Let The Bad Times Roll

Paul Westerberg talks about drinking, depressed fans, and finding a reason to live

Paul Westerberg has a cold. So does his wife, Laurie Lindeen, and so does their son, Johnny, and so does the interviewer. So all concerned cut their losses last week and, in order to discuss Westerberg's new movie, music, and life, talked for an hour over the phone.

 

City Pages: How's your dad?

Darin Back

Paul Westerberg: He's kind of going down slow. Yesterday, Johnny and Laura stayed away [from Westerberg's parents' house] because they had the cold, and I felt fine, and now this morning I've got it. If I gave him a cold he wouldn't bounce back from it. He's on oxygen and a nebulizer. He won't go in a hospital bed, he just lays in his own bed. You walk in there, and he weighs like 100 [pounds]. He hasn't eaten in 10 days. I made him a couple of shakes with some Ensure in it, and he kind of went for that. We watched the whole Twins game together, and he said maybe three words the whole time. It's emphysema. He's got one-fourth the use of one lung, so it's kind of weird.

 

CP: You said at the Guthrie [concert] that he's never seen you play, and that you love him to death for it. Is that true?

Westerberg: It is true. It would never be confused or misconstrued that [he] likes me because of what I do or what I've done. You know, he likes me because I'm his son. I have to go long and far to find someone who knows me just as me, rather than me the songwriter or whatever. And there's a song that sort of points to him, and unfortunately a couple of the ones that are about him on the Folker record [due this spring] will probably be out, I'm guessing, when he's in hell. So he's not gonna hear the "I love my dad" songs, but he knows it.

 

CP: What are some of your favorite rock movies?

Westerberg: [The Bob Dylan documentary] Don't Look Back. I've got a bootleg copy of Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rolling Stones. I like that better than Gimme Shelter, actually. I sat through Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rolling Stones like three times at the Skyway when it came out [in 1974]. I don't know. I'm hard-pressed to think of a lot of great rock movies. Y'know, Blackboard Jungle [laughs].

 

CP: What do you like about Don't Look Back?

Westerberg: Everything. Just seeing Bob so pure and seeing him getting bitter already, where he really flies off the handle, and allows us to see him as a real creep, and then there's the other side of him that's thoughtful and creative and shit. For me, that movie sort of has everything. I like the Nico one [Nico-Icon], but that was sort of put together by her friends.

 

CP: I love the scene in Don't Look Back in that hotel room, where Donovan just gets destroyed by Bob, who kind of nods along to Donovan's song, and then does "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue."

Westerberg: Yeah [laughs]. And also, you can barely see it but--I've read books--Marianne Faithful's in the room waiting for Joan Baez to leave. Which never happens, and then Joan Baez leaves at the crack of dawn.

 

CP: At the beginning of [the Westerberg documentary] Come Feel Me Tremble, you talk a little bit about having ADD.

Westerberg: I did? I don't remember.

 

CP: Right. Watching it, I couldn't help but think, is it truly ADD? Or is it simply the workings of a creative mind, and you get bored with reality? Like the John Lennon thing about, "reality leaves a lot to the imagination."

Westerberg: Yeah. I don't know. It's brain damage of some sort. [ADD is] a medical/psychological viewpoint of it. And the other one would be the creative side. All creative people have it, and it makes us poor drivers or poor followers of directions, and we don't like to be told what to do, and information goes in one ear and out the other. But you sort of overcompensate with that imagination part of your brain that gets the muscles flexed.

 

CP: Listening to the soundtrack, I couldn't help but juxtapose two lyrics: "We're feeling good from the pills we took, aw baby don't gimme that look" [from "Talent Show," 1989] and "I'm drinking once again, just to make the pills kick in" [from "Knockin' Em Back," 2003]. Your thoughts, sir?

Westerberg: [Laughs] My thoughts? I have no thoughts about that line. Take it as you wish.

 

CP: But what about the drinking? Is it a big deal, or has it been a big deal, because you weren't for a long time.

Westerberg: Yeah, it's not a big deal. It's like, I'll probably stop again for 10 years and no one will know the difference. I mean, I could've been drinking for the last 15 [years] for all people know. It no longer plays a role in the creative process. I always write [songs] in the day, anyway.

 

CP: The cool thing that the documentary captures is the love your fans have for you. When I think of you, I think of you as a loner, and then we see you onstage on that couch surrounded by people, and at the in-stores, and talking with them by the tour bus. It's cool to see; it's more like you're a ringleader than a wallflower.

Westerberg: I definitely wanted to see who the fans were, because I'd been away long enough. And back when I was playing before [the Stereo/Mono tour, when the Come Feel Me Tremble footage was shot], I wouldn't hang around to meet them. Doing the in-stores was something new for me. It scared me, and it was dangerous, and it appealed to me.

 

CP: Does the intensity of some of your fans ever flip you out?

