Paul Westerberg and the band The Replacements— or as they are fondly referred to, the Mats—made a serious impression on the punk and alternative rock music scene during the 1980s. Now well after The Replacements’ end, Westerberg is enjoying success as a solo songwriter and performer. After three solo albums, Westerberg has managed to prove that a brash punker can grow up and continue as a songwriter.
With a guitar purchased from his older sister for eight dollars, Westerberg began making music and composing lyrics as a teenager. Co-founded with other Minneapolis teens, Tommy and Bob Stinston, and Chris Mars, The Replacements began rehearsing and performing in 1979 and continued until 1991. According to a Replacements website, www.novia.net/mats, “The band earned a reputation for being one of the finest and unpredictable live acts on the 1980s indie scene by juxtaposing cathartic, punk-influenced shows with drunken tomfoolery. But their ace in the hole was front man, Paul Westerberg, who managed to perfectly articulate the ambivalence and alienation of growing up.”
In 1989, Paul Westerberg and his band The Replacements were recognized as one of rock’s greatest groups, with Rolling Stone magazine naming their 1984 album Let it Beas one of the 15 greatest albums of the decade. The Replacements were recognized by Nirvana, who named them as influences. The Mats were also an inspiration for numerous bands that came out of Minneapolis in the 1980s, including Husker Du. After years of serious partying on and off tours, the end of The Replacements came in Chicago on July 4, 1991, with an announcement to the crowd after their final show. After nine albums, thousands of tour dates and countless bar gigs, the band disintegrated and individual musicians began their own solo paths, Westerberg included. But true Replacement fans may have had an indication that the end was near. As The Replacements began to dissolve, Westerberg “took over” the last couple of albums, essentially making them his own.
Westerberg’s first solo album, 14 Songs, was released on Warner Bros./Reprise Records in 1993. The recording was considered a strong first album, but didn’t receive the social and professional kudos Westerberg desired. Most fans were expecting a Replacements album filled with ripping guitar chords and raunchy lyrics. Instead, Westerberg offered them a deep and introspective album. While touring to support his first true solo album, “the audience was far more interested in singing along to songs like “Kiss Me on the Bus” and “I’ll Be You…”, two popular songs from his previous band, then to some of his newer work, according to an article in Newsweek. Although the article goes on to say that Westerberg has
Born December 31, 1959, in Minneapolis, MN.
After a decade with the Replacements, decided to go solo; released 14 Songs, 1993, and Eventually, 1996, on the Warner Bros./Reprise Records label; after being with Warner Bros, for 12 years, signed with Capitol Records in 1998; released Suicaine Gratification, 1999.
Addresses: Record companies —Warner Bros. Records, 10907 Magnolia Blvd., Box 419, North Hollywood, CA; Capitol Records, 1750 Vine Street, Hollywood, CA 90028; website—www.alt.music.paul-westerberg.
an “unfettered writing style that makes him one of alternative rock’s biggest influences,” his first solo album did not do that well with the press and fans.
According to a 1996 interview with Erik Philbrook, found on the ASCAP website, www.ascap.com, Westerberg was nervous about the release of his first solo album. “When The Replacements ended and I made 14 Songs, I was very nervous because suddenly I was out on my own and I didn’t have that role as leader of the group to fall back on. I really played up the fact that I was a songwriter… I sort of went back to the days before I had the band and eased into what I am now. I am a musician. I do write good songs. I’m comfortable with what I am and I think people will get it,” Westerberg said.
His second solo album, Eventually, came out in 1996. Again, Replacement fans were disappointed because the album was a deep and introspective work and they wanted to hear Westerberg as he used to sound—loud, brash and angry. But he had matured and so had his music. Westerberg also produced Eventually and almost had help from Pearl Jam producers Brendan O’Brien, but the pairing didn’t work and Westerberg finished the recording with Lou Giordano.
