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Paul Westerberg gives up on the charts, and rediscovers his muse

Paul Westerberg is almost 40. He's married, a father and has a bad back.
Those aren't uncommon characteristics for someone his age, but in the case of Westerberg, who released his third solo album, Suicaine Gratifaction this week, growing old has been difficult. For those of us who came of age during the desperate musical drought of the 1980s, Westerberg's Replacements helped confirm the possibility that music could be more than just the filler played between commercials on MTV.

As the frontman and songwriter for the band, his anthems of teen love, angst and uncertainty showed that the best and most meaningful music often teetered precariously between stupidity and brilliance.

The Replacements' enduring image--sloppy drunk visionaries with hearts of gold--has so defined Westerberg that he's spent most of this decade trying to shed those ill-fitting clothes. In recent years, he's consciously punctured holes in his youthful punk image, playing up his love for John Coltrane and suggesting that as he grew older he lost his appreciation for the Sex Pistols.

Of course, no story is that simple, and Westerberg, while an older, more sedate man than in his Mats heyday, hasn't completely disconnected himself from the wild abandon that first made him pick up a guitar. In fact, fatherhood may actually be helping him to rediscover it.

"I just listened to the Sex Pistols this morning," he says, from his Minneapolis home. "I had Johnny [Westerberg's son] up there and he was fucking diggin' it. It's amazing, you think you're going to have to play this simple childlike music--bullshit! He loves Led Zepplin and Eric Dolphy--the wilder the music the more he likes it."

Even now, nearly a decade after their demise, the Replacements are fondly remembered as heroes. Although they never achieved anything more than modest commercial success, they're viewed as martyrs for some romantic cause, foot soldiers in a war against the banality and corporate co-opting of the soul of rock music. And even if they stumbled drunkenly through those battles, they still hold a special place in the hearts of those they helped liberate. But the importance of the Replacements can be measured by more than just the rabid devotion of their fans.

Few bands from the "Amerindie" revolution of the '80s can claim to have had such a pervasive and wide-ranging influence on modern music. Whether helping to shape the sound of million-selling pop and rock bands like the Goo Goo Dolls and the Gin Blossoms, the neo-punk of Green Day, or the alternative-country of Wilco, the Replacements' impact runs deep.

"It's ironic because I kind of helped define a sound and then found myself unable to be a part of that," Westerberg says in that unmistakable, native Minnesotan accent of his. "But it's always like that. I mean I wasn't looking for the Replacements when I found them."

When he did find the Replacements in the Fall of 1980, Westerberg was a 19-year-old janitor, whose only musical experience, apart from strumming his acoustic guitar in his bedroom, was membership in a pair of short-lived Minneapolis bands. Hooking up with drummer Chris Mars, guitarist Bob Stinson, and Stinson's 12-year-old brother Tommy on bass, the group began playing their brand of sloppy but inspired punk in and around the Twin Cities.

With Mars' wild, unkempt backbeat, Bob's acrobatic guitar runs, and Tommy's propulsive bass powering Westerberg's tar-and-whiskey vocals, the group recorded a pair of fast and raw albums for the Twin Tone label.

With the 1983 release, Hootenanny, Westerberg's songwriting began to explore a wider range of styles and themes. Songs like "Within Your Reach" and "Color Me Impressed" began to hint at the depth of Westerberg's lyrical acumen. The following year brought the release of the landmark Let It Be, whose brazenness was hinted at by an album title unapologetically lifted from The Beatles. That album, and the band's wild and frequently drunken club gigs, made them the toast of the American musical underground.

Making the jump to a major label, the group recorded 1985's masterful Tim for Sire records. Described as a Tommy for Reagan-era America, the album featured several bittersweet Westerberg anthems that would go on to become classics. If Tim was the Replacements' take on The Who's opus, then 1987's Pleased To Meet Me was their version of the Stones' Exile On Main Street. Recorded in Memphis with producer Jim Dickinson, and without Bob Stinson, who was kicked out of the band for his escalating drug habit (he would die in 1995 from complications of drug and alcohol abuse), the album would be the artistic peak of the Replacements catalogue.

Despite raves and support from critics and their label, neither album sold well, and in the face of increasing pressure, the group made an attempt at commercial success with their next album, Don't Tell a Soul (recorded with Bob's replacement, Slim Dunlap, on guitar). While a single and video for the song "I'll Be You" did garner them the biggest sales of their career, the glossy sound of the album left the band dissatisfied. A disastrous tour opening for Tom Petty was the beginning of the end.

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