FOREWORD: During 1999, I got to interview one of my favorite musical artists of all time. Paul Westerberg spent his youth leading a reckless band of fiery individuals whose recorded output is still being digested by indie rock denizens. When I got to speak to the legendary front man, he was already past his thirties and highly reflective of the past. Following this conversation, Westerberg continued to make worthy albums such as ‘02s Stereo and ‘03s Come Feel Me Treble, and ‘04s Folker. Sick of being tossed aside for newer artists’ repertoire, he resigned to his basement to make a few less heralded, but equally fine self-released discs, including ’06s animated soundtrack, Open Season.
As leader of the Replacements, counterculture indie rock icon Paul Westerberg was arguably the most important post-punk artist of the ‘80s. Influenced by local Minneapolis punk forefathers, the Suicide Commandos and signed to maverick regional label, Twin/Tone Records, the tumultuous teen trio got early attention with ‘81s impressionable Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash. But that merely got the ball rolling for ‘83s admirable Hootenanny, a well-developed and thoughtfully composed set receiving national attention.
Known for performing rowdily sloppy shows while intoxicated (breaking instruments just for the fuck of it), these Twin City natives threatened to implode at any given time, creating a fabulous disaster worked-up fans couldn’t get enough of. Soon, they’d become underground legends alongside fellow northwest bands such as Husker Du and Soul Asylum.
In ’84, Westerberg’s idiosyncratic troupe hit another peak with Let It Be, an amateur masterpiece highlighted by caustic provocation, “I Will Dare,” and the spare, glam-induced allegory “Androgynous.” A year later, the equally splendid Tim shook the pavement, parading teen insecurities on throbbing expurgation, “Hold My Life,” and generational ode, “Bastards Of Young,” while saluting college radio on “Left Of The Dial” (featuring subterranean legend Alex Chilton on backup vocals).
Invigorated by former Box Tops and Big Star front man, Chilton, the centerpiece on ‘87s streamlined contemplation, Pleased To Meet Me, was none other than the siren “Alex Chilton.”
Following two less critical Replacements long-players, Warner Brothers signed Westerberg as a solo artist and tried desperately to re-create his glorious past with a few lukewarm hard rock albums (‘93s 14 Songs and ‘96s Eventually). After a thorough self-examination and a new contract with Capitol Records, he hired respected producer-to-the-stars Don Was for guidance on his third and best solo venture, Suicaine Gratifaction.
Skirting the latest grimacing rock-is-dead debate and off to a fresh new start, the self-effacing, revitalized singer-guitarist hopes to be accepted on his own terms. From the deadpan, home recorded opener, “It’s A Wonderful Lie,” to the lonesome closer, “Bookmark,” the tongue-twisting Suicaine Gratifaction deals openly with newfound spirituality (“Actor In The Street”), nocturnal sadness (“piano ballad “Self-Defense”), and regret (acoustic respite “Best Thing That Never Happened”).
Between depressives, Westerberg does manage to kick into high gear on the punchy, Neil Young-ish “Lookin’ Out Forever,” the propulsive “Whatever Makes You Happy,” and the beat-driven “Fugitive Kind” (inspired by a movie based on a Tennessee Williams play). Ironic, witty, sarcastic, and sardonic, Suicaine Gratifaction offers serious introspection and sharp self-analyzing.
Like Bob Dylan’s recent Time Out Of Mind and Willie Nelson’s Teatro, Westerbeg has exorcised inner demons and purged self-doubt with a subtle reflectiveness rarely attempted beforehand.
I spoke via phone with the matured artist who deserves Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame consideration more than a quarter of the musicians already elected.
Instead of a grueling rocker, you went against the grain and put two stripped-down bare-bones songs at the beginning of Suicaine Gratifaction.
PAUL WESTERBERG: Yes. It could have flown no other way since the majority of songs are quieter. It sets the mood right away. It’s a serious record with no knee-slappers in the lyrics of the tunes.
On “It’s A Wonderful Lie,” you conclude ‘I ain’t in my youth/ I’m past my prime.’ Are you just being sarcastic about your past?
Yes. If I was able to write a more clever tune that didn’t involve my gut feeling, I would have. I was completely drained of anything other than the truth. I wasn’t making this record for a supposed audience, but instead putting down what I felt. If you ignore them, they’ll put it on like a coat.
The soft piano ballad, “Self-Defense,” has a neo-classical arrangement reminiscent of Tori Amos. Is it trying to sum up internal strife?
That was probably the showpiece that made me realize I had the makings of a new kind of record. I played those melodies and chords on the piano for about a year before I put a lyric to it. That’s a rarity in itself. I’m not the most accomplished pianist, so it took me that long to get the lick down. I felt I had to put poetry to it rather than just sing a song.
Your caliginous, low voice and the orchestral piano on “Bookmark” compare favorably to Tom Waits.