In between his first two albums, Westerberg wrote and recorded songs for various movie and television show soundtracks, including the movies Singles, “Dyslexic Heart,” and Tank Girl, as well as for the television series Melrose Place and Friends. Westerberg didn’t completely leave his Replacement roots behind him. Along with his musician wife, Laura Lindeen, he recorded a seven-inch single and an EP using the alter ego, “Grandpa Boy.” His fans, though, knew who he was and enjoyed the album put out on the Soundproof/Monolyth label. Westerberg played all the instruments on the album. Those “Grandpa Boy” tracks were a way for Westerberg to “become more fearless in my art,” and a way to gain personal satisfaction rather than mass endorsement, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
If he hadn’t done Grandpa Boy, who knows where Westerberg, or his music, would be. “It was necessary to do that (Grandpa Boy), or Suicaine (Gratification, his third album) might have spiraled down to the point where I couldn’t finish it,” he is quoted as saying in a Toronto Sun interview. Westerberg’s third album, Suicaine Gratification, attained some critical success since its release in 1999. Westerberg had a new contract with Capitol Records, after impressing Capitol president, Gary Gersh. According to an interview on a Paul Westerberg website, http://members.aol.com/paulspage, “Gary Gersh’s commitment as president (of Capitol), who is going to personally oversee my record and my career, was hard to turn down. I mean, I had fans at every other (record) label, but they weren’t all necessarily the presidents of the label. I felt that having the most powerful guy at the label interested in my career would be the smart move to make.”
According to a Gannett News Service article, “In many ways, however, it is his best music in years. Westerberg sounds more relaxed and less defined by expectations, which, ironically, lets him sound more like himself.” Westerberg finally found his own voice, one that isn’t being related to his previous works with The Replacements. The album was produced by Don Was, who had success with “mature” musicians like Bone Raitt, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones.
In an interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Was said about Westerberg, “If I could have worked with John Lennon at his creative peak, that’s what Paul Westerberg reminds me of. He doesn’t want to repeat anything anyone has done before; he makes sure the mikes in the studio are not set up the same way they were the week before. Nothing with him is rote.” Although Was helped with Westerberg’s third album, he wasn’t the songwriter’s first choice. Westerberg originally wanted Quincy Jones, but Was, recognizing a great musician when he heard one, began getting involved with the production, at the same time staying out of the way. “The influence of producer Don Was is clearly felt here,” writes Mike Meyer with University Wire in 1999, “as the tracks have a definite classic rock feel, more in the veins of Tom Petty or the Rolling Stones.” In fact, The Replacements opened for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
“I knew they were great songs and if there was any plan, it was to stay out of the way of the songs,” Was told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Was did include some subtle accompanists, including a French horn and an accordion. Most of the songs off of Suicaine Gratification are deeply personal, dealing with Westerberg’s alcohol abuse and the birth of his son. Almost the entire album was recorded in his basement in Minneapolis.
Westerberg found his niche within the “pop music” genre. According to Jeffery Puckett, with the Gannett News Service, “Westerberg has given up completely on rock’n’roll as abandon, and the hardest track here “Looking Out Forever,” is essentially a pop song.” Not everyone was pleased with Westerberg’s rebirth as a pop song writer. Thor Christensen, reviewing Suicaine Gratification for the Dallas Morning News wrote, “A lot of skeptics dismiss ex-Replacements leader 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.” According to an article in the Ottawa Sun, Westerberg said “I don’t want to drown myself out any more. For years I played in a loud rock band it’s like ’Hell, they’re not going to hear me anyway.” Westerberg told the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “I guess I am proud that I followed the muse where it took me, which is a very solitary, dark place.”
“Westerberg’s greatest strength has always been his lyrics, which normally convey his time-worn wisdom about life and especially love in just about the most artistic way possible,” compliments Mike Meyer with CD Review, about Suicaine Gratification. “Aching, sometimes confused, it’s a new effort for Westerberg, and the ideal backdrop for some of the best words he’s ever come up with,” admires the Toronto Sun. Dave Pirner, from Soul Asylum, contributed to the album, along with singer and Grammy-winner Shawn Colvin.
Westerberg admits to being clinically depressed during the writing and recording of Suicaine Gratification, and those feelings show themselves bluntly on the album. He has since begun to take anti-depressant drugs to combat his depression. “There was a lot of sorrow on this record, and it wasn’t pretend,” Westerberg recounts in an interview in the Toronto Sun. Never a big fan of touring, or the life behind touring, Westerberg took his time in following up his solo albums with tours. In fact, Westerberg doesn’t like leaving his hometown of Minneapolis. “I was probably 36 when I started recording this album, (Suicaine Gratification) and it dawned on me that I don’t know what (kids) want—I’m a fool even to guess. So I have to do what I want at the risk of being considered a has-been, on old man or whatever. When they rediscover me when they’re 25, they’ll see that I was very cool.”
