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The Gospel According to Paul Westerberg

The Replacements' leader doesn't want to be a rock & roll star — or does he?

April 2, 1970

Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS 474 from May 22, 1986. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story. Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.

Paul Westerberg has a line down the middle of his brain. ''On one side, I wish I was famous,'' says the scruffy singer, guitarist and songwriter for those Minneapolis hard-rock hellions the Replacements. ''I couldn't stand for someone else to be famous and not us.'' On the other side of that line, though, ''I don't really want to be famous,'' he admits with a sandpaper chuckle. ''I just want to see what it's like.''

Westerberg, 26, may get to see what it's like sooner than he thinks. This former janitor with the lightbulb nose and tubercular singing voice that sounds like Tom Waits at 45 rpm is, in fact, one of the best young songwriters in American rock. Critics have not been bashful about praising Westerberg's intuitive fusions of white-punk noise, pop classicism and ironic Lennonesque poignancy on the Replacements' last two LPs, 1984's Let It Be and last year's Tim. Without reading a note of music or taking a single guitar lesson, he has become equally adept at writing comic metal thrash (''Gary's Got a Boner'' from Let It Be), moody blues-pop (the angry, troubled ''Answering Machine,'' Let It Be) and anthemic, emotional protest rock (Tim's ''Bastards of Young'').

Behind him, drummer Chris Mars, balding maniac guitarist Bob Stinson and his cocky teenage brother, bassist Tommy Stinson, kick up a garage-rock storm that is equal parts Stonesy raunch, chain-saw Ramones and, when they're not too drunk, sing-along pop. ''We take the best parts of punk, pop, rock & roll and blues without really having a feel for any of them,'' explains Westerberg over a few Stroh's dark beers at the C.C. Club, a cozy bar down the street from his apartment in south Minneapolis. As if to prove his point, he feeds quarters into the jukebox, punching up some of the biggest hits from his adolescence: Elton John's ''Rocket Man,'' ''Iron Man'' by Black Sabbath, Cher's ''Gypsys, Tramps and Thieves.'' ''I don't know where our true roots lie,'' he confesses.

The son of a Cadillac salesman, Westerberg drifted through school and a few years of menial labor with only rock & roll for solace. Inspired by punk, he joined a basement combo formed by Mars and the Stinsons and insisted they play his songs. He'd never written any before, but ''I stopped smoking marijuana and all of a sudden I got a great confidence from that. I felt I had nothing to lose.''

In some ways, the Replacements are their own worst enemies. They love to drink, and a live gig will often deteriorate into an intoxicated collection of sloppy cover versions, occasionally performed by the elder Stinson in his underwear and sometimes less than that. Until recently, the band had a strict no-video policy. They finally consented to make a promotional clip for Tim with one provision: the band wouldn't appear in it. Actually, the entire video turned out to be a single close-up shot of a stereo speaker blasting out ''Bastards of Young.'' ''If we do a video,'' says Westerberg, ''we want to do one that nobody would want to watch all the way through, much less twice.''

But due in large part to Westerberg's writing, the Replacements' underground fame is seeping into the mainstream. ''On one hand, I feel like I deserve it,'' Westerberg declares with a crooked smile. ''On the other hand, I feel like this is a big joke. And the joke isn't on me.''

The Joys of shoveling snow in Minneapolis

I like to shovel snow. I used to think about the band when I shoveled. But in a way, shoveling snow brings you back to real nothingness. You remind yourself you're just a regular guy shoveling snow. And I know I am. It's just other people who try to make me think I'm something else.

Paul Westerberg, the early years

I went to a Catholic school. Once I got into ninth grade, I went into the classic rebellion trip. I knew I wanted to be in a band. I knew I wanted to be a singer, but I was afraid of doing that. So I went for the guitar. You could drown people out if they were laughing at you, instead of going up there and having nothing but your voice.

I served my time, but I didn't graduate. I didn't want to wear a cap and gown, if you can believe that. I just didn't show up for graduation and they never gave me a diploma. You can imagine what that does to your parents.

Rock & Roll Janitor

I got a couple of jobs just to buy an amp and a guitar. I worked in a steel mill for a couple of weeks. I was also a janitor for a senator, David Durenberger. That was a great job. How dirty can a senator's office get? I'd bring in my vacuum cleaner, lock the door and write out our early set lists on U.S. Senate stationery. There'd be songs like ''We're Gonna Get Drunk Tonight,'' and at the top it would say, ''From the desk of U.S. Senator…''

In the beginning

We practiced in the stinsons' mom's basement. The reason I joined the Stinsons was to get drunk and party. We never really rehearsed. We'd drink and, sort of as an afterthought, we'd pick up our guitars. Then we'd play until the Stinsons' mother stomped on the floor.

We started right off with my songs. I wrote like a hundred songs. Most of them were pretty much stolen. I took half of the songs on the Heartbreakers' Live at Max's Kansas City album and changed half the words. I wanted the other guys to think I was prolific.

The first Gig

The very first Gig was at the paradise Ballroom. It was in the suburbs. The P. A. was shut off on us after the second song.

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Song Stories

“American Girl”

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers | 1976

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