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Lord of the Rejects

[whitespace] Paul Westerberg
Len Irish

Always Unsatisfied: Ex-Replacement Paul Westerberg's most outstanding characteristic has always been self-deprecation.

Paul Westerberg probes the pain of vulnerability on 'Suicaine Gratifaction'

By Gina Arnold

A FRIEND OF MINE was talking about an episode of Oprah she saw the other day. Apparently, Oprah had opined that all men fear vulnerability and rejection more than any other things on earth--and that they'll go to any length to avoid them, including suicide.

"Do you think that's true?" she asked me wistfully, and I thought about the question for a moment. "Well, women don't like rejection either," I replied. "But it's way down on my list of fears. When it comes to rejection, I'm perfectly willing to contemplate it."

So, too, is Paul Westerberg, king of vulnerability and lord of all the rejects, and that may explain my deep affection for him, as well as the fact that few men I know can listen to the one-time frontman of the Replacements with any degree of equanimity anymore.

Indeed, his recent work seems to rub all guys the wrong way, and if Oprah's right, it's no wonder. Westerberg positively embraces vulnerability and then beckons rejection to come and take him on man-to-man, wrestling it to the ground while we, his fans, listen aghast to the battle. Perhaps that would explain why, to the majority of males, Westerberg's more introspective songs are almost as disturbing as their girlfriend's fateful words, "Honey, can we talk about our relationship?"

EVEN PRIOR TO going solo, Westerberg was getting shit for being too sensitive--and that was the least of his problems. By the '90s, other bands had usurped the sound and emotional turf of the Replacements. 'Twasn't always thus, however. As the leader of the now legendary Replacements (1981-1991), Westerberg was much admired for his pugnacity and drunken wit.

The guy could--and did--stand onstage and sing the want ads to the accompaniment of totally chaotic punk rock and make the experience a fun one for everyone involved. The Replacements were known for ripping up stages, destroying stupid songs and basically turning a rock & roll show into a kind of frenzy of excitement. Every night was different; every night was fantastic--for the audience, if not for the band.

In short, in an era when its peers were grubbing around for money and power, the band rejected success with gesture upon gesture of deliberate self-sabotage, each gesture set to an ever-more catchy tune. Titles like "Hold My Life," "Can't Hardly Wait," "Unsatisfied" and "I Will Dare" pretty much expressed the band's whole approach.

One result of their actions was that, in the course of their 10-year history, the Replacements occupied a unique place in the hearts of their fans. To the followers of the Replacements, Westerberg wasn't just a singer, he was an alter ego--and a symbol of profound personal integrity. His name was borrowed for the high school in the movie Heathers, because to some it signifies a lone cry for justice in a world of incredible angst.

Such a role has its downside, however, for when Westerberg finally gave up drinking and started to grow up, some of these fans weren't quite ready to walk into adulthood with him--and neither were some of his band members. Founding member Bob Stinson passed away of a drug overdose in 1996. Bassist Tommy Stinson recently joined Guns N' Roses.

Westerberg--the heart, voice and soul of the Replacements--went solo in 1992, but his first two solo LPs, 14 Songs and Eventually, were disappointments. He hadn't quite shaken off the memory of the Replacements, with the result that most of the songs on these albums sounded like toss-offs. And those that didn't--the piano ballad "Good Day," for instance--were greeted with dismay by listeners who couldn't quite grasp the concept of Westerberg as a balladeer.

WESTERBERG'S THIRD record, Suicaine Gratifaction, his first on Capitol, is a different matter altogether. Although fans of his harder rocking earlier material are bound to squawk at the sound of Suicaine Gratifaction, the album is easily his best solo work yet.

Produced by Don Was, it has a casual, even raw quality that well suits Westerberg's tone: some of the songs were recorded in his own home, many use very few instruments and all of them sound as if he has finally created a comfortable sonic world for himself. Musically, the album offers a more accomplished and assured world than previously; thematically, however, it is a sadder world--reflective, perhaps, of his recent diagnosis of bipolarism and turning to what he calls "psychopharmacology" for a cure.

But pharmed out or not, Westerberg demonstrates that his outstanding personal characteristic is still self-deprecation, and that's a very unusual trait in rock music. What kind of a rock star is willing to call himself "overrated"? It's thoroughly unnatural--but that's Paul all over.

"Don't pin your hopes or pin your dreams to misanthropes or guys like me," he sings on the record's opening number, "It's a Wonderful Lie," and his real belief in that statement--his inability to lie, even in a song--goes a long way to explaining who he is.

