Former Replacements leader Paul Westerberg has long been one of our heroes, especially now that “Alex Chilton” is in Rock Band 2. In this exclusive interview, he talks about writing that song to salute Big Star’s frontman, and a whole lot more—including the money he lost on his recent 49-cent digital album, and the Replacements reunion that nearly happened last month.
Brett Milano: I don’t know if you’re aware that “Alex Chilton” is in our game and kids throughout the world are playing the song with plastic guitars in their living rooms.
Paul Westerberg: Yeah well hey I see my son and I scratch my head and watch him go.
BM: That’s great. Have you played with him?
PW: Uh, no. You know, it’s beyond my coordination to hit buttons.
BM: Well that’s a shame.
PW: Yeah. I mean, I sort of watch, but he’s your guy.
BM: Does he play your song or is there other stuff he prefers?
PW: Well he doesn’t have the one with my tune on it yet, so, you know, I’ll have to get it. Oh, I don’t know what they play. They’re always playing some sort of wankin’ thing.
BM: He’s more for the heavy metal kind of stuff?
PW: Yeah, you know, I don’t know what they’re doing. All I know is they’re not taking drugs and they’re not stealing anything. Keeping them off the streets, I guess, huh?
BM: Yeah, we’ve had suggested we should build that into later versions of the game where you can take drugs and steal stuff.
PW: Yeah, well you know, maybe some sort of, what are these, subliminal cuts. Yeah, make them robust, all-around American boys…and girls.
BM: Do you think your life or history might have been any different if you could have done this when you were nineteen instead of going out and doing it for real?
PW: Um, obviously yes. And obviously no. Because it’s, it wasn’t all about the music. It’s not like the kids are playing music, but you don’t get audience interaction. It was fun, one time he was up there with his buddy and they were playing and somebody gave me “your band sucks” t-shirt so I put it on and stood in front of the TV set and like, flipped him the bird and threw something at him. I said, you know that’s what it’s more like, you know. A little more realistic.
PW: But, uh, there’s that whole part. I mean you can’t ever replace the actual smell and taste of a live audience whether they love you or not. But it seems to be good technological fun.
BM: I spent enough time at The Rat and places like that to vouch for the smell.
PW: Yeah, no I know what it’s like; I know The Rat.
BM: So let’s talk a bit about that song since a lot of the people playing it might not familiar with the legend of Alex Chilton. Can you talk a bit about what he meant to you and why you were prompted to write that song in his honor?
We were sort of young and dumb and I was certainly trying to like, I guess, hip the outside world on who this guy might be publically, but he didn’t need that. It would kind of hurt if he was always known as Alex Chilton of that song.
PW: Well you know the song was written and the lyrics, it’s one of those where melody and chord changes were there and the lyrics changed over the course of six months or so. By the time we were down in Memphis we had already met Alex and I steered it toward him. Of course it was as the legend goes “George from Outer Space” was the first working title, but that just didn’t grab it quite as well. I just thought it would be fun to write a song about a living person and we’ve been through this, Al and I, and I sort of regret the albatross that it’s came with.
BM: Even though the song is so favorable toward him?
PW: Oh yeah. We were sort of young and dumb and I was certainly trying to like, I guess, hip the outside world on who this guy might be publically, but he didn’t need that. It would kind of hurt if he was always known as Alex Chilton of that song. I mean, I was listening to the oldies station the other day and it was the first time ever I heard them say “Alex Chilton and the Boxtops.” It’s even reaching that older generation.
BM: How did it come about that he heard the song? Did you play the record for him?
PW: He was hanging out. He was there. I mean, uh…well, s**t, did he play on it? He played on “Can’t Hardly Wait” – he played a little guitar on that. But he, you know, we went down to record in Memphis with Jim Dickinson. That’s where Al was then. When we first laid the song on him the engineers kind of looked at me like, you know, are you serious? You’re gonna call this song “Alex Chilton”? I was like, “Yeah, you know.” So the word got out that there’s some kids down here in the studio that wrote a song about you and he sort of made his way down. And like I said earlier, I don’t know if we had actually played with him earlier or not but I don’t think we had the “Alex Chilton” song when we he did that “Can’t Hardly Wait,” that early thing. I’m interested to know how they, uh, with the guitar, how they express the quasi-tablature of the noting or fretting of the chords and stuff like that. Who did the notation and how did they do it?
