We May Be the Ones: Paul Westerberg Speaks to his People
Wednesday 26 June @ 10:55:47
by Tom Hallett
“We may well be the ones/To set this world on its ear/We may well be the ones/If not, then why are we here?”
--Paul Westerberg, 2002
It’s a wet, blustery afternoon in mid-June, and I’m talking via speakerphone with notoriously reclusive Paul Westerberg from my office in St. Paul. He’s comfortable at his home just a few miles away, but says he’s “got that second wake-up grog,” after he and his 4-year-old son Johnny awoke to rolling thunder around four a.m. He’s amicable as we gab for a moment about the weather, but seems a little taken aback at how loud my voice sounds over the ancient communications device we’re chatting through. I’ve been up for hours, nervously anticipating speaking with one of my favorite songwriters of all time, drinking coffee and listening to his latest album, Stereo/Mono, over and over. “Man,” he grumbles half-jokingly, “you sound like you’re right down the hall.”
After he blinks the sleep dirt out of his eyes and the conversation turns to youth and music, he perks right up. That’s really no surpriseafter all, the 42-year-old troubadour/papa was a serious contender for Peter Pan Poster Boy during the decade or so that he fronted Minneapolis punk/garage-rock heroes The Replacements.
From their first Twin/Tone Records release, 1981’s Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash, the band seemed to float merrily along in a veritable teenage Never-Never Land filled with booze, dope, destruction, amped-up, sloppy stage performances, and bratty behavior. Hell, they’d even recruited late guitarist Bob Stinson’s 12-year-old brother, Tommy, to play bass, and some of their early anthems were stinging, anti-establishment rockers like “Kids Don’t Follow” and “Bastards Of Young.” Talk about your youth obsessions.
On the flip side of that coin were Westerberg’s timeless, soul-weary voice, melodies, and lyrics; the ageless, awe-inspiring axework of guitarist Bob Stinson; the group’s anchor, drummer Chris Mars; and even the beyond-his-years musical savvy of young pup Tommy. For every screeching guitar solo, silly rawk ditty (“Dope Smokin’ Moron,” “%@!#$& School,” and “God Damn Job” weren’t exactly Dylan-esque, but they sure put a right good %@!#$&ing kink in your speakers) and career-damning live gig, there were an equal number of magic moments.
As Twin/Tone Records co-founder/former ‘Mats manager Peter Jesperson (who was a local record store clerk when he discovered the band after Paul left him a rough-sounding but brilliant demo tape in 1980) recently gushed “There were dozens of times you watched those guys on stage on certain nights when it was impossible that there was a better rock and roll band on the planet.”
Though the group first broke through with the snarling angst of early releases like Sorry Ma and the even more raucous Stink EP, Westerberg says even then they knew they weren’t the new-punk icons people held them up to be. When asked in what order he’d rate the 12 albums he’s released since 1981, (eight with the ‘Mats, four solo) he says, “I lump them into two categories. Ones that shouldn’t have been made, and ones that are great. And the only one that shouldn’t have been made (was) Stink—that’s it!” I tell him I really dug the EP, particularly the “friendly” rivalry they’d struck up with Minneapolis speed-punk pioneers Husker Du on the Sorry Ma track “Somethin’ To Du,” then continued with the near-thrash of Stink.
“Come, come,” he chides with a grin I can almost see. “It was us trying to BE Husker Du! It was us trying our hardest to keep up with The Minutemen and Seven Seconds and Husker Du. We were out of time, we were a garage band. We were behind the times, ahead of the times, whatever, but we were out of step. We were much closer to the Rolling Stones, or even the Burrito Brothers.”
Paul cites as his earliest songwriting influences the Beatles records and Motown singles his older sister played, early-’70’s AM radio, the ragged garage-pop of English outfits like The Faces, and some neighbor kid he knew, but his first real musical mind-blower was hearing the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” when he was 6 years old. “I can remember it to this day,” he recounts, “sitting in the parking lot of McDonald’s on the corner of 79th and Lyndale in the summer of ‘65. I cranked it up while my dad was gone, getting hamburgers. That’s a vivid memory, hearing ‘Satisfaction’ and singing along to ‘Can’t get no!’”