I could hear Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell in there. By the end of the record, I didn’t see it fitting in. It was written in a key that was a piano melody that wasn’t necessarily meant for me to be singing it. I wrote the prose over it and it became a song. It was a tough one to deal with, but Don Was’ opinion was it had to be on the record. He convinced me to put it on.
Do you feel more secure as you reach age forty?
No. In a good way, no. I don’t feel that I’ve got it made. I feel if I follow my gut, I’ll make another good record. But I’ve bypassed my instinct and second-guessed myself before and edited my gut feelings. And that’s not usually how I make my best works. But this album came from the heart. What you’re hearing are complete takes rather than producers forever trying to get me to sing things over and over and ‘comp’ together the vocals. I despise that. Engineering the vocals at home gave me the sound I like, which is a warmer voice sound. I don’t bother to re-do things. If they’re not perfect, but give me goosebumps, there’s no reason to fix a flat note.
Besides, most artists have the best feel for a fresh song on first take.
That’s absolutely true. When you’re used to being a performer, it seems superfluous to do so many takes. Once should be enough unless you forget a really good lyric – which does happen.
Do you feel cheated because the best ‘80s bands – The Replacements, Sonic Youth, Meat Puppets, Minutemen, and Husker Du – never received the massive exultation several lesser heavy metal bands have?
I think all the bands you compare were fairly mediocre if compared to the Beatles and Rolling Stones. I think it’s a joke to put Sonic Youth in the same category as the Stones. Do you want to hear them in the year 2020? I mean, they’re all viable bands. I don’t mean to put them down, even though I certainly put my old band down before any of them. Maybe if you picked the Ramones to pit against them I’d agree.
Do you still enjoy old Replacements standards such as “I Will Dare”?
I still hear “I Will Dare” on the radio. It always shocks me when I’m clicking the dial. The way the record sounds… it was such a horrid mix. One thing I’ll say about those records is they never sounded very good. It’s not my stock in trade to make beautiful, lovely, warm records. I certainly like stuff that sounds funky, but when it’s your own you wince a little.
What did you listen to as a youngster?
My mom would play records. I know Ray Charles’ “Crying Time” and the Temptations were a favorite. My sister, who was ten years older, used to listen to the British Invasion 45’s, black R&B, and great classic music by the Beatles. The first music I truly claimed as my own was ‘70s glam: T. Rex and Slade.
Are there any current bands you enjoy hearing?
Not many. I don’t readily go out and buy records. And I’m not up on new groups. I’ve maintained the theory of ‘let me hear what’s great and not what’s new.’ Once the newness of something has worn off and it’s great, I’ll get around to it. More often than not, it doesn’t last.
Producer Don Was seemed to revitalize veteran rockers such as Bob Dylan and Bonnie Raitt. What did he do to enhance your new songs?
He left them alone and only did something when it was necessary. That’s what you want, someone who’s capable of doing anything, but realizing his greatest role could be as a companion and listener. His selection of a handful of musicians from Shawn Colvin to Jim Keltner on drums and Suzy Katayama on cello added just the right touch.
No. For one, I wouldn’t have wanted to. And if I were capable of writing some of these songs, I wouldn’t have taken them from my bedroom to the next stage. I wouldn’t have played it for anyone, except in secret. But it took me a long time to realize the things you’re afraid of, or ashamed of, are the best art. It doesn’t mean people will understand or play it. But that’s the stuff that in time will be held in high regard. I’m still the same guy who started twenty years ago. Maybe I refined the rage and turned inward instead of being an aggressive performer.
How would you feel if you were selected to the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame?
I still think about stuff like that. I’m sure the day will come when I will get some sort of sympathy award. That’s what it would smack of – like giving the Oscar to the guy who’s dying. Let’s just say it won’t happen.
But if the Replacements don’t make it in the Hall Of Fame, very few deserving ‘80s bands will be considered.
If you look at it that way, it’s interesting. I don’t know when we’d be eligible.
Why’d you come up with the jumbled title, Suicaine Gratifaction?
It was my safeguard just in case I was up for a Grammy. They would pass on it because they couldn’t pronounce it.
Does Alex Chilton ever cover the song named after him while doing concerts?
I think he’d just assume I never wrote that song. It embarrassed him. I think it has done him some good getting people hip to him. But I’m not his biggest fan. I took a crass stab at telling everybody how good he was.
When you delvier the hooky lyric, ‘I’m in love with that song,’ to which Chilton song are you referring?
I think it was “September Gurls.” Last time I saw him was a few years ago in New York. We were watching the World Series. It was the Atlanta Braves versus the Toronto Blue Jays. I saw him on the street. We went up to his hotel room and ate some Thai food.
As a Minnesota native, how did you feel when Jesse Ventura won election to become governor?
He’s refreshing. But he’s still a wrestler in my mind. He could probably win presidency and either be our worst nightmare or a lot of fun.