There are people who will tell you that Paul Westerberg is God. Twenty years ago I wouldn't have argued, but anyone who'll tell you that now is just as liable to announce that college was the best five years of their life. They're living in the past.
Westerberg was once the frontman and primary songwriter for The Replacements, an often-inebriated, perpetually ragged four-piece from Minneapolis with an underage bass player who's now with Guns "N Roses; a lead guitarist (the underage bassist's older brother) who wore diapers when the band debuted on Saturday Night Live, got kicked out of the band for being drunker than the rest and later died in a car wreck; and a drummer who still lives in Minnesota but has disappeared from the music world.
Like just about every other independent band worth hearing in the '80s (and some who weren't), The Replacements signed with a major label, recorded a few more albums and broke up. Their last record for Twin Tone, Let It Be, is one of the best and most important records of the decade.
Westerberg has written more than a dozen songs-including "Go," "Color Me Impressed," "Within Your Reach," "I Will Dare," "Unsatisfied," "Answering Machine," "Hold My Life" and "Can't Hardly Wait"-that otherwise self-respecting songwriters would give body parts for a co-writing credit on. The same can be said of Westerberg's hero, former Big Star frontman Alex Chilton. Both Big Star and The Replacements appeared to be perfect vehicles, but somewhere along the way the ride broke down and Chilton and Westerberg had to get out and walk alone.
Bitterness is an understandable outcome. Chilton now records obscure R&B, and the first stage of Westerberg's solo career followed a similarly sulky, post-band path-an album every two or three years with a change of record labels and producers at every step. But he's recently found comfort in his home studio.
In 2002 Vagrant released his self-produced double disc Stereo/Mono (Stereo for Westerberg and Mono for his alter ego, Grandpaboy). Now, barely a year later, Westerberg has resurfaced with two more split-personality releases: Come Feel Me Tremble under his own name and Dead Man Shake for Grandpaboy. He's also issuing a DVD.
While Come Feel Me Tremble is better than Westerberg's Eventually and Suicaine Gratification, it's not as good as 14 Songs or Stereo/Mono. And given the wide parameters Westerberg has carved for his career, the Grandpaboy alter ego seems superfluous, at best. On Dead Man Shake, covers of John Prine, Hank Williams and Jimmy Reed cause the record to veer violently from folk to country to blues.
The jewel is the Come Feel Me Tremble DVD-the place Westerberg wears his heart on his leather sleeve. In between record store gigs and shows, home recording sessions and homemade videos, he plays a word-association game with Replacements album titles as the trigger. He talks about riding an elevator in silence with Kurt Cobain ("He was dying to be dying and I was dying to be somewhere else."). He makes excuses for his production style ("It's severe A.D.D. That's why the first take is always the best take.").
It's a somewhat lonely portrait. Westerberg has started a family, but there are no phone calls home from the road, and partner Laurie Lindeen and son Johnny aren't mentioned at all until the closing credits ("I'd just tell him that Daddy's the best guitar player on the block. Always has been, always will be. Even if I have to move."). So it's all the more touching when Westerberg invites audience members onstage for a campfire-style sing-along of "I Will Dare."
Because when Westerberg sings, "Ain't lost yet so I must be a winner," you get the sense that he'd rather take the consolation prize for where he is than walk across the street for the first-place trophy.