Since the official end of the Replacements in 1991, Paul Westerberg has released nine solo records (both as himself and under the Grandpaboy monicker), and contributed original material to about a half a dozen movie soundtracks. "Folker," released in 2004, was his last formal solo album, and then in 2006 he supplied eight songs to the soundtrack of an animated movie called "Open Season."
But then this regular musical output from Westerberg came to a complete stop, which was disconcerting to fans -- especially since the hiatus was largely attributed to an unfortunate 2006 incident regarding a candle and a screwdriver, which caused a serious injury. “…Trying to get some wax out of a candle,” said friend/Minneapolis journalist Jim Walsh at the time, “and cut some nerves and ripped some cartilage and hurt himself pretty bad.”
This is not the kind of news fans of someone who makes a living playing guitar want to hear.
Then, out of the blue one day in the summer of 2008, an announcement appeared on a Westerberg fan site: “Available June 49, 2008: "00:49" of Paul Westerberg for 49 cents.” June 49 actually meant July 19, and technical difficulties with distribution delayed it another two days. "49:00," a 43:55 medley-cum-mashup, finally went on sale online-only on July 21. Despite the lack of fanfare, the track zoomed to #1 on the Amazon.com downloads chart. In 2015, when some of the biggest artists in music drop their new releases with no advance notice, this isn’t a big deal, but it wasn’t common in 2008, and completely unexpected from Westerberg. No one knew this would be the start of a run of small releases that would end in 2009, and would produce some of Westerberg’s best solo work to date.
“He finished it on Monday, sent it to me on Tuesday and it was out this weekend,” Westerberg’s manager Darren Hill told Billboard.com. “It's just wonderful that you can actually do this. The freedom an artist can enjoy these days is fantastic. Can you imagine me pitching this idea to a label?"
"49:00" is constructed of about 20 different songs or segments, with all instruments played by Westerberg himself. There’s one previously released track (“Out of My System,” from a 2004 baseball-themed compilation curated by Peter Gammons from ESPN, of all things) as well as a two-minute cover mashup of pieces of songs by eight different artists, from the Beatles to the Partridge Family (“I Think I Love You” gets a minute) and Hank Williams. Given the Replacements’ reputation, the covers understandably get a lot of attention, but they’re honestly the least intriguing element of the almost 44 minutes.
WARNING: DO NOT LISTEN WHILE OPERATING A MOTOR VEHICLE
THIS PRODUCT IS NOT FAULTY — ALL SOUNDS ARE INTENTIONAL AND VALID AS A WORK OF ART
The text above was the complete extent of credit, liner notes or a track listing provided with the release, which was accompanied by crude artwork, the album’s title scrawled on an old TDK cassette insert in felt-tip pen, with the text, “...of your time life” underneath. The "back cover" was a Polaroid photo of Westerberg smoking a cigarette, accompanied by an off-the-hook pushbutton phone and a baseball glove, duct-taped to a piece of paper. Fans online quickly put together a breakdown of the songs, timings and a list of placeholder song titles.
The track begins with four full-length songs of varying genre, tempo and even fidelity: “Who You Gonna Marry” borrows liberally from the Faces; “Kentucky Riser” could have been sequenced after “Waiting for Somebody” on a full solo album; “Something in My Life Is Missing” is rougher and less polished, which might make you mentally tune it out, except it’s the killer lyrically so far on the track:
He writes like a Midwestern Shakespeare
In a tiny, perfect hand
It doesn’t so much move as break your
fall when you decide to land
“Something in my life is missing,” Westerberg sings on the refrain, “By a mile.” His voice is rough, tender, imploring.
“Devil Raised a Good Boy,” at the 14:28 mark, changes the pace. It’s crunchy, layered, rocking; Paul’s voice is on full gravel. There are multiple tracks, instruments, actual guitar solos, and it feels more complete than its immediate predecessors. But even this song doesn’t escape the "49:00" treatment, as that last solo careens straight into the next song snippet. Two minutes of a song, two minutes of another song; even a brutal heartbreaker like “Goodnight, Sweet Prince,” a track about sitting bedside as a friend dies on which Paul sings his heart out, is unceremoniously sandwiched in with no room to breathe.
