Paul Westerberg - Shaking & Trembling

Music Features Paul Westerberg
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Paul Westerberg has to remind people he’s now been out of The Replacements longer than he was in the band. But it’s a measure of the great emotional distance he’s traveled since then that the man who used to bite — no, make that maul — the hand that fed him has learned to peacefully coexist with both the past and his chosen career path. So much so, in fact, that this fall may eventually go down as the high point of his career. He released his touching and revealing documentary, Come Feel Me Tremble, as well as two records of all new material — the soundtrack to Tremble, which is full of Replacements-worthy songs, and Dead Man Shake, a low-down, dirty blues record from his mythic, rock-star alter-ego, Grandpaboy.

Believe it or not, this is the same Westerberg who threw the master tapes from The Replacements’ Twin/Tone catalogue into the Mississippi River and gleefully sabotaged any opportunity his band had to impress the people who signed its paychecks. But The Replacements always were about contradictions.

“For us to succeed would have been to fail,” Westerberg says of his old band in one of the film’s telling moments. “It was our job to fail, and on as big a scale as possible.”

But The Replacements, and Westerberg in particular, were too talented to fail in any meaningful sense (yes, they even failed at failing). Their exploits are the stuff of rock ’n’ roll legend, and their leader is widely recognized as the voice of a disenfranchised generation, a pivotal post-punk songwriter.

But Westerberg’s challenge as a solo artist has been to loose the songwriting genie responsible for the beautifully damaged music The Replacements made — without repeating the same missteps that nearly led to career and personal suicide.

“I think my goal now is just to entertain,” says the 43-year-old singer-songwriter, at home in Minneapolis, “whether it’s card tricks or just to keep people guessing. The fact that I’m having a blues record and a soundtrack and a movie all coming out on each other’s heels — that’s the kind of thing I’ve always wanted to do.”

He concedes the timing of the three releases was just a happy accident. “If we would have planned it this way, it would never have happened,” he laughs.

The same can probably be said for the film. It’s shot mostly by fans who came to see Westerberg last summer on his first tour in six years, and it’s no mere nostalgia trip. Save for a few nuggets from The Replacements’ latter years, the live footage focuses primarily on songs from Westerberg’s solo career, and also shows him at work on some of the new songs that make up the soundtrack to Come Feel Me Tremble.

Watching a frozen Westerberg try to compose songs in his cramped Minneapolis basement studio looks like an outtake from a Marx Brothers’ comedy and should dispel any starry-eyed romantic notions about songwriting.

So what began as a tour diary eventually blossomed into a full-length film that, Westerberg says, owes as much to Bob Dylan’s Don’t Look Back as it does to the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter.

“We had no idea we were making a movie while we were making one,” Westerberg says. “The T-shirt man was shooting on the nights he didn’t have to sell T-shirts. In fact, the only professional shooting was done on the last night of the tour, and my voice was shot that night so we wound up using very little of that footage.”

Together with veteran rock video and filmmaker Rick Fuller, Westerberg (working under the pseudonym “Otto Zithromax”) put out a call for videotape and photos from fans who attended the tour, then funneled the avalanche of submissions into a manageable workload.

A month later they had an early print Westerberg sent to his friend, filmmaker Cameron Crowe. He then waited anxiously for a reply from the director. “I was about to start thinking, ‘Oh, man, he must think it sucks,’ when he called me up and told me it was brilliant, and he couldn’t believe how good it was, and I was about 10 feet tall for an afternoon.”

There was reason to celebrate. Come Feel Me Tremble is as much a portrait of Westerberg’s fans — and what his music means to them — as it is about the artist himself. In sing-alongs across the country, at bookstore signings and post-show meet-and-greets outside the tour bus — the overwhelming vibe is one of unconditional love.

Songs like “Pine Box,” off the Tremble soundtrack, won’t do anything to diminish the attraction. A five-minute slice of slide-guitar-powered swamp-boogie, the song is a thunderous bolt of energy that should humble musicians half his age mining the same territory. It’s one of several fierce rockers, including the intriguing “Knockin’ ’Em Back,” a mix of gentle, vintage swing-jazz chords played over the verses — “I’m drinkin’, drinkin’ again / Just to help the pills kick in” — that eventually explodes into a punkish raunch-rock chorus somewhere between The Ramones and Rolling Stones at the height of their respective powers.

It’s a tune that pits Westerberg’s black humor against his self-destructive demons (“I want to let the bad guys win,” goes one verse), a tactic sure to fuel the never-ending rumors he’s back on the sauce. But if there’s one thing he’s reluctantly come to terms with over the years, it’s that no amount of evidence will dissuade some people from believing whatever they want.

