Sunday, August 17, 2008

Westerberg High

I recall when seeing the movie Heathers in a Manhattan theater in 1989, aside from an odd incident with one audience member getting harangued and booted for smoking, the nod-and-wink “in” joke of naming the school in the movie Westerberg High. This was a not-so-subtle salute by screenwriter Daniel Walters to the legendarily under-performing 80s band, The Replacements, and lead singer Paul Westerberg.

You have to understand, The Replacements were my band in the 80s. Have never felt so closely aligned with a band, agreed with Westerberg completely in terms of his talent and style, loved their ambivalence towards success. Westerberg and The Replacements took the place of The Kinks in terms of that one band I could relate to on every level, and even better, they were happening while I was in my late teens/early 20s, a time when most people start fading out on music. It was perfect timing for me, the only time I’ve felt so in-step with a band.

When the band broke up a few years later, it didn’t bother me that much, because I knew Westerberg was the driving force, and that he would go on recording. What I didn’t know was that each album he put out would present a mildly troubling listening experience: his albums never lived up to his promise. I shouldn’t have been too shocked – looking back, I felt the same way towards his Replacements albums, save that the classic songs from those albums (like “Bastards of Young,” “I Will Dare” and “Never Mind”) were him hitting home runs, setting milestones for which he'll always be remembered. The good songs on his solo albums were doubles or triples for the most part. And there was just as much filler as ever. The high’s didn’t feel anywhere near as high.

I felt myself backing away from that previously tight bond with his band and their legacy. I wouldn’t call it shame – I’d call it growing up and recognizing that was one band indelibly tied into that late teen/early 20s sense of dislocation – the easy cynicism, the disdain at even the faintest hints of ambition or normalcy. I did an earlier post on that awkward time when I realized I no longer fit into thrift-store clothes, literally or figuratively, signified by the hard truth that there’s a broad gulf between ironically wearing a work shirt for an air-conditioner company with the name “Gus” stenciled on the left breast … and wearing the same shirt 10 years on, and people assuming your name is Gus, and that’s where you work. It’s the hammer of adulthood that comes down in one’s late 20s/early 30s, if not sooner.

The Replacements didn’t “fit” me anymore, surely not in that same, intense, passionate way I felt about them when we were in perfect lock-step circa 1986. And Westerberg solo albums did little to bridge that gap. I should note that I have all of them, and still buy everything the man does. He’s still good. I sat down a few months ago and put together a compilation of his solo material, which made me realize, sure, you cherry pick songs from each album, and he’s still got it. Just not in the same way. He grew up, too. Stopped drinking. Got married. Had a kid. A lot of his songs followed him along the path. One of my favorite songs of his is “It’s a Wonderful Lie,” a basic acoustic number in which he admits that he still gets by on those things, wonderful lies, and that he still feels as dislocated as ever from the music business, just something he does because he doesn’t know what else to do. Feeling that way at 40 is a lot different than feeling that way at 20. When you’re 40, you tap into feelings of failure and some sense of lost direction that you can’t possibly have at 20. The thing is, obviously, you’re not a failure – you’re doing what you should be doing. But when what you’re should be doing finds you in the same place you were in circa your 20s – still struggling – you sometimes feel like an asshole. In moments of clarity, you recognize that you should still keep moving, because that’s what you do. And other times … you just feel like a horse’s ass who never grew up properly.

I note all this, because I’m starting to have problems with Westerberg as a recording artist. Not necessarily him alone – his fan base is grating on me, too. As all fan bases do for recording artists. I can rarely stand to be around hard-core fans of anyone – these people tend to be nuts, and clearly never in any mental state to grasp or understand any sort of valid criticism of their favorite artist. Everything the guy does is gold, the best thing he’s ever done, so that his artistic life is a glowing yellow brick road of success, one gold brick after another, he never “lost it” or sold out in any sense. If the rest of the world hasn't recognized this, it only underlines their superior sense of taste that transcends all the dreck the masses eat like enormous shit sandwiches.

I’d bet Westerberg doesn’t see himself this way, but his fans sure do. They’re fanatics. I don’t like them. These weren’t the same people I’d attended numerous Replacements shows with in the 80s, where the object was drunken revelry and fun, a real wild night out. Not the fucking bizarre form of church his shows have turned into, where the assembled gather and shout every lyric to every song and gaze reverently at Westerberg, who always seems to play alone these days, whether it’s because money’s grown that tight, or he simply can’t stand playing with other musicians, I don’t know.

