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The Rolling Stone Interview: Paul Westerberg

Achin’ to be understood

Paul Westerberg

Paul Westerberg in Chicago, Il on October 15th, 1993

Paul Natkin/WireImage/Getty Images

Former Replacements frontman Paul Westerberg, the man with the rap sheet of an anarchist and the soul of an artist, is wandering in and out of record stores in downtown Manhattan, chain-smoking and fielding questions with a crooked smile and straight answers.

When those questions turn to whether he has always identified with the noble loser, Westerberg replies that he relates to the title character of an old British movie, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.

In the movie, the main character is a working-class kid who is thrown into prison only to have the penitentiary officials coddle him – banking on his ability to win a cross-country race against a prestigious prep school. The runner, however, has a different idea. “I’m going to let them think they have me house trained,” he says. “But they never will, the bastards. To get me beat they’ll have to stick a rope around my neck.” Nearing the finish line, our anti-hero, clearly the most talented runner, stops just shy of the victory tape, stares at the prison warden with a piercing smile and lets the rest of the field finish in front of him.

“It affected me that he won the race for himself but he wasn’t about to win it for the cause or for the team that he never felt a part of,” says Westerberg. “But I get the feeling the record company doesn’t expect me to go all the way. If I place or I show, that’s good enough.”

With his solo debut, 14 Songs, a definitive statement of his enduring viability, Westerberg has proven that he still has the ability to lap the field. And at least for now, he’s still running.

In the beginning, Westerberg and the Replacements were supposed to save rock & roll. They were the scream of a generation that didn’t even know why it felt like screaming – attacking the status quo with equal parts drunken abandon and divine inspiration.

Now, twelve years later, Westerberg is alone and the Replacements’ legacy – songs simultaneously tuneful and intimidating – is alive in a slew of young bands playing ultraheavy guitar pop and residing in the upper echelon of the charts. The other Replacements, meanwhile, have projects of their own: Bassist Tommy Stinson fronts his own band, Bash and Pop; Bob Stinson, the group’s original guitar player, who was fired in 1986, plays in various groups in Minneapolis; Chris Mars, who parted ways with the Mats, as they were known to their fans, in the band’s final stages, has released two solo albums; and Slim Dunlap, Bob Stinson’s replacement, has just put out his first solo effort, The Old New Me.

Westerberg’s 14 Songs comes three years after All Shook Down, the album that proved to be the Replacements’ undoing. That record, originally conceived as Westerberg’s solo coming out, instead marked not only the group’s demise but the breakup of Westerberg’s marriage and an end to the booze-soaked lifestyle that had become the Mats’ modus operandi. When the lights came up and the smoke began to drift away, All Shook Down ended up being the Replacements’ last shot. Instead of saving rock & roll, Paul Westerberg decided to save himself.

You used to write so much about the band itself [“I Don’t Know,” “Bastards of Young,” “Talent Show,” for instance]. Does it make you feel lonely now that you’re solo?

No, the opposite. I feel more free because I used to have the entire world to write about and I chose to write about me and my three pals. It’s like I broke out of a little cocoon. It was one-dimensional, writing about the band against the world. Now it’s me, but I’m not against the world.

Somewhere between ‘All Shook Down‘ and now, you severed ties with the past. Was this intentional?

Yeah, to me that’s obvious. In a way, I’ve wanted to take the spotlight off me as the singer in this group and put it on what I do. Start over. “Ladies and gentlemen, this guy writes songs.”

You said the record ‘All Shook Down’ was the sound of someone having a breakdown. Do you still think that’s true?

Yeah. It was, essentially. Without stopping long enough to really look at it clearly, it was the end of many things. My band. My marriage. My excessive lifestyle. They all came to an end, but I made the record before I dealt with any of it.

So what is the sound of ‘14 Songs‘?

It’s just me. It’s the sound of a thirty-three-year-old guy who lives alone and enjoys it. I’m not a part of a group. I’m comfortable with where I’m at.

You were always intensely loyal. Were you afraid of leaving the other Replacements hanging?

I was afraid of life and everything that goes with it. And to a certain extent I still am. But my fears were much deeper than offending someone in the band. All I can tell you is I feel good now, and I worried back then unnecessarily. There wasn’t anyone in the band who was a real positive thinker or an uplifting guy. We were all kind of defeatists and kind of played with the idea of being the failure as hero. And we all fed off each other. We all escaped individually but not as a group.

