Monday, March 10, 2008

Warsaw, Pt. 2: How He Became Paul

This concert at Warsaw marked a new phase in my musical obsession. Like most fans of The Replacements, I never quite got over the break-up of the band. I am not exaggerating when I say that the demise of that band heralded the end of my childhood.

Even so, I did my best to embrace the idea of Paul Westerberg on his own. I rooted for him to become a mega-star in his own right. To my way of thinking, he deserves the kind of canonical reverence of a Dylan or a Neil Young. He is not merely good, he is important.

But even with that kind of fanhood, the shift was difficult. As the head of a gang of outlaws, he had a crazed kind of cock of the walk majesty. That energy has nowhere to go with a single spotlight. And he didn't seem interested in trying to fabricate it on his own. Which turned out to be a smart move in the long run.

I have come to love each of his solo albums. The first, '14 Songs', seemed like a good-spirited play for the top of the charts. The production was pristine, there were big ballads, rave-ups about naked girls, and even a joke song about plastic surgery. The lead single 'World Class Fad' did well, but it certainly wasn't a mega-blockbuster.

After that album came 'Eventually' which I initially did not enjoy. I can't quite put my finger on why I didn't connect with the material, but I really did not. In fact, on this tour, my ex and I went to see him with his band at Irving Plaza in New York and we left early. I'd almost had to drag her to the show and while I might have gotten into it with another big Paul Westerberg/Replacements fan, I didn't have enough interest for the both of us.

His third solo effort was released while I was in North Carolina and is called 'Suicaine Gratifaction'. This should give you an idea of the accessibility of this music. The words novocaine, suicide, gratification, and satisfaction all chopped up and remixed. At first I thought, 'That's it, I'm finally over Paul Westerberg.'

I've come to think it is perhaps his finest, but that is another story. In any case, as his fans will tell you, this album marked the end of an era for him. He'd been signed to his label by a bigwig who was forced out the day the album was mastered. This is akin to a DeMedici paying for the painting and then putting it in his attic while he goes in search of the lost continent. Paul's bid for mainstream success ended.

He went back underground and started recording songs by himself in his basement. Crude drumming, rustling papers, matches being snapped into fire, these were a far cry from the crack musicianship of the sessions players on his first couple of efforts. He played everything by himself.

With the proliferation of home recording equipment and lo-fi pop stars, this might not seem so strange these days. But for a man considered by many to be the GREATEST LIVING SONGWRITER, it is a stunning reversal of tactic. He basically treated his albums as open diary entries instead of honed and crafted short story collections. This turned some people off but it eventually was what brought me back to his fold even more ferociously than before.

These records were almost obscenely personal. You got the sense that he himself would listen to the song and know exactly what he'd been doing before and after recording it. His son can be heard babbling and banging on a keyboard. There are obvious mistakes, both in the playing and recording. Songs stop abruptly as if tape ran out. Guitars drop in and out.

All of a sudden, he wasn't even Paul Westerberg to his fans anymore. He was simply Paul.

When he came to Warwaw in 2002 on the 'Come Feel Me Tremble' tour, it was the first time he'd ever toured on his own as a solo act. No drums, no bass, no other guitar, no band. Just him and his guitar.

The show was as ragged as the albums. And as beautiful as a result. He had couches lamps and coffee tables set up onstage as if the stage were his living room. I got the feeling that it might be his own actual furniture. To hear these songs that mean EVERYTHING to me stripped of all trappings was astonishing.

There was nothing missing even though I knew most of these songs had searing electric leads or thunderous drumming. I colored all of that in myself and I'm sure the rest of the crowd did as well. The wave of voices chanting these songs threw the music back up at Paul as he played.

For his encore, he invited as many people as could fit onstage to sit with him. He sat on a ratty old couch surrounded by strangers and sang as if they'd just popped over for coffee. Melody and I weren't close enough to the stage to get up there but it didn't matter. We were included. People patted him on the back, reminded him of the words to an old chestnut that he couldn't remember, and loved him as hard as they could.

In an age of prefabricated fan/artist interaction it brought me to tears. This Midwestern shy guy with a searing talent who'd kept his fans at bay for almost two decades with a big noise that they could lose themselves to was letting himself be showered with love.

He also began a new tradition on this tour. He sat on the steps of his tour bus down the street from Warsaw and shook hands and spoke with anyone who waited. Anyone and everyone.

If the world were a just place, this wouldn't have been possible. Imagine Mick Jagger persoanlly greeting everyone who'd come to Dodger Stadium. To openly acknowledge that you have the time talk to every one of the fans who stays? That takes both humility and pride.

And that was how Paul became my favorite artist, right ahead of The Replacements, that band he used to be in.

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