"49:00" feels like a radio station, a DJ set, a tape recorded by a kid in his bedroom. Despite its length it feels ephemeral; if you’re not paying attention you can’t just start over, you have to carefully scrub back on the track to try to find that lyric you thought you heard. There are songs tracked over each other for a second, like when you used to tune into two radio stations on the same channel. It ends with what sounds like a small child -- quite possibly Westerberg’s son Johnny -- shouting into a mic at the end over a drum machine and some typical Westerbergian crunch chords. And despite its haphazard construct, these all feel like finished, complete songs; they will stick with you in your head for days after having listened to them, accompanied by the frustration in not being able to just go back and listen to that one song again, alone, in its own context and not careening into the next sonic block.
The track was taken down only a week after it went on sale, with no explanation; prevailing thought at the time was that it was removed due to licensing issues around the covers. The track surfaced in 2014 on Westerberg’s official Soundcloud account, along with the comment, “I tried to release this in 2008 and had a lot of problems. That being said I hope you enjoy it.”
A few weeks later, on August 6, Westerberg released a track titled “5:05,” using the same announcement and distribution methods as "49:00," and accompanied by another handwritten black-and-white cover. There were two prices, $0.99 and $5.05, with no discernible difference between the two. The song’s length this time was exactly five minutes and five seconds, and it was observed that if you combine 5:05 with 43:55, the running time of "49:00," you end up with exactly 49 minutes of music. This could be deliberate, or it could be completely accidental.
"5:05" begins with what sounds like a sample from a historical movie about Nazi Germany and then proceeds into a rough, straight-ahead guitar/drum machine/vocal construct that feels more like an immediate, off-the-cuff track than anything on "49:00," and it very may well have exactly been just that, given the chorus:
If you want to sue me
Can’t see through me
If they want a lawsuit
I’ll bring a swim suit
All you girls and guys
Join the 5:05
The song then closes with a brisk recitation of “5:05, 5:05 / Fuck you!” repeated until the song ends, but not before Westerberg gets out a quick “Oh, darling,” from the Beatles song of the same name, in his best McCartney accent.
Many fans insist that "49:00" and "5:05" are part of a brilliant ploy by Westerberg, that he created them both in advance and had "5:05" ready as a response song. While that type of hijinks definitely feels Replacements-esque in its impishness, it seems far more likely that once the distribution pipeline was in place, it wasn’t a big deal for Paul to go down to the basement, knock out a track, and release it immediately just because he could. The evidence supporting that theory is the glaring difference in songwriting quality between the contents of the two releases. However, the fact that "49:00" and "5:05" are the only two tracks available on Westerberg’s Soundcloud account does lends some small credence to the conspiracy theories, but to most people “49” pointed to Westerberg’s age that year more than anything else.
At the end of August, "3oclockcreep" appeared, a two-track release clocking in at a little over 23:30, this time priced at $3.89. The cover is a little more elaborate, another homemade production which includes a self-modified Polaroid of Paul holding what appears to be a flip phone. The title track runs 20 minutes, while “Finally Here Once” is a standard three minutes in length. "30clockcreep" is particularly notable for the last 10 minutes, which comes from Replacements outtakes in the studio with Tom Waits (!) back in 1989, including a minute of “If Only You Were Lonely.” (In case you were wondering, the other tangible artifact of this particular outing was a song called “Date to Church,” which was only available on a Sire Records promotional sampler called "Just Say Mao," released in 1989.)
Again, headphones and diligence are required to break "3oclockcreep" into its component parts, and the fans sprang into action immediately after release. There are about five songs/sections in addition to the four segments from the Waits outtakes. Of note are “Tell ‘Em to Go to Hell,” a great Faces tribute, and “It’s Ridiculous, Everybody Wants to Be Famous,” which is Paul laughing as he sings and plays a now remarkably prescient song about surfing tuna, job-hunting dogs and parrots as professional athletes.
The in-studio segment is, not surprisingly, not finished outtakes but rather partial performances and a healthy amount of drunken studio banter; Paul and Tom trying to remember what Rolling Stones they want to sing (while Tommy advocates just off-mic for “Surfer Girl” by the Beach Boys) is equal parts hilarious and an agonizing lost opportunity. Paul cueing Waits with a deliberate, “Tom W.!” is just plain funny. “Let’s go listen to that, it sounded almost good,” Waits says at the conclusion of a take of “We Know the Night.” “We’re just getting the spirit,” Paul declares, “Let’s stand up, fuck this sitting down shit!”
