This is the bad dream I have every night
Westerberg goes unplugged, comes unglued
was really no shock when Paul Westerberg forgot half his songs at
an April 23 in-store performance in Portland.
"Don't laugh," Westerberg told the multi-generational
and supportive crowd of several hundred after an early false start.
"This is my life. This is the bad dream I have every night."
Then, after taking a moment to collect himself, he grinned and
added: "All you doctors and lawyers can go to hell." That
got a laugh, but clearly the nervous kind. The show continued downhill.
skirt: Stereo/Mono adds to the Westerberg oeuvre.
Westerberg has always seemed to go out of his way to shoot success
in the foot. His latest show-business foray a double-disc
on an obscure label and a two-week tour of CD shops seems
a perfect recipe for skirting the mainstream.
Westerberg and the Replacements, his scruffy 1980s band, worked
overtime to earn a reputation for straddling a line between pop
art and drunken mess. When early MTV could have turned the band
into million sellers, they mocked videos. They got fall-down drunk
and used the F-word on "Saturday Night Live." Every show
was a wild ride.
That the band from Minneapolis never had a hit is considered part
and parcel to their mystique and charm: the reluctant boys-next-door
who coulda, shoulda, woulda but never quite made it. Westerberg's
solo career has included more of same.
Still, for more than half his 42 years, Westerberg has combined
an uncanny knack for turn of phrase with a rare gift for finding
the best possible moment to switch to the major chord.
used to be exciting when I wasnt sure what would come
next, but this is just embarrasing.
The result is a prolific catalog that displays equal measure of
wit, melody and uplift along with an everyman's touch for heart-rending
stories. An argument for Westerberg as the missing link between
Nirvana and the Rolling Stones is often and easily made.
But at the Music Millennium gig on Portland's tony NW 23rd, it
didn't matter. Old songs, new songs, cover songs, requests; different
guitars, anxiety, humility or simply plunging onward the
misplaced words and forgotten chords kept on coming.
Westerberg forged ahead: "Achin' To Be," "I Will
Dare," "Skyway" it just didn't matter. At
least as often as not, he stopped and restarted or simply moved
"It used to be exciting when I wasn't sure what would come
next," Westerberg confided near the end of his train-wreck
performance, "but this is just embarrassing."
Despite spending the evening behind sunglasses, he clearly seemed
lucid. His banter was quick and his embarrassment profound as he
became a virtual character in one of his own sympathetic anthems
for the downtrodden.
It Be: the 1984 album put Westerberg and company on the
The good news? Westerberg's new CD, Stereo/Mono, boasts
a batch of worthy, thoughtful, rollicking additions to an already
tuneful oeuvre. The witty wordplay, the pretty melodies, the boozy,
swaggering backbeats are all there. The recorded voice remains
scraggly but sure, the playing still combines rolling bass lines
and periodic moments of deft phrasing, along with the occasional
well-placed trademark dishevelment.
"Let's Not Belong" is a smart, slinky anthem to brotherhood.
"With your eyes like sparks and my heart like gasoline, stay
where you are," broods another song's protagonist.
"We may well be the ones to set this world on its ear,"
Westerberg posits in a third, "we may well get it done
why the hell else are we here?"
All three songs offer writerly storylines with thick, tough guitars
and engaging solos. Background vocals are inventive and lively throughout
the new CD. Slower songs display a yearning, confident voice that's
half crooner, half Neil Young.
"There's a world in between being everything to everyone,"
begins a stained but beautiful two-minute ballad, "and being
nothing to no one."
At least half of the 23-song project, reportedly recorded mostly
solo and in the basement, is in much the same league. So maybe it
was just isolated record-shop jitters in Portland, the second stop
of Westerberg's in-store-only tour after a four-year hiatus. But
the performance, despite providing a rare insight into a common
thread of shared human fallibility, was clearly uncomfortable for
"I guess I really have suffered a lot of brain damage,"
he said near the hour-long show's abrupt end.
"I ain't got anything to say to anyone anymore," Westerberg
sings in a new one that sounds like a hit. Unironically, the song
falls apart intentionally for just a few seconds around
the two-thirds point, before the whipcrack beat kicks back in and
heads for home.
"I'm gonna let the bad times roll," goes another
one he managed to get all the way through on NW 23rd.
That's great, Paul, show us the way.
By April's end he turned up cross country on "Late Night With
David Letterman," performing with a trio that included former
Prince bandmate Michael Bland on drums and backing vocals. They
did "Silent Film Star" and Westerberg came across as every
inch the confident, eclectic rocker. He even plopped his goofy hat
on Letterman's head before the last commercial break.
The rock-star psyche showed no apparent damage. And it should be
noted: the Portland performance was free and most of the songs still
sound terrific turned up loud and many days later, even now as I
type. All is forgiven.
But if there's a next time, here's my request: Please, Paul, bring
the words and set them on a stand.