Tuesday, June 3, 2014

How Paul Westerberg became Teenage Wasteland

It’s been awhile since I posted about the making of the record and I apologize. Well not really, as I said it’s pretty much like talking about fucking. Anyway, I do want to tell the story of how what is now our opening track “Teenage Wasteland,” came about. Clever viewers will recall that its working title was “Paul Westerberg,” which we in the band would just call PW when it was time to play it.

OK. If you want to find out just about “Teenage Wasteland” skip to the last paragraph. In between here and there is me talking about rocknroll with some random Wussy history thrown in.

One of the things I enjoy so much about playing in a band is the shared language of rocknroll. By which I mean if you love and play rock music you likely have listened to or seen untold legions of songs, bands, records, shows; you’ve read “War and Peace” length treatises on the early years and influences of your current obsession, etc. It’s a delightful way to waste a life. Since it’s almost Easter I just recalled walking into my parents bedroom in high school (wait for it…) and seeing a copy of the Who bio, “Maximum R&B” on the floor and knowing I was getting it in my basket. I’ve read the story of the Who (and Springsteen) so many times it functions like my scripture, always there for interpretation, inspiration, and disgust. For instance, I’ve never regained my love for the Doors after reading that bio, you know the one, “No One Gets Out Alive,” or something like that. In my youthful assurance I remember reading about Jim bloated on the couch in France right before he died, and thinking that he had been handed the keys to the kingdom and he didn’t give a shit. With a little perspective I understand more about things like addiction, and the ill-advisedness of making a living in rocknroll, however, I was right in concluding that he was a pretentious Jewel level poet in a rock band that except on rare occasions didn’t rock. Jazzy, bass-less, twaddle.

Wussy doesn’t really set out to define what the next record is going to sound like. It’s pointless because you’re either going to force it, or it will evolve into whatever or wherever you’re at when it’s done. I like records that document where a band is at that particular moment in time. Shit, I also hate making blanket statements.  As to the previous sentiment it is of course more subtle than that. We’re not some wide-eyed naifs following the will-o-wisp of our muse. Gross. Everyone comes into a record with things they hope for or want to accomplish. I don’t know about everyone else but I wanted us to record it much more live (we did) and keep it fairly simple in the arrangements. (not so much) The record really started when Chuck brought in Acetylene and a few others that were all pretty and pretty slow. We started to talk about how maybe we should make our “Harvest.” And then as it went on and the songs grew we started staying maybe this’ll be our Led Zeppelin 3.  And then it became whatever it is.

Way back when, Chuck and Lisa, who I barely knew, asked me to meet them for a drink or something. It was at some weird cyber-café that’s closed now. Chuck had mentioned at the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards a few weeks prior that he was forming a new band called Wussy with Lisa. At this meeting they asked me if I wanted to join them, and then we sat around and talked about what we wanted it to sound like. To the best of my recollection we came up with, “Noisy, fucked-up pop music like The Jesus and Mary Chain and the Vaselines.” And then we spent the next year as an acoustic trio because those were the instruments we owned. I think that’s the last time we kind of stated what we wanted to sound like. Ok, so stick with me here because I’m working my way ever so slowly to the point. So even if we don’t sit down and decide what we want to sound like we still have that shared language. I mean, Chuck knows the A and B side of every single ever put out and has owned half of them.* Lisa is the best DJ in the van because she listens to everything and has great taste. I could say similar things about everyone in the band. Also, I don’t think this is a unique attribute to us. It’s how it works in every art form right?

If you go back to pre-Strawberry days there was this lovely day in Jeff Roberson’s recording studio, which is in a barn, (where I got a spider bite) and where we were recording an early version of “Fly Fly Fly” for a vinyl single on Karate Body Records. While Jeff was getting things hooked up we were playing. Lisa played a progression on guitar and we all jumped in. At the end we were all like, “Ooh that sounded like Zeppelin.” So until it got lyrics and became ”Chicken,” we called it the Zeppelin song. A few minutes later Chuck played something on guitar that was lovely and we all started playing that. At the end someone said that it sounded a little like The National. So it was called the National song until it became “Waiting Room.” (It was a really good day. A few days later we frantically called Jeff up and asked if he still had those recordings because we had forgotten how they went) These band or song references are touchstones. Conversations in practice rooms always sound like, “I think we should put a Flaming Lips sounding keyboard part in there,” or “Those harmonies are too Louvin Brothers, they should be more like X.” Or whatever.

So that gets us to how “Teenage Wasteland” came about.  We were in the practice room and Chuck was picking a chord on his guitar with his Tremelo pedal on. Once again without discussion, we all just fell in to playing. The rule tends to be in these situations that whomever sings first writes the lyrics. So Lisa jumped in and did the thing where you sing a melody with word-like sounds. When we petered out Lisa leaned over to me and said, “I just tried to think – what would Paul Westerberg do?” I said, “That’s always a good thing to think.” It’s not like the song sounds like a Replacements song, that’s just what we called it until we called it something else.  In this case we really got used to calling it PW, and when Lisa sang the lyrics in the studio there was no obvious repeated phrase that it had to be called. As a matter of fact, the name of the song in this case could really be anything. As always, I can’t speak as to the lyrical content since I didn’t write them, but I will tell you that when Lisa walked in the studio and sang the line, “stuck in a corn maze with only a transistor radio,” I think our collective hearts stopped for a moment. I don’t think Lisa has ever written a better set of lyrics than she has on this album. So one night when I knew we were going to be working on that song I was driving to the studio trying to come up with a better title than PW and thinking of how the Replacements named their album “Let It Be,” and how funny it would be if we named PW “Baba O’Reilly.” When I got to the studio I told Chuck this and he gave me a look and said,  “Lisa was driving in her car today and heard a Who song on the radio and decided to call it Teenage Wasteland.”  I know. Eerie huh? I’m not trying to take credit for nothing here, I’m just saying that this was my first glimpse of a wider world, a world beyond our senses, a world of subliminal psycho-intellectual connections, a mild burst of telepathy?  I think perhaps. And while I will not comment on the meanings of lyrics I will tell you what the song means to me. To me it’s an unabashed love song to not just rocknroll, but to that voice in the dark wilderness that rock signifies to every unhappy, angry, misunderstood teenager lucky enough to fall in love with a sound, a band, a record. For the band that rescued me from middle school Journey/REO Speedwagon hell was The Who. I will remember for the rest of my life (or until the tumor renders me insensible) the summer afternoon when my brother’s best friend from up the street ran home, returned with Quadrophenia, opened my parents huge wooden console stereo and dropped the needle on “The Real Me.” I mean I can picture everything from the door to the garage being open, to the quality of light. Overblown? Sure, I don’t give a shit. If you’ve heard Quadrophenia you’re probably sitting there nodding your head. Anyway, to have PW named as a paean to my first love is pretty fucking awesome.

And to be honest, it also fulfilled the nice little trick of having us only have to change one letter when we write out our set lists.

* Barely hyperbole


  1. LOVE reading these -keep 'em comin'! Hope to see some thoughts from the upcoming summer tour...

  2. Great stuff. Thanks so much for doing this

  3. Looking forward to seeing you in San Jose!

  4. Sweet, fascinating reflections. Thanks for sharing.