By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Photo by Len IrishBefore you head out the door to meet Paul Westerberg for dinner, you might want to skip reading the liner notes to All for Nothing/Nothing for All, the 1997 Replacements compilation of near misses and never-meant-to-be's. Otherwise you could end up sitting at the bar dripping tears of nostalgia into your near beer as you wait for your man to show.
Not to overstate it, but the trip down memory lane spurred by those liner notes is not a particularly joyful one. For certain disaffected segments of the nameless generation that (along with the Replacements) came of age in the '80s, it's bittersweet at best. Bitter because it was the '80s and, well, you remember. Sweet because the Replacements weren't just a great band, they were also standard-bearers for those brave or stupid enough to rally around the notion that in some contexts being a loser is a noble pursuit. Or, to put it in musical terms, as Reagan and Bush ran roughshod over our collective soul, the Replacements threw up on their shoes and then rocked the house.
"We were there to upset the apple cart as quickly as we could," says the erstwhile leader of the Mats. "Immediately we knew we had to do as much damage as possible and go as far as we could, but it wasn't meant to last."
No, it wasn't. The Replacements blazed out at the beginning of the '90s just in time for a host of mostly lesser bands to make it big tapping them as a source. But as the final few years of this decade have made clear, the '80s are back and they're on steroids. Good old-fashioned powder cocaine is hip again, Wall Street is on a rampage, and consumer spending is up. Can spandex metal be far behind?
The good news is that Westerberg is back too, with a new album, Suicaine Gratification. Brutally honest and insistently forlorn, it is anchored by a handful of ballads that feature Westerberg's gut-wrenching vocals over spare, piano-driven arrangements that sound like a revelation even though the heartache feels painfully familiar. It's like a visit from an old friend who not only lived to tell the tale, but surprises you with new wisdom and confidence.
It's early evening on a recent Friday, and that old friend is sitting in a booth at a surprisingly trendy Hollywood eatery, taking to his salmon salad the way a kid takes to lima beans. He doesn't need much prodding to discuss the inspiration for an album that begins with the lines "I get up from a dream and I look for rain" and ends with "They say you were crushed like the petals of a flower between the pages of a novel, a long forgotten bookmark."
"About half of it was written in a two-week period," he says. "It was right after I came off the tour from the last record, and I just sort of sequestered myself. I didn't know if I wanted to even make a record, or whatever. It was almost a comfort thing. I went down to the piano because I didn't know what else to do. Stuff came pouring out because I got in a depression that, you know, just didn't let go. I rode it out. You can try to pick yourself up, but I was in the mood to sort of just wallow in it for a while. I just kind of lived in the basement and wrote and recorded."
Westerberg is wearing an earth-toned jacket over a natty shirt, sweater and tie. His famously unruly hair is cut and combed, but not quite tamed. Sober for many years now, he affects the demeanor of a curmudgeonly professor: He doesn't necessarily want to answer stupid questions, but if it helps you understand, he will lecture.
Does he see this album, his first for new label Capitol, as a more realized vision than his two previous solo records?
"Yeah, because I was obsessed with the one thought, or, for the lack of a better phrase, the darkness of it all. I mean, there's deep despair, but when you get so deep into despair, there's also beauty there, you know? This is like a serious, dark hole, and you find beauty . . . I went in deeper and deeper." Westerberg pauses and forks some salad toward his mouth like he's lifting a great weight. "Maybe the beauty was like a present or a gift or something, to say, 'Okay, you've suffered long enough, here's something to be proud of.'"
PRODUCER DON WAS SAYS WHEN HE FIRST HEARD the songs he was blown away by how consistently good they were. His challenge, he says, was to stay out of the way as much as possible and to encourage Westerberg to maintain the courage of his convictions.
"It's having the confidence to stand naked as yourself, as opposed to worrying about who you're letting down," Was says. "All it takes is some asshole in the bar to come up to you and say, 'What, are you turning into a pussy? Where's all the electric guitars?' To me [the album] represents him having enough courage to say, 'Here's how I am. Like it or lump it.'"