Paul Westerberg: The Man Who Wasn’t There

After his wild life with the Replacements, Paul Westerberg learned to disappear. But when St. Paul returned, he found his down-and-out disciples waiting for him. By Jonathan Valania. Photos by Christian Lantry.

And then one day, long after anyone bothered paying attention, he just disappeared. He simply wasn’t there anymore. There was no puff of smoke or trapdoor involved. He just slowly faded away while we were looking right at him or through him or past him. And nobody even blinked.

He went back to the house, somewhere on the sunny side of Minneapolis, to be alone with his headaches and cigars and the mother of his child, with her diet pills and her barbells, and the son who learned to crawl watching daddy’s skin. And he was happy to do nothing, padding around in the middle of the night in his slippers and his sunglasses and all his hair. And he waited until somebody noticed that he was gone, and he waited and waited. And nobody ever did.

Or so it seemed. But they were out there—the Westernerds, the small-yet-devout army of stray dogs and beautiful losers—and they were waiting for the return of St. Paul, patron saint of the fucked up and the fucked over. And here he is in Philadelphia, in a Tower Records of all places, playing songs from his latest record, Stereo/Mono (Vagrant), a homemade Basement Tapes of folksy rambling and dirty rock ‘n’ roll. It’s easily his most satisfying collection of songs in 18 years—just don’t call it a comeback.

Shit, who’s he fooling? He’s glad to come back, even if he looks like he never went away, dressed as he is in a crimson crushed-velvet tuxedo jacket, shirt untucked, black work boots encrusted in purple glitter and blue-tinted shades—the ones that keep you from counting the rings under his eyes. There’s one other thing that hasn’t changed: Up close, he still looks afraid. He sounds a little ragged, just like always, taking requests and playing them as best he can remember them. Several hundred have shown up—as they have all over the country—and they love him, maybe even a little bit more when he fucks up. They have always come to see him fuck up. It makes them feel a little less alone, a little less fucked up. And he will oblige. Because he’s learned what happens when he doesn’t give his people what they want: nothing.

And when it’s over, he will sit for three hours and chat with each one of them—new punks and old rockers, fathers and sons, janitors and lawyers and all the girls he’s loved before—and sign whatever they’ve brought: bootlegs and rare singles; a 1984 Village Voice article on the Replacements titled “It’s Lonely At The Bottom” and the 1991 Spin cover that declared him “the soul of rock ‘n’ roll”; a roll of toilet paper; an empty can of non-alcoholic beer. Somebody even wants him to sign the speeding ticket he got on the way over. Someone else wants him to sign a bootleg of the last Replacements show, Chicago 1991, the one that captures bassist Tommy Stinson asking the crowd between songs if they want to see his Axl Rose impersonation. (If you don’t know how rich that is, I’ll clue you in later.) A 17-year-old art student gives him the Warhol-style portrait she’s painted of him. An eight-year-old hands him the crayon drawing he’s made of him. Then there’s the guy who doesn’t want him to sign anything at all. He has stood in line for nearly three hours just to tell Paul Westerberg this: “It’s good to have you back. Please don’t get discouraged.” Nice try, kid, but it’s too late. You see, he was born like that, he had no choice.

Now he’s lying on the couch, in his shades and his rock-star clothes, talking about how he got discouraged and why he disappeared. It’s weeks later. We’re in New York City, in his luxury hotel suite, but he’s taking us back to the very beginning. He was born on New Year’s Eve, 1959, in a section of Minneapolis called Dinkytown, the son of a Cadillac salesman. In Westerberg’s fantasy, his dad is rushing his mother to the hospital and honking impatiently at the goddamned beatnik in front of him idling along on a motorcycle, a chubby-cheeked Jewish kid from upstate—Hibbing, to be exact. His name is Robert Zimmerman, but he’ll later change it to Bob Dylan. But it’s just a fantasy.

“My dad was never the most ambitious guy,” says Westerberg, puffing on one of his ever-present cigars, the only vice he affords himself these days. “Classic example of a lower-middle-class guy who drove a Cadillac he didn’t own. I remember there was always a ‘for sale’ sign in the window. Drank himself to sleep every night. When he retired, he got a broken watch and a plaque and a used Buick.”