Ten years or so later, that aforementioned neighbor kid turned the impressionable young music hound on to his first taste of punk rock. “The first time I heard the Sex Pistols,” he enthuses, “it was exactly what I needed. It blew me away. I’d been listening to blues and Southern rock, the stuff that was available to American kids. We went across the street to a guy’s house who rolled a big fattie and put on the Pistols. And it was like, ‘Boom! I’m throwing my slide away! This is the kind of music that I like.’ Two pretty extreme examples, and yet not really—they’re both from the same camp—they’re both guttural punk rock.”
He credits AM radio with helping to nurture his love of—and knack for writing—heart-stopping ballads and haunting pop soundscapes. “I’ve always loved pretty songs.” he affirms, then proceeds to tell me that he recently briefly considered covering Dion’s “Abraham, Martin, And John,” but nixed the idea after realizing that it, “maybe wouldn’t fly with me.”
The Replacements went on to release six more albums (a total of four on Twin/Tone and four on major label Sire) after Sorry Ma and Stink, five of them undeniable classics: the country/pop-inflected romping of 1983’s Hootenanny, 1984’s generation-defining Let It Be (featuring the forever-young ballad, “Unsatisfied”), the haunting Tim in 1985, the bouncy-but-uneven Pleased To Meet Me in 1987, and the downright chilling Don’t Tell A Soul in 1989. Paul has some fond memories of those buzz-blurred days, but those recollections are somewhat tempered by a more mature (and alcohol-free) perspective.
“Well, I’m 42 now,” he muses, “and have a son. And I think of what my mother and father went through, having a 21-year-old son who was known for getting intoxicated and falling off the stage. It’s hard to say I made them proud. I would’ve loved to have sort of kept it quiet, kept it away from the family. And God, you know, sometimes the least and most favorite memories go hand in hand. The most legendary ones are the ones I’m not proud of and cringe at today. The destruction of this RV we’d rented, where we just destroyed everything imaginable with paint. Then we showed up at the Canadian border (cackles) and the guards just stuck their heads in and went, ‘Oh, %@!#$&ing Christ! Just keep going!’ They would’ve had to call in backup. We were a traveling time bomb.”
Truer words were never spoken. Years of living over the edge, bitter infighting, and career disappointments all combined to take a heavy toll on The Replacements. Bob Stinson and Jesperson had both been let go, the former replaced by local axeman Slim Dunlap, the latter by a string of corporate suits. By the time 1991’s appropriately-titled All Shook Down hit the streets, even drummer Mars had split, and the quiet, almost sullen-sounding record was generally perceived as a Westerberg solo effort. Those songs, decidedly mellower and more adult in theme, may have cost the singer/songwriter/guitarist a few hardcore fans, but also helped him to lay the groundwork for his solo career.
The ‘Mats finally folded after playing their last show together on July 4th, 1991. Westerberg, still under contract to Sire, forged onward and began gathering the tracks that would comprise his official solo debut. And after years of struggling with various addictions, he finally turned his back on the wild life.
Though Bob Stinson had been out of the band for four years when the ‘Mats broke up—and despite the fact that he’d long suffered from substance abuse problems—it was still a shock to the other members and the rest of the world when he passed away at 36 in 1995. Westerberg misses his old pal, but prefers to put a lighter spin on things nowadays. When asked what both Bob and Slim’s strongest traits as guitarists were, he jokes, “Bob and Slim?! To say that they were different is very nice. I would argue that me and Tommy were better guitar players than both of ‘em!”
The ‘90’s found him clean and sober, and settling down to write some of the most soul-baring songs of his life. Beating his demons, however, was one of the toughest battles he’s ever faced. “It wasn’t easy to stop,” he admits, “but the time came. I look back sometimes, at the amount, and taking strangers for granted. That this little white powder is supposed to be this or that stuff. There were a number of times where we snorted rat poison, and washed it down with whiskey.” He pauses for a moment, and then says quietly, “You know, I don’t think I got out of that unscathed. Nasal problems, polyps, bloody noses, and brain damage—and everything was probably none too well to begin with.”
Getting clean was just what the doctor ordered. Soon, Paul was busy writing songs for movie and TV soundtracks and compilation albums, and working with other artists. He contributed the lyrics to a minor alt-radio hit (“We Are The Normal”) for the Goo Goo Dolls, played guitar and co-wrote two tunes on The Leatherwoods’ classic 1992 album, Topeka Oratorio, and performed a rollicking cover with ex-Runaway Joan Jett of the old chestnut, “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall In Love).” 1993’s 14 Songs was a cornucopia of pop perfection, and ‘96’s Eventually (his last for Sire/Reprise) laid bare some of the consummate Midwesterner’s long-buried personal issues, including Bob’s death and his own longing to fit in with normal society and raise a family of his own.