Booze used to be what you used to quell self-consciousness. What do you use now?

I’m just not as self-conscious as I used to be. Thinking of alcohol as the answer to the problem … when you look at it in the clear light, you realize it is the problem. If it’s not the root, it feeds the problem. Eliminate that and the problem shrinks. I’m much more confident now.

Do you miss the camaraderie of drinking?

No. If that’s what it took to be pals or to have a good time, then your good time was worthless. There’s fun to be had once you stop. I don’t want to preach, but this is ten times better because it’s real. It might not be wild, but it’s better, definitely.

Do you think the Replacements would have been as good if you didn’t drink?

We would have been better musicians. It depends what you like. We would have been well-adjusted young men.

Has there ever been anything written about you that was harmful?

We reveled in that legendary shit. I guess if things weren’t true, it would have hurt me, but we lived very excessively, and that was a fact.

Did the Mats really dump their Twin Tone masters into the Mississippi River because you felt cheated on royalties?

Not enough of them. Because they’re releasing them now in Europe. We didn’t get what we wanted. I think we threw out the original “Can’t Hardly Wait,” the one produced by Alex Chilton – which was kind of good. Oops. Of course, it was Tommy who talked to the receptionist, Chris and I actually did the deed, and Slim sat outside with the motor running. He had a car and a rifle, but we don’t want to talk about that.

Do you ever use interview settings as the place to mend some damage you’ve done?

I have no regrets or apologies. I’m not going to use this as a forum to say, “I’m sorry about the time we ripped the wallpaper down.” That’s what we did one time. We played this club that was notorious for its graffiti, and we tried to get the roadies to go out and get some wallpaper. We were going to wallpaper the dressing room–over all the autographs: CHUCK BERRY, 1968. But instead we just neatly tore all the wallpaper out. Avant-garde destruction. I’m not sorry for anything we did like that. We never hurt anybody, and we always paid for it, and we more often than not broke our own stuff.

Do you regret the lifestyle you used to live?

Sure, I regret anybody I might have hurt unnecessarily. I’m sure there’s a bunch. I made it, I’m fine, I’m alive. I don’t regret that the band didn’t go further. I think we did exactly what we were supposed to do. We were probably supposed to die. I guess we should have died. That would have ensured that our legend was intact.

Did the Replacements have an “us against the world” feeling as a band because each of the members felt it individually?

I would say that’s fair. I think that’s why we became friends. I don’t think a well-adjusted class president could have made it to play lead guitar for us. There was not a high-school diploma on that stage. We all had something in common.

But you actually finished school.

I went twelve years but never got the diploma. They wanted me to come back to get it. But I didn’t want one.

Because the Replacements took such a strong anti-establishment stance, doesn’t any promotion you do now make people think you’ve sold out?

Yes. And a lot of time, we used that [attitude] as a shield. The real reason was fear or plain old laziness.

Who is your biggest “them” these days?

Guys who wear suits. Guys who look down at musicians and think they have a free ride. I’m not saying what we do is more important than what they do, but if they don’t respect us, what the hell do they expect from us in return?

Turning back to your new album, “World Class Fad” is its first single. Did you want to make sure that one of the rock songs got out there first?

Yeah. Maybe to reintroduce myself. Bottom line, I’m a rocker. I can write ballads, but I would rather be known as that than a balladeer that dabbles in uptempo music.

Are you worried that people are going to think the album is too wimpy?

Hell, no. There’s nothing wimpy on that. Quiet music is not wimpy. Wimpy is trying to be too cute.

You write on acoustic guitar, so it would figure that you’d be writing more slow songs.

I did, in fact. And I didn’t have a band or any musicians to play with for two years, so when I got into the studio and met everyone, within three minutes we were playing “Down Love.” For some reason that never happened with the Mats.

Which song on ‘14 Songs‘ is closest to you?

I would say “Even Here We Are,” in an odd way. “Runaway Wind,” although it’s poetic to the point where I don’t paint myself into a corner. I mean, that song is me through and through. “Something Is Me,” even. As silly as that is, that says a hell of a lot about me: “Something goes wrong eventually. Something is me.”

In “Even Here We Are” you talk about the most beautiful flower being the one that grows wild in the garbage dump. Is that autobiographical?

Yeah, it is. Every damn line could apply to me or I won’t sing it, as a rule.

What do you want the record to communicate that’s not implicit in the songs?

