Westerberg goes to mat to push new solo effort

May 2, 2002


To say that former Replacements leader Paul Westerberg has been keeping a low profile of late is a considerable understatement.

"It's hard to call it retiring, because I'm born and raised here, and I've lived here all my life," Westerberg recently said by phone from his home in Minneapolis.

"For a good 10 years, everyone here has just assumed that I lived somewhere else because they didn't see me at the three nightclubs."

 Westerberg has long since preferred the company of his wife and 4-year-old son to the bustle of the rock scene. But he has been recording in his basement, and now he's sharing the results on the independent label Vagrant Records.

The two-CD "Stereo" pairs a moving acoustic disc with a loud, sloppy rock effort recorded under the guise of his alter ego Grandpa Boy. It's being hailed by critics as his strongest solo offering to date.

"I'm tempted to bask in that glow, but I've long since distanced myself from what y'all might have to say about my work," Westerberg said. "I can't jump up and down and go, 'Ooh-wee! They like me again,' because when you weren't liking me, I was still liking me. I'm once again satisfied with what I did, so that's pretty cool."

Gone is the pretense that Westerberg is a singer-songwriter in the Randy Newman vein. Instead, he's back to writing simple, direct, emotional rock songs in the tradition of "Unsatisfied" and "Answering Machine."

"You sweep the band out from under me and what have you got left?" he now says of his early Warner Bros. solo discs. "I wasn't that good-looking where they could push me as a pop star, and I certainly wouldn't follow directions. They couldn't mold me into a shiny model. They sort of had to bank on my ability to be a tunesmith, and I've always sort of fancied myself as just a funky guitar player who fits in the band and can't sing anyone else's numbers so writes some to suit himself."

One of the most revered bands of the indie-rock '80s, the Replacements famously broke up onstage at a free concert in Grant Park on July 4, 1991. In recent years, the group has emerged as a celebrated influence for a new generation of Midwestern rock groups, among them Vagrant labelmates Dashboard Confessional and the Get Up Kids.

"I wonder if perhaps it took a generation of imposters to show them who meant it and who didn't," Westerberg said. "The generation that came right after me--Kurt Cobain, et al. --was not embracing what I did, although they certainly were infuenced, whether they admitted it or not."

Notoriously inconsistent, the Replacements could deliver one of the best rock shows you've ever seen or one of the worst, often on subsequent nights. Apparently, Westerberg's low-key tour of free in-store appearances is following the same model. A recent gig in San Francisco abruptly ended when he tired of an obnoxious heckler, jumped into the crowd, slapped the guy in the face and stormed off.

"It's odd for me, but it's just as disarming for an audience, because there's no barrier, no lights, and they don't get to play the role of audience if they don't have to pay any money," he said before the start of this mini-tour.

"I don't know what to expect, and that's why I'm doing it. I'm just starting to look at the notion of, 'Well, how many songs should I play? They're not gonna let me get away with three; I'm gonna end up playing like 20.' I guess it doesn't really matter if I play new ones or old ones or mine or someone else's, because someone's gonna be disappointed and wanna hear something else, so I guess I'm just gonna have to woodshed and take requests. Hopefully they'll know the words."

As for a full-fledged electric tour down the road, Westerberg is noncommittal.

"I think we'll have to see how it goes. I've made a couple of stabs at assembling a little unit, and each time we seem to have a weak link in the bass department," he said, referring to former Replacement Tommy Stinson, now a member of Guns 'N Roses.

Westerberg is also typically perverse about the oft-discussed idea of a Replacements reunion.

"For us to come back and succeed would be to fail," he said. "It's a strange dichotomy. I've already run all the notions through of like, 'Let's play Madison Square Garden, show up and play cards--not play a goddamn note and get paid for it!' That would be the crowning glory."