Although the film offers ample evidence of Westerberg’s natural cool and Johnny Thunders-inspired clothes line, it also strips away much of the rumor and myth surrounding him. Instead of the difficult, brooding, ne’er-do-well recluse of rock folklore, Westerberg comes across as a self-deprecating jokester, a nervous, cigar-chomping ADD-sufferer who seems genuinely surprised by his fans’ adulation.

“I’ll take it as a blessing because I get true and honest fans,” Westerberg says. “It’s cool that the ones who do come to see me know that I’m ready to break down and cry or kick someone — it runs the gamut.”

This tension fuels Westerberg’s best songwriting. The soundtrack contains some of the strongest songs he’s ever penned. They careen between boot-stomping rockers that would do his old band proud, and wistful ballads about death and suicide that are honest enough to pierce the hardest of hearts.

The film’s most affecting scene plays out to the heart-rending ballad, “No Place for You,” from last year’s Stereo. Westerberg, alone in front of a roaring fire, delivers a beautiful eulogy for a local Minneapolis woman and Replacements fan who took her own life.

“She was one of the first three or four people that ever came down to the basement when The Replacements started,” Westerberg says. “[She’d seen] like 100 of our shows and had been in a band and was a waitress forever here, and then one night she hung herself in the bathroom. And I mean, no one had any clue what-so-f---ing-ever, it was one of those deals. You know, you almost expect that from me, or something, but it ain’t going to happen to me.”

But it almost has, and that’s one reason themes of death, self-destruction and suicide have always permeated his material. To his credit, Westerberg has always been able to tap into that vein without succumbing to maudlin emotions.

“If I can address [those issues] with a song rather than never write about it and then one day do it …” Westerberg says, trailing off before he continues, “I know I’m not alone in it; I have a preoccupation maybe sometimes with my own death that has haunted me for a long time, and I’ve known more than my share of people who’ve taken their lives, so I guess a lot of people are drawn to me through that.”

“The classic one is that I’d been sober for a couple of years, and I think the publicist from the record company ordered a case of beer to be there at my interview session,” Westerberg chuckled. “So if the people spreading the rumors about me — who get paid to do it — don’t even know if I’m sober, who the hell cares?”

The soundtrack closes with a pair of tearjerkers done as only Westerberg can: the heartbreaking “Meet Me Down the Alley” (which will likely take its place alongside classics like “Here Comes a Regular” and “Unsatisfied”), and a bittersweet cover of Jackson Browne’s reflective “These Days,” a song that seems to speak directly to Westerberg’s fears — “And if I seem to be afraid to live the life I have made in song / Well, it’s just that I’ve been losing all along.”

But The Replacements’ nostalgia, and all those acoustic ballads and warm, fuzzy tour vibes meant Grandpaboy was champing at the bit to misbehave. So when Westerberg’s manager, Darren Hill, suggested a blues record, Grandpaboy agreed it was the perfect medium to kick out the jams. The result was Dead Man Shake, 14 cuts of swampy electric blues and fuzzed-out rockers that showcase his ample guitar chops.

“The last thing I wanted to do when I got home was write another ‘Crackle & Drag,’” Westerberg said. “So I picked up my axe and pretty much spent the next two months playing loud rock’n’roll and blues. It’s an outlet for me to play lead guitar, too, which is something you just can’t do when you’re the only guy on stage.”

He turned in a dozen old blues classics for the record and then sent along some of his own material with hopes his label, Fat Possum, would release it as an EP.

“Sure enough, they threw those on instead,” he said, “which makes the record less of a pure blues, but a more eclectic and probably better record.”

But don’t get the idea that Dead Man Shake is anything but a rough-and-tumble affair — Grandpaboy’s notoriously minimalist recording techniques fit the blues medium to a tee.

“To me, a blues record just has to have that sound of everybody playing in the same room — or at least the illusion of that,” he said, anticipating questions about the immediacy of a recording on which Westerberg plays all the instruments. “Maybe I just left one mic up and plugged in the guitar, then plugged in the bass, then sang behind the drums. Just anything that felt right, anything that was against all the rules that every engineer has ever taught me.”

Westerberg’s inspired guitar agitation informs all of the record’s songs but one — a lonely, late-night take on the standard, “What Kind of Fool Am I?” It’s a moment of self-examination for a living legend battling his own demons, as well as the pitfalls that traditionally accompany stardom — a fitting way to close the record.

Then again, maybe it’s just a love song. With another CD of material already in the can and set for an early ’04 release (a single from Folker has already appeared on a certain coffee giant’s most recent audio sampler), Westerberg’s profile will only grow larger in the near future, and that suits him fine.

Review - Paul Westerberg - Come Feel Me Tremble

Review - Grandpaboy - Dead Man Shake