Talent Show

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.

By the end of the decade, a newly sober Westerberg looked around to find both his marriage and band falling apart. With Mars leaving the group, their final effort, 1990's All Shook Down is a Replacements album in name only. With minimal contributions from Stinson and Dunlap, the record featured an array of studio musicians performing Westerberg's darkest material. The Replacements broke up on July 4, 1991, giving their last performance in Chicago's Grant Park.

Westerberg's first official solo effort, 1993's 14 Songs was a schizophrenic album that found the newly freed singer-songwriter unable to reconcile the raucous songs of his youth with the thoughtful and mellowed themes his latter day attentions had gravitated toward.

His sophomore album, 1996's Eventually was an even bigger enigma. Although many of the songs were still well-written, much of the album seemed limp and uninspired. With only a handful of rock numbers, the record was derided for a light, adult-contemporary sound that left many longtime fans wondering what had happened to the ex-Mat.

Apparently, the record also puzzled Warner Bros., the label Westerberg had called home for more than a decade.

"It was a classic end of your record deal where they don't give it much of a chance," he says now. "People weren't aware of it. So I kind of went out there with a feeling of, 'It's been buried for me already.'"

For his part, Westerberg makes no apologies for the album. "It's underrated; I still stand by it," he says. "There was definitely some very good stuff on the record."

After the Eventually tour, Westerberg returned home to Minnesota, only to find himself in an inexplicable, but deeply serious state of depression.

"I'm not even certain that I've been able to put my finger on it yet," he explains. "I'm sure some people will say it's because I'm approaching 40, or because the album didn't sell well. I mean, it didn't feel like any of that. It didn't feel like 'I'm not a success--boy, am I sad.' I even went into the tour with a vague sort of feeling like 'this is not what I should be doing with my life right now.'"

The Eventually tour was, unlike the album, a resounding success. Performing with a crack band of veterans (including power-pop guitarist Tommy Keene and former Prince drummer Michael Bland), Westerberg brought life to even his most compromised solo material. Longtime fans and those newly exposed to the growing legend of the Replacements came out in droves. But the public success was little conciliation for Westerberg.

"I think it even deepened the sense of, 'Well, if the shows were sold-out and good, and the crowd was wild, and the playing was great--and there's still dissatisfaction, it means that there's something deeper wrong.'"

This deepening sense of disillusionment led Westerberg through an intense period of introspection and reassessment. He found himself drawn not to the guitar, but to the piano, "because I was so depressed at the time it was difficult for me to just sit and strum the guitar and 'make music.' I'm much better if I just sit at the piano and just play melodies. Before I ever wrote songs or words--I just sat at the piano and played. Out of that, the record was kind of born."

Suicaine Gratifaction is the frequently unsettling sound of an artist realizing that after nearly 20 years of trying to establish his identity as a musician, his music would only work again if he could escape the long shadow of his former self.

"By the time I got to this record, all notion of 'I'm going to write for my supposed audience' was gone," he says. "I even felt like I don't have an audience anymore--and that felt good. It felt like when I started. I have no idea who's going to like this, and I don't care."

That particular sentiment, translated through his latest batch of songs, is what makes Suicaine Gratifaction (released on Capitol Records) a stirring return to form. While the album isn't far removed from either of his previous solo works musically, the honesty and irony--the two elements that always made Westerberg's Replacements-era material so compelling--are back.

No longer the youthful hellion singing "Fuck School," Westerberg opens the album with the lilting acoustic ballad, "It's a Wonderful Lie," asking "How am I looking?/I don't want the truth." And he wastes little time tackling the questions that have dogged his solo career. "What am I doing/I ain't in my youth/I'm past my prime/Or was that just a pose?/It's a wonderful lie/I still get by on those."

Even before Spin magazine put him on the cover in 1991 and declared him, "The Soul of Rock and Roll," Westerberg was aware of and uncomfortable with the expectations placed on him by fans and critics to serve as a savior for a fading rock 'n' roll ethic. As if to underscore the point, Westerberg ends the song with an admonition, "Don't pin your hopes/Or pin your dreams/To misanthropes or guys like me."

For Westerberg, the album's lyrics aren't as deeply cryptic as they may seem.