“Dyslexic Heart,” Singles soundtrack, 1992.
14 Songs, Warner Bros./Reprise Records, 1993.
“A Star is Bored”, Melrose Place soundtrack, Giant, 1994.
“Sunshine”, Friends soundtrack, Reprise, 1994.
Eventually, Reprise Records, 1996.
Grandpa Boy, Soundproof/Monolyth, 1997.
Suicaine Gratification, Capitol Records, 1999.
Dallas Morning News, August 10, 1997.
Gannett News Service, February 26, 1999.
Minneapolis Star Tribune, February 21, 1999.
Newsday, August 8, 1993; August 3, 1996; February 14, 1999.
Ottawa Sun, February 21, 1999.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 28, 1996.
Time, June 6, 1993.
Toronto Sun, February 21, 1999
University Wire, February 5, 1999.
Wisconsin State Journal, October 15, 1993.
http://hiponline.com (April 21, 1999).
http://hollywoodandvine.com (June 1, 1999).
http://members.aol.com/paulspage (April 16, 1999).
http://metroactive.com (June 1, 1999).
http://www.ascap.com/playback (June 1, 1999).
http://www.mtv.com/news (April 21, 1999).
http://www.novia.net (June 1, 1999).
http://www.addicted.com (April 21, 1999).
http://www.playboy.com (April 16, 1999).
http://www.wwwebworld.com (April 21, 1999).
—Gretchen Van Monette
Genre: Rock, Punk
Best-selling album since 1990: 14 Songs (1993)
Hit songs since 1990: "Dyslexic Heart"
Paul Westerberg endures as one of the most beloved singer/songwriters in rock. He is the founding member of the Replacements, a rock band from Minneapolis whose self-destructive behavior, anti-commercial attitude, and raw sound never earned them mainstream success, but helped build their legend long after they broke up. Westerberg's songs voice the boredom, alienation, and heartache of suburban teenagers stuck in the rut of Middle America during the Reagan years, much like the songs of the rhythm and blues singer Chuck Berry did in the Eisenhower era of the 1950s. In the Replacements, Westerberg grew from initially writing primal punk anthems to ultimately incorporating blues, folk, and country, all dosed with working-class defiance and back alley humor. He later developed into more of a pop craftsman. Critics generally agree the five solo albums that followed his career in the Replacements are more stripped down and somber. Westerberg wound up an elder statesman for the countless singer/songwriters he later influenced. He also became a touchstone for the pure rebellious spirit that is the foundation of rock music.
Westerberg was born the son of a Minneapolis Cadillac salesman. He received his first guitar at age fourteen and soon started learning the three-chord rock of first generation punk bands from the 1970s like the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, and the New York Dolls. A short time after, he formed the Replacements with drummer Chris Mars, guitarist Bob Stinson, and bassist Tommy Stinson. The band's debut, Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash (1981), was a straightforward hardcore punk record. In time, however, the band would record Let It Be (1984), an album that became a cult classic due to its focused songwriting, dynamic mix of styles (folk, blues, honkytonk country), and insurgent bite. By then, the band was nearly mythical for live shows that were either brilliantly executed or woefully sloppy, and usually both. They became the antithesis of the slick commercial rock on MTV that dominated the 1980s. Famously disdainful of marketplace expectations, the band initially refused to make videos. Instead, they railed against the new media in song ("Seen Your Video" includes the sneering lyric, "seen your video / that phony rock & roll / we don't wanna know") and, consequently, in a video ("Bastards of Young") that features just a solitary shot of a home stereo.
Once the band signed, in 1985, to the major label Sire, a division of Warner Bros., their music became more pop-oriented with some songs even featuring string and horns. At the same time, Westerberg grew into a more eloquent lyricist. Although some band members played on the band's swan song, All Shook Down (1990)—Bob Stinson had been fired and replaced by guitarist Slim Dunlap—it was mostly a Westerberg solo project featuring hired studio musicians. The band's official breakup took place on July 4, 1991, onstage and midshow in Chicago's Grant Park.
