Saturday, January 23, 2010

Thoughts on the Overlooked, Underappreciated Genius of Paul Westerberg

First published in PressPlus1 Magazine (Online):

Ah yes, the godfather of alternative rock for the angstful young man. Paul Westerberg- now here we have a man who has taken the course less traveled in recent years by forgoing the major label status to release his albums independently. All the while he lives in the domestic suburbia of the Twin Cities area, where he grew up and his wonderful 80s group the Replacements started (I shouldn't say his since he didn't even found the group but you know what I'm getting at). This is admirable for a man who has admitted that he never found fame or fortune because he never sought it and when the Replacements always had chances to break through to the mainstream, they purposely squandered it, sometimes with a proverbial middle finger (see music videos they sardonically delivered for MTV rotation with 1985's "Bastards of the Young" being just a black-and-white solitary shot of a speaker playing, while 1987's "Alex Chilton" was the same, only with a record player. MTV's grumbling forced a more conventional- yet still abstract- video with various shots of the band sitting around on a couch and doing things completely unrelated to the song). Westerberg's biggest claim to notoriety started off innocently enough, or crudely enough if you prefer, when the Replacements were nothing but a bunch of young men singing tunes of teenage delinquency and frustration that gave the Ramones a run for their money. Westerberg joined the group when it was a motley crue that called itself Dogbreath and then the Impediments.

The Replacements name was borne out of the self-mocking attitude in the band that they were the group you got instead of one you truly wanted to see. The 'Mats is a fan nickname that has stuck, based on "The Placemats," a common mispronunciation of their real name and/or a derogatory term from some naysayer(s). So, this rapscallion bunch had their first album in the can by 1981 and established themselves alongside Husker Du as one of Minneapolis's premier rock groups. Often times the music put forth, written primarily by Westerberg, was an expression of unabated testosterone taking over- subject material about everything from partying it up with booze and cigarettes to the hangups of sexual difficulties. This was eventually streamlined into an alternative rock style with an ear for pop that was way ahead of its time. 1984's Let it Be was where the twain met and all their influences and developments coalesced to make an essential, legendary record. But the group was heading toward a bigger focus on tenderness, lower volumes and songwriting that, as the sales proved more and more disappointing with raised expectations on major label Sire Records, eventually overtook the danger in the Replacements rock youthful vigour. Westerberg matured bit by bit, even as the group's onstage drunkenness and sloppy spontaneity failed to go away.

To throw audiences for a loop, the Mats often scrapped their own tunes in the setlist for a 100% cover show, following themes at times or just playing an entire album or all songs by the same artist. The punks loathed this diversity for its foolery but Westerberg rightly pointed out the hypocrisy in punk fans being so opposed to this when it was supposed to be right up the punk alley of "D.I.Y., Anything Goes" and instead was more rigid and narrowly defined than other listening crowds. The more unexpected, the more the Replacements wanted to tackle it (Westerberg sometime around 1987 in a TV interview hypothesized that the worst thing they could do going forward was cut a rap album, to which he drly added after a dramatic pause for reflection, "So I guess we'll do that..."). A chance for national exposure was even prime ground for the Replacements pranking as their musical guest appearance in a 1986 episode of Saturday Night Live found them performing drunkenly, Westerberg cursing within earshot of the mic while all but Bob Stinson switched into each other's wardrobe for the 2nd number. While the later albums are a bit too easy going, the older ones are too one-dimensionally balls-to-the-wall too. That is why Let it Be was their perfect moment, an 80s rock album that crossed the punky angriness with thoughtful minded teenage social commentary.

By the 1985-90 back half of the Replacements' existence, Westerberg wrote bouquets of ear-catching melodies that would later be bastardized by the likes of city mates Soul Asylum as well as the Gin Blossoms, Hootie & the Blowfish, Goo Goo Dolls and everyone else who had a sunny, 90s good vibes college rock sound on the radio in that post-grunge comedown. Tim was the Replacement most accomplished pop pursuit and most likable, friendliest album, as lead guitarist Bob Stinson's lust for the breakneck, heavy rush of their punk roots became phased out, as Stinson was a year later in 1986 because of his supposed drug and alcohol abuse- though creative differences played just as big a role (Stinson eventually couldn't make the high times last, dying in 1995 from natural causes no doubt brought on by his addictions). 1987's Pleased to Meet Me as it turns out was their final gem and from there, it got less and less fun for all involved. Truthfully, it was Mr. Westerberg who was the cog that made the whole engine work, growing from an ambitious shouter who crafted 1 minute orgies of noise and puerile tales to a fabulous writer that foreshadowed Kurt Cobain vocally and mentally. You could say he was a precursor to grunge in a time when no one was quite prepared for it, Westerberg having moulded himself into a carefree but frustrated soul.

