POP MUSIC : An Untroubled Troubadour : Songwriter Paul Westerberg returns with '14 Songs' about insecurities and desires--after battling his own

Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

No one in American rock chronicled the insecurities and desires of youth more convincingly in the '80s than Paul Westerberg.

As the leader of the Replacements, the raw, raspy-voiced singer wrote tuneful tales that combined the energy and independence of the punk movement with the artful introspection of classic troubadours like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell.

Though the Minneapolis group never achieved the commercial success of R.E.M., it has emerged in recent years as even more of an influence on today's college/alternative rock scene. Echoes of Westerberg and the Replacements can be heard in almost every U.S. band of note--from Nirvana and Thelonious Monster to Soul Asylum.

By the end of the '80s, however, Westerberg was desperate for a change. He had spent much of the decade relying on alcohol to combat his insecurities on stage and he feared that he was losing the battle. He also longed for the creative freedom of a solo career.

The first step toward a new life was 1990's "All Shook Down" album. Though it was labeled a Replacements work, Westerberg recorded the album virtually on his own--and he swore off alcohol before going on what proved to be a farewell tour the next year with the band.

Drummer Chris Mars, who left before that tour, has since made two solo albums and bassist Tommy Stinson has made an album with his new band, Bash & Pop. (Bob Stinson, the group's original guitarist, had his own drug and alcohol problems, and is the subject of a sobering article in the June issue of Spin magazine.)

Westerberg returns June 15 with his first official solo album, "14 Songs," and it contains some of the finest work of his career. (See review, Page 68). He's still talking about insecurities and desires, but the songs now have greater universality and range. Westerberg, 32, has assembled a new band and begins touring in July.

On the eve of the album's release, he spoke about songwriting, sobriety and the break-up of the Replacements.

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Question: How was it making a Paul Westerberg album rather than a Replacements album? Did you feel more pressure?

Answer: I didn't even think about it when I started writing the songs. It was more a matter of . . . I have been in a band and now I'm not in a band and one day maybe I will be in another band. By the end though, I could feel a difference, but it wasn't pressure. I felt freer without the responsibility of having to write for a band having a certain reputation.

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Q: Why didn't you make the break at the time of "All Shook Down"? Why didn't you call it a solo album?

A: I was confused. In my heart, I think I would have liked it to have been a solo record, but wasn't together enough in many ways to do it. I was feeling, like, lost in every aspect of my life. I was still drinking, contemplating the end of my marriage, the end of my band. It was all the rock 'n' roll cliches and I slowly changed them after the record was made. The songs on "All Shook Down" don't reflect the change, which is good, because you get that in this album.

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Q: Did you worry before making the album that the drinking and the tortured rock lifestyle were an essential part of your art . . . and that you would lose some of the tension if you straightened yourself out? Weren't a lot of your early heroes rock casualties themselves?

A: I lost that fear even before the last tour. As soon as I started to feel better, I realized that the whole thing about tortured art is a joke. It's just misery loves company. When you don't feel well, you look for people to side with. Once you feel better, your outlook changes and so do the people you look up to. I do love honest music and a lot of it comes from tortured people, but there is great music out there from (the Waterboys') Mike Scott, who doesn't seem to be in any great trouble. I think it was a phase I went through . . . a long phase, from mid-teens to late 20s. But I don't dwell on that anymore.

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Q: Do you worry that going on the road again might renew the old habits?

A: Playing night after night will eventually wear you down, but I am surrounded by three fresh guys and I'm bound to draw strength from that. It's not going to be that negative thing the Replacements had for years, myself included. We fed off it. There was worry and fear and humor, but only to hide the fact that we were afraid that we were maybe on our last legs.

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Q: Why did you feel freer writing songs for a solo album than for the band?

A: I never would have presented "Black Eyed Susan" or maybe "Even Here We Are" for fear that it didn't fit the idea of this punk-rock beast . . . or that the other guys wouldn't want to play them. This time all I had to worry about was what are the best songs. It was also rather nice not having musicians waiting around, and you're always aware that they don't have anything to do, so you tend to speed things up when you should take two weeks for that three-minute song.

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Q: What was some of the rock that excited you as a teen-ager?