In 1997, he released an EP and an absolutely scathing 45, “I Want My Money Back” b/w “Undone,” on the Soundproof label as Grandpaboy. He continues to use his alter-ego as an outlet for his “rockin’ side,” even going as far as attempting to mount a GB tour earlier this year with Tommy Stinson which would’ve followed the ill-fated path of Buddy Holly’s 1958 Winter Dance Party Tour. The idea (which he calls “brilliant/stupid”) fell by the wayside after Tommy backed away from it and promoters got wind of “the smell of that whole (Replacements) thing,” but Grandpaboy will surely be making appearances in the near future.
He speaks highly of Tommy, saying he has high hopes that they will work together again sometime. However, despite rumors amongst fans and recent articles hinting that the former ‘Mats bassist contributed musically to Stereo/Mono, Paul wants the public to know that absolutely was not the case: “I played the record to him,” he says, “when I thought we were going on tour. People swear left and right that he was on it, but no, he didn’t play on it.”
Westerberg’s first (and only) album for Capitol Records, ‘98’s Suicaine Gratifaction, was largely ignored by critics and the public (“It’s difficult to be loved for a long time,” he deadpans), but was even closer to the proverbial bone, featuring alternately sad and biting tracks like “It’s A Wonderful Lie,” “Self-Defense,” and “The Best Thing That Never Happened.” A quick run-through of Paul’s first three solo albums gives a pretty clear overview of his life and musical career and how he perceived them. After an all-too-common major label shuffle at Capitol, Suicaine became the victim of PR neglect, and a by-then completely disillusioned Paul left the label by mutual agreement.
By the turn of the century, he had all but disappeared from the music scene. Meanwhile, as legions of less-talented bands the world over copped The Replacements’ schtick (“From the haircuts to the shirts to the songs,” sez Paul), the one-time stage ham/rock star was sitting alone in his suburban basement writing dozens of new songs, including the 24 tracks that make up his 2002 Vagrant Records debut, Stereo/Mono. The release is his strongest since 14 Songs, and is undoubtedly his finest solo work to date.
This time ‘round, the subject matter has expanded to include his new fatherhood (“Baby Learns To Crawl”), the ups and downs of adult romance/love (“Only Lie Worth Telling,” “Boring Enormous”), his own feelings of alienation and life-long struggles with mood swings (“Nothing To No One”), and speculation on how his (and our) legacy will affect the next generation (“We May Be The Ones”).
Working sans band and studio assistance, he says, was both a blessing and a curse. “It gets a little lonely,” he confides. “For all the good that comes of it, you certainly don’t get an immediate nod of approval. So I spent three years waiting for somebody to jump up and down and go, ‘My God! This is great!’ It was fun, but it certainly wasn’t there instantly. I’d get goose bumps occasionally, and that would be my sign that something was done.”
Another noticeable difference between Stereo/Mono (released as a double album, the first featuring mellower tracks, the second, a souped-up rock n’ roll showcase from Grandpaboy) and previous solo efforts like Suicaine Gratifaction is the in-your-face blast of his voice. It’s almost (as he cracked to me at the beginning of our interview) like he’s “right down the hall.”
He figures that particular aural vibe is present because he’s both working with fresh, more upbeat material and handling all the production himself. “Suicaine was a depressed record,” he shrugs. “It was hard to get excited about ‘It’s A Wonderful Lie’ and ‘Self-Defense.’ I mean, it was almost like the singing was backseat to the lyrics and the melody. [On Stereo/Mono] “High Time” and some of those were barely even songs. But if I felt like belting it out, I could. But there was no conscious effort to prove, or re-prove, myself. I think what you’re hearing is that it’s take one. If you do take two, it’s getting back to the non-involvement of someone else. No producer, no engineer, and I just always sing my best the first time I do it, because I don’t over think it. It’s only later that I think, ‘Oh, this would be a clever line to add in.’”
Westerberg seems to finally be coming to terms with his place in rock as one of the 20th century’s most talented—and least appreciated—songwriters. I tell him I think he’s right up with Tom Waits in that respect, and he’s clearly touched. “That flatters me. It does, and that ultimately had been my goal. Because I feel like I accomplished round one, which was to be a sort of little upstart rock and roll star, and I sort of lived that world and played that game. And now I’d like to be known for my songs and/or art. If I decide to tour, great. If I need to stay home and freak out for a couple of years, then that’s all part of the deal.”
