Starting in the 1980s, the Replacements injected a much-needed dose of mischief into a musical environment close to being overtaken by poseurs and synth-rock. Westerberg and his bandmates Tommy Stinson, Chris Mars and Bob Stinson took their direction from romantic songwriters and glam bands from the coasts -- sentimental troubadours like Eric Carmen and Neil Diamond and party hounds like Thin Lizzy and Kiss. Ambitious, skilled, and swaggering but not stupid, they were the Clash without the notion that they had something important to say.
Originally content to play simply fast and loud, Westerberg's often comic and daring music grew increasingly more ambitious. By the band's third and fourth albums, he was throwing off evocative tales of heartbreak, pain and confusion at a level that most bands would be lucky to stumble upon once in a career. Commercially, the Replacements mostly went nowhere, but you have to remember, this was the decade of Phil Collins.
Filled with appreciation for the Police, I remember having little time for the Replacements during their prime. A couple of years ago, however, I took a road trip with my brothers to see the Police reunited, and I faced the grudging -- and expensive -- realization that though they had all been huge hits in their day, songs like "Message in a Bottle" were not weathering the test of time very comfortably.
Many once-neglected songs of Paul Westerberg, on the other hand, are now being played in the locker room at the decidedly not-hip health club where I do my chin-ups. "Can't Hardly Wait" plays on the background reel in my gym alongside classic songs like "Help," and Roy Orbison's "Cryin'" -- and it fits right in. The lyrics to that buoyant tune once escaped me, but now I am struck by the maturity of their message about grace and simple love of home in the face of human loneliness.
The Replacements unleashed an unfortunate wave of bands sporting self-deprecating names. Given a few decades to sort it all out, I am starting to think Westerberg's cynicism was about something bigger than insecurity or sarcasm. The Reagan era had become known as "Morning in America," if you will recall, and if ever a dark joke has been told, surely that was it.
Westerberg, a nice kid from a good family and the Catholic schools of south Minneapolis, entered adult life having been handed only a mop. According to Jim Walsh's oral history "The Replacements: All Over But The Shouting," the singer cleaned the floor under the raised feet of Walter Mondale.
Like a thousand other people from Minneapolis, I had my small brushes with Paul Westerberg, and though it might not be très cool to say such a thing, it's an experience that feels more privileged to me as the time passes and his place in the story of American music becomes more apparent. I grew up a few blocks from his family and was friends with his little sister.
From this meager vantage point, I feel safe in disclosing that the fragile poet of 1980s thrash rock was your basic big brother holed up in his room with a guitar; a little mysterious, occasionally supportive, coming and going in a hurry.
Here's the cool part: As an incubator for an true musical original, his family had no pretense. They watched the Twins. His mom liked the Rat Pack. His sister tanned. His dad would confuse the mention of Lou Reed with Lou Rawls.
There's no road map for a patron saint of rock 'n' roll lucky enough to reach middle age. Westerberg continues to turn out good music and is presumably content to amuse himself by putting funny prices on his songs and living a quiet life in a town he transcended but never really left.
A talented cast of his contemporaries, musical offspring and spiritual kinfolk never passed 50: John Lennon, Phil Lynott, Kurt Cobain, Marc Bolan, Elliott Smith, Nick Drake and Joe Strummer, who reached the milestone, but not much farther. Paul got there, and I think that's a good sign for all of us. I hope he is well, is appreciated and, most of all, is glad to be alive.
Paul Scott is a writer in Rochester.