"It's weird because there's less of me speaking to [the] audience here than there has ever been," he says. "And it's funny because [producer] Don [Was] read a lot of that into the songs as well. He thought it was like me talking about my life and my career. And a lot of it has nothing to do with anyone who's going to listen to the record." After a pause, he adds with a slight laugh, "It does fit though, doesn't it?"

Although the record features a number of high-profile session players, including drummer Jim Keltner, and keyboardist Benmont Tench (of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers) and a big name producer in Don Was, a majority of the tracks on the album were recorded and mixed by Westerberg in his small home studio. The gentle touches of cello, horns, and pedal steel--which might have seemed out of place on a Replacements album--fit comfortably within the context of Westerberg's newer material.

If his songs have grown up, then Westerberg's voice, once a scorched, passionate wail, has also matured. The often unpredictable melodies and spare arrangements of the songs showcase his growing ability to use his voice as an added instrument of expression. Indeed, a great part of the appeal of Suicaine Gratifaction is the chance to hear Westerberg's vocals in such an uncluttered setting.

To his credit, Was doesn't let his production intrude on the album's dark mood. Was and Westerberg spent a considerable amount of time in the studio before deciding that less was more.

"We spent a lot of time and money in the studio in New York and L.A. simply chasing after something that wasn't there," Westerberg says. "We were overdubbing things and adding to it and trying to make things better until we realized we had to go back to essentially the first takes, and most times the rough mixes, and use those."

One of the album's highlights, "The Fugitive Kind," begins with a morose Westerberg singing over a light piano accompaniment: "I've been bought/It's quite a scandal/Just got out alive/I gave 'em all that they could handle/Then I took a dive." Midway through, the song kicks in with a pulsating beat as Westerberg cries out, "Is this where I belong?" Later, his vocals reach a familiar crescendo that recalls the tortured wail of 1985's "Bastards of Young." With equal parts defiance and pride he declares, "I'm a bad idea whose time has come."

While he "rocks" less on this album than on any Replacements record (or, for that matter, 14 Songs), Westerberg picks and chooses his spots carefully--and the effect is both more satisfying and less calculated than on any of his other recent efforts.

"If you don't buy this record right away, it doesn't matter, because I think you're gonna hear it sooner or later," he says. "You know, it wasn't made to sound like this moment. There's a timelessness to it--it's so stripped down that it could have been recorded in any conceivable era."

Having spent nearly two decades on the cusp of commercial success, Westerberg is realistic about his current prospects. "Will I get to that sort of big exploding stardom thing? I doubt it," he says. "And that's a relief. But I think my career is going to continue to last and take little turns and twists. But I much prefer it this way than to go to the top, burn out, and go away forever."

While it's unlikely that an album as personal and complex as Suicaine Gratifaction can penetrate a music market saturated with shrill pop divas, cute boy-bands, and faceless alternative acts that seem to rise and fall with each passing week, Westerberg is unfazed.

"For me, the worse the better," he says. "Shit, when we started out it was the most exciting time because we were essentially competing with Loverboy and Night Ranger. In the end, I don't care about that anyway. For me, it's not about whether they're going to play my songs on the radio for two weeks."

A bigger problem for Westerberg will be promoting Suicaine Gratifaction, since he has all but decided not to tour behind the album.

"There's always a certain amount of time after I get done playing a tour that I hate it," he says. "And then after a while I start to miss it and I want to get back to it. But it's taken a long time, and I still don't feel like I want to get back up there and do it."

He maintains that his decision not to tour has nothing to do with his chronic back problems, or a desire not to have to play old Replacements warhorses. "No, I made this decision three years ago when I started making this music," he says. "I stand by that till this moment, because those songs were born of that.

"People will probably look at me and say it's because he's a dad, or he has a bad back or whatever. But as soon as I get the itch again to play, I'll do it. And I'll do it with a bad back and a baby strapped to my hip if I have to."

And what of his newborn? Will the birth of a child affect his music in any way? "It will probably keep the vibe of 'get it down fast' going. I mean there's no time to sit around and second-guess because there's always something to do and you're always needed. That may sound flip and like a joke, but I work best when I have to get something done, and I only have five minutes to finish it. I tend go from the gut and that's usually my best stuff.

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