I Buried Paul

Darin Back

I promise that the following 1,761-word essay won't contain any sentimental musings about how the Replacements changed my life. It also won't assume that the Replacements changed your life. For a 32-year-old depressive white guy from Minneapolis, this is an act of self-restraint, and really, someday you ought to hear the one about me going as Paul Westerberg for Halloween of '84 (a great 62-second costume, by the way).

I have cut myself off from Replacements nostalgia, for the same self-preserving reasons that I don't look through yearbooks or peruse my box of old love letter (note the singular). I figure it's better not to sully those memories with all kinds of pathetic they-don't-write-'em-like-that-any-more blubbering.

Besides, they do still write 'em like that--sometimes even Paul Westerberg does. And in the past couple of years, he's been doing so with a goofy grace that's both age-appropriate (he sounds comfortably 43) and reminiscent of his old band's lack of calculation. "I'm open to a good idea," he says in a new documentary, "but if a bad idea is more fun, I'll do the bad idea for the sake of the moment." To cut to the chase, before this review is over I'm going to make an earnest case for why you ought to blow $43 on some work that I don't expect will change anyone's life.

Westerberg's two new albums--the sloppily rockin' Come Feel Me Tremble and the sloppily bluesy Dead Man Shake--are indeed open to good ideas and lenient toward diversions of dubious merit. In addition to the albums, there's a fresh documentary, also called Come Feel Me Tremble, covering Westerberg's 2002 solo tour and subsequent home-recording sessions. It's directed by local music video pro Rick Fuller and a great German auteur named Otto Zithromax, who I'm told is a very close personal friend of the singer's. In the great tradition of rock documentaries, it's really freaking boring, maybe even more so than average.

For one thing, there's no conflict in the movie--you don't get to watch the utility instrumentalist get the boot, as in that Wilco movie, I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, because there is no band. There are no scenes in the vein of Dylan being snotty to Donovan in Don't Look Back, perhaps because Ryan Adams wasn't available to play a few a tunes on bent knee outside the maestro's hotel room. There are, however, a couple of inspired performances in the movie, and if you find yourself strangely willing to suffer through the torpor to get to them, well, I can relate.

Much of Tremble's concert footage came from fan bootlegs, in the not-so-grand tradition of the Replacements' cassette-only release, The Shit Hits the Fans. After a silent start to the 21st century, Westerberg since 2002 has been rewarding his patient fans with manic productivity. He put out a double album last year, the alternately plaintive and keister-kicking Mono/Stereo, and he has an acoustic album, Folker, coming in early 2004. It would seem that after years of suffering under the yoke of collaborators in sheeps' clothing--bandmates, producers, record executives--Westerberg is now happy to let it all out: the great, the inchoate, the recycled, the pretty, the silly, the one that's almost a cover of "Please Please Me," the one that is a cover of a Flesh for Lulu (!) tune.

Maybe this is what happens when a guy has no one to check his self-indulgence, or maybe it's just smart marketing. As with those of Prince, Guided by Voices, or Acker Bilk, Westerberg's records are consumed almost exclusively by loyal fans, who will buy everything. So why not give them everything?

What they're getting on Come Feel Me Tremble is mainly in the Rolling Stones/Faces style that Westerberg has been enamored of since he was 12 ("I liked the candy then," he says in the documentary, "and I'll like it till my teeth fall out"). There's a lot of open guitar tunings, a minimum of chord changes, and lots of cool-sounding phrases that don't pretend to mean much. Sometimes Westerberg uses a drum machine. Sometimes he plays drums himself, and let me tell you, the guy can do a lot of things, but drumming is not one of them.

In the movie, Westerberg says that many of his latest songs were composed on the fly, often while the tape was running. He likes to make up rhymes on the spot, which he'll sometimes go back and clean up, but not always. You can identify the dummy lyrics--lines that end in "there ain't no doubt" or "that ain't no lie." In the minute-long piano ballad "Never Felt Like This Before," he rhymes "left" with "left." Westerberg has done that before--he once rhymed "I'm told" with "untold"--but he also once had the ridiculous good sense to pair "no connoisseur cat" with "some kind of sewer rat."  