The past six weeks have been a whirlwind of label business, TV talk show appearances, and an acoustic record store mini-tour that ended with him canceling several dates and nearly going back into seclusion. “I was tired,” he sighs. “It was six days in a row, and the way they routed it, I ended up too close to Minneapolis not to go home. Once I got [here] I said, ‘Wait a minute. Let’s just start making a tour, and we’ll include those cities, and I’ll play an extra couple songs, sign an extra couple of autographs, and it’ll be cool.’ I will make it up in my own special way. But that’s the beauty here. I’m at a place where all the decisions are mine. And I appreciate them [Vagrant] allowing me that leeway.”
Besides his previously announced two-date stand at the legendary Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, he recently pressured the label and venue to book him a third show there on Monday, July 1. “Actually,” he says sheepishly, “I tried to blow off the Guthrie dates the day after they sold out. But that’s me, you know? That’s why I’ve hired a guy to manage me who understands me and is prepared for my mood swings. So now I told ‘em to add a third show—and actually, I told ‘em to announce ten shows, but they laughed! We’ll see what happens.”
As for speculation over whether he’ll play by himself or with a band this time out, he says he’s planning to go solo for now, but that things could change. “I would say, don’t expect anyone, and be really surprised if there is someone. By the second night, if I’m tired, I’ll call up Michael [Bland, drummer] and whoever and say, ‘Bring your %@!#$& down, and let’s go!’” Another treat (still officially unconfirmed) for local audiences may be the presence of a Dutch documentary team, who are rumored to be shooting footage of the Guthrie dates for either VH-1 or MTV.
For now, Paul’s content to be home with his significant other and young Johnny, who seems to have taken the place of his old chums in The Replacements. The proud pappy is downright exuberant when speaking of his offspring: “Just the feeling like, I have a compatriot once again to sort of smirk with,” he chuckles. “Even when he’s being taught right from wrong, I can’t help but exchanging a glance with him. I think that he’ll grow up to be in a band so fast, that it’ll be out of his system by the time most kids would want to be in a band. He already talks about, ‘I want my band to be called this, and this is gonna be my songs, and in the band, they’re gonna wear shades and be bald!’ So whatever he sees, he picks up. I had to buy him [Motorhead’s] ‘Ace Of Spades’ the other day!”
He may be nervous about his upcoming local gigs and a possible national tour, but he’s still thankful for the folks here at home who always seem to support and bolster him when he needs it the most. When asked if he has a specific message for his Twin Cities fans, he says sincerely, “I love you. Honestly, with no bull%@!#$&. And I understand the TC crowd, because I’m one of them, too. It’s different being famous here than it is in New York or L.A.—they’re much more willing to stop, yell your name, or chase you for an autograph. Here, they leave me alone, and I appreciate that. Oh, that they know! [laughs] We added that third show because I wanted to make sure that these [tickets] aren’t just bought by scalpers, to be sure that people get in. They’re my people, and we’re gonna have fun!”
Pearls From Paul-
1) He did actually give (for keeps) the goofy-looking hat he wore on David Letterman to the show’s host. He picked up the cap (which looks like a cross between Elmer Fudd and Flava Flav’s chapeaus) at a thrift shop, he says, and he’s not sure whether the red star above its brim is a Red Chinese or Soviet insignia. He’s also not sure whether he dreamed it or it actually happened, but he thinks someone told him they sent the hat back to his label. He’ll miss the hat if he doesn’t find it, but it won’t make or break him.
2) The “messages” he had written on his shirt/jacket on that TV performance were “Now” and “Here.” When the jacket was zipped up and the two were folded together, (ala’ Mad Magazine) the words spelled out “NoWhere.” He thought that was pretty funny, and was amazed that I was the first person he’s talked to who “got it.”
3) The label is pressuring him to play “We May Be The Ones” for his scheduled Tuesday, July 9th, performance on Late Night With Conan O’Brien, but, he joked to me, “I kinda feel like rockin’ again. Maybe I’ll get Green Day...”
4) He’s toying with (and he stresses, just toying with) the idea of maybe bringing in his piano for one or more of his upcoming local gigs.
5) His current favorite song of the new batch is “Let The Bad Times Roll.”
Paul Westerberg plays three dates, Sat., June 29, Sun., June 30, and Mon., July 1, at The Guthrie Theater. Call (612) 377-8243 for more info.