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.'”
Which, in the end, is the album's greatest strength. When you listen to “Self-Defense,” “Actor in the Street,” “Sunrise Always Listens,” “Born for Me” — just a voice and an instrument or two — you hear Paul Westerberg, not “Paul Westerberg, former leader of . . .” When it is suggested that the pared-down approach helps make this the Westerberg album that finally transcends the Replacements' catalog, he agrees to a point, but also sees the strands that connect these songs to his body of work.
“You know, they don't exist anymore, but I could play you cassette tapes from 1979 that I wrote in my mom and dad's basement on the acoustic guitar, and then I'd hop on the number 6 bus and go over to Bob and Tommy's house and we'd learn it. But before they ever heard it, it was that, and that's what this shit is,” says Westerberg. “In a way, this is like 11 of what I would put on a record once. It's like 'Here Comes a Regular' and 'Answering Machine,' and every record had one of these. I'll even be fair and say it's like 10 of them. Maybe there's a rocker that's there for whatever reason.”
One big difference is that the plaintive moments in the past were usually leavened by Westerberg's humor, as acerbic as it may have been. Not this time, though. It's as if he decided all at once he no longer needs to hide behind jokes or screaming guitars.
“There's no comic relief whatsoever. It was not really by design, but I could not come up with one single humorous statement. There's borderline whimsy, but there's nothing funny about this one. There's nothing at all humorous about it.”
WESTERBERG SURRENDERS HIS PLATE TO AN EAGER busboy. During the meal, we've been attended to by just about everyone on staff. One wonders if he's been found out. Sure enough, as soon as he leaves for the bathroom, a 30ish waiter angles up to ask if Paul Westerberg is actually in the house. When his suspicions are confirmed, he gushes that his girlfriend is a huge Replacements fan. I tell the waiter that Westerberg has a new record coming out.
“Is it good?” he asks.
“Yeah, it's really good,” I reply.
“Oh, great,” he says, genuinely pleased. “I can't wait to tell her. What's it called?”
The interlude is a reminder that Westerberg's legacy casts a long shadow. When he returns he is asked if it's difficult living with his past.
“See, I don't perceive it. I've gone to great lengths to not picture myself as something . . .” He stops suddenly and shifts gears, leaning forward to make his point. “I mean, I know how good I am. You're at a certain level and you know that you're the shit. I know it. My ego isn't fragile. But I still work harder than ever to weed out the crap. I mean, I know it now when it's false. And it's really simple, because it's usually your first thought if you're in the right mood. It's right and correct. Then you judge, is this worthy of a song? If it isn't, you throw it away. If it is, you go with it.
“And then, later, you realize that 'Oh, man, if I put this out, I'm gonna hurt somebody's feelings, and somebody's gonna think I'm a suicidal junkie, and somebody's gonna think this and that,' and it's like, 'Fuck 'em.' Are you an artist or not? You just have to do what you do.”
With that, Westerberg steps outside to smoke a thin cigar. He looks pretty good in his nice, grown-up clothes, all ready to fall on his sword again. And he makes you want to smile once more for the noble losers.