Young Paul Westerberg would learn to put the needle on the stereo before he learned to tie his shoes. An older sister turned him on to the Rolling Stones. An older brother, an inveterate blueshound, turned him on to Sonny Boy Williamson and Little Walter. When he was 12, Westerberg was swinging on a junkyard rope and fell off, banging his head on a rusted car fender. It occurs to him now that he was never quite the same after that. He had to work harder just to be an average student. His mind tended to invert the words on the page.

“If it said ‘black blanket of rain,’ I would read ‘white sheet of sun,’” he says. “It became my nature to do the opposite of what I was told. It still haunts me to this day the time I was asked to name an animal that gives milk, and I said, ‘A goat,’ because a cow was too obvious. The teacher chastised me in front of the whole class. I got slapped down for not giving the obvious answer.”

He was 13 when he bought his sister’s acoustic guitar for $10, which he earned by mowing the lawn eight times. He didn’t let a little thing like not knowing how to play stop him from writing songs. His first, “Mr. Tonic Man,” was “a vague ripoff of ‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’ a 15-bar embarrassment,” he says. But he really discovered the expressive potential of the instrument the day the power-company men came to cut down the diseased elm tree in the Westerbergs’ backyard. Hurt and frustrated, he marched up to the attic and promptly smashed the guitar into pieces.

When he was 17, the neighborhood stoner dude with the awesome stereo system and ultra-hip record collection turned him on to the Sex Pistols. “I shat myself,” he says. “It was noisy rock ‘n’ roll screeched by a guy who couldn’t sing. I thought, ‘This is my music.’” After that, he stopped wearing his glasses and, predictably, fell in with the wrong crowd, sampling just about every controlled substance short of heroin. One month before graduating, he stopped going to class. “I saw this film called The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner about a guy who stops just short of the finish line, and that was very influential,” he says. “Besides, wearing a cap and gown was just not cool.”

Making the best of somewhat limited options, he took a job as a janitor in the offices of U.S. Senator Dave Durenberger. By this point, Westerberg had bought himself an electric guitar and joined a neighborhood rock group called Oat. Walking home from work one day, he heard a band stumbling through Yes’ “Roundabout” in the basement of a house at 36th and Grand. He hated Yes, but he heard an opportunity. Every day on the way home, he would hide in the bushes and listen to them rehearse, never summoning the courage to knock on the door and introduce himself.

“One day a friend asked me if I wanted to go hear a band play,” he says. “We pull up, and it’s that house on 36th and Grand. I walked in very casual and didn’t tell them that I had been listening to them. I was immediately struck by Tommy. His amp was bigger than him.”

The band was calling itself Dogbreath and featured 12-year-old Tommy Stinson on bass, his 19-year-old half-brother Bob on guitar and 18-year-old Chris Mars on drums. By the time Westerberg left the Stinson house, he was officially a member of Dogbreath.

Although he kept it to himself, he was going to make some changes. The classic-rock crap had to go, as did the name. “Bob had the absolute worst record collection I ever saw,” says Westerberg. “The next time I came over, I brought three albums with me: Dave Edmunds/Rockpile’s Tracks On Wax, Singles Going Steady by the Buzzcocks and the first one by the New York Dolls.” The guys in Dogbreath asked Westerberg if he knew any singers, so for the next rehearsal he brought along Oat’s vocalist. Dogbreath liked him fine, but Westerberg had other ideas.

“I pulled him aside afterwards and told him that I liked his singing, but the other guys weren’t into it,” says Westerberg. “I told them he wasn’t into it and I would sing until we found somebody else.”

He taught Dogbreath the songs from the first Heartbreakers album, passing them off as his own. “They figured it out after a while,” he says. “I remember walking up the stairs to take a piss and Chris whispering to the other guys, ‘This is friggin’ punk rock!’ like I was trying to slip them angel dust or something.” Westerberg got them to change their name to the Impediments. They practiced every day for months, as Westerberg slowly changed the Johnny Thunders songs into his songs, altering the chords ever so slightly and making up new words, giving them titles like “Shutup,” “Careless” and “Shiftless When Idle.”