Part of the problem I have with him is his recordings, since abandoning the major-label system at the turn of the century, just seem to grow worse with every album in terms of production … because he records the whole album by himself in his basement. Sometimes this works to great effect on his more rocking songs, but his vocals almost always sound like shit, and I can’t help but think he’d be better served working with a solid producer and musicians he can get along with. As ever, each album has a few good-to-great songs – this never changes – but it feels like he’s losing the thread in terms of progressing in any sense as a recording artist. Whether he’s playing to himself in his basement, or this asshole breed of cult fanatics who worship his every move, I have no idea. But every time I hear another claustrophobic sounding album coming over the speakers, I can’t help but think something's off.

He just put out an album a few weeks ago called 49:00. You can’t buy it. For awhile, you could buy it – as one huge MP3 file from But about two weeks after its release, in which it was selling like hotcakes probably due to good buzz and the cheap price (49 cents for the whole thing), the file was yanked from the site with no explanation, and still none from Westerberg. Although he has released a coda to the album, a song called “5:05” that represents the missing amount of time that would make the actual album 49 minutes long, and the song is a “fuck you” of sorts that fans have come to take as an explanation of why the 49:00 album was removed from Amazon. (One of the songs towards the end is a medley of various cover versions of 60s and 70s pop hits – the assumption being that he never got permission to use them, and was thus legally required to stop selling the file.)

Fucking whatever. Even before it was yanked … the album is a collection of demos. Some showing real promise, others the usual so-so material. You would not know this to judge by the fan reaction. Paul Westerberg just put out Exile on Main Street to judge by their estimation. He always puts out Exile on Main Street. That’s probably the main difference between me and current Westerberg fans. I realize, rightly, that he’s continually putting out Goat’s Head Soup: a much-maligned Rolling Stones album that actually has a few good songs, but isn’t one of their best offerings. Westerberg is like a baseball player who bats .260 and has a good glove on the field. He does all right … but he’s capable of doing a lot better. And rarely does.

None of which would bother me, save for a few things. Westerberg is closing in on 50. (“49” also represents his age.) These sort of bizarre head games he’s playing recently only serve to obscure and bury his career even more than it’s buried now. How buried is it? Four legendary Replacements albums were reissued earlier this year on the Rhino label with the full treatment: remastered and bonus tracks, nice packaging, a huge press push. (The final four are set to be reissued in September.) I don’t have the exact sales figures for those albums, but I’ve read in a few places that the total sales for all four albums is well under 30,000.

That’s what you call a radical failure – it was shocking for me to read that. And if The Replacements, i.e., Westerberg in his prime, can only generate sales like that now, it makes me wonder just how many albums Westerberg has been selling over the past few releases on indie labels. I’d wager it’s a case of diminishing returns all along the way. It doesn’t help that he created an alter-ego, Grandpaboy, under which he sometimes puts out material. The guy seems to be barely getting by using his own name … a side project isn’t such a good idea in that circumstance. (Besides which, the Grandpaboy material is not recognizably different from the material he releases under his own name.)

I gather no one is guiding his career at this point in his life. If Westerberg has a manager, he’s obviously telling the guy what to do, as opposed to the manager trying to guide him in a direction that will get the word out and make him more visible and relevant as a solo artist. The exact opposite seems to be happening. Westerberg, and The Replacements’ legacy by extension, is shrinking into cult status. An entire album of material disappears. Hey, whatever, fuck it. I’ve been hoping all along that Westerberg put out the album as a preview of songs he’s going to actually record and release properly, but I suspect this may not be the case, and that these tracks on 49:00 may just sink without a trace, now that they’re no longer commercially available, and whatever heat was generated by two weeks kicking ass on will surely dissipate in a hurry – it feels like it already has. There's been no hue-and-cry over the disappearing Westerberg album: no one gives a fuck.

