When the Replacements' Paul Westerberg suggested we move from the Long Beach rock club where he had just completed a sound check to a nearby hotel bar for this interview, I checked to make sure I had a credit card with me. I figured we were talking serious tab.
Westerberg's band has a reputation for liking the sauce. The group members had so much trouble maintaining their balance at a boozy Palace show last April that they looked as if they were on roller skates.
The best of the Minneapolis-based group's songs, too, speak of the party-minded rites of adolescence, conveying both the frustrations and occasional self-destructiveness of the age--not that the band actually did many of their songs at the Palace. They spent most of the time on bits and pieces of such oddball selections as Hank Williams Jr.'s "All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight" and Vanity Faire's "Hitchin' a Ride." Quipped Westerberg to a fascinated Palace crowd: "We'd rather do other people's songs crummy than do our own songs crummy."
On a freewheeling rock 'n' anarchy scale, it was, of course, a great show. But it was also a dead end.
If you set out to be crazy on stage, the only way to top yourself is to be crazier--and that can do you in. At some point, a great rock band has to stand on its own songs, if not on its own feet.
During the interview, Westerberg rolled his eyes at the mention of the Palace show as he sat in a corner table in the Long Beach bar and toyed with his cup of coffee.
"Yeah," he said, smiling. "I'm trying to watch myself a bit. One of the reasons that Palace show was the way it was is that we were drinking a lot in those days. But we also had this attitude. . . . We felt it was the 'big' Replacements show in town and people were going to be judging us. We felt we should lay the law down that we are not a band to be messed with . . . that we control the show and we are going to do what we want to do--even if we get drunk and screw it up."
But he acknowledged the dangers of that approach.
It's no accident that the Replacements' latest album, "Tim," and their December tour exhibited a maturity.
"I think the idea of the rowdy, barroom band has run its course pretty well," Westerberg said. "It's not like we are trying to shed that image, because that was us. We are just trying to leave room to to grow in other areas. Besides, the drinking and falling about all the time got old. We needed new challenges."
The Replacements backed up Westerberg's words on stage that night at the Long Beach club, Fender's. The group found time for outside material, including a speeded-up "The Marine's Hymn," and they still played several tunes with a high-energy guitar attack reminiscent of the Sex Pistols, but they concentrated on their own songs, including three from "Tim," which was named 1985 album of the year in a poll of 18 Times pop critics.
"Tim" is a frequently poignant reflection of the defiance and insecurities, hopes and frustrations associated with youth. It's as captivating a look about balancing maturity and youthful spirit as anything since the peak Who.
"Bastards of Young" is one of several songs that are both statements about the band and reflections on youthful anxiety.
"To me, a part of that song is about my younger sister who felt the need to go off to New York or somewhere to prove herself . . . to be something by going somewhere else," Westerberg, 26, said during the interview. "It's really just confusion of youth, not knowing where you fit in or not knowing where you came from.
"It is sort of the Replacements feeling the same way as far as musically not knowing where we fit. It's our way of reaching a hand out and saying, 'We are right along with you. You may look up to us or something, but in reality we are in no different state than you. We are just as confused.' " Given the band's playful reputation on stage, Westerberg proved surprisingly straightforward during the interview, even acknowledging that he's unlikely to do one of the new album's most moving songs, "Here Comes a Regular," in concert because he'd feel too naked emotionally. He's worried that some of the group's rowdier fans would object to the ballad.
"It's funny, but I don't usually identify with the people who rush to the front of the stage and scream the loudest. I usually feel more like the ones in the back who might be afraid to come up and say hello or would feel self-conscious right up front."
He added that the band's heavy drinking might have been caused largely by nervousness.
"One of the reasons we we used to drink so much is that it was scary going up on stage. That's one of the things 'Swingin' Party' is all about on the album . . . how it is a little frightening to put yourself on display all the time. The funny thing is people think you must have all this confidence to get up on stage.
"I get very nervous, especially before going on stage. The temptation to have a drink is very great. But I kept telling myself (after the Palace show) that I was going to go out there and have fun playing rock 'n' roll and not going to let anything interfere with that . . . and it really was much more fun . . . a real thrill, like it hadn't been for years."