They passed a practice tape to Peter Jesperson—a local disc jockey, record-store clerk and all-around tastemaker—hoping he could get them a gig at the Longhorn, where all the cool bands played. Jesperson was also one of the partners at a local indie label called Twin/Tone. When Jesperson heard the tape, he called Westerberg excitedly and asked if the band would be interested in making an album.

“I remember thinking either I’ve lost it or this is the greatest thing since sliced bread,” says Jesperson, now a senior vice president at New West Records. “I remember being lambasted by a lot of people for being so passionate about these guys. I remember Bob Mould saying, ‘I suppose the red carpet is going to be rolled out for these guys.’”

The first Impediments gig was at a halfway house for recovering alcoholics, but the band arrived drunk and was shown the door before playing a single note. “The guy who ran the place told us he would make sure we never played again in this town,” says Westerberg. “So we changed the name to the Replacements to cover our tracks.”

The Replacements were made to be broken, and it’s a minor miracle they lasted eight albums, spread out over the course of a lost decade. In the end, the dream got too tired to come true, but for a brief and shining moment, it seemed like anything was possible. “For a while there, Paul had no idea how good a songwriter he was,” says Jesperson. “I always said I wanted to work with people who were better than they thought they were. There were nights when it was incomprehensible to me that there was a better band on the planet.”

But there were just as many nights when the shows would devolve into drunken disasters, even by the most charitable standards of professionalism—sometimes by accident, sometimes by the bottle, sometimes by intent and sometimes all of the above. It started as a mistake but soon became a way of deflating expectations. After a while, it became a shtick, a showbiz hook: Come watch them shoot another toe off! There’s only one left! And then people came to watch them self-destruct.

“Some of that Replacements stuff was jive, that sort of ‘Duh, I don’t know how to play’ stuff,” says Westerberg. “For us, it was all or nothing. We were either going to be the greatest band on earth or the worst. Settling for just being a good band was not an option. People like to see human error when it’s honest. When people see you swing and miss, they start to root for you.”

And so the Replacements became the underground’s beloved underdogs, boozy everymen, churning out anthems of hope and failure, wearing their hearts on the their flannel sleeves. Fans jokingly referred to the group as the Placemats, which was soon shortened to the Mats, which is what you called them if you were in on the joke.

The band’s first album, 1981’s Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash, sounds like the lads from My Three Sons getting juiced out in the garage on the old man’s beer, trying to play like Johnny Thunders but getting it wrong. “Somebody called it ‘power trash,’ and that stuck,” says Westerberg. Their only option for touring early on was the all-ages hardcore-punk circuit being blazed by their fellow Minneapolitans in Hüsker Dü, but the skinheads weren’t exactly taken with the sound of power trash. So the Replacements got louder and faster for their sophomore album (released the next year) and called it, aptly enough, Stink. (When you picked it up out of the record bin, it read “The Replacements Stink.”)

“The bands who played punk rock didn’t see us as a punk band,” says Westerberg, “but we embodied punk more than they did. Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets helped us to understand punk. When people started to realize that the Rolling Stones were a punk band, they started to see us as a punk band.”

For their third album, 1983’s Hootenanny, the Replacements spent all their time playing practical jokes on the engineer—switching instruments when he wasn’t looking, playing Beatles songs with different words—and just when they were ready to get down to business, they were told the album was finished. Whoops. By the time they made the next one, they were ready to get serious.

“The way punk was going, it was obvious that we couldn’t be the fastest, loudest, toughest band on earth,” says Westerberg. “So I returned to the acoustic guitar. I used to always show those guys new songs on an acoustic, but we always recorded them electric. This time, we cut them with the acoustic. And we really arranged the songs, adding mandolin and 12-string. In the back of my mind I was thinking Beggar’s Banquet. And it was right in the autumn and the weather was beautiful, the nights were cool. There was something in the air that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.”

Along with his acoustic guitar, Westerberg brought to the studio some of the best songs he’s ever written: “Unsatisfied,” “Sixteen Blue,” “Androgynous” and the country-tinged gem “I Will Dare.” Says Jesperson, “I remember the first time I heard [“I Will Dare”], thinking, ‘Oh my god, we’re gonna be rich.’”

