Paul Westerberg's not in the best of moods. The iconoclastic rocker -- who first rode to fame in the Replacements -- is tired of being called a drunk. "I've created a reputation," he mockingly moans. "I'm like Dean Martin when I walk out. You trip on a cord, and it's like 'Look at the idiot.'
"People have got the wrong impression," he continues, more seriously. "I actually hurt myself on the road recently. I've got a pulled hamstring, and I've had a slight concussion since Vancouver, where I banged my guitar on top of an amp. It came back and hit me in the head, so I was loopy for a couple of days. Other than that, I'm fine. But I don't like to go out onstage and drop my pants to show [the audience] my bandages and cuts and shit.
"To my recollection, the shows have been excellent, but there's a camp out there that has to pretend that Paul's too wasted to stand up. It could never be the fact that Paul's leg doesn't work," he says. "Don't worry. I'll probably be feeling fit as a fiddle by the time I get to Memphis."
"Situation Normal: All Fucked Up." It's an expression that Westerberg is all too familiar with.
Back in the early 1980s, the Replacements -- Westerberg on lead vocals, brothers Bob and Tommy Stinson (on guitar and bass, respectively), and drummer Chris Mars -- were one of the greatest bands to storm out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. From their hardcore debut, Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out the Trash (1981), on through brilliant, rock-based albums like Let It Be ('84) and Tim ('85), they established themselves at the forefront of that decade's burgeoning college music scene. Critics and fans alike raved about their straightforward approach, which combined equal parts cynicism, irreverence, and melancholy into a gloriously rambling, ramshackle sound.
They came to Memphis to record with Jim Dickinson at Ardent Studios in 1987. The chaotic sessions yielded a beauty of an album, Pleased To Meet Me, which provided the band's mainstream breakthrough. Two albums later, the band disbanded, and, in '95, Bob Stinson died of a drug overdose. Paul and Tommy parted ways to pursue solo careers, leaving a maelstrom of broken beer bottles and bad memories behind them.
While Westerberg hasn't exactly languished in obscurity, his career has suffered from bad promotion, label problems, and an occasional lack of focus. Yet he's continued to soldier on, self-producing his albums, recording under his own name and the "Grandpaboy" alias, and, most importantly, marrying and fathering a son. Having a family, he says, has changed everything. "For one thing, I'm not trying to kill myself anymore, even though some people are convinced I am," he says.
Apparently, he's had to endure plenty of drama over the last few decades -- some of it's self-inflicted, to be sure, but most problems arrive via overzealous fans and foes. "Someone's currently making a movie where the character comes to Minneapolis to find me, which is too close for fucking comfort," Westerberg says dispiritedly. "I come home with enough garbage in my mailbox, threatening evil crap.
"If I lived alone, I'd sit here with a .38," he adds ominously. "I try to tell my son that it's like you could be the hero of Chicago if you played baseball, but when you go to New York, they're gonna boo the hell out of you. That's all part of being famous."
That sounds like the stuff Memphis antihero Alex Chilton went through after Westerberg penned a song about him on Pleased To Meet Me. With lyrics like "Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes 'round/They sing, 'I'm in love, what's that song? I'm in love with that song,'" it was a perfect power-pop paean to the former Big Star frontman. And after the Replacements released it, Chilton was launched into permanent cult fave status.
"I regret it," Westerberg says with a sigh. "I had no idea what it would do to him. In my naive way, I thought it would somehow help him make some money. I never thought it would last this long or that he'd become this stalkable figure because I used his name in a song. But originally the song was called 'George From Outer Space.' I didn't have any lyrics, and for a hoot one day we threw [Chilton's] name out.
"I haven't talked to him," Westerberg adds, "but I think he forgives me. I apologize for doing anything that may have interfered with his personal life. Other than that, I still admire him."
Then he lets loose a delicious laugh and lets me in on his current plan: "I think we're gonna play the Conan O'Brien show one of these nights, and I think I might have Jim [Boquist, his bassist] be the lead singer. No one's gonna know," he says gleefully. "The next day in the paper, it'll say, 'Did you see Paul last night? Man, was he drunk!'
"I can't live it down. I'm tired, tired to the point of frustration and saying 'I don't ever want to do this again,'" he admits. "I don't wanna be any more famous than I am. One more speck of fame, and I'm outta here."
So why the interview? "I want people to come to the show," Westerberg says firmly. "I like playing. It's obvious. If I get up there with the right guys, I still like the music as much as I've ever liked it. There's a feeling of doing something illegal, like you're 15 years old and you're getting away with stuff.
"If I'm there on the stage, even if it's a glorified sports bar, it's still fun," he claims. "Think what you want, it's gonna rock like murder." n
Paul Westerberg and His Only Friends at the New Daisy Friday, March 11th, at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20.