The Replacements were famous fuck-ups, hard-drinking teenagers from Minneapolis who would play a stop-and-start set of sloppy covers as soon as deliver a transcendent, we’re-all-in-this-together night of pop perfection. The stories of their sublimely drunk live performances made the perfectly crafted, heartbreaking songs seem even more precious. Westerberg’s particular songwriting genius was capturing the proud desperation that comes over a going-nowhere single person surrounded by other attractive, going-nowhere young single people, especially after three or four drinks. There’s a depressed longing, but a sense of adventure, too. The song “Unsatisfied” is about, well, being unsatisfied, but it also makes being unsatisfied sound breathtakingly romantic. “Look me in the eye / Then, tell me that I’m satisfied . . . Everything goes / Well, anything goes all of the time / Everything you dream of / Is right in front of you / And everything (or ‘and liberty’) is a lie.”When I lived in Austin, Texas, in my early twenties, I listened to the Replacements’ “Unsatisfied” every day for a year. I played it in my well-used, two-door Ford, in the tiny, otherwise silent darkroom where I worked, and in the poorly maintained house I shared with a shady roommate.
The song had been on a mix tape given to me by a guy I hung around at the end of my first, semi-legit marriage. Like all the other songs on the tape, it immediately became about how the guy wouldn’t date me even though we were clearly, madly in love.Having never seen Paul Westerberg, I imagined that he looked somewhat like that guy: tall and thin and artistic, kind of soft around the edges. When I finally saw a picture of the Replacements, I realized I’d gotten it all wrong. ’80s-era Westerberg (who may be seen in this early live video) had the shaggy hair and diffuse aura, but he was also masculine in all the best ways, with lean, strong arms, a biggish nose, full lips and deep-set brown eyes. He had the Adam’s apple of a high-school senior, and he sweated a lot when he played live. In his dirty jeans and ratty button-down shirts he could have been a grocery store bag boy or an auto mechanic (in fact, he was once a janitor). Michael Azerrad aptly described him as “the suburban thug with the poet’s heart.” I placed the albums Tim, Let It Be and Don’t Tell a Soul (no one gave me the memo it was the bad one) on heavy rotation.
The Replacements are often called the masters of “drunk-rock,” and it’s hard to argue otherwise. There may well be no better aural advertisement for alcohol than songs like “Here Comes a Regular.” Music like that has more power to corrupt than the strongest parental advisory sticker advocates ever dreamed. It has the ability to push you out the door on a school night, make you have one for the road, prod you to kiss strangers. With the Replacements on in the background, plenty of not-so-smart things seem like wonderful ideas.
The band formed in 1979, put out a few great albums (1984’s Let It Be is widely considered their masterpiece), and almost became rich and famous plenty of times. The closest they got to a hit was 1989’s “I’ll Be You,” which came in at the bottom of the Top 50. Their last album, 1990’s All Shook Down, has also been called Westerberg’s first solo album. The band broke up in 1991. It looked like Westerberg might go mainstream when two of his songs, “Waiting For Somebody” and “Dyslexic Heart,” were used on the Singles soundtrack, and got major radio play. It seemed like his moment, but it didn’t come to pass. He stayed less-than-famous. That the band and Westerberg never fulfilled their promise has only added to the Replacements’ myth.
The new compilation out this week, Don’t You Know Who I Think I Was?, has a lot of great songs on it, and it’s more efficient than the last compilation, the two-disk All for Nothing/Nothing for All, which is sprawling and yet lacks classics like “I Will Dare,” “Answering Machine,” “Unsatisfied” and “Merry Go Round.” (Neither have “Swingin’ Party,” one of my all-time favorites.) And the two new songs recorded by the surviving Replacements, “Message to the Boys” and “Pool & Dive,” aren’t bad. Pitchfork gave the album an 8.8, which seems about right.
Today Westerberg, who is forty-six, lives in Minneapolis with his smart, funny wife, Laurie Lindeen, and their son, Johnny. He coaches Little League and records critically acclaimed solo albums (Come Feel Me Tremble and Folker were especially great), but he’s cleaned up a little too much for my taste. The heeled boots, Elton-Johnish sunglasses, brightly colored shirts and cigar chomping have don’t do much for me. Now he looks like a suburban guy’s fantasy of what it is to be stylish. But his voice is still irresistible.
Playboy once asked Westerberg if he could account for his sex appeal. He replied: “No. I can’t explain the appeal other than I’m an odd mixture of bad boy masculinity and I have a real soft spot for women. I had three sisters, so I grew up knowing what girls liked and what they didn’t, just by them coming home after their dates. I guess I’ve learned to respect women, maybe more than some guys. I don’t know other than that. I haven’t a clue.”
Maybe “a real soft spot for women” is the key, or maybe just a real soft spot. He’s always seemed so sensitive, and he’s always made being sensitive seem, like dissatisfaction, deeply romantic. He simultaneously admits how fucked-up he is (“Hold My Life”) and makes being fucked-up seem like a revolutionary imperative (“Bastards of Young”). In “Swingin’ Party” he sings, “If being afraid is a crime, we’ll hang side by side.” Such songs are so much more affecting than the wailing of today’s eyeliner-happy, dime-a-dozen emo boys.
Westerberg’s sensitivity worked because, as much as he was a nice guy, he was also a bad boy: always drunk, falling down, unreliable. He wouldn’t have been a good boyfriend. For starters, he would never remember your address (“Can’t Hardly Wait”). But from afar, he would watch you walk through a city in winter (“Skyway”) and would not be shy about mauling you on public transportation (“Kiss Me On The Bus”).
And if Paul Westerberg hadn’t been such a smoldering antihero, he still would have owned the ’80s alternative world by default. The stars of the college rock scene were about as asexual a crowd as have ever made music. Billy Bragg and the Johns from They Might Be Giants? Hardly sex gods. Michael Stipe? Too shiny and happy. The Spin Doctors’ Chris Barron? Too boorish-pothead. Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus? Too damp-handshake pretentious. The Violent Femmes’ Gordon Gano? Too hippie-neighbor sleazy. Guided By Voices’ Robert Pollard? Too sleepy-sloppy. Jonathan Richman? Too neurotic (and word was he only went for suicidal strippers, anyway.) And if you don’t retch imagining yourself in bed with Evan Dando, I don’t want to know you.
Westerberg was actually a sexual being, making him the last guy left still standing at the party. After everyone else has passed out or puked on your shoes, there he is, a little bleary, smiling sadly. With all those lyrics about longing and booze and frustration, Paul Westerberg made himself the noble loser, the one you take home. n°
© 2006 Ada Calhoun and Nerve.com.