The Rolling Stone Interview: Paul Westerberg
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.