When I first heard Tom Petty sing the words â€œeven the losers get lucky sometimesâ€, I couldnâ€™t help feel that this was a guy who, no matter how rich and famous he got (for he was already both when he wrote the song), would always see himself as someone life has, to borrow his own term, â€œkicked around someâ€.
Then, of course, Paul Westerberg arrived out of nowhere, completely embodying the persona with songs sung from the perspective of a lovable neâ€™er-do-well, albeit one with a deliciously acerbic sense-of-humor and clever, yet heartbreaking honesty.
â€œWell, I laughed half the way to Tokyo , I dreamt I was Surfer Joe, what that means I donâ€™t know.
A dream too tired to come true left a rebel without a clue and Iâ€™m searching for something to do.â€ â€“ Iâ€™ll Be You
Petty obviously saw something in Westerberg that he liked. He would handpick the Replacements as his opening act for the Heartbreakersâ€™ U.S. tour in 1989 and introduce Minneapolis â€™ favorite sons to their largest concert audiences ever. Those who came to see Tom Petty showed little interest in the Minneapolis foursome and the â€œMats did not exactly flourish in such an â€œarena rockâ€ setting.
Was the tour a failure?
Depends on how you look at it and, in doing so, how you view the Replacements and Westerberg. From my viewpoint, the Replacements were a good band with enough talent to hint at greatness and, therefore, appeal to the critics. At the same time, Westerberg and Co. had just enough of a self-destructive streak to win the hearts of music fans like me who were tired of rock music polished to a high, formulaic sheen. How could we not fall in love with a band that had the capability of showing up on any given night and either blowing the roof off – or stinking up – the joint insanely refreshing?
The â€˜Mats werenâ€™t the only band in America â€“ or even Minneapolis for that matter- that were playing it fast and loose, with a devil-may-care attitude. What ultimately set them apart from the rest were the songs. Around the time the band released their second full-length album, Hootenanny – which featured the gems Color Me Impressed and Within Your Reach – Westerberg was showing some rather unexpected maturity. Of course, then youâ€™d see him onstage, drunk off his ass, and wonder how the two extremes could co-exist within the same body.
That, of course, was all part of the charm for me. See, Iâ€™ve always been the guy who was capable of sweeping a girl off her feet with sweet words and promises, then risk losing it all in a drunken display. The perverse thrill, of course, came when the girl in question, having seen both sides, chose to stick around. Likewise, fans of Westerberg have seen both sides and have decided to stick around. We donâ€™t want to miss the next flash of brilliance.
â€œIâ€™m the best thing that never happened, Iâ€™m the best thing you never had.â€ â€“Best Thing That Never Happened
The great thing is that Westerberg has carved out a lengthy career in an industry that has developed an insatiable appetite for destruction (obligatory GNR pun intended). Despite a lack of bona fide commercial success, there remains enough label interest to ensure that there is a worthy home for all present and future recordings and that our hero doesnâ€™t find himself having to take a gig at Starbucks.
The other great thing is that heâ€™s done so by not giving anything remotely resembling a shit about anything having to do with selling out or conforming to some record labelâ€™s ideals. He has always done what he wanted when he wanted, but not in that belligerent way you see others try to pull off (Iâ€™m looking at you Ryan Adams).
Instead, heâ€™s always done so in almost apologetic fashion, with an endearing wink and a smile. The results, of course, have always been, and continue to be at least twice as interesting as anything with the name â€œTimberlakeâ€ on it (seriously, it sounds like a brand of hiking bootsâ€¦with pink shoelaces and fake rhinestones that keep falling off, but I digress).
â€œIâ€™ve been achinâ€™ for a while now, friend, Iâ€™ve been achinâ€™ hard for years.â€-Achinâ€™ To Be
Westerberg rules because he does what he does with no regard for fashion, little concern for the charts, but a strict devotion to that inner child that just wants to keep rocking, all the while allowing the grown man on the outside to express the doubts, worries and experiences of a life lived very much like the rest of us who donâ€™t get called â€œwinnersâ€ all that often.
Here’s a handful of cuts from a 1981 Replacements show:
And a couple Paul Westerberg solo live cuts: