The Gospel According to Paul Westerberg - Rolling Stone
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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?

Paul WesterbergPaul Westerberg

Paul Westerberg

Frans Schellekens/Redferns

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, chainsaw 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 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.

The second gig

We were opening for the dads, a band of recovering alcoholics, in this little halfway house. Tommy fell out of an apple tree and broke his arm the day before the gig. He was 13 at the time. So the three of us decided we were gonna do the show anyway. It was our first real gig. Peter Jesperson [then working for Twin/Tone Records, currently the band’s personal manager] was going to come down. We were scared out of our minds. We bought a couple quarts of whiskey and we just got smashed. We set up our equipment, went down to the boiler room and got drunk. As soon as they smelled our breath, they physically threw us out. As Peter comes up to the place, Chris comes tumbling down the stairs. Bob and I were like a minute behind.

What the Sex Pistols mean to me

It was the first taste of rock & roll excitement that I ever got. The Sex Pistols made you feel like you knew them, that they weren’t above you. It was obvious they didn’t know what they were doing and they didn’t care. I was a much better guitar player years ago. I’d sit there and learn the scales, the whole bit. I learned all the slide solos from the Allman Brothers’ At Fillmore East. I’d put the record on and turn it down to 16 rpm so I could transpose the solos. But then the Sex Pistols came along and said, ”You don’t need nothin’. Just play it.”

What Elton John means to me

I’m a sucker for hooks, and he cranks ’em out. I can really appreciate someone who works with just basic chords and makes a catchy thing out of it without sounding exactly like his last hit. It’s definitely an art. I don’t like his early stuff. I like his simple dumb pop things. One of my favorite songs of his is ”Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” I didn’t buy any of his records. But you didn’t have to. He was on the radio all the time.

Beyond the cellar door

I write all my songs in my parents’ basement. It’s where I can be the loudest, and nobody bothers me. I can’t write in the studio. We go to our rehearsal place and I get nervous. I can’t write in a building, feeling I’m surrounded by a bunch of musicians, rehearsing their act to make it big. My parents go to work, and I go over there during the day and write. But I’ve got to seriously think of someplace else to go. The old man’s going to retire soon, and I’m not going to be able to write there with him around. I’ve got to think of someplace else or my songwriting career will be over.

Paul Westerberg’s first good song

”I’m in trouble” [From the replacements’ 1981 LP, Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash], because it was an actual song with a beginning, a middle, an end and a bridge. Also, it was melodic and it rocked. It was everything I wanted and it was easy to write, although I still blow the bridge every time we play it. I shit you not. We’ve played it for six years, and when we come to the bridge I’m still not sure if it’s a B or an A chord. Every goddamn time.

The Replacements’ greatest hits

”I Will Dare” [From Let It Be] might have been an answer to ”I Will Follow” [by U2]. Part of it has to do with the band. We’ll dare to flop, we’ll dare to do anything. ”I Will Dare” was a good slogan for a Replacements single. Every song title, if it doesn’t apply to the band in some way, we cannot use it. On the other hand, it was a kind of love song. ”Ditch the creep and I’ll meet you later. I don’t care, I will dare.” ”Left of the Dial” [from Tim] is the story of this girl, a guitar player, Lynn Blakey, who toured with Mitch Easter’s Let’s Active. We got to be friends. She wanted me to write her a letter, but I never write letters. I figured the only way I’d hear her voice was with her band on the radio, left of the dial on a college station. And one night we did. We were passing through a town somewhere, and she was doing an interview on the radio, left of the dial. I heard her voice for the first time in six months for about a minute. Then the station faded out. I don’t know what to say about ”Answering Machine” other than that’s my favorite. It’s an unhappy song. There’s nothing worse than calling somebody and getting an answering machine. I’d rather have the phone ring than have a recording say, ”I’m not here.” I’m not a modern person. Technology irritates me. I just take the phone off the hook. At least that way people know I’m home.

Have you heard the one about Bob, the elevator and the ice bucket?

I don’t know if I like to talk about those stories so much because, I mean, it’s fun in a way. But by the time we get back from the road, the stories get so blown out of proportion. We threw Chris over the bar at CBGB once. He was standing there waiting for a drink. Tommy and I snuck up on him and picked him up — just like in the cowboy movies — and threw him over. We swung from a few chandeliers, and they fell out of the ceiling. The classic one is the time Bob shit in an ice bucket, put it in the elevator and sent it down to the policeman in the lobby. That’s all for now. There’s many more, believe me. We don’t like to play that shit up. Because we don’t do it to get attention. We do it because it’s fun. We do it because we’re bored. That’s a big reason why we drink on the road.

Who is the ideal Replacements fan?

The best ones are the ones that like to drink a bit and are slightly melancholy. They don’t quite have a grasp of what they’re doing, but they aren’t desperate by any means. They’re searching. When you meet them, they don’t say much. That’s better than the ones who say, ”Oh, your songs mean so much to me.” It’s the ones who just sort of get it, who understand that we’re doing this because it’s all we can do. We don’t know why and we don’t know how. And they know we do it as much for them as we do it for us.

Do the Replacements get fan mail?

I get fan mail mostly from guys who want to start bands, young men aged 19 to 23, who are in school or have a stupid job and they don’t like it and they want to know how to form a band. They see us as big brothers. We don’t know what we’re doing, and they can sense that. I tell them to find some friends. Don’t look for musicians. Don’t put an ad in the paper. Just find some friends that you share something in common with — partying, a brand of beer. That’s better than being a member of a band for three years, making it and doing it all with someone you don’t really know. If this all falls to hell, I still have three friends. And that’s good enough for me.

I Don’t want my MTV 

Videos don’t inspire me. Maybe if I was 14 years old, I would be weaned on videos and I’d think that’s the cat’s ass. But I wasn’t. Pictures of rock stars, words, sounds — that’s what inspired me. To see some sterile phony thing on a clip that you can watch again and again irritates me, and I don’t want our band to have anything to do with it. We don’t want what a video would bring us. It would bring us an audience that saw us on TV and from that little glimpse of us, they come and expect that. That’s not what we want. Those are bogus fans. ”Flash! Westerberg wins Grammy for Song of the Year!” Believe it or not, I’ve rehearsed this acceptance speech in my mind. I’d say, ”Thanks — and blow it out your ass. Where were you when we needed you?” 

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