I first laid ears on Paul Westerberg back in 1982. Somebody, I don’t remember who, had given me a mix-tape (ah, the mix-tape. I miss them terribly) and one of the songs on the mix was called Kids Don’t Follow by The Replacements (The Mats to hardcore fans). It was a full bore slice of rock insanity, Westerberg was the lead singer, and I was hooked. I went out and bought the album the song was on, called Stink. By going “out” I mean I drove to Columbus where they actually had record stores that carried such non-mainstream rebelliousness. Hell, in 1982 you couldn’t find an R.E.M. tape in Ross County. I know, I’m old, but so is Rock ‘n’ Roll. Anyway, I loved the album. It’s hard to describe how different the sound was to me now, since “alternative” music was really in its infant stages and there have been a million imitators in years hence. The Goo Goo Dolls, Meat Puppets, and Ryan Adams are just a few artists admitting to a strong Westerberg influence. Of course, every band has their own influences, and The Mats can pay homage to The Clash, Big Star, and The Jam as well.
If you want to hear a slice of pure Mats, give a listen to Color Me Impressed, a full blown rock guitar orgy of noise on 1983’s Hootenanny album. Then I think you’ll know precisely what I’m talkin’ about. Westerberg’s voice has been called a “raw-throated adolescent howl” and this song illustrates why. They had some brilliant stuff on many of those early albums, songs like Fuck School and Dope Smokin’ Moron were classics. Wait. Now I know why I couldn’t find their albums at Woolworth’s in Chillicothe. Damn.
The Replacements broke up in 1991 for reasons well documented – in-fighting, addictions, you’ve heard it all before. Westerberg has been a notoriously moody cat, and one can certainly imagine how tough he’d be to work with. The night I saw him he almost took a roadie’s head off, but more on that later.
Next up was Westerberg’s solo career, and he did not disappoint. 1993’s “14 Songs” was a great album containing the Westerberg classics Knockin’ on Mine and Mannequin Shop. Ah, Mannequin Shop. Who can resist lyrics like these?
You’re lookin’ fine, a little strange, Been working out? Losing weight?
You got that hunger, and I can see
You’re looking younger than you’re supposed to be.
One little nip, one little tuck, ooh, you’re lookin’ hip
You never ever stop, chop-chop.
You look bitchin’, you look taut,
I’m itchin’ to know what was bought
Are those yours? Are those mine? Are they paid for?
It’s a lie.
You’re looking great
You’re losing face
You’re looking fine
My little Frankenstein.
Oh yeah, that familiar sounding voice you hear in the background on 14 Songs is Miss Joan Marie Larkin, or Joan Jett to you neophytes.
By the way, if you’re watching the video links you’ll see that most of them are grainy and unfocused. That’s kind of perfect, isn’t it?
Westerberg has released several albums since then, and I’ve enjoyed them all. Specific songs that stand out for me are MommaDaddyDid and Dyslexic Heart, although my faves are way too numerous to mention here. He has a killer acoustic version of The Beatle’s Nowhere Man that is amazing.
Paul has had his critics over the years, and as usual I disagree with them because, well, critics suck balls. The criticisms are usually along the lines of, “Oh, he’s gone soft” or “He’s sold out.” I say bullshit on both counts. Anyone who thinks 1999’s “Sunrise Always Listens” is a too-soft tune should listen to “If Only You Were Lonely” from the mid-80’s or 1990’s “Sadly Beautiful.” Both were hauntingly beautiful ballads, shot straight from the heart, not much different than what he’s doing now. Sure, he wrote songs for the soundtrack to “Open Season” a couple years ago, but a guys gotta make a buck, right? I hear these criticisms all the time with guys like Westerberg or bands like Green Day, and I think it’s has something to do with maturity. Just because you’re stuck in 1995 doesn’t mean Billy Joe Armstrong is. Same with Paul.
I finally got a chance to see Westerberg at The Newport in C-Bus a couple years back, and it was an unreal experience. Along with his solo stuff, he sang some old Replacements songs and even threw in some surprise covers like “If I Had a Hammer” and “Daydream Believer.” At one point he sang while lying flat on his back on the floor. Another time a roadie came out to help with a guitar strap and Paul yelled, “Get the fuck out of here!”and proceeded to lunge at the guy with an uncontrolled rage as the dude ran for his life. Of course, he had a cigarette dangling from his mouth most of the show. Helluva night. A friend who was with our group told me afterwards, “It’s the first time I felt like I was watching a real rock star.”
Paul Westerberg is obviously a troubled, complex guy, just like a lot of creative people are. There’s a story of him jumping off stage in Chicago and nearly choking the life out of a heckler before they stopped him. Good times.
Sometimes he touches on this through his music or during interviews. I recently read one where he spoke of receiving a book from a fan after one of his shows. Inside the book there was an inscription that read, “To Paul, who saved my life.” Westerberg said that he shook his head when he read it aloud. “It’s a horrible feeling,” he said. “I almost think ‘God, I saved you? Can you save me?”