A: There was lots. . . . the Rolling Stones, the Faces, lots of Motown things, the sound of Ray Charles' voice. But the music that spoke directly to me was the aggression of punk. It reflected the restlessness that I was feeling. I didn't want to get a damn job. I didn't want to go to school. I loved old rock 'n' roll, but I didn't know how to play it. Then the punks came along and said you don't have to know how . . . you just have to mean it.

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Q: You've often been described as the songwriter of your generation. When did you become aware of songwriting--as opposed to just loving rock 'n' roll or wanting to be on stage?

A: If I was as handsome as Elvis and could sing like Paul Rodgers, I probably wouldn't have even worried about writing songs. In my case, I discovered a knack for this songwriting and realized that I'd better hone it.

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Q: How did you go about developing your writing skills?

A: I did it all. I listened. I studied. I read books about chord progressions. I would take another person's song and learn it, put my own words to it and then change three chords. I've done everything from Tin Pan Alley thievery to sitting in the dark waiting for inspiration.

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Q: You mean you read how-to books on songwriting?

A: Yeah, but in a funny way. When I would see something like, "Don't ever do this," I would try it. I would go for the near rhyme instead of the real rhyme.

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Q: Who were some of the songwriters that you learned from?

A: Joni Mitchell taught me how to be honest as a writer. Bob Dylan taught me how to use--how do I say this? He's my favorite, but anybody who thinks all of his songs were written off the top of his head I think will be surprised. A lot of his stuff comes from the Bible and from other poems that he arranges in his own way, which there is nothing wrong with. I don't think anything just comes from nowhere.

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Q: "Things" on the new album is one of the most tender songs you've ever written. It's about not being able to communicate your feelings to someone until the day you say goodby to her. Listening to it, you feel it is absolutely autobiographical. Is that just an illusion?

A: It's no illusion. "Things" is one of the songs I had to coax myself into putting on the album. I didn't want any of that confessional stuff. But I was in the car one day with (Replacements guitarist) Slim Dunlop. He said he had a song, but he didn't want to put it on his record because it told too much. And I was going, "Man, that's the one you gotta put on the record." And as soon as the words came out of my mouth, I knew I had to do the same thing.

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Q: What's the story behind the song?

A: It's sort of a summation of my life. I feel like I'm always leaving something. It could be looked upon as my relationship with people or my relationship with the band. It's a way of saying, "I don't belong to you. I belong to what I do." My marriage is over, so there's undeniable threads there.

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Q: "Runaway Wind" seems to be sort of a pep talk--about staying true to your dreams and goals. True?

A: You mean can I relate to that? Most certainly. All this stuff is a message to other people and to myself. I never want to preach or yell at people. I can only point out my errors and then let them see if they can relate to it. Is this you as well? It's not me poking fun or reprimanding someone. Obviously, I am in danger of becoming the victim in every one of these songs.

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Q: How much time do you spend listening to other bands? Do you feel motivated when you hear something good?

A: I used to try to keep up with what's going on, but I don't care anymore. Before, it was a worry thing . . . like you had to be up on the latest thing because you didn't want to be left in the dust. If the trend is for everyone to play acoustic, we'd better try it. The Replacements were much more calculated than we ever let on. We were good actors. We were pretty ramshackle and loose, but the music of the day definitely affected us. We fell into the hard-core thing because it was all around us. Had it not been, we would probably have leaned more toward rockabilly and pop music, which was kind of what we were playing when we started because that's what was going on.

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Q: What about all the acclaim? Is that good or does it intimidate you? And how important are sales to validating what you do?

A: The acclaim makes me feel good. I'm not the most confident person, but the one part of my life that I do have confidence in is the music. I feel I can write good songs. I'll go through periods where I think I'm dry for a spell, but I come out of it and I've got a lot of time. As far as sales, I think Van Morrison is writing better songs now than ever. The American public doesn't agree if you look at his sales, but it doesn't matter to him and it's not going to matter to me because I know I am getting better as a writer.

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Q: Was there a time when you felt sales were the measure of success?

A: There was a time when I thought mass success was destined for me and even probably that it was owed to me. And there wasn't that one day I woke up and realized, "No, it's not the way it is." I just slowly learned that it's better, I think, to have the influence of a John Doe (of X) as opposed to a George Michael. I don't mean to put down George Michael. He's a great singer, but you know what I'm saying. It's who you influence. If housewives in Indiana don't know me, but if I might influence 10 other musicians in the years to come, that is much more important to me . . . much more.

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