rock fans have grown up with--and a record those very same fans will surely despise, wondering what the hell happened to their rock-and-roll hero.

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