I’m not offering an image or an attitude. It’s an old-fashioned concept here: A guy who writes songs.

If you had to make a representative three-song sampler of the new album, which three would you choose?

Probably “World Class Fad,” “Even Here We Are” and “Runaway Wind.”

That is basically, then, one total rocker, one constructed poem and one very self-reflective ballad?

Sort of sums it up. All the others are based on that.

And somewhere in the middle that’s you?

Yup. It’s all me.

What would you want to do if you had to give up music?

I can’t think of that. It’s like what would I do without my limbs. It’s like imagining what it would be like to be blind, although actually I seem to be on my way.

Do you feel like you were trying to make ‘14 Songs‘ all things for all people?

No. All things for me. My sister listened to it and said, “This is the first time you’ve made a record that you would actually listen to.” And that’s true. It felt indulgent. Who’s going to like both “Even Here We Are” and “Silver Naked Ladies,” let alone back to back? But I don’t like just one thing.

There are two different songs on ’14 Songs’ that have the same line about “the suicide you’re on.”

Those lines just kind of came out. We weren’t going to keep them both on, but hey, I just thought it was a neat line.

You also wrote “The Ledge,” on ‘Pleased to Meet Me,’ about a kid contemplating suicide. Is suicide something you’ve considered?

Sure. I think about it and have thought about it, like anyone else, probably more than most people. Or at least more than people are willing to admit. But if you write it down, people think you have a problem. I can’t even say how much was true depression and I thought suicide was a viable alternative or how much of it was me liking the glamour of someone thinking I might be that far on the edge. I think I stopped talking about it when I was afraid I might be dangerously close. By the end of All Shook Down it seemed very real.

Have you ever been to a therapist?

I went a few times. I kept feeling like he was looking at his watch, like he wanted to go on lunch break. It was depressing. You’d talk, and he’d just kind of nod and smile. It didn’t last long.

Who do you turn to for support?

No one. I just put it down, I don’t carry it. My songs have taken on a new life for me. I’ve written songs for lack of having someone to talk to, and it’s gradually gotten to the point where if I have a problem, I sit down and get my feelings down on paper. But I don’t really use them on the record. I don’t want to be known as the king of sad rock.

Bob Mould has made a pretty good career out of writing really good dark songs.

Yeah. I like Bob. I haven’t talked to him in years. He used to come over to my house occasionally when I was married and have dinner. We’d play around the living room, dulcimer and banjo. I’d play him my new songs, and he’d play me his, and we’d both be like “Yours sounds great.” “Yeah, so does yours.” And we’re both thinking, “Oh, mine blows yours away.”

Do you write fiction or poetry?

I kind of write, and then one day it will become a song. I have things written down, and one day I’ll look for them if I need a line. I don’t have a diary or a book of poems. I just have pages and pages that say things like “Buy milk. Go to the store. The man is the sea is the birds.” I think, “What the fuck is this, is this lyrics?”

Where do you write?

In the living room, which is a new wrinkle. I used to write in the basement ever since I lived in my parents’ house. It dawned on me a year or two ago when I moved into a new place and grabbed all my gear to go down to the basement. I thought: “Why the fuck am I doing this? This is my life, it shouldn’t be hidden downstairs. It should be right up here where I live.”

Have you ever written anything for any publication?

They asked me to write liner notes for my album, and I tore them up in the middle of the night. I just thought it was giving too much away. I had explained everything to the point where it left no mystery. It’s like “Nah, these go in the trash.”

They could be a collector’s item.

Maybe. Trash collector’s item.

Do you donate much to charity?

I don’t stand for causes, I don’t do benefits. But if a guy comes up to me on the street and needs help, I give them what they need. I’ve emptied my pockets for guys. I’ve had like a hundred dollars that I give away and then bum around myself for the next two days.

When you think back on your childhood, was it fun?

It was quite ordinary, middle-class Middle America. Maybe that’s where the frustration came into play.

Did you spend as much time alone then as you do now?

My mom was always encouraging me to go out and play, but I tended to want to be alone. It’s the way I’ve always been. I’m comfortable with it, I guess.

Do you go on vacations?

No. I never did as a kid, so it probably holds over until now. The first time I ever went out of the state was on tour.

What does your apartment look like? Are you a pack rat or is it very sparse?