Westerberg: Well, some of them get pretty deep. I hear, "You got me through" as their opening line a lot. Usually when that starts, I sort of go on automatic listen. A lot of 'em will just say, "I've seen you 20 times and I think you're great, thank you," and move on. Occasionally someone will say, "I'd never heard of you, my friend just hipped me to you," and that's always fun, too. But, yeah. There's a little fistful of weirdos that are looking for me to show them the way to life.

 

CP: What is the way, Paulie?

Westerberg: I don't know. I think it should be evident by now, but I'm as lost as anyone.

 

CP: Do you still hope to land on commercial radio?

Westerberg: I'm always slightly baffled when I get done with a record, because to my ear it sounds like what I would like to hear on the radio. But I guess it's just not meant to be. I went through the dog-and-pony shows with the major labels and did 500 interviews and meet-and-greets and all the shit you have to do to get on the radio, and they never found the song they wanted to ram home. It's like, it's up to the people to fall in love with the song. The record company can only do so much.

 

CP: You could always go on American Idol.

Westerberg: True. What is that? I haven't seen it. What is that, like one person gets his choice of something? Somebody said to me the other day, and I took it as a direct insult, that [Come Feel Me Tremble] is like a reality TV show movie. God. It's different. It's not like any documentary I've ever seen. It's got bits that are like this or that [documentary], but it's got a soundtrack that has a whole bunch of songs that have nothing to do with the movie.

 

CP: Have you heard the Lucinda Williams song ["Real Live Bleeding Fingers," which Williams penned about Westerberg]?

Westerberg: Uh-huh. I've only heard it once. I saw her perform it on television once. All I'll say is that she's a true songwriter, and I am too, and you have to take these things with a grain of salt. The hack songwriter will write the absolute truth every single word, whether it makes a great song or not. And the good songwriter takes something as a springboard and then goes from there. There's no saying that verse two isn't about something else. You know, fuck, I think "Jumpin' Jack Flash" was written about me. I put myself in all the songs I love. The singer's singing to me, y'know? I'm flattered, but it doesn't affect me, really.

People don't understand. People chase, to this day, "Who is the Mr. Tambourine Man?" Songs aren't really written that way. You take something that inspires you, and it might just be a roaring pack of lies.

 

CP: You cover "These Days" by Jackson Browne on the soundtrack. Still a Jackson fan?

Westerberg: Yeah. I went to see [Tom] Petty, and Jackson was opening. [Backstage] I walked past him and he looked at me and I looked at him, and it was like, "Here's my chance." And I couldn't open my mouth. Couldn't say it. Couldn't wink. Couldn't nothin'. So maybe he'll catch wind of it, though in all honesty, it's the Nico version [of "These Days"] that I heard for years and loved. I've never heard his.

CP: Tell me about the Sylvia Plath song ["Crackle and Drag," which lifts the last line from the suicidal poet's last poem, "Edge"]. What is it about her that you so empathize with?

Westerberg: I read The Bell Jar, and then I read her memoir and her diaries, and a third book, an outside opinion. Just the way she made the pillows so neat on the oven door. It just seems to be the opposite of, if you're going to take your life, in a horrible rage it happens. It isn't so well thought-out, like "make sure the kids don't smell any of the fumes." I always go back and forth: Would I have done that and saved the children, to see their dead mother? Or would I have killed the kids with me?

I don't know. She's one of those that does break the mold of, well, you knew it was coming. Unlike, let's say [late Minneapolis musician] Katie O'Brien [whom Westerberg paid tribute to in his 2001 song "No Place For You"], where nobody knew it was coming. I guess I'm attracted to both.

 

CP: What do you mean "attracted"?

Westerberg: I've had more people in my life take their lives than... I think it's out of proportion with most people. I think a lot of them gravitate towards me because of the music. I did an interview with a guy from England last week, and he was telling me about this Japanese fan who used to follow me around, and Alex [Chilton] and Peter Perrett and I were her three idols, and then he said she slit her throat. And I was like, "Ooh. Well, good day to you, too!"

It never stops. I get letters from people who are sick and I can't even look at the shit. It's like, "What should I do? I'm gonna kill myself or my friend's gonna kill himself." I don't know. I don't have the answer.

 

CP: I guess I wonder about you and Sylvia Plath, and back to the idea of the creative mind, which can make for an exhausting endeavor, where your livelihood or your life in general is built around making something out of thin air. At some point, some part of you wants rest from that, you want that to stop. I wonder if you identify with her that way.

Westerberg: Yeah. I guess I would think that one wouldn't kill oneself during a dry spell. Although, my experience when I've been depressed, not only am I too depressed to sit down and write a song, I'm too depressed to pick up my feet. So if you can at least write about it, you're halfway away from it. It frightens me, the different people who have done it and the different people who have surprised us and done it. I could never do it, I don't think. I'm too chicken.

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