The Replacements singer has been mostly MIA since 2006, but random (and often oddball) sightings confirm he's not a ghost.
Minnesota music fans who catch the new video for Glen Campbell's "Ghost on the Canvas" might really think they're seeing a ghost.
"Let's take hold on the threshold of eternity," the country-pop veteran sings in the clip, which features a surprise appearance by Minneapolis music legend Paul Westerberg.
The cameo caps off what seems like an eternity, as fans waited for Westerberg to come out of hiding. It made sense, since he wrote "Ghost," the title track of Campbell's acclaimed new comeback/farewell album. Still, it was something of a shock.
For one thing, the former frontman of one of rock's most celebrated indie bands, the Replacements, never liked shooting videos. More important, the 51-year-old singer -- whose loner personality helped make him a cult hero -- has taken his distaste for the music business to an extreme over the past half-decade.
His last tour was in 2004. His last new album to hit a record store arrived in 2006 -- and it was a soundtrack to an animated kids movie. He's released quirky, download-only tracks via Amazon.com with little explanation and zero publicity. The Campbell collaboration and reissues of the Replacements' classic albums have been his only remotely high-profile output of the past five years.
Between the excitement over "Ghost on the Canvas" and Friday's third annual Replacements tribute at First Avenue -- a spirited event built largely on fans' need for some kind of fix -- it seems time to answer the question: Where art thou, Mr. Westerberg?
"He's still just hanging out in Edina," his manager, Darren Hill, confirmed with a laugh.
That point almost makes this story all the more peculiar: The guy has not exactly been holed up in a mountaintop Buddhist monastery (like Leonard Cohen once was) or living out of a broken-down RV camper (as is rumored to be Sly Stone's sad story of late). In talks with Hill and other associates -- I correctly figured Westerberg himself would not want to discuss his whereabouts -- it sounds as if the past few years have been the most normal of his adult life.
Westerberg and his wife, former Zuzu's Petals singer/guitarist Laurie Lindeen, live just over the Minneapolis border with their son Johnny, now 13. Word is Paul has been coaching some of Johnny's teams. He's known to ride his bike around the neighborhood a lot. And yes, he still spends plenty of time in the basement writing and recording new songs. He just doesn't seem interested in releasing much of it.
"He made a conscious decision after his last tour to hold off and be around for his son's childhood," Hill said.
In a rare personal moment at his last stage appearance, a filmed acoustic performance and interview at First Avenue in 2007, Westerberg recounted how much he enjoyed a previous hiatus after his son's birth.
"I found it so fulfilling, it was hard to strap on a guitar," he said.
There were other factors, too. Westerberg badly injured his left hand with a screwdriver in 2006. And then there were the financial wounds the music industry suffered in the late-'00s, leaving thinner profit margins for touring and recording.
"I think he just wanted to do his own thing, something different, and the timing was right," said ex-Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson. Westerberg co-wrote a song on Stinson's new album and they still visit and collaborate on occasion.
When Stinson auctioned off a bundle of music memorabilia to benefit a school in Haiti last year, he went over to Westerberg's house to get him to sign an official Paul Westerberg-brand First Act guitar -- another odd, paying-the-bills footnote from his reclusive era. (The guitar was marketed via Wal-Mart, but this particular model was bought at a pawn shop by Soul Asylum singer Dave Pirner.)
Westerberg is in good humor, Stinson said, and "very comfortable with the life he's living. If he wasn't, he's in a position to change it up if he wanted."
Longtime Replacements manager Peter Jesperson made a similar point. "He's one of those blessed and perhaps cursed people with really exceptional talent, which sets a high bar," said Jesperson, now a vice president at New West Records. "Paul won't settle for releasing an album he doesn't feel strongly about."
Reaction to his hiatus on the fan site PaulWesterberg.com -- the go-to site in the absence of an official Westerberg web presence -- has been a mix of frustration and endearment.
"Almost everyone is happy Paul is happy," said the site's operator, Kathy Shine. "But in a perfect world, they wish that Paul could be happy and release a lot of music and tour."
Hurry up, here we go
There are ever-so-faint signs of hope for fans. Veteran songwriter, producer and neighbor Kevin Bowe, who played guitar on Westerberg's last tour, reports that not long ago he helped Westerberg assemble some new recrding gear.
"I've never known him not to be writing," said Bowe, who recently got help from Westerberg on one of his own songs. A new record "will happen when it happens," Bowe said. "He's someone who's accomplished enough, he doesn't have to prove anything."
The next new product will likely be more Replacements material. Westerberg and Stinson collaborated with Memphis-based writer Bob Mehr on a new biography of the band, most likely due next year. A Replacements live box set is also close to reality after some quality recordings were recently discovered, said Hill.
The singer's manager dropped another not-so-little tidbit: He has talked to a couple of record labels about putting out Paul's next album.
"There probably won't be anything in the near future, but it will happen eventually," Hill emphasized.
After hearing some of the random brilliance on Westerberg's Amazon downloads -- which reminded him of solo home tapes during the early days of the Replacements -- Jesperson said he is "absolutely confident Paul can still paint his masterpiece."
The bigger question is whether he still wants to.