Peter Buck was asked to play the solo on “I Will Dare.” Says Westerberg, “We liked Peter, we hung out with him and we had done a couple of tours with R.E.M. But that was totally Jesperson’s idea, him being Brian Epstein about it. Nobody else was that keen on it. I remember looking over at Bob when Pete was cutting his solo, and it was like, ‘Sorry, dude.’”

Calling the album Let It Be was the band’s way of pissing off Jesperson, a huge Beatles fan. “We were in the van kicking around names,” says Westerberg. “We were going to call it Whistler’s Mammy, and then we were going to call it Stunk. And then we decided that the next song that came on the radio was going to be the album title. The next thing you know, ‘When I find myself in times of trouble … ’ comes on the radio. I remember we took photos of the band walking across the street like Abbey Road, and that’s why we were on the roof (on the album cover). It was supposed to be like the Beatles on the roof at Apple, but it was too steep for us to take our instruments up there.”

Suddenly, they were contenders, and soon enough the major labels came calling. The band’s relationship with Twin/Tone had become strained, largely over royalties (or the lack thereof). In protest, they bluffed their way into the recording studio where all the Mats’ master tapes were being stored, walked out with as many as they could carry and threw them off a bridge into the Mississippi. “Mostly they were back-up copies, but there was some precious stuff lost, like the stuff we recorded with Al,” says Westerberg.

Al is how Westerberg refers to Alex Chilton, who presided over a 1984 recording session that would prove to be the band’s final recording for Twin/Tone. “It didn’t go well with Al,” says Westerberg. “We needed the opposite kind of guy. We had the crazy-man thing down pat—we needed somebody stable. He was encouraging the chaos, and it was chaos to the point where it didn’t sound good.”

Likewise, the band’s relationship with Jesperson was wearing thin. “I never considered myself their manager, but that’s what I became because nobody else was interested in the job,” says Jesperson. “One day, Paul said to me, ‘I am unhappy about the way things are going, and when I get mad, I start swinging—and I don’t want you to be standing in the way of the punches.’ Paul had a tendency to say, ‘There’s something wrong here, I better fire somebody,’ but there were some of us who thought that maybe he should take a hard look in the mirror. The only thing holding the Replacements back was the Replacements.”

After a few willfully disastrous label showcases in New York—including an especially drunk and belligerent CBGB gig—the Mats eventually signed with Sire. “We were afraid of what they were going to do to us, with good reason,” says Westerberg. “We knew it was the end of something, but we had to move on because what had come before had exhausted itself. I believe it was my songs and Tommy’s looks that (Sire president) Seymour Stein thought he could take to the bank.”

For their major-label debut, 1985’s Tim, the Mats chose former Ramones drummer Tommy Erdelyi to produce. Unbeknownst to the band, Erdelyi was going deaf, and Tim kind of sounds like it. Sonic shortcomings aside, Tim contains some of Westerberg’s most accomplished songs: “Here Comes A Regular,” “Left Of The Dial” and the anthemic “Bastards Of Young,” which spawned one of the most bizarre videos to be aired on MTV during the ‘80s. Part Andy Warhol’s Empire and part middle finger to its major label, the black-and-white video features a single shot of a throbbing stereo speaker. Ultimately, Tim neither satisfied the hard-line Mats fans (who thought it was too polished), nor did it succeed commercially, peaking at number 51 on the Billboard charts.

“I did all the guitar playing (on Tim), and one of the speakers on my amp was blown, and I think that was the one that the microphone was on,” says Westerberg. “By this point, Bob had pretty much lost interest, and we didn’t really do much to encourage his participation.”

The guitarist had been slowly slipping away from the band since the making of Let It Be. “Bob just got out of hand,” says Westerberg. “He would be outside in the alley trying to score drugs while we were onstage. When he was tipsy and wearing a dress, he was charming, but when he was just wasted, stark naked and had no clue at 180 decibels, it was like, ‘This ain’t helping us at all.’” Stinson tried rehab a handful of times—often on the band’s dime—and it would occasionally work, at least for a few days.

