Off the 'Mats

No, the Replacements aren't getting back together. Yet.

"Most people in bands don't drink if they're serious and professional," Bono testified during Peter Buck's recent air rage trial -- and anyone who understands how absurd the words "serious" and "professional" are in connection to rock 'n' roll may also understand why the Replacements -- and not U2 or R.E.M. -- were the greatest rock 'n' roll band of the 1980s.

Which would explain why the rumors were so appealing -- and so rampant -- when they started making the rounds in February and March. "Replacements reunion at South by Southwest!" read one of many such e-mails circulating in the weeks prior to the Austin music festival. "Paul, Tommy, Slim Dunlap and an unknown drummer with Dave Pirner from Soul Asylum!" For a core group of Replacements fans, the idea of a full-fledged 'Mats reunion is second (if at all) only to that impossible dream of the Beatles getting back together. But, alas, it wasn't to be. Nor was the more recent (and less exciting) rumor that leader Paul Westerberg would be joining Pirner and former Hüsker Dü leader Bob Mould on a sort of Minneapolis Super Postpunk tour.

What is true is that Westerberg recently embarked on his first-ever solo acoustic tour, performing free shows at record stores throughout the United States to support his first new album in three years, Stereo(last week, he canceled two dates, citing exhaustion). The new album -- which comes packaged with a second CD, Mono, performed by Westerberg's currently more rockin' alter ego Grandpa Boy and released via the L.A.-based, punk-heavy indie label Vagrant -- is obviously what triggered all those hopeful reunion rumors in the first place.

Except it wasn't completely a rumor. Sitting in a West Hollywood hotel bar, nursing a ginger ale, Westerberg admits that he did talk to Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson about joining him on a Midwest tour in February that would go to the same cities Buddy Holly was scheduled to play before his tragic 1959 plane crash. "The idea was sort of, it would be the revenge of Grandpa Boy arising from the grave," he says. "So I called Tommy [and said], 'Can I tell you this is the stupidest thing I've ever thought of?'

"And he was like, 'Yeah!' His word was gold. Because Tommy knows my stupid ideas and he knows my stupid ideas that are potentially brilliant. Unfortunately, he called me back two days later and said he couldn't do it because his cohort [Axl Rose] needed him. So the idea lasted about half a minute. Dave Pirner did want to be part of it, but that thing's come and gone. Now I'm thinking of putting a band together that's a little more versatile than a bar band. But I figured at that time, if it was to be a bar band, it would have to be with Tommy.

"Ah, Dave Pirner gets too much ink," Westerberg says of the other rumor, the one that had him, Pirner and Mould about to board a tour bus together. "I also just heard that I played great guitar with Dylan at the Grammys!

"It's funny. By not doing anything, I'm as hot as I've been in 10 years. So do I want to ruin that by going out and doing stuff? But hell, I am. I'm talking to people. My picture is being taken. I'm alive. And I do live on a farm. I have one lung. I have AIDS. And I am a junkie." He laughs. "These are the ones that I love, that I covet the most.

"The truth is, I was sick of it," Westerberg says of his career, "and I ran out of dough. So what did I do to entertain myself? I wrote a shitload of songs. When I made that last record [his third solo LP, 1999's Suicaine Gratifaction], I felt it was the end of something. I, of course, also had the pleasure of turning 40 on the last day of the century, and I really felt like, 'Well, that was that?' So I went home and waited for phase two to transpire, and nothing happened. I waited and waited for an idea -- and the idea became loud and clear: 'Go out and buy a new guitar!' So I went out and bought a red one that looked really cool, and went down in the basement and played rock 'n' roll for three years.

"I lost contact with everyone, sort of became a recluse. I also had a little boy" -- with longtime partner Laurie Lindeen, formerly of the Minneapolis rock trio Zuzu's Petals -- "although more has been made of that than should be."

Westerberg may protest a bit too much. The new album kicks off with a track called "Baby Learns to Crawl." "Mr. Rabbit" is a Burl Ives song from one of Westerberg's son's favorite albums. And "We May Be the Ones" concludes with an appearance by 3-year-old Johnny (as in John Paul) Westerberg, whose favorite song, his dad boasts, is currently the New York Dolls' "Trash."