BM: There’s people that do it. I mean, I’ve played it. I’ve only played it on drums, because that’s the instrument I usually go for, and it was pretty close to the parts that Chris played.
PW: Well, hell, I mean that was “boom-clack-boom-clack.”
PW: The guitar part is what I’m talking about, seeing as how it was in a wacky open tuning.
BM: We’ll see if we can send you one so you can check it out for yourself.
PW: Yeah, that’d be fun.
BM: So you talked about the early appeal of the smell and the sweat and all that kind of thing. Can you bring us back a little bit to what the early, pre-anything Replacements gigs were like in Minneapolis?
PW: Oh, ha. Pre-Replacements?
BM: No, no. The Replacements kind of pre- becoming what you became.
PW: It was a great outlet for, sort of, miscreants who had no other choice, had no other road out and, uh, we took full advantage of. A lot of the bands at the time had college graduates and had other things, you know, on their agenda and decided to be in a rock group. We were one of the few, the chosen, you know. The it’s either this or, you know, for half of them jail. Jail, death or janitor. But, uh, it was great. I mean, we even enjoyed playing immensely to hostile audiences and small audiences. That’s where we really learned our chops. I think similar to The Beatles I suppose, I mean the Hamburg thing. But we played for quite a long time before people, you know, cheered and applauded for us. We busted our asses for people who weren’t with us at all.
BM: What would you do if they got especially hostile?
PW: We’d usually stoke it. You know, ‘cause we’d sense early on that we’re not gonna win them over and we were sort of a group, you know, if you can’t beat ‘em, then let’s kill ‘em. None of us trying to, you know, “Hey you’re gonna like this. Put your hands together.” kind of deal. We got a belly full of that later on when we toured with Tom Petty and all that kind of stuff. But, uh, we weren’t made to be sort of audience favorite, we were entertaining, but we weren’t there to make them love us. It was like “Here we are,” you know? Like it or not.
BM: I know that if they really didn’t like you, you’d start giving ‘em Partridge Family songs and things like that. And you realize how much guts it takes to pull a move like that?
PW: Yeah, well you know it was almost like when you’re back against the wall, or you know, the cards are against you, you kick over the table and, uh, it would almost work to the point where we would become so weird that even the quasi-weird people of the time found us to be too much to even figure out. I remember guys with eight-foot Mohawks standing in front of us, you know, as we played a Hank Williams song. They thought they were being rebellious. We all had different takes on it, but for me it was, you know, you’re rebelliousness is bull . It’s like rebellion against rebellion.
BM: When you’d go home and you’d write a song that really was meaningful, did you feel any qualms about playing those songs in front of those kind of crowds?
PW: No when they were meaningful though some of the times. I mean some of them I know weren’t. I mean “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” and stuff. I know that was simply a tool or a prop, but sometimes I thought songs were meaningful and spot-on and other times, dumb things became fan favorites that I never thought were very… I guess you’re talking about the quieter solo stuff. No, I just felt that there was always room for that. You know, being musically a Stones fan as a kid. Knowing the band that would play “Jumping Jack Flash” but there was also room for “Factory Girl” and that stuff. “Lady Jane.” I just thought the same thing. I thought there was no reason to drag these little ballads out and embarrass the group with them or make everybody sit down and play zithers. I knew that we were a live act and I was fairly adamant about keeping my stuff away from them for a while until it kind of got to the point where the quiet stuff was better stuff and I simply got tired of shouting for about four years.
BM: I know that you’ve named “Unsatisfied” as one of those songs that most of us think is great and you don’t.
PW: Yeah, you know I took a whack at it a month ago – Tommy and I got together and played with, uh, Michael Bland and of course Jim came with. You know, we were kicking around ideas and we played a couple songs, new and old and tried and it’s like, we went into “Unsatisfied” to see if I remembered it and it was one of those things where I got about thirty-five seconds into it, realized “Well, hell, there’s no words to this really.” All it is is sort of a seeming angst-ridden cry for help and that was the reason that I never really did it live because it was just a moment in the studio that you don’t sort of tote around with you. But it was funny how, the way Jim and Tommy both jumped on the changes and knew where we were going and I had no clue. This was the most I had ever heard of “Unsatisfied” in ten years playing with them.
