Bastard of middle age

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.

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.

Perhaps no one can tell the Replacements story better than Jesperson, who immediately booked the band at the Longhorn Club in Minneapolis, where Jesperson worked as a DJ, and signed the band to Twin/Tone. It was Jesperson who took the band into the studio to record Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash, released on Twin/Tone in 1981. It was Jesperson who pissed off half the Twin Cities' other punk bands by jumping the Replacements to the head of the line, in front of so many other groups who had been biding their time for the shot he'd promised them.

In 1980, the Replacements were nothing more than a band fronted by a teenaged ex-janitor with broken-glass vocals, a lead guitarist whose main influences were Johnny Winter and Steve Howe, a drummer who adored Aerosmith, and a 12-year-old bass player who signed on with his brother. Their song titles included "Shut Up!" and "More Cigarettes" and "I Hate Music" (because "it's got too many notes!"); their sound was crap by way of shit, garage hardcore played by dudes who were convinced their junk-rock was arena-ready. They were first-rate screw-ups, bastards of young who bragged about writing songs "20 minutes after we recorded" Sorry Ma. And Jesperson, who was so often told they were a waste of time, insisted the Replacements were worth the small amount of agony.

"It was such an incredible rush," he says of those early days recording and managing the Replacements. "We were lucky to have found each other. I don't know who was luckier. I had been in the Minneapolis scene for a long time when they came along, and people made fun of me for the Replacements. I remember people saying, 'A 12-year-old bass player? Real cool, Peter.' The Replacements didn't come into the scene being friendly to the other groups. They made their own space and weren't real sociable. People resented how quickly they made their claim."

But there would never be any disputing how compellingly they did so: On 1982's The Replacements Stink, recorded just months after the debut, Westerberg was writing short, sharp anthems for every "White and Lazy" "Dope Smokin Moron" in the audience who had said "Fuck School" and still needed a "God Damn Job." The music was hardcore with a furtive melody, a joke with a point, a punch line with a serious purpose. It was as though the 'Mats were performing an entire album's worth of responses and follow-ups to "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" and "My Generation." Westerberg's songs were nothing more than snippets of conversations overheard and borrowed, everyday dialogue set to a train-wreck beat for dancing and drinking. But they seemed enormous at the time, even bigger today.

In retrospect, it's quite possible that later records--1983's Hootenanny, '84's Let it Be, and the next year's Tim--have been overrated by the fanatics. They are not the perfect gems they're often portrayed as, not the sloppy masterpieces of a band known for drinking itself into oblivion before going into the studio or onto a stage. They contain too many half-assed moments to be considered truly great, too many songs easily skipped over once they were transferred to CD. And Let it Be, considered by the disciples to be the most perfect Replacements album, is a complete mess, full of cheap throwaway jokes ("Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out," "Gary's Got a Boner") and a horrible cover of a horrible KISS song ("Black Diamond") and at least one unlistenable song about cross-dressing ("Androgynous").

But there were a handful of songs on Hootenanny and Let it Be that seemed to mask all the flaws, that made them essential albums for the lost and lovelorn who found solace in electric guitars and drunken howls. "Within Your Reach" off Hootenanny revealed for the first time the softer, lonelier side of Westerberg: "I can live without your touch," he sang, the drum-machine-and-slide-guitar music sparse and empty behind him, "but I could die within your reach." That it was sandwiched between "Mr. Whirly" (which mutated the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields" into a punk-rock rant) and the surf-rocky instrumental "Buck Hill" only made it seem that much more an anomaly--The Geek hanging out with all The Jocks.

Certainly the transcendent moments remain on Let it Be: "I Will Dare," "Answering Machine," and "Unsatisfied," three songs that could--and did--cover a multitude of sins. The first track on the record was this weird little pop song, so catchy and inviting, so desperate and real: "Meet me any place or any time or anywhere / If you will dare meet me tonight / If you will dare, I will dare." And the last was so utterly pathetic, the sound of a coward trying to proclaim his love for a woman and finding only her answering machine to talk to--and "how do you say I love you to an answering machine?" Westerberg wondered over nothing more than the sound of a furiously strummed electric guitar, his voice ripped in half. But it was "Unsatisfied" that remains Westerberg's gilt-edged moment, and it's nothing more than a ripped-off KISS riff ("Hard-Luck Woman," actually) and a man yelling over and over again: "I'm so...unsatisfieeeeeeeeeed." You could feel the song in your bones.

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.

The Replacements left in their wake both the best and worst that rock and roll has to offer: Nirvana and the Goo Goo Dolls, idols and enemies. They never became popular, never went platinum, never achieved the stardom they secretly pined for. And now, the Replacements will never get back together. Tommy Stinson recorded an EP and a never-to-be-released album with his own band, Perfect; now, he is paying the rent with Guns N' Roses, and the mind reels at the implications. Chris Mars has disappeared into the basement with his tape recorders and his paint brushes; when he will return is anyone's guess. Slim Dunlap, who replaced Bob as well as anyone could, is still making wonderful records no one is buying. And Bob, well, he's still dead.

As for Paul, he will not tour for this album. He doesn't see how it's possible to sit behind a piano and perform these new songs for an audience that will keep shouting out requests for "I Will Dare" or "Bastards of Young" or "I.O.U." or "Unsatisfied." He is content now to sit in his tinfoil-covered basement, black lipstick smeared on his face, and record in front of a new video camera with which he's become infatuated. Jesperson says he's heard rumors of Westerberg's showing up at South by Southwest in Austin next month, but don't count on it; Paul seems very much resolved to holing up with his piano and his son, shut out from the rest of the world with his Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane records to keep him company. He does like to say he is an unabashed misanthrope.

And perhaps it's just as well that he has chosen to shelve his rock-and-roll side. The Grandpaboy record has its moments--indeed, Westerberg insists the song "Lush and Green" is among the best things he's ever recorded, and maybe he's right--but it sounds too much like a thousand steps backward, right into a land mine. Suicaine Gratifaction is by no means a flawless record, but at least you can hear, feel, the ambition and thought and pain that went into its making. If nothing else, for all its faults, the new record feels like the most genuine record he has made since breaking up the band. And that's hardly an apology, simply a fact: Suicaine Gratifaction may be a mess, even a bore at times, but never does it feel like a fake.

"I'm now at a place where I ask myself, 'Why do I do this?'" he says. "You kind of have to slap yourself upside the head and go, 'You do this because you can do it better than most.' That's maybe not as rewarding, but if you're going to continue in life and have a place or a job or a purpose, you have to use that. I do it because I'm good at it and it's a challenge to myself to top myself. I want to make a better record next time. But I'm not holding this up against someone else's record and saying, 'Well, it doesn't sound as good as them.' I've learned the trick of only listening to my last thing.

"It all comes down to manic depression. When I'm in an up cycle, I'll go with it. Sometimes that down cycle lasts a long time, and it's horrible if you're caught either way. You're in an up cycle making a record, and then you just slowly slip down. I do have sort of a polar personality. I'm not an even-keel guy. Right now I'm starting to be in an up vibe again. If only I could just bring intelligence with it.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky