Eulogy for the Living: The Forgotten Paul Westerberg

“I will play a song that I like…and it’s not sad, so don’t be deceived.”
– Paul Westerberg on “Let the Bad Times Roll”

(from a KCRW “Morning Becomes Eclectic” session)


Paul Westerberg is not dead. He’s not dying either. In fact, based on recent reports of a Replacements reunion tour, it seems like he’s not even close to dying any time soon.

But I want to write about him as if he just did.

Eulogies are the best kinds of tributes because they come from a place of deep reverence that can only exist in mourning, or – as twitter demonstrates – feverish self-identification. I have no interest in being identified as the biggest Paul Westerberg fan in the world by pre-empting his death and thereby beating everyone else to the punch. I’m not an old ‘Mats fan from the early 80s – I discovered the Replacements in the early 90s when they were already churning-out the lame-ass mellow stuff that longtime fans were supposed to be disappointed with. I only felt compelled to rediscover their back catalogue in the early aughts, after falling in love with Paul Westerberg’s greatest hits collection glibly entitled "Besterberg". Early-80s underground music has always been something I've studied more than witnessed first-hand.

I write from a place where Paul Westerberg and The Replacements (or at least the Bob Stinson-era Replacements) are two separate entities. I fell in love with “Waiting For Somebody”, “Runaway Wind”, and “It’s A Wonderful Lie” before I even discovered “Unsatisfied”, “Left Off The Dial”, and “Stuck In The Middle”. I feel as if this inverted way of experiencing Paul Westerberg’s music is the correct way because it presents a more accurate depiction of his art.

He's always been a confessional singer-songwriter. The first Replacements records were really a product of him feeling obligated to play hardcore punk because of his surroundings and his metalhead bandmates. The Replacements were known early on as a group of messy, nihilistic amateurs who didn’t give a fuck but Westerberg’s early-80s solo home demos, stripped of distortion and all the drunken references, revealed a romantic soul. It produced this wonderful gem called "You're Getting Married One Night", which guitarist Bob Stinson hated and dismissed rather prophetically: “save that for your solo album, Paul”:

Westerberg’s reluctant punk phase produced some great accidental music, which is the most impressive kind of great music. At their best, the Replacements sounded like Bruce Springsteen possessed by Johnny Rotten after like seven beers. Isn’t it mind-blowingly amazing in retrospect that some of the most iconic songs during the golden age of American underground music were written on the throes of a musical identity crisis?

But the rock critic establishment experienced all this in chronological sequence, so they’re less inclined to see how weird and unnatural it was and just consider it as groundbreaking canonical stuff. The narrative goes: the Replacements were important because they set the template for punk’s pop flexibility that made a spectrum of bands from the Lemonheads to Green Day possible, whereas Paul Westerberg’s solo career will always be a footnote as unremarkable as his plain rock n’ roll shtick. And because the current musical climate is more rock-crit-influenced than ever before, the industry growing increasingly referential and self-conscious and music becoming increasingly about music, Paul Westerberg will still be considered as a seminal drunken genius who sobered up and became just another dude with a guitar.

Which is complete utter bullshit.

In a world where honest-to-goodness songsmanship is deemed more important than edginess or genre-bending acrobatics, Paul Westerberg will be regarded as the poet laureate of Generation X, our Bob Dylan, our Bruce Springsteen, the patron saint of slackers, underachievers, romantic losers, and the disillusioned who nonetheless carry on with dignity disguised as self-deprecation and earnest hope. He may not sell as many records as Zimmy and the Boss, but he would at least gain more critical attention than Elliott Smith, Will Oldham, Ryan Adams, and Bon Iver. But we don’t live in that world. We live in a world where These New Puritans is actually a thing.

Authenticity, like coolness, is a slippery concept made more amorphous by the inherent fakeness in pop music. Chuck Klosterman once argued that David Bowie is the most authentic pop star in history because he was the most aware of pop music’s artificiality and the most skillful at creating art out of this awareness. I don’t agree. Because every time I listen to Paul Westerberg, I hear the sound of rock n’ roll’s closest approximation to real-life honesty.

No one knows more about artifice than a soulful singer-songwriter who once tried to be punk. Westerberg broke through the industry as a world-class poser and this experience informs much of his solo work. Where Bowie’s commentary on artifice was in itself a performance art, Westerberg’s is a continuous memoir whose own knowledge of fakeness makes it more authentic than anything Bowie has ever done.

“It’s A Wonderful Lie” is not only one of the greatest pop songs about the fraudulence of fame; it’s also one of the greatest pop songs about the inevitable honesty of aging. When Westerberg sings, “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?” he’s not only singing about his career, he’s singing about all of us who’ve spent our lives pretending to be someone else. Our lives are filled with wonderful lies and we all do “still get by on those.”

It’s the greatest song in Paul Westerberg’s career filled with great songs. It ends on a sublimely spot-on note:

“So don’t pin your hopes or pin your dreams
to misanthropes, to guys like me
and the truth is overrated, I suppose.
It’s a wonderful lie, I still get by on those.”

In one verse he’s able to describe his art as true and false at the same time and is therefore able to express the biggest truth of all: life is one big lie and it's all cool. What makes this song an all-time classic, apart from the songwriting, is how Westerberg’s guitar makes a detour from its snappy, sunshine-drenched path to slink down the darker road of the two-line chorus. It’s ho-hum but pained. It sounds exactly how growing old feels like.Westerberg’s guitar has aged with him. Like his heart, it started out restless, angry, and drunk. In The Replacement's landmark Let It Be album, the alcohol had settled permanently in his veins and it felt right at home with “Unsatisfied”. In his solo career, his guitar slowly lost its late-Replacements-era polish, and became as beautifully damaged as his voice. No other Paul Westerberg album showcases this best than Stereo, which also happens to be the best album of his career.