Our Band Could Be Your Life, critic Michael Azerrad’s recent book about the American underground-rock scene in the ‘80s, devotes a chapter to the Replacements, wherein Bob Stinson’s then-wife Carleen accuses Westerberg of shoving a bottle of champagne in Stinson’s face during one of the guitarist’s sober periods and giving him an ultimatum: “Either take a drink, motherfucker, or get off my stage.” I mention the book to Westerberg. “Yeah, I might have skimmed it,” he says, and before I can bring up the particular incident, he cuts me off: “You mean page 229? The key phrase is her saying, ‘It’s the only time I ever saw Bob cry.’ Well, I saw Bob cry 96 times—I think that says a lot about his relationship with that woman. I’ve said this before: It wasn’t the liquor that tore the band apart, it was the women.”

A few weeks after the incident in question, Stinson was fired, and in the hearts of most charter Mats fans, this was effectively the end of the group. Stinson would go on to achieve local bar-band glory with Static Taxi and the Bleeding Hearts, generally having a good time all the time. He died in 1995, at the age of 35. “I heard the coroner’s report said, ‘He wore himself out,’” says Westerberg. “I saw Bob two nights before he died. I was returning a video, and he was on his way to the liquor store. He gave me this look like, ‘You wanna come with us? We’re going back to my place to get high.’ I was sober by that point, but for a second, I almost went with him. It was sad, but you knew it was coming. From the day I met him, he spent his days getting fucked up. That never changed. I really loved the son of a bitch. Any time he asked me to buy him a drink I would empty my pockets for him. But I didn’t like his guitar playing. I wanted to get rid of him from day one.”

Slim Dunlap, a fixture on the Minneapolis bar scene, was chosen to replace Stinson. “He always had a kind word for everyone, he played pretty good guitar and, not the least of all, he had a driver’s license,” says Westerberg. Around the time of 1987’s Pleased To Meet Me, the Replacements’ drinking and drugging was getting out of hand, even by their own delinquent standards. The Mats’ dressing-room rider included two cases of beer, a fifth of bourbon and vodka and two bottles of wine. “We would save the wine for Sunday,” says Westerberg. “Usually by dawn, it was all gone.”

Pleased To Meet Me was recorded in Memphis’ Ardent Studios with producer Jim Dickinson. (It’s no coincidence that this was the same studio and producer used for Big Star’s Sister Lovers a dozen years earlier; for the album, Westerberg penned “Alex Chilton,” his ode to the fallen teen idol, and Chilton himself came in to play guitar on “Can’t Hardly Wait.”) The Replacements’ boozy antics caused Ardent owner John Fry to wonder aloud how they managed to get vomit on the 30-foot studio ceiling. “I think Jim told him that we were throwing up in our hands and then throwing it up on the ceiling,” says Westerberg. “I tend to remember it as being a bottle of pink champagne exploding.”

Pleased To Meet Me was the last great Replacements record. When they got to 1989’s Don’t Tell A Soul, they were ready to play ball with Sire and give the label something it could put on the radio. Instead of biting the hand that feeds, they were now willing to kiss the ring. But the band was in shambles. Mars was trying to clean up his act, staying away from the studio after laying down his drum parts. Tommy Stinson had just gotten married. “So it was pretty much me and Slim crafting that record,” says Westerberg. “It sounded good until the label brought in people to mix it to make it sound like everything else on the radio, so it sounds dated. People ask, ‘How did Paul get that sound on Mono?’ Well, that sound was on every Mats recording—it’s just marked ‘Take One.’”

By the time they limped through the completion of their final album, 1990’s All Shook Down, the Replacements were a band in name only, creatively spent and bickering over booze, drugs, wives and money. Mars, like Stinson, had begun writing songs and couldn’t see why a few of them couldn’t wind up on the album. Mars wouldn’t make it through the end of the recording process. “I wanted to make an eclectic, spooky little farewell record,” says Westerberg. “I wanted to do a country/rock record, Burritos-drunken-Eagles and back to the Stones, but Tommy wanted to do a loud rock record.” They settled on a middle ground that pleased nobody, not the least of which were the fans. Although he likes to think of it as a sleeper album, Westerberg admits he was off his game when they were cutting All Shook Down. “My marriage was collapsing,” he says. “I didn’t know what to do. I was spending all of my time drinking and making googly eyes at a girl in New York instead of working on the record. And my voice was shot from drinking too much.”