It’s kind of a classy dump. It’s a house that I rent, and it’s sinking into the ground, and it slants. If you put a golf ball on one side of the living room, it rolls all the way down. It’s funky. Kind of New Age log cabin with no hippie vibe whatsoever. And nothing matches. I’ve got green chairs, a red rug and a blue painting and a black piano that’s out of tune.

Are you ready for the wear and tear of a tour now? You’ve been inside for two years.

I woke up this morning, and I didn’t know where I was. It’s only been two days, and I already don’t know where I am. We used to play a game with the Mats on the bus, and it would be really quiet, and all the sudden you’d point at someone and yell, “Month, day, city, year!” And people would be like “February, Philadelphia, ’92.” And it was like March 3rd, ’91. And it was serious.

What makes you laugh these days?

Myself.

So, you’re saying you’re basically an island, is that it?

No, I have a handful of friends. I’ve traveled a lot, and the majority of my good friends are people who don’t necessarily live in Minneapolis.

Are you seeing anybody now?

Yeah, I have a girlfriend.

Has it been difficult to step back into dating life after your marriage broke up?

No, this is a whole Enquirer-esque situation. You’re asking about me dating again, like I ever stopped. I wasn’t the best husband. We had a good thing, and I don’t think I was really ready to be married. I thought I was, made a mistake and wasn’t. But once that was over, oddly enough, I didn’t want to go out on dates. I didn’t want to go out and pretend I was nineteen again. And oddly enough, I ended up with a girl I had known for a long time, someone I knew seven or eight years ago.

In “First Glimmer,” you say, ” I used to wear my heart on my sleeve, I guess it still shows.” Are you trying to say you don’t anymore?

Oh, no, quite the opposite. It’s there. I’m not about to change. I’m not about to become suddenly overly guarded. I’ll still spill my guts.

Do you want people to comment and tell you about your songs?

Absolutely. In a word, yes. And people always come up and say, “You wrote this just for me.” And I say: “Yeah, I did. I don’t know you, but I knew you were out there.”

Do you listen to other confessional singer-songwriters?

I went through a phase where I was very into that – Joni Mitchell being the epitome of that – about four years ago. When I’m down, I tend to listen to that stuff, and then I get a little more positive and aggressive and carefree and looser.

You’re a very solitary person, so isn’t it likely that the solo work will be incredibly introspective?

I’m a firm believer that my mind can travel farther when I’m surrounded by four walls than it can when I’m out in a crowd surrounded by people. There’s no limits to my imagination.

Do you talk to yourself?

Yeah. I carry on entire conversations. I ask people, “Do you ever talk to yourself?” And they say yes, and I say, “Do you ever have full conversations?” And they just stop and look at me. I have to say, “Oh, me neither.” But sure I do.

A lot of bands will use pop culture as a base to sing about. Why have you never done that?

I won’t even have a phrase in a song that reeks of the moment. I want to say things in the most traditional manner possible. If I have one of those phrases, I get rid of it.

It’s like waking up in five years with a Bart Simpson tattoo.

Exactly. Or a record that’s groovy. It’s like with videos. People say things like “It should be in your face.” To me, that’s like it’s 1967.

How do you approach videos now, you hated them for so long?

I still do, I hate ’em. I hate the fuckers. And I know that now on this album they’re going to be coming to me to do things like The Tonight Show. I might just have to say no. After playing a few tours, like the [Tom] Petty tour [in 1989] where we were playing to people who didn’t know us, didn’t like us and didn’t care – I’ve come too far to be playing for people who don’t care.

Isn’t that still just biting the hand that feeds you?

No. It’s simply not wanting to perform in that sterile environment of a studio where you’re playing to people who have come on vacation and just want to get Alec Baldwin’s autograph. There’s an evil darkness that lurks inside of me that always wants to get out in those situations.

You’ve said before that you never really give 100 percent.

I think I read that and then adopted it. And as a band we were treated like a feather in the label’s cap. We were a band that was cool.

So what are you now?

I don’t know. I think I’m in transition because I haven’t proven myself yet. I think that they do see me as a very talented artist. They have artists who sell a lot of records who maybe aren’t that talented, I won’t mention any names. But they don’t expect that of me. And on one hand I wish they would.

You’d want to be treated as a commodity?

No, be treated as someone who should sell a lot of records, and if I don’t they’re saying, “Hey, what’s wrong?”

Do you like the idea of being famous?

I like the idea of it. I don’t know if I actually like being it. But I don’t know if I am yet.

