Westerberg, of course, was the leading light of The Replacements, a staple of roughshod Eighties alt.rock. But let’s not go there at the moment—they’ll have their day in the sun eventually. Suffice to say that the final Replacements LP, All Shook Down, coincided with my grad school years and lent itself well to those days. Maybe too well. So that my fandom of Westerberg really took off from there and I liked all his solo CDs, particularly Eventually, 1996. Yeah, have to delve into that a bit some time. But for now we’re in the beginning of 2004 and I’d skipped Stereo, his first CD of the new century. I was already spending more of my time drifting back than going forward, that having to do with a big writing project called “Between Days” that I was more or less constantly engaged in from 2000 on . . . til 2008 or so.
Anyway, I got back to Westerberg with this album because it was playing when we were in Bert’s in Newark, DE (a moment of silence for Bert’s), and so. Yeah. Westerberg. Guy’s about a year and a half my junior and always struck me as the kind of guy everyone knew in high school. Bit of a fuck up, but basically sincere and kinda bright, talented. Would be a hopeless case without rock’n’roll. I was never quite that guy, but, boy, didn’t I want to be, sometimes. So, let Westerberg live that thing for ya. And didn’t the little punk make it work . . . .
This song is so nakedly emotive, it’s almost scary. I have to say I’ve long since gotten used to it, but if you haven’t and you’re hearing it for the first time, then brace yourself. “Plaintive” is the word that comes to mind. And consider some of its synonyms: “mournful, sad, wistful, doleful, pathetic, piteous, pitiful, melancholy, sorrowful, unhappy, wretched, woeful, forlorn,” and (my favorite) “woebegone.” [The latter word reminds me of a plush toy dog my youngest brother Eric used to have as a child: it was yellow with brown ears and big stick-on plastic eyes; I would make it slide along the bed and raise its head and emit its characteristic howl: “I’m woooooooeeeeebegoooooooone!”]
So, here’s Westerberg emitting the woebegone howl of the mid-fortyish male. And not just any mid-fortyish males, no, the kind raised on rock’n’roll. The kind who might be apt to say “was that life?” Or, was that youth?” With his shakey voice (sort of the benign older brother to Jeff Tweedy) and his slightly slurred diction, Westerberg usually delivers songs like an everyman. But here he is going for a stabbing tone, a wake-up call, in all its morose (hey, another synonym) glory. He wants to “breathe some new life into me and you and yours and mine.” Well, amen, Paul, get it done.
And there’s no way I don’t reboot my suburban daze when I hear: “When we were young we never played / Out in the street / We’d only run where we felt safe.” Yup, sounds like the guy wants to danger it up, even though he’s going to keep asserting the truth that makes you both seek danger and avoid it: “We ain’t too young to die.” That’s the hard truth of the song. I mean, people drop off from your cohort at any time and go to their early graves, but at a certain point you look around and realize that you’ve beat the “under 40” rap. You’re in for the long count, but. You’re also at that point of knowing that finitude is more meaningful than it used to be.
But it’s that bridge that always stabs me. From the moment I put on this song, I’m expecting it, it’s there ahead, coiled and waiting: “I wanna be / Some new place / I wanna see / Something I’ll never see again.” Now there’s a line to live by. Make sure you keep seeing new things, sure. But to see something you’ll never see again, we used to say, meant it was very rare, once-in-a-lifetime. In aging, we find there are many things, many people, many places we’ll never see again, no matter how many times they may have been available to us.
In 2004, I was young enough to think there might be time to see lots of things I’ll only get one chance to see. Maybe I did see some. But not nearly enough. Mainly it’s the same things all the time, and yet. Even this little nothing burg I live in has changed considerably in the last ten years. Look around. Chances are you’re looking at something you’ll never see again.
I know I sure didn't, in 2004. Instead, I went deeper into my computer. You know that song by Kate Bush, “Deeper Understanding”? Yeah, like that. And I went back in time, to spend the glorious reign of W. “elsewhere,” as the surrealists used to say: “L’existence est ailleurs.” Yeah, meet me ailleurs.