Does that mean there is reunion talk underway?
BM: From what you’ve just told me, does that mean there is kind of reunion talk underway?
PW: Yeah, well, you know, talk. Talk is cheap and what we did was I got together with him because he wanted me to and Steve dying was part of it too because it was like, okay there’s another one bites the dust.
BM: Steve Foley , the last Replacements drummer.
PW: Yeah, and I attended his funeral and I guess Tommy was out of town and found it like, oh no, not again. We played together. You know, Tommy has a very much more mature outlook and head on his shoulders than he did when we last played together. It’s funny but at one point I sat down on the floor and said, “What are we missing here? Is it drinks or is it liquor, you know. Is it something else?” and it dawned on me later that it’s like, there isn’t that third person to equalize he and I because he’s become very straightforward, you know. He’s a player and plays with Axl Rose and stuff like that and the other guy. And I felt the need to sort of bend over backwards and represent the artistic anarchy of the group, and that wasn’t fully my role. It was partially my role, but I just felt like I couldn’t put it into words to him but it’s like there’s something that I’m not really of the mind to want to go and just rehearse the old tunes. Because he was trying to give an effort at it, because we did. We played three or four of mine and a couple of his and it was fun. I got to play lead guitar and I said I’m gonna be Bob now and let it rip and I blew his head off like him at the microphone and had a blast doing that but it, ah, I don’t know. It’s something that I am over with but I don’t dislike the guy, Tommy. Love him still. If we could ever find something new, a new element, a third infusion of life, I think we could make something happen. I mean, we did it for two days and we stopped just short of arguing. So it was kind of the same old, same old. Very good at remembering the arrangements from the previous day and stuff, and by the second day out I wanted to change everything, which I always did. At the end it was a producer who stood in the way and would help. It’s just kind of a funny little thing we’ll have to get over.
BM: Let me ask, your last album – you put it out as a download and sold it for forty-nine cents. Did that work? I mean, did you make anything off of that or was that not the idea?
PW: No [laughs]. I’ve had to pay money for putting that out for one week because we had to pay. Ten publishers came after us immediately ‘cause I used all these snippets of songs that I recorded. It was either pay up or pull the thing. So we pulled it after a week and the [name withheld] of course being the only publishing company that still wants their money to this day for my eight seconds of my cover of [name withheld]. But that was fun. I mean, that was a fun week or two when I was putting those things out.
BM: Why did you choose to do it that way?
PW: Because it was wrong. You know? Because it did what we used to do. And I’m capable of doing that alone, by accident. It kind of, it just shot everyone down in the world who’s putting out their record for a dollar a song and it said, you know, here I’m gonna give you forty-something minutes of music for basically a penny a minute. It turned everything on its head for a week. It was nice. It was nice for me to grab a big handful of my songs and get them out of my system. I kind of have a list. I crossed fifty songs off there. It was like, “Oh this f*****n’ blows, I don’t have to worry about those” only if you even heard one second of it, it’s like in my mind it’s done. I have to do that from time to time because I write sort of all the time.
BM: You do your music, what you go down to the basement in the middle of the night, right? I mean, that’s where it all happens.
PW: Well, it used to be. Now it’s the day. I mean yesterday I got up at four thirty in the morning and worked on something. Well damn it’s like I had a song by noon that was crap, and I worked on another one and that one was good. And then this morning went back to listen and it ate, the machine ate the tape. [laughs]
BM: So is that song lost forever?
PW: There were two songs on there and it ate the tape, and I sat there, you know, not feeling like all “poor me” or let me kick over the table. I thought, “Dammit” I thought, “Well I liked the last one and I’m gonna take the best line from the first one.” And I sat down and lo and behold, I think I have a much, much stronger song that what I had on the tape. So, I’m still a believer of that sort of accidental, you know.
BM: Yeah, synchronicity. I think there might be a song title in that.
PW: I believe so.
BM: It’d never sell, would it?
PW: If it only had simplicity.
BM: Anyway, always great to talk to you, Paul. Thank you so much.
PW: Alright, well thanks a lot.