photo by Miranda Penn Turin w/Patricia Burlingame/artistrepinc.com
In 1999, producer Don Was, who had just helmed Paul Westerberg’s third solo album, Suicaine Gratification, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that “if I could have worked with John Lennon at his creative peak, that’s what Paul Westerberg reminds me of.” (Interestingly enough, for that same album, Westerberg originally had his sights set on working with famed R&B producer Quincy Jones!)
Indeed, although Was intended the Lennon comparison in strictly creative terms, Westerberg has been similarly mythified, albeit on a smaller scale. Nearly 14 years after their breakup, his former band the Replacements still glow with the mystique that has been built around them. They remain one of the most storied acts in alternative rock history, with music “historians” freshly watering the myth and adding to its intensity with every passing year. One can reasonably figure, then, that there’s no way the expectations that come with the Replacements legacy haven’t cast a long shadow over Westerberg’s solo career, which officially began on July 4, 1991, when the band announced its breakup after a show in Chicago.
Though the Replacements’ unbridled, unapologetically raw brand of smart-ass passion certainly inspired listeners and helped to righteously transform the musical landscape after punk (ensuring that we didn’t lose the punk in post-punk), they were nothing if not excessive drinkers. Unfortunately, overzealous fans and music scribes have always fawned just a bit too lovingly over the band’s habits. The underlying suggestion, when boiled down to its most basic, puerile level, is that alcohol made the band cool.
Thankfully — depending on whom you ask — Westerberg continues to silence the nostalgic. From his first solo effort, 14 Songs, all the way through to his latest, Folker, he has sidestepped the Replacements’ messy bombast in favor of a much quieter approach — sometimes steeped heavily in blues or, in the latest example, folk, but almost always with spare arrangements that go hand in hand with lyrics that tend toward naked introspection.
Which, of course, has ruffled feathers despite Westerberg’s status as a virtually untouchable critic’s darling. In a 1999 review for the Dallas Morning News, for example, Thor Christensen wrote that “a lot of skeptics dismiss Paul Westerberg as the punk-rock Paul McCartney, an artist whose solo career is a disgrace to his storied past. The assessment isn’t entirely off-base.”
Come on, people. Give the guy a break. First of all, let’s not forget that even the Replacements were chided for maturing too much (on their album Don’t Tell a Soul), which Tommy Stinson once justified in Newsweek with: “We’re gettin’ older…and our f•••in’ ideas are gettin’ older.” Since leaving the Replacements, Westerberg sobered up, quit smoking and had a child. He is currently a house-husband who records all of his music in his basement, more or less around his son’s schedule. He doesn’t miss the rock and roll lifestyle and has embraced domestic stability. We know this because he has been quoted saying as much many times since his child was born. We also know this because he dodged his scheduled Mountain Xpress interview many times, at first because his wife and son flew to spend time with him on the road.
Which is not to say that Westerberg’s blunt, inviting sense of humor has suffered any. Folker opens with “Jingle,” a boppy pop ditty that sounds like an acoustic camp-fire sing-along. The primary lyric, “buy it now / buy it now / buy it now / this is my single” loops on until the song is over — at one minute, 24 seconds!
The song shows why Replacements fans should actually be grateful. For one, Westerberg — who has admitted to picking up drinking and smoking again around the time of his father’s passing — is nonetheless showing us that alcohol wasn’t the main ingredient in that old Replacements magic. He’s also proving that punk’s not dead. It’s simply being subverted by the craftier of its original proponents — people like Westerberg who have grown too smart to simply repeat themselves.
[Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a freelance music writer. More of his work can be viewed at www.whoneedscritics.com]
Paul Westerberg and His Only Friends Band plays the Orange Peel (101 Biltmore Ave.) on Wednesday, May 4. 9 p.m. $22.50. 225-5851.