There are records that I listen to for specific moods, whether it's depression, boredom, nervousness, self-pity, or just harmless introspection. Only Stereo manages to be applicable to all of these emotions and I really don’t have any explanation why other than it’s the album that sounds like my life the most. It’s generally okay and smooth like “Baby Learns To Crawl”, rough and melancholic like “No Place For You” and “Dirt to Mud”, defiantly exuberant like his shambolic rendition of “Postcards from Paradise”, ambitious and defeated at the same time like “We May Be The Ones”, and peacefully resigned like “Let The Bad Times Roll.” It’s also technically imperfect and transcendently beautiful.

But no one mentions Stereo in the same breath as Elliot Smith’s Either/Or, Jeff Buckley’s Grace, or classic albums by the living like Morrissey’s Viva Hate, Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True, or even Daniel Johnston’s Songs Of Pain. In fact, no one talks about it at all. And frankly, I don’t care anymore. I give up.

Paul Westerberg, the solo performer, will never be hip or influential or quirky or plangent or whatever the hell else standards are considered “important” these days. All he is, is the greatest male singer-songwriter of the past 20 years; better than Morrissey, better than Jeff Tweedy, and definitely better than Thom Yorke. His music is the beautiful sound of someone still trying after already failing and ceasing to care. It’s the kind of music that will always be important to me and I don’t need his death to remind me of this.


S said...

I caught on to The Replacements late, too. But I was 13 when "I'll Be You" came out and that was pretty much my junior high and high school anthem. I know it's not high tide Replacements stuff but looking back, for me it sums up the ennui, sensory overload and everything-in-between of me at that age. Later, when he was promoting his album, I heard Westerberg on an eclectic morning radio show here in Los Angeles, playing "Wonderful Lie" and it had a harana like effect on me. Woo me once, shame on you. Woo me twice ... ?

I'm a kano but my pinay wife turned me on to Eraserheads, Parokya and Siakol. I'm happy to know these guys, but the problem is ... I've had trouble branching out from there. The breadcrumb trail to similar artists ... I'm not finding it online.

Maybe you can help me out. This proto-obit for Westerberg uniquely qualifies you as an astute music fan that can probably steer me the right way. My Magic Sing device notwithstanding, I know there's more out there than Jose Mari Chan.

If blogs existed 20 years ago, I bet somebody wrote something comparable to your Westerberg piece, about Alex Chilton. He didn't off himself, thankfully, unlike an Elliott Smith or Kurt Cobain, but ... there is definitely the aura those guys about Chilton and Westerberg. Drugs and drink and all that, what it can do to derail a band's trajectory.

Anyhow, great write-up with a lot heart.

Alex Almario said...

Thanks. Alex Chilton was great but all critics agree that he's great. He achieved Lou Reed/David Bowie status 20 years ago thanks to a critical establishment that was more than ready to declare his genius. Paul Westerberg is more largely known but he's not a critic darling for some reason. Everybody just sort of agreed that he's some run-of-the-mill singer-songwriter who doesn't deserved canon status. Hence, this essay.

As for Filipino bands: there was this band called Rizal Underground which were contemporaries of Eraserheads, and they had a very Replacements-ish track called "Bilanggo" (prisoner), which is really really good. I still listen to that song regularly to this day. The guys from Eraserheads formed their own bands: their drummer formed Sandwich (they had a lot of very good albums) and their frontman Ely Buendia formed a bunch of bands, but the best one, in my opinion, was Pupil. You should also check out Sugarfree, particularly their debut "Sa Wakas" and also Peryodiko's self-titled album. You can also check out the current Pinoy music scene through websites Radio Republic, Pinoytuner, and Vandals on the Wall. A lot of exciting Filipino music right now, there's some sort of a renaissance going on.

S said...

I'm not familiar enough with the critical reception of Westerberg and Chilton to weigh in on that stuff so I was responding more to the cyclical nature of popular music, the triangular pattern that exists between rock stars-->their primary influencer/mentor-->and fans (critics, included, begrudgingly). Just the continuity of the whole thing. B listens to A growing up, influences and dazzles C (fans and critics and up and coming musicians). C blooms, becomes B, begets a latter day B who if the chrysalis fits emerges as a bona fide A. Didn't mean to take away or disagree with anything you wrote. I suppose I was just riffing on the elusiveness of recognition, period--how little the greats are recognized (widely, let alone canonized) in their time, how critical darlings are merely that and rarely ascend to popular success (see Enlightenment), and how substance abuse can be boogeyman and red herring both.

Thanks so much for your thoughtful response to my Pinoy music scene entreaty. You're giving me a lot to dig into. Aside from a single Sugarfree track (their, imho, excellent cover of Apo's "Batang Bata Ka Pa"), the names of the bands and the sites are all new to me. Hindi na ako makapaghintay/Can't Hardly Wait.

I had seen somebody lament in a blog or newspaper piece that the Eraserheads were a product peculiar to Marcos and martial law and that the pressure cooker of that era defined and deified them. (The writer was less sanguine about the prospect of contemporary bands)

Sounded grim. I'm not naive enough to have believed it, but I am cheered to hear direct, on the ground testimony that a renaissance is at hand.

Maraming salamat sa iyo!

Alex Almario said...

You're right, S. Chilton was a huge influence on Paul Westerberg (and on Michael Stipe too). Just hope people give Westerberg his due, the same way they gave Chilton his.

The websites I mentioned tell the real story; mainstream Filipino media is still clueless in what's really going on. The scene is really in step with the west now, more than it's ever been. Hope you enjoy catching up. Salamat din sa'yo!



I write essays on pop culture and sports for various publications, yet remain an outsider, forever marooned in this blog I call home.

My Twitter Self