The band's demise presented Westerberg with an opportunity to reinvent himself. "It's a fresh start," he said in an interview. "It's not like I'm walking away from a goldmine. I'm walking away from a band that went down the toilet. In essence, I'm starting over because no one knows who Paul Westerberg is."
Westerberg became a formal solo artist the next year with two songs on the soundtrack to the Cameron Crowe film Singles (1992). Soon afterward, he released his first solo album, 14 Songs (1993). The very title was seen as a declaration that he now preferred to focus on the crafts-manship of writing songs rather than using music to quell personal demons. The album frustrated die-hard Replacements fans, who lamented the absence of any punk fury. Westerberg's debut collection was melodic, hook-driven pop with lyrics that were mostly relationship-oriented.
He continued to stray from his punk roots with later, more introspective albums. During this period, Westerberg admitted in interviews that he suffered from clinical depression as well as from problems with alcohol. He was also hit hard by the death of Bob Stinson, who died of a drug overdose in 1995. His next two albums—Eventually (1996) and Suicaine Gratifaction (1998)—were also quiet. They ended up poor sellers and received mixed reviews. The latter album was released the same year his son was born, after which Westerberg stopped touring altogether.
Little was heard from Westerberg over the following few years. Then came the album Stereo (2002), whose packaging includes a hidden second disc titled Mono (2002), credited simply to Grandpaboy. Westerberg first used the pseudonym on a limited run of the five-song EP Soundproof/Monolyth (1997) on a tiny Boston label run by a friend. It was rushed out as a lark to see if he could recapture the Replacements' original ragged sound and irreverent humor. It immediately won acclaim from critics who hailed his return to his earlier roots and fans clamored to see if that would lead to a long-awaited tour.
The new double album sparked a rebirth in Westerberg's career. It was released on Vagrant Records, a West Coast label with mostly young punk bands on its roster. In that environment, Westerberg was introduced to the younger generation as an acclaimed veteran of the punk rock era while at the same time he reconnected to his long-time audience. Recorded alone in his basement, both records were designed to showcase his past history and present direction. Stereo is a set of somber solo guitar songs while the songs on Mono are in full band glory in the vein of the Replacements—except this time it is Westerberg playing all the instruments. Lyrically, he makes a conscious effort to connect to his past. Just as "Bastards of Young" calls his generation to arms against bowing to the status quo, seventeen years later his new song "We May Be the Ones" is a quieter follow-up gauging how they had fared against complacency.
Because he had not toured in six years, Westerberg reemerged by playing a handful of in-store dates at Virgin Megastores around the country in 2002. Each stop was before capacity crowds and the mini-shows re-energized his enthusiasm for performing live. He ended up embarking on a full solo tour, for which he received his best reviews in years. Like Stereo and Mono, the shows captured the flavor of his Replacements days. While he could bring audiences to a dead silence, he also ably played the role of the aloof rock veteran, inviting members of the crowd onstage and taking requests—but only with the stipulation that he might need help remembering the lyrics.
Westerberg lives in Minneapolis with his wife and son. In interviews, he says he is content to keep recording and performing solo but has kept the door open to a Replacements reunion with bassist Tommy Stinson, who became a member of the pop metal band Guns n' Roses in the late 1990s.
14 Songs (Sire/Reprise, 1993); Eventually (Reprise, 1996); Grandpaboy EP (Soundproof/Monolyth, 1997); Suicaine Gratifaction (Capitol, 1998); Stereo/Mono (Vagrant, 2002). With the Replacements: Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash (Twin/Tone, 1981); The Replacements Stink EP (Twin/Tone, 1982); Hootenanny (Twin/Tone, 1983); Let It Be (Twin/Tone, 1984); Tim (Sire, 1985); Pleased to Meet Me (Sire, 1987); Don't Tell a Soul (Sire, 1989), All Shook Down (Sire, 1990); All For Nothing/Nothing for All (Sire, 1997). Soundtracks: Singles (Sony/Columbia, 1992); Music from Melrose Place (Warner Bros., 1994); Tank Girl (Elektra, 1995); Tommy Boy (Warner Bros., 1995); Friends (Warner Bros., 1995); I Am Sam (V2, 2002).