Paul is not dead

Indie rock icon Paul Westerberg resurfaces

Paul Westerberg at the Phoenix (410 Sherbourne), Friday (August 2). $22.50. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN

even for those of us too young to have witnessed any of the Replacements’ notorious performances, Paul Westerberg is still an icon. A gifted tunesmith and charismatic personality, his style has been copped by artists who’ve made way more money than he ever has, and his flagging solo career is a benchmark for anyone who ever wondered whether their own crappy circumstances were due to dumb choices or dumb luck.

After a series of ups and downs, Westerberg disappeared into his lair three years ago after releasing Suicaine Gratifaction, which ultimately sank without a ripple.

The reason for his retreat and refusal to tour behind the record is much more mundane than many may have hoped. Westerberg always claimed he’d stop when it wasn’t fun. It wasn’t, and he did. In a phoner to discuss the release of his latest effort, Stereo, and emergence from seclusion, he recalls the moment of clarity.

“It was onstage at this outdoor festival they stuck me at somewhere in Massachusetts,” offers Westerberg. “Everyone in the audience was mimicking Woodstock, and the bands were mimicking Woodstock.

“It wasn’t very rock and roll — it was more like a picnic love-in, and I felt like part of this picnic sandwich. I thought, “Fuck it, I don’t need this any more.’ So I played one song as slow as I possibly could and then just walked off.”

Now that’s rock and roll. Westerberg may have left the spotlight, but he clearly didn’t stop working. He spent his time away from the stage writing at home.

The double-disc set Westerberg recorded in his basement showcases his two sides. The first disc, Stereo, is a run of lovely acoustic tunes, maddeningly cut off at times in mid-bar, leaving you feeling as though the man is simultaneously reaching out and giving you the finger. Yet Westerberg denies there is any “Fuck you,” implied or otherwise.

“Nah, “Fuck you’ would be too much energy. I’m beyond caring. It’s more like, “Accept me if you want to. If you don’t want to, I don’t care.'”

And yes, that is Westerberg’s young son Johnny bursting into the room and taking over on keyboards at the end of We May Be The Ones. How cute.

Alternately, Mono, released under Westerberg’s Grandpaboy alias, rocks more 80s-era Mats-style. Two discs for two different moods.

When I inquire about the rumour that the disc actually features former Mats-mate Tommy Stinson, Westerberg responds, “Is it any surprise to anyone that I can make a record that sounds like the Mats all by myself?”

Though Stereo, scabs and all, merits a place of honour in Westerberg’s canon, he seems comfortable acknowledging that he may be destined to forever remain a cult star, remarking, “I never had my Walk On The Wild Side, that one song that crossed over, snuck in and allowed me to make a living for the rest of my life.”

The liner notes for Mono include a disclaimer that reads, “This is rock ‘n’ roll recorded poorly, played in a hurry with sweaty hands and unsure reason. How it sounds, what it says, who played what is irrelevant.” So what, then, is relevant about it?

“It’s relevant to me because I will take some of these songs with me forever,” he says. “I will play them forever, and I bet some people will listen to them forever.

“My records don’t sell right away, but they sell tiny amounts forever, and I hope that happens with this one.

“I guess it’s no more relevant than taking a shower. But that’s relevant because if you don’t shower you stink.”

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