By this point, just about everything about Westerberg was shot from drinking too much. What once were vices had become habits. “I knew I had to get sober because I got to the point where a half a beer would knock me on my ass—wouldn’t know my middle name, like I was damaging my brain,” says Westerberg. “I said, ‘I am going to go into treatment tomorrow.’ When the time came, I was too chicken to go through with it but told myself I wouldn’t drink today just to make myself feel better. And I didn’t drink. And I did the same the next day and the day after that, and that’s how I stayed sober for 10 years. I would never do cocaine again, but that heroin is the most evil stuff in the world. I only did it a handful of times, but not a day has gone by that I haven’t thought about it. It is the peace that some of us seek, but I would just make the horror in my mind so great that I would tell myself, ‘No, it’s not worth that moment of relaxation.’”

On the tour for All Shook Down, Westerberg and Dunlap were sober, which Stinson took as a slap in the face. “Tommy got as drunk as possible every night as a final fuck you,” says Westerberg. “There was one final moment that, if they ever make the Replacements movie, should be depicted. It was in Holland, and the promoter came in with the poster for the gig. It was a big picture of me, and it said, ‘Paul Westerberg And The Replacements.’ Tommy grabbed it and ripped it up, and that was the end of the Replacements.”

Stinson tried to get a solo career going with a couple of cutout-bin combos called Bash & Pop and Perfect but wound up on the payroll of Axl Rose’s reconstituted Guns N’ Roses, where he remains to this day. Westerberg recorded songs for the 1992 Cameron Crowe film Singles, a celluloid love letter to the then-exploding Seattle scene, which owed a sizable debt to the Replacements’ legacy. Westerberg denies he ever intended the song “World Class Fad” (from his 1993 solo debut, 14 Songs) to be about Kurt Cobain. “I never respected Kurt Cobain enough to write something about him,” he says. “I was never a big Nirvana fan. To me, it had too much plod in it. It didn’t swing, and it had that allegiance to metal that I never cared for. It comes from the drumming, the whole stop-and-start thing and turn on the loud button for the chorus. God, wasn’t that tedious when every fucking band did that to death? We had too much humor to go out like that; he didn’t seem to have much humor.”

Then came the Westerberg solo records—14 Songs, 1996’s Eventually and 1999’s Suicaine Gratifaction—each one panned more severely by critics, each one mishandled more ineptly by the record companies, each one ignored a little more by the fans. In their eyes, with his sobriety, snazzy suits and grown-up songs, Westerberg violated the Mats’ prime directive: Never let them see you trying.

In a way, maybe his audience saw something amiss in him that he couldn’t see in himself at the time. “A lot of the songs just didn’t ring true to me,” says Jesperson. “I remember thinking, ‘Could this guy be washed up?’”

Even Westerberg had to admit his heart wasn’t in it any longer. “I was just tired of the cycle: Do the interviews, play the same places to the same people and come home with nothing but a sore back and sore throat,” he says.

He fired his manager and more or less fired himself, and he sat around for about a year, doing his best to do nothing. From time to time, when he bothered to tune in, he would hear himself on the radio. Only it wasn’t him: It was the Goo Goo Dolls. He would pass by a newsstand and, out of the corner of his eye, see his picture on the cover of a magazine, only to realize it was Ryan Adams. And the money—what little he had to show for his 20 years as a recording artist—was starting to run out. “I saw more money from doing ‘Nowhere Man’ (from last year’s I Am Sam soundtrack) than the entire Twin/Tone Replacements catalog,” he says. “For the major-label records, we ran up an enormous bill, trashing hotel rooms and the bus and the lights we didn’t need. We always thought each record was going to sell a million, and we did it five times and got burned five times and got stuck with a big bill.”

