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