In short, I don’t know what the guy is doing with his life. Again, at 20, this is some real cool shit to pull. Pushing 50? It just seems incredibly stupid to me. I don’t get it. I guess The Replacements’ original ethos, to be a bunch of fuck-ups at any and all costs, is something he might still believe in. Again, this shit just seems old, trite and wrong at this point in his life (and mine), especially when all along with his solo material, you could hear the wheels clicking in Westerberg’s head as he aged, the understanding of who he was, that he was good, and that life was moving along, and he was moving with it. The antics of the past month or two have me thinking he’s going through some bizarre mid-life crisis which will only serve to bury his name even deeper in the recording industry, the one place where he has fans all over the place willing to give him a chance that he rarely takes.

What especially grates on me is his fans seems to view this regrettable scenario as “cool.” Fucking A. When I see people my age and older fucking up in life, I don’t pat them on the back and tell them they’re cool. I tell them they’re fucking up. Sorry to be so coarse, but I’ve seen enough people throw their lives away over stupid teenage obsessions they never grow out of that I no longer humor that sort of bullshit. If there’s one ugly, bizarre form of cancer I see flourishing in our society, it’s the inability and/or refusal of people to grow up. I see it in myself in small ways – believe me, nowhere near as badly as I see it in millions of other people. Who never learned how to save or spend money. Or be responsible in any sense. Or stop getting stoned and drunk so much. Or take care of themselves. Or just basically give a shit about other people.

I get the feeling a lot of Westerberg’s fans are locked-in emotionally at 19, that same place I was when I was a huge fan of the band, and this sort of senseless, self-destructive stuff Westerberg pulls occasionally in his solo career is, again, still somehow “cool” to them. I give up. Not on Westerberg himself – I’ll never give up on him, and I’ll never forget how much the guy’s work has touched me. But I give up on trying to figure out what in the hell he’s trying to do with his life, and why so many people who supposedly enjoy his work seem to have their heads implanted so firmly in their own asses.

The truth isn’t that he’s some legendary recording artist routinely tossing off masterpieces that the rest of the world, sadly, seems immune to, poor lost souls. The truth is he’s a deeply talented artist who must be surrounded by yes-men and assholes who can’t tell him the truth, that he’s slowly burying himself in irrelevancy by making wrong choices in his career, putting out too much sub-standard material and isolating himself as a recording artist. Again, I can see the roots of that, way back in the 80s, when that attitude was cool, and served a recognizable purpose. Those days are gone, for all of us past a certain age, and I can only hope the guys snaps out of this stage he’s in, whatever it is, wherever it’s going. Purposely burying an entire album seems like commercial suicide to me – then again, putting out demos in the first place and calling it an album – if that’s what he’s doing (no one seems to know, and he’s apparently not talking) - didn't seem like such a bright idea either.

As a coda, and an example of why Westerberg is grating on me, here’s my favorite track from 49:00, “Goodnight Sweet Prince” – an astonishing song about the passing of his father. Which sounds like a rough demo, and has another song cut into it towards the end, like an eight-track tape bleeding into another track. Cool? If you think that sort of forced sloppiness is cool, I think you’re an asshole. Westerberg, wake up! Record great songs like this the way they should be. Stop playing games. We're not the fuck-ups we pretended to be way back when.


Andy S. said...

To Bill, and those who would download the Westerberg song, the file is damaged; at several points another song cuts in and plays side-by-side with the intended song. In the couple of minutes I was able to listen to, though, his dirgelike drone doesn't work for me any better here than it has in most of his other work that I've heard.

William S. Repsher said...

Andy, don't think you get it with Westerberg -- those errors your note are planned. Why ... I haven't a clue. It sounds senseless and terrible to me, as do the numerous song snippets inter-jected, songs stopping cold, static, the general lousy recording quality. Like I've noted, I'm HOPING this thing is a tune-up for a more polished release ... but his track record over the past few years leads me to believe otherwise, that he viewed this as a serious release that will not be replicated or embellished with real studio cuts of the better tracks. I'd love to be proven wrong on this!

I'm glad you're in the same head as me though to recognize the concept of bleeding other tracks into a given track is just a radical error in taste and judgment. It's not clever or cool. It's just fucking stupid. And the guys a little too old to be making crayon marks like that on the wallpaper. It's his wallpaper now, and no one gives a shit if he chooses to make it come off as shoddy. Man, I just don't get where he's coming from with those kind of tactics.