The truth is, he has no faith in himself. "How am I looking? I don't want the truth. What am I doing? I ain't in my youth. I'm past my prime, or was that just a pose? It's a wonderful lie, and I still get by on those." Those are not the sentiments of your usual rock star, excepting Brian Wilson and Ray Davies, and frankly, they're not the kind of sentiments that most listeners can cope with in a song.

If, however, self-doubt is a subject you can stand hearing about, then you'll love Suicaine Gratifaction. "Self-Defense" is an even more heart-wrenching song, played solo on piano. "Best Thing That Never Happened" actually does fall into the mire of self-pity that Westerberg's ethos is prone to--"Best Thing" is the record's one musically and lyrically turgid moment. But the next song up, "Lookin' Out Forever," one of only three rockers here, is a great one, as catchy as "Dyslexic Heart" (from the soundtrack to Singles) but a hell of a lot less snide.

Replacements fans will also be happy to hear the revival of that slightly unintelligible singing style that gave records like Hootenanny and Let It Be their distinctiveness. (Who among us, for instance, really understood the line "Because liberty's a lie!" in "Unsatisfied" upon first hearing it? And when recognition finally dawned, didn't you just want to cry?)

"Bookmark" is another song about a sad girl--the same one who starred in "Little Mascara" and "Merry Go Round" and "Sadly Beautiful" and the one Paul once said was himself. Westerberg has a real knack for writing about and for women: without being at all effeminate, his mind seems to run along feminine grooves. "Born for Me," a duet with Shawn Colvin, is another song in this vein but much more lyrically and musically accomplished than previous incarnations.

"Fugitive Kind" and "Whatever Makes You Happy" are love songs of sorts. "Final Hurrah" has a plodding tempo and a slightly pedestrian tune, but the lyrics are good and so is the addition of a kazoo, a great example of this record's understated, yet imaginative, instrumentation.

"Tears Rolling Up Our Sleeves" is another highlight, a gentle song about romantic illusions and good intentions that exposes the downside of both. The album is notably lacking in the kind of double entendres and quips that pepper Westerberg's earlier work, but "To be with him for just one night/would you throw away your whole damn life?" may well be one of the most poignant descriptions of pregnancy ever written.

WESTERBERG HAS said in recent interviews that the difference between this record and others is that there are no jokes on this one, and that's definitely true: the unifying theme here is sadness. But time and again, he captures in a single phrase the deep sadness of life without resorting to mere quips. It's as if he's finally learned lyrical shorthand. "Beautiful and blue" is one such moment. Another is "We're identically sad."

Suicaine Gratifaction is also the first record on which Westerberg has been able to blend the music, lyrics and overall tone of each song into a seamless whole. Possibly the best example of this accomplishment is "Sunrise Always Listens," a song about staying up all night. "I've bored a sunset. And a lampshade. And a TV. And the bed. But the sunrise always listens ... and sometimes she even finishes my sentences." Beautiful.

But then, that's just my opinion. I know a guy who was way more into the Replacements than I ever was, if you can believe that, who thinks the "sunrise always listens" is the dumbest thing Paul has ever sung. He went ballistic when he heard it and turned the radio off in disgust.

I think, however, that Westerberg's constant admission of fallibility, vulnerability and the possibility of rejection stands in direct opposition to all the things most people turn to rock & roll in order to believe in--that is, that fame is fun, and love is forever and everything is gonna work out fine.

But those are the very myths that Westerberg rejected all along, first with the Replacements, at the top of his lungs, and now more quietly, more effectively, more deeply. He writes truthfully about life as it is, not how he wants it to be, and unfortunately, his work is convincing enough that some people just can't take it.

But to hell with them, you know? For me, at least, Paul Westerberg will always be a voice of reason. In an era when everything else sounds either false or funny, when my peers have all given up on music because it speaks to people who are either older or younger or more ugly-minded, there's a great deal of comfort to be found in quiet courage, and in the sound of truth being sung out by one who doesn't know any other goddamned way to do it.

As for those who resent Westerberg's role as sensitive singer/songwriter because they really just want him to rock, they are advised to track down an EP called Psychopharmacology by a mysterious artist called Grandpaboy, which was recorded in 1997. Let's just say no one's ever seen Grandpaboy and Westerberg in the same room at the same time. You can order it by mail from Soundproof/Monolyth Records, P.O. Box 990980, Boston, MA 02199-0980, or look it up on www.monolyth.com.

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From the February 11-17, 1999 issue of Metro.

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