"But regardless of whether I had a child, or was married, or whatever, I still would've sat alone in a house for three years," he explains. "I was sick of it, and I didn't want to play rock 'n' roll for people anymore. I was true to my word. I always said when it wasn't fun anymore, I'd quit.

"It wasn't fun. I quit."

After about 80 songs, Westerberg finally ran out of tape, which is what "finally got me off my ass." Rather than erasing material, he contacted friend Darren Hill (who played bass on the 1993 14 Songs tour as well as with the Red Rockers and who now acts as Westerberg's de facto manager) and asked him if he wanted to take a listen. "Darren knew Rich [Egan] at Vagrant, and the idea of going back to a little label sounded kinda cool. [The rep for] being difficult is well-warranted, in my case. I am. I confess. I admit it now. I really couldn't see it at the time. But the truth is I'm really not equipped to do certain things that a big corporation requires you to do. And the Replacements were never equipped to do that.

"Plus, the record probably cost me $1,000 to make. So whatever deal I made this time was the best deal -- times 300 -- I've ever made. Also," he says, laughing, "everyone [at the label] is 10 to 15 years younger than me so they actually listen to what I say!"

The Father of Grunge, as he's often been described, says he's been jamming with a band that includes a steel guitar player, top Minneapolis jazz drummer Michael Bland (a former Prince sideman), and bassist Jim Boquist of Son Volt -- but nothing's written in stone yet. "We have a country-folk thing going on the bass, this powerhouse R&B drummer, and I'm playing shitty little Keith Richard chords.

"It's different. And it doesn't sound anything like the Burritos," says the guy the Brits have credited as one of the fathers of alt-country/Americana (and who laughs when Ryan Adams' name is mentioned: "Well, my first idea was to say somebody should probably kick his teeth down his throat").

As for breaking up what many consider to be the most influential rock band of the '80s, Westerberg remains unapologetic. "It was obviously the right thing to do," he says in response to some fans and critics who viewed it as almost a betrayal. "I think the real fans knew it was time. And let's face it, the real fans are pretty old now. I mean, the ones who never saw it will never see it again. Because even if we got together, we could never be it.

"But I've got a lot of interesting [video] footage that nobody's ever seen, and I've also got a whole lot of tapes that nobody's ever heard, so if there ever is a let's-go-to-the-bank-and-cash-in reunion, I'm ready. And make no mistake: That will be the reason. I mean, I wanted Tommy to come and play bass in February because he was the only guy in the world crazy enough to do it. But if the Replacements reunite, we would want to make a bundle of money to rectify being screwed for so many years.

"I never signed any contract with Twin/Tone or Restless -- I had a lawyer tell me our contract was worse than James Brown's from 1962 -- so if they think they're going to continue repackaging that stuff, I don't think so. I want to get all the records together under one label and do it that way. And there has been talk -- but it's still just that."

Westerberg's lost touch with final Replacements guitarist Slim Dunlap (though not because of any animosity), but he's friendly again with the band's original drummer, Chris Mars. "But even if Chris didn't want to do [a reunion], I would still be comfortable with Tommy and whoever else we had.

"I've talked to him more and more over the last six months. I do have a long-range plan. I haven't even told it to myself yet, so don't expect a scoop here. But there is no Replacements without Tommy. We'd probably have to take [late guitarist Bob Stinson's] ashes up there, too."

Tommy, of course, currently keeps busy (well, maybe not that busy) as the only consistent member of the new Guns N' Roses. "It's the most fun he'll never have," jokes Westerberg of the never-ending (and barely starting) Axl Rose project, adding, "Look, I'm supposed to be the one who made money from the Replacements. And I didn't make any money, so he damn sure didn't make any. How can you begrudge him making a living [with Axl]?"

For now, then, it will remain Paul Westerberg, solo artist. "It's something I've always resisted doing," he says of the acoustic in-stores. "But I've got the Grandpa Boy thing -- if I want a rock 'n' roll band to play those, I've got that option. But right now, I can just hop on a plane, show up alone, and not be forced to tell anybody what to do.

"Y'see, the beauty of Tommy and Chris was I never had to talk or explain it to them. I'd move my toe or my head and they'd just know. I've yet to really find that with another band."

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