Dead Man's Shake is the laziest of the lazy. As an interpreter of straight blues, Westerberg has grown some since "God Damn Job" and "Hootenanny." He's got a good feel for conjuring the mood of Little Walter or Jimmy Reed, and can toss off a variation on "Shake, Rattle, and Roll" that will at least sound pretty good after three or six beers. But he's not especially inventive or commanding with the idiom. There's nothing particularly displeasing about Dead Man Shake (which will be released under the pseudonym "Grandpa Boy"), but one is always mindful that this music can be heard better elsewhere, such as in a bar with an actual band.

It's not surprising that Westerberg has turned exclusively to laying down tracks as a one-man band. He's a self-described misanthrope, though to judge from his rather tender interactions with fans in Tremble, that self-appraisal is an exaggeration. What's a bit strange is that he's making music--blues and various strains of the Chuck Berry tradition--that's rarely played in this solitary manner. Not that there's anything unusual about making organic-sounding rock one overdub at a time, and John Fogerty, a better drummer, set a precedent for playing this brand of boozy roots music all by his lonesome. Still, there's something funny about a presumably sober guy holed up in his basement looking for ways to make a song called "Hillbilly Junk" sound like it's being played by a pack of hillbillies strung out on junk.

Okay, so I said I wouldn't puke out any sentimental Replacements stories, but I didn't say anything about sentimental Paul Westerberg solo-career stories. Such tales, of course, are a rare breed. C.C. Club regulars rarely meet to trade yarns about the super-sad Westerberg album that no one bought, and the tour that didn't follow. But I have one, sort of.

In 1996, I was working at the Sam Goody in City Center. That was the year Westerberg's second solo album, Eventually, came out to a resounding chorus of critical and public apathy. One day I was playing the record in the back room of the store while affixing security tags to Method Man tapes or raising the price on Lion King videos. One of my co-workers was back there with me, taking her 15-minute lunch break, and she asked what I was listening to. When I told her, she smiled and said she had been a fan as a kid. This surprised me, since I hadn't known this woman to go in for anything more obscure than a Phil Collins B-side. She may as well have claimed a youthful devotion to, say, the Iron City Houserockers or Trotsky Icepick.

Anyway, one of Eventually's songs, "MamaDaddyDid," came on, in which the singer reveals his fear of "raising some messed-up kid, just like my mom and daddy did." It's a very pretty and affecting song, one of several from the Westerbergian '90s that didn't get a fair shake.

By the end of the track, my co-worker was crying, I mean really losing it. "That's the best song he's done since 'Longer,'" she said as she got up to return to the sales floor. Longer than there've been fishes in the ocean. Higher than any bird ever flew. I had been right: She hadn't been a Paul Westerberg fan back in the day, she'd been a Dan Fogelberg fan.

This left me a touch conflicted. On one hand, if my former punk-rock idol could be mistaken for Dan Fogelberg, something was probably wrong. On the other hand, the song made her cry, which is by no means a sure indication of quality, but in this case I was sure that her response was the right one.

Give him the chance to, and Westerberg will wear you down. I initially took Come Feel Me Tremble for a heap of leftovers, but the more I listened, the less I believed it. My constant policy is to evaluate music in eudemonic terms. In less highfalutin language: I like it if it makes me happy and dislike it if it doesn't. I think this is the only reasonable way to judge pop music, not to like it because it was influential (like old Replacements records) or dismiss it because it's culturally irrelevant (like new Paul Westerberg albums).

Here's the deal: I like the way this guy sings, I like the way he plays guitar and I like the way his amplifier sounds. He's funny, he's got soul, and I think his methodology has a perverse integrity. If a few years ago it seemed that Westerberg was mutating into Elvis Costello--with all the impressive but dull craftsmanship that sometimes entailed--I'm pleased to report that Westerberg is now hewing closer to John Prine and a make-believe backup band composed of Keith Richards and a couple of tipsy hillbillies. With any luck--and I'm counting on it--that acoustic album coming out next year will contain his best song since "Longer."

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