how can you like him? westerberg in nyc

Paul Westerberg
The Supper Club, NYC
27 April 2005


I am probably one of the only women in my age bracket (ahem) who never wanted to fuck Paul Westerberg. (No, that doesn’t mean I wanted Tommy, either.) No, in my fantasy world, Paul was the guy who sat in the back row of English class and seemed like he was a slacker, none of the other girls would talk to him, but every time the teacher called on him, he knew every answer, could quote books you didn’t actually have to read, and had the name of all the coolest bands written in blue pen on his notebook. He was the guy who would make you a tape of Metal Machine Music and had a nondescript but cool car before anyone else did, and you weren’t really into each other but there would be that one moment at party one night where you probably almost kissed each other, before declaring that it would be a very bad idea because it would totally fuck up the friendship.

I mean, I absolutely adore Westerberg, always have, always will. I am lucky because there was a time in my life where I actually asked the question, “When does too many Replacements shows become, well, too much?” And I saw them in all their incarnations and phases (well, except post 88, only because I was not in the country). I am one of the few people in the world that seems to actually like Paul’s contributions to the Singles soundtrack. I would wait in line for several hours to see the man sing a few songs.

And while I respect the artistic temperment and the Westerberg temperment, the one thing I absolutely will not do is let him off easy when he doesn’t deserve it. There is a difference between Paul following his free spirit and Paul not bothering to try. The former I accept; the latter I won’t let him off easy for.

So now we come to this tour, which has been all over the place. A dear friend in Seattle, the tour opener, who knows what she’s talking about, related with much dismay how disappointing the show was. I heard similar reports around the rest of the country. The boyfriend saw Chicago and related that he had a fantastic time but was also a tiny bit disappointed (which I actually consider to be one of the more honest and accurate reviews of a Westerberg show). And then tonight, before the show, Lisa says, “I heard last night sucked” and my heart sank, just a little.

Okay, more than just a little. Because this man and his music means too damn much to me.

And we got off to a rocky start. It felt half-hearted and unfocused, and if it had been anyone else but Paul Westerberg up on that stage, I would have lost patience rapidly. About the third song in, he launched into a rock version of “If I Had A Hammer.” I could not tell what the hell this was supposed to be. The acolytes (okay, point taken, but I have some objectivity somewhere) acted like this was the Ten Commandments handed down from Mt. Sinai while I stood there going, “whatthefuck?” Was it serious? Is it a joke I didn’t get? Is this Paul being Wacky Paul? It just seemed lame and pointless.

“Requests?” Oh, god, the wrong thing to ask at a Westerberg show. “I heard ‘The Ledge,’ we don’t know that one.” Shocker. “How about a 25 minute version of ‘Down By The River’?” I, for one, heartily applauded that suggestion, and Paul actually launched into a more than respectable version of the intro – but then tore into “Don’t Cry No Tears” instead, fairly straight and more than enjoyable.

But, still, it dragged, despite throwing in “Merry Go Round” and “Someone Take The Wheel” (which should’ve been a mandatory singalong). “I Will Dare” got transformed into a hardcore polka number at the end. It dragged, Paul seemed blah, and I was just the tiniest bit sad.

And then he picked up the 12-string acoustic and it all started to change.

“Crackle and Drag” and “Skyway” and another song I am spacing on (Paul didn’t have the lyrics and was getting them, verse by verse, from someone down front). They were beautiful and he was trying hard and I felt Paul in the songs.

But once he started singing “How Can You Like Him,” and he embodied the song, he threw himself into it as though it just happened, as though he just wrote it:

How can you like him better than me?
How can you like him?
After all, it’s me
How can you like him any better than me?
Any better

He was fully, completely, 100% present, it was like he forgot he was supposed to be “Paul Westerberg” and just sang his fucking song the way he should sing it. He was focused and just – himself. And as a result, this song made me cry. Not “Someone Take the Wheel” or “Valentine” or any of the other songs I have 20 years of emotional resonance with.

Earlier in the evening, during the between-songs shout-out (while I appreciated the sentiment of the guys yelling “Unsatisfied” every fucking chance they got, after a while it was just annoying), Paul said, “‘Bastards of Young’ and ‘Bastards of Young’ and — another song — those are all REPLACEMENTS songs.” He seemed so much happier when he was playing the newer songs, but the audience wasn’t outsinging him on “Let The Bad Times Roll” or “Stain Yer Blood” (what made him drag THAT out? It was only released on the “Friends” soundtrack I think) or anything released in the last few years. It’s a heavy monkey to shake and I’d like to see him find some middle ground, somewhere (which is what I think happened toward the end of the set).

The rest of the show was full of power and presence and fine performance and good humor – he’s still Westerberg, he can’t play it completely straight and I wouldn’t want him to – and it fucking KICKED ASS. He covered “Different Drum,” and then someone yelled a request and Paul replied, “We’re in the Sham 69 phase of our careers.” Ha ha, funny. Except they slammed into a spot-on version of Sham 69’s “Borstal Boys” and I couldn’t stop laughing.

“Can’t Hardly Wait” is, well, “Can’t Hardly Wait,” except that at the end, the audience continuing to sing “I can’t wait,” while everyone in the band switches instruments (Paul on drums) and they finish the song with the bass player on lead vocals. Very Mats-on-SNL moment (they switched outfits, though, not instruments). And the encores included of course “Nevermind” and “Left of the Dial” and with that last song, it was a timewarp, it was deja vu, it wasn’t about crying it was just overwhelming, it was wondering if the kids next to me understood what “Left of the Dial” was about, when that was where you went to get the good music, that’s where all the college stations were, and would Miriam (who was my partner in crime back in the left of the dial days) remember who it was supposed to be about, was it Linda Hopper or someone else?

Encore end. Bows. Paul leaves. Roadies dismantle stage. I am walking away, ready to leave (amazed that it is 10:30 and he started at 8:15, I expected an hour and a half at the very most). And then the audience is cheering louder than I have heard a New York crowd cheer in a long time, and it just gets louder, and just as I’m about to tell Lisa about that Replacements Beacon Theater show in 1987 when the band was gone and the roadies were clearing the stage, and Tommy walked back on to get something, I mean, it was probably 10 minutes after the show ended, and then all of a sudden they were all back onstage and played an encore for the 1/3 of the audience that was still there because they were still trying to decide where they were going to drink — there’s Paul, and they’re all back onstage. As our reward, we got “Alex Chilton,” sharp and hot and sweet.

I am happy and sad and bittersweet and smiling and relieved and wondering if I roll the dice and try to hit another show, or just wait for the next time around. Because there will be a next time, and I will be there as long as Paul Westerberg wants to get up onstage and play.