But don’t you write your music wanting as many people to hear it as possible?

I tend to separate my music and myself. I would love for my music to be world renowned, but I don’t necessarily want to go along with it. I can’t even think of any example. Would you recognize Leonard Bernstein if he walked by? It’s a bad analogy, but that’s what I would like. I would want to be able to say, “Yes, I did write this.” I could dig that in a big way. But it’s a really bad analogy, because he’s dead, isn’t he?

Do you have anyone you’d like to meet or anyone who makes you feel like a little kid or a star worshiper?

Most of them are dead. I’ve met Dylan and Van Morrison and Keith. There’s three right there. I don’t have a lot of heroes. I never realized I had any.

Those guys seem like the exact people whom you guys were kicking against for so long.

That’s what we were supposed to do. We listened to the Rolling Stones throughout the career of the band, even though we pretended they were the enemy. I mean, I couldn’t give two shits about John Lydon now, but at the time I thought he was the greatest thing ever. Well, yes, I could give two shits about him. One and a half.

Why has it been easier to focus your career and music without the rest of the band?

We weren’t clicking as a group. The only time we did things together were destructive things from the early days. It was “All for one and one for all, let’s break this table.” We ran out of things that we do well together. I lived in constant fear of retreading what we’d already done. And I sensed it around the time of Pleased to Meet Me [1987]. And Slim came along then, so that helped, but we should have stopped then.

You once said, “If all this falls to hell tomorrow, I’ll still have three friends, and that’s enough for me.”

When did I say that?

After ‘Tim‘ came out, not all that long before Bob got fired. Does it seem strange that in the end, two of those three friends ended up getting fired? Is there any friendship left with Chris or Bob?

I’m friends with Tommy and Slim, and the three of us are good friends. People change and grow. But Bob didn’t change or grow, which was bad. Chris did, which was good for him, but it was maybe bad for the band. When we started off, we were getting bottles and cups and cans thrown at us. I had my teeth chipped. Nobody wanted to be the singer. Then you get a few nice reviews, people want to talk to Paul, and voilà, everybody kind of wants to be the frontman. I resented the fact that the other guys wanted to step into my role.

Was there one breaking point that got Bob kicked out of the band?

I grew to like his style of playing, but from Day One I never was in love with the way Bob played guitar. I hear his guitar everywhere now – Dinosaur Jr, wherever. Whether they know it or not, Bob was doing that in 1980. But I don’t think it’s fair to talk about Bob. If he wants to talk about himself, fine, but I don’t even think it’s fair for him to talk about us.

Do you ever see him?

I visited him in the hospital. He had a wisdom tooth that got infected. He had a tube in his throat, and it was strange because he couldn’t talk. But I sat and talked with him for a half an hour. That was the last time I saw him.

Does it seem strange that a lot of bands that are big now are riding on your coattails?

I think that’s a credit to us lasting that long. If we’d been hugely popular right off, we probably would’ve cracked immediately.

What do you think was the difference between the Replacements and a band like R.E.M.? Both of you guys had a huge fan base, great reviews, you toured a lot.

Management [laughs]. They did all the right moves, and we did all the wrong moves. To be fair, they’re an excellent band, and they made all the right moves.

Are there any young bands that you look at now that you think are carrying the mantle?

Not that I’ve heard, but I think I have a selective memory. The thing that always catches me is a guy’s voice – not what he’s saying, what the band sounds like, what they look like, but the tone of his voice. I can tell when somebody means it and when somebody pretends to mean it.

Would you be comfortable with young bands coming and asking you for advice?

Sure, then hanging up. “Get a life!” No, I think I would, in a constructive way. I remember trying to tell Charles Thompson of the Pixies once that he shouldn’t open up for someone like Sting. And the next day I remember thinking, “Who the fuck am I to tell him what to do?”

Do you feel connected at all to music in Minneapolis?

No, not at all. But even in our heyday, we never did. We were loved by the audience but hated by the local bands, because they sat in rehearsal halls and learned how to play and got their act together. We’d get up there, swill a bunch of beers, tell a couple jokes and go down a storm. They hated us. So we were always outcasts.

So is it strange now being considered an elder statesman?

It’s weird because when you’re in the midst of it, you want to be looked up to, and you’re not, because you simply don’t warrant it. And then when years pass and there’s maybe some credence to “Yeah, we started this thing, I should be looked to as an influence over these bands,” I just don’t care.

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