The second track on the release, “Finally Here Once” is the complete opposite of the 20 minutes you’ve just endured; it’s polished and catchy, but owes, shall we say, more than a little bit of a debt to INXS's “This Time.” Overall, "3oclockcreep" is another interesting artifact, but probably not one you’d come back to repeatedly ("3oclockcreep" is still available for download on Amazon.)
In September, one more track came out for the grand total of $0.99, with another home art project cover: “Bored of Edukation.” No outtakes, no medleys, just a straight-ahead, loping Westerbergian rocker that’s a grown-up version of “Fuck School”:
It’s all been said before, it’s all been done
Oh, am I flying too close to the sun
Icarus is sick of us, Daedalus has a question
Why ain’t school more fun
Go on and ask the bored of edukation
We taught you to walk
They taught you to sit
This is a polished concept, both musically, lyrically and sonically. “The best for last?” Paul scrawled on the cover, leaving fans to wonder if this would be the end of the line for this particular release period. (“Bored of Edukation” is available on Amazon.)
But to round out 2008, there was one more release in December: "D.G.T.," a three-song outing featuring the seasonal “Always in a Manger” (a.k.a. “Away in a Manger”), along with “Streets of Laredo” and the title track. The cover featured a plaid-flannel-clad Paul holding the (at the time) recently released Westerberg model First Act guitar, a Telecaster-shaped guitar, complete with plaid pickguard.
Whether intentionally or not, "D.G.T." (which seems to stand for “Damn Good Time,” at least according to the song lyrics) is probably best described as country punk (back in the day it was occasionally referred to as "cowpunk"). Three songs, two covers, one original, all with that rough cut/demo feeling, but straight-ahead performances this time, pleasant to own to round out your collection. ("D.G.T." is still available on Amazon for 99 cents.)
Fans would have to wait almost a whole year before Westerberg released anything else. In September of 2009, "PW & the Ghost Gloves Cat Wing Joy Boys" arrived, this time available on CD as well as digitally. The title of this "eponymous" six-song collection comes from key words in the titles of each of the songs on it. Out of all the Westerberg one-offs in this period, this is the one you need to own. It’s lush, complex, plaintive, joyous, loud, crunchy, and just solid as heck. As casual as the release was (like everything else "PW" put out in this time period, the record just appeared out of nowhere, and cover is another collage cut-up job), the songs sure don’t feel like it. “Ghost on the Canvas” is gorgeous, with lines like “We dream in color/others color their dreams.” “Drop Them Gloves” is a quintessential rocker, “Good as the Cat” seems simple and straightforward until you get further into it:
I ain’t been young in a long time
I don’t want to be told what to do
I don’t want to be old and I sure can’t be new
And then you come to “Love on the Wing.” It’s not overstating to assert that this song is a heartbreaker of “Unsatisfied” proportions, beginning with Paul working his way across a keyboard, before changing keys and tempo behind an acoustic, with the piano chords acting as rhythm section, before the band comes in at the chorus. It builds beautifully.
The last verse is what’ll kill you:
I could go back to the one, for the one there who waits
For me to return and sing
Who knows what tomorrow may bring?
I am the star for which all evenings wait
You are the dusk, feel my ache, darkness brings
Love on the wing
She didn’t mean a thing
Love on the wing
“Gimmie Little Joy” would be the single (if there were such things as singles for six-song EPs), with an infectious, poppy chorus. The record closes with “Dangerous Boys,” another stunning number. It starts out with Westerberg accompanied by handclaps and a single acoustic for the first verse, then joined by electric and rhythm, his voice gently rollicking through the lyrics. The record ends and all you want is the second side of the record, another six songs just like the ones that preceded them.
And that would be the last original work Paul Westerberg would release. If you weren’t paying attention you were likely to miss all of this, even if you were a fan; although some of the mainstream music journalists picked up the news of these releases, most of the news was transmitted through blogs and other word-of-mouth outlets. "49:00" might be infuriating but it remains memorable; and "Ghost Gloves Cat Wing Joy Boys" is great work. It certainly seemed like these releases were meant to be the beginning of a new era for Westerberg, with a release channel that allowed for complete control and no record company.
Well, there’s still hope.