In that wasted, ravaged, nicotene-burnished voice, no one else could transmit such intense emotion across like Paul Westerberg. Who can listen to "Bastards of the Young," "Answering Machine," "Sixteen Blue," "Within Your Reach" and a bevy of other five-star inclusions without deeply admiring and aligning themselves with the all too real howl of Westerberg? If emo rock was more like Westerberg's, we wouldn't be considering it to be the trendy, irritating scourge of youth rock music today. You could say that the snarling punk Westerberg came off across as in the early 80s was perhaps a phase, perhaps just a young, alienated man getting his ya-yas out before collecting himself after a series of hangovers (and yes the Replacements made it a ritual to peformer intoxicated). Westerberg has always insisted that he had a wide palette for songwriting even when he wrote high school homilies and that intended to unleash it one day, but he was too wary of how his bandmates would react, fearing it would elicit laughs and teasing. He even brought his personal history into his art when he wrote 1987's "The Ledge," a song about a teenage kid who vows to committ suicide with everyone watching, apparently based on Westerberg's suicidal thoughts as a teenager. Even John Lennon never opened up in that respect and Westerberg, to the best of anyone's knowledge, never partook in Arthur Janov's Scream Therapy. In time for Tim in 1985, the 'Mats had bolted from their native Minneapolis label Twin Tone for the big label of Sire Records. When this occurred, some say their energy, spirit and anger didn't make the transition with them. Perhaps that's true but Westerberg began to mature along with his audience, whether they knew it or not.

The inner dynamic of the band changed when Bob Stinson was gassed after Tim, a culmination of his phasing out over the final two albums he did with the group. He preferred the manic, breakneck frenzy of their roots but when he was sacked the official verdict wasn't that it happened due to creative differences but that it happened due to his drug and alcohol abuse (strange to hear coming from a band of party animal booze cans). The other parts to the equation shouldn't be brushed aside. Chris Mars the drummer was an accomplished, well-rounded musician but never was the forceful songwriter that Westerberg was and the same goes for bassist Tommy Stinson who was much younger than the already fresh-faced rest of the band was. Stinson is now residing as the bassist in Guns N' Roses while Mars has given up music to focus on painting. Westerberg shied from the spotlight and on top of that, the Replacements last two albums fizzled on the charts despite making obvious overtures for the top 40 leading to nothing but opening for stadium acts and headlining tours of bars and small theatres. By 1991, it was finally over with. While as part of the Replacements he had enjoyed singing for the misfits and outcasts while flaunting a caricature of a wild man in interviews and stage demeanour. But the revelling in mayhem caused some sobering times for Westerberg who had to settle down and conquer his drinking in the 90s. Overcoming all this still did not make him renewed enough to move some big units.

True to his restless allergy to the mainstream, Westerberg has carved out a solo career where he makes the odd appearance on a soundtrack or two, more recently for kids films since he became a dad himself. After all, he once quipped that the Replacements would rather play for 50 people that know them than play for 1000 people who don't. It seems perfectly fitting, although anti-climactic because of the potential it once promised. While the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame strives to make headlines by inducting a member or two each year that is well known to the public, great bands with high critical reputations will be ignored and the Replacements are one of them. One day maybe they will get their due but sometimes being misunderstood before receiving full recognition is the greatest legacy of all in contemporary music. Robert Christgau put it well when reviewing Paul's 1996 album LP Eventually, saying he sounded "too mean because he's not as important as he thinks he is, too irrelevant because he's not as important as he should be." But that may well be how Westerberg prefers it. And remember that when you look at your favourite indie act today and bemoan their lack of recognition, just remember that time clears through the muck and divides the wheat from the chaff. Your modern day hero could one day become Paul Westerberg, a cult hero who despite shunning the attention is recognized for the major impact they had on contemporary music going forward.

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