The Replacements' first booking was in the summer of 1980, but if you believe the band's old Twin Tone Records press release, the guys never made it to the first song. The band was called Impediments at the time and the guys were reportedly so drunk that they got thrown out of the club before they even took the stage. The folks in charge said they'd make sure the group never got another gig in town, so the band changed its name to the Replacements.
The Replacements--Westerberg, brothers Tommy and Bob Stinson on bass and guitar, Chris Mars on drums--released their first album a year later on Minneapolis' independent Twin Tone label. The album title--"Sorry Ma, Forgot to Bring in the Trash"--and the subsequent "The Replacements Stink" accurately summarized the band's garage-rock attitude.
Like the other members of the band, who cite influences as varied as Aerosmith and ABBA, Westerberg was attracted to a wide variety of musicians.
Even before he was in his teens, he remembers liking the flash of Rod Stewart and the Faces. "I liked the fact that it was exciting and entertaining, and that they seemed to be having so much fun," he recalled. He eventually started playing a guitar with friends.
"We were all in the same boat," he explained. "We had older brothers or sisters and we were still sort of under their wing so we felt we should like their kind of music. That meant we ended up playing a lot of like Allman Brothers-type stuff."
The breakthrough was the day a neighbor brought over a Sex Pistols record.
"That record put an end to all the other crap we were doing," Westerberg said. "The important thing wasn't just the music they were playing, but the fact that the record made you feel that anybody could be in a band. (Johnny Rotten's) voice was unlike anything I had ever heard. It wasn't a singer singing. It was the kid down the block who couldn't sing his way out of a paper bag and didn't give a damn.
"The Sex Pistols record didn't make me think I wanted to do the same thing they were doing as much as it told me I could do something. But you tend right off the bat to imitate that for a while."
By the time of the 1983 Replacements album, "Hootenanny," the group was piling up rave reviews. They were feeling cocky
enough by 1984 that they dared to name their new album after one of the Beatles' biggest hits, "Let It Be."
Westerberg said: "We like to shake peopleup. So we were sitting around trying to think of a title for the album and 'Let It Be' came on the radio. We looked at each other and said, 'Why not?' It was a damn funny joke to us."
They also wanted to have fun with the title of their first Sire album, "Tim."
"It's just a stupid title that doesn't mean anything," he said. "A lot of bands go to a lot of trouble to make a clever name so that critics and everyone have something to go, 'Wow, what does that mean?' over. So we thought we'd give them something really fun to work with."
The move last year to Sire Records, with its ties to the giant Warner Communications complex, raised the suspicions that invariably surface when a group goes from a small label to a major one. And some early fans feel the new album is too "mature." The production is clearer and there's a poignancy to songs like "Swingin' Party" and "Here Comes a Regular" that was only hinted at earlier.
But Westerberg insists the changes were part of the band's natural evolution, not a conscious attempt to make a more commercial record.
"We didn't set out to do anything differently with this album," he said. "To us, it's what we would have done if we had made another album on Twin Tone. The truth is I think Warners wanted a lot more conventional guitar on the album to make it more suitable to the radio. This certainly isn't their idea of a real commercial record."
Sure enough, the record--despite wide acclaim from critics--has received little air play beyond the college radio stations whose continual support was saluted in one of the album's songs, "Left of the Dial."
"That air play situation doesn't discourage me," Westerberg maintained in a separate interview after the Fender's show and two dazzling performances at the Roxy. "If it was getting played more, I would crack a smile and think, 'Great,' but it doesn't bother me a bit that it isn't. The satisfaction of the live performances and the people I've talked to is enough to keep us going. I feel the band is really growing and our audience is accepting that growth."
About the live shows, he added: "The funny thing is if you go on stage drunk or stoned, you can't really enjoy the show. You sort of kid yourself that you are having a good time. Drinking does make the boring things in the day pass much more easily, but it gets in the way of the performing. It's fun to be able to look clearly at the people and see how they're reacting to your music."