It was starting to look like things were going to turn out just like they did for the old man: All he had to show for his trouble was a Cadillac with a ‘for sale’ sign in the window. And then Westerberg started getting the itch to write again. He set up a recording studio in his basement and started rolling tape, playing all the instruments. No bullshit. No outside producers. No label interference. No second takes. No expectations.

And now he’s on The Late Show With David Letterman, only it isn’t “him.” It’s his alter ego, Grandpaboy. Westerberg’s new album, Stereo/Mono, is a double-disc set; Mono—originally released separately two months beforehand—is credited to Grandpaboy. “I grew up sooner than I should have; I was an old man before my time, I think,” he says. “Grandpaboy is the best explanation. I felt old and crotchety even when I was 19.”

The beauty of having an alter ego is that you can do whatever you want and not have to accept responsibility for it. Like taking your woolen North Korean People’s Army cap off your head after you’ve performed “Silent Film Star” and putting it on Letterman’s head, even though you’re pretty sure he doesn’t do funny hats. (Not on the air, anyway.) Like making a stunning album of dirty-water rock ‘n’ roll and hinting strongly that it was a secret Replacements reunion record, even though you bashed out every note and drumbeat all by your lonesome in the cozy confines of your basement.

“I wanted to see how many people I could fool into thinking it was the Replacements, and it made me feel good because I was the sound of the Replacements,” he says. “That’s the bitterest pill for some people to swallow. I’m not trying to say it was all me all along, but when Tommy was 12 and Bob didn’t know what chord to play and Chris didn’t know what beat to play, I was the one making suggestions.”

It’s curious Westerberg would want to make this point at this late date. During the heyday of the Replacements, this was pretty clear to anyone paying attention. But when he went solo and album after album got kicked in the face by critics and went stale on the shelves, he had to ask himself what the hell happened. It’s the same thing with a different name, only it isn’t exactly the same thing. The Replacements were very good at being bad, but by the end, he was tired of all that. He wanted to actually try to be good. But as a solo artist, Paul Westerberg was kind of bad at being good.

On Stereo/Mono, he finally found his voice as an adult singer/songwriter, and at the same time, he reconnected with that gutbucket, first-take-is-the-best-take rock ‘n’ roll he perfected back in the Stinsons’ basement. But he’s been burned before, so he made sure he had an escape hatch, had the right to disappear written into his contract.

“I insisted that Grandpaboy come out first,” he says, “because on the one-in-a-trillion chance that it actually took off, I was going to kiss Paul Westerberg goodbye.”

5 replies on “Paul Westerberg: The Man Who Wasn’t There”

Enjoying Mono right now and finding it a bit ironic that it sounds a little Pettyesque. Good stuff.

[…] But there were just as many nights when the shows would devolve into drunken disasters, even by the most charitable standards of professionalism—sometimes by accident, sometimes by the bottle, sometimes by intent and sometimes all of the above. It started as a mistake but soon became a way of deflating expectations. After a while, it became a shtick, a showbiz hook: Come watch them shoot another toe off! There’s only one left! And then people came to watch them self-destruct. MORE […]

[…] A few weeks after the incident in question, Stinson was fired, and in the hearts of most charter Mats fans, this was effectively the end of the group. Stinson would go on to achieve local bar-band glory with Static Taxi and the Bleeding Hearts, generally having a good time all the time. He died in 1995, at the age of 35. “I heard the coroner’s report said, ‘He wore himself out,’” says Westerberg. “I saw Bob two nights before he died. I was returning a video, and he was on his way to the liquor store. He gave me this look like, ‘You wanna come with us? We’re going back to my place to get high.’ I was sober by that point, but for a second, I almost went with him. It was sad, but you knew it was coming. From the day I met him, he spent his days getting fucked up. That never changed. I really loved the son of a bitch. Any time he asked me to buy him a drink I would empty my pockets for him. But I didn’t like his guitar playing. I wanted to get rid of him from day one.” MORE […]

Not sure why the critics didn’t like his solo stuff “14 songs” and “Eventually.” I thought they were pretty good. But hey, I liked “Don’t Tell a Soul” as well and apparently, Paul didn’t even like what it was transformed into. Good stuff to me!

Comments are closed.