Sunday, March 06, 2005

In Praise Of: Paul Westerberg

If you're not a fan of alternative rock pioneers The Replacements, you're probably scratching your head and saying, "Paul WHO?" Those who do know will probably smile wistfully in remembrance of days gone by. Westerberg was the de facto leader and lyricist of the late, great Minneapolis band. Their first album was released while they were teenagers, in love with drinking, smoking, and rock-and-roll; they were a garage band even when they recorded for major labels and toured with Tom Petty; and they were, of course, doomed to flame out when success finally came knocking.

I'm going to see Westerberg Tuesday evening at La Zona Rosa in Austin. I'm not sure what to expect, other than a sloppy, alcohol-fueled (I'm talking about him...I drink very lightly these days, as I am no fan of going to work hungover, or DWIs), incoherent, yet brilliant on some level, performance. I was fortunate enough to see the Replacements four times during college; two shows, at the Texas Union Theatre on the UT campus, and the Bronco Bowl in Dallas, were excellent - great playing, relative soberness on the part of the band, if not the crowd, and decently long sets. The other two were a mess: opening for Tom Petty at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin, and especially in Nashville, they were uncomfortable with the crowd, blindingly drunk, and quite hostile.

So far, this must sound like an odd tribute - what's so great about loud-mouthed, dirty, drunk ruffians? If I wanted to read about that, you're probably thinking, I could just go to the Democratic Underground. Well, the silver lining was the songs. Westerberg is a poet in a lout's shell; his inner intelligence and sympathetic worldview keep pushing out from under the rough edges of his persona. Consider the self-awareness of Swinging Party, from the impossibly great album Tim:
Bring your own lampshade, somewhere there's a party
Here it's never endin', can't remember when it started
Pass around the lampshade, there'll be plenty enough room in jail
If bein' wrong's a crime, I'm serving forever
If bein' strong's your kind, then I need help here with this feather
If bein' afraid is a crime, we hang side by side
At the swingin' party down the line
The self-doubt and wariness are palpable. Or try the lament of the aimless alcoholic, in Here Comes a Regular, also from Tim:

Well a person can work up a mean, mean thirst
After a hard day of nothin' much at all
Summer's passed, it's too late to cut the grass
There ain't much to rake anyway in the fall...

Kneeling alongside old Sad Eyes
He says opportunity knocks once then the door slams shut
All I know is I'm sick of everything that my money can buy
The fool who wastes his life, God rest his guts

First the lights, then the collar goes up, and the wind begins to blow
Turn your back on a pay-you-back, last call
First the glass, then the leaves that pass, then comes the snow
Ain't much to rake anyway in the fall

There's an entire novel written between the lines of this song. 'Kneeling alonside old Sad Eyes' - why kneeling? Did he fall off the barstool? A drunk man known as Sad Eyes, then, lying on the floor, saying (with venom? regret?), "Opportunity knocks once, and the door slams shut" - you can see it in your head, the scene is real and vivid, and oh so poignant.

Westerberg captures perfectly, in song after song, the bathos, angst, and consternation of today's working-class youth, whether it's the endless repeated query of the anthem Unsatisfied -
Look me in the eye
And tell me that I'm satisfied
Are you satisfied?
- or the lonely, insecure young man who can't get his object of desire to answer the phone in Answering Machine (both from the superlative Let It Be):
How do you say I miss you to
An answering machine?
How do you say good night to
An answering machine?
How do you say I'm lonely to
An answering machine?
The message is very plain
Oh, I hate your answering machine
I hate your answering machine
I hate your answering machine...
So I lift the glass to you, Paul Westerberg, and regardless of whether Tuesday night's show is one of the great ones, or a chaotic nightmare, I thank you for providing much of the soundtrack of my college years. I couldn't have asked for a better companion.

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