Two nights detailed by Paul Westerberg
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
This next number is a fun little ditty about a tragedy that has overwhelmed generations.
Going deep into the Paul Westerberg thing tonight, inspired by hearing about the Replacements’ homecoming in St. Paul, Minn., and missing them at Boston Calling while I was out of town, I wound up giving some of Westerberg’s solo stuff a real listen for the first time in years. And with that, I went back trying to find evidence of the Westerberg show I caught in Boston on April 25, 2005, live at the former Avalon in support of his Folker record.
That was the night before my birthday, and tickets were surprisingly easy to get. Getting there relatively early, we lined up along the railing below his mic stand and watched him gallop through his catalog for two hours, playfully kicking bandmates, flubbing lyrics and having a blast. I never saw the Replacements in their day, but this seemed nearly as wild and ramshackle as the rumors, toned down and sobered up for this middle-aged version.
But as documentation goes, beyond my ticket stub, it’s as if this show didn’t happen. If there’s a setlist out there, I haven’t found it. The same goes for recordings. But some digging finally revealed this little time capsule:
I vaguely remember someone hopping up in the middle of the set when Westerberg was playing solo, helping out with forgotten lyrics. But I wasn’t familiar with the song then, so this was another fragment lost to time. “Merry-Go-Round” and “I Will Dare” made longer-lasting impressions, understandably.
That performance is an attempt at “Crackle and Drag” from Westerberg’s 2003 album Come Feel Me Tremble, a catch-all of demos and home recordings from that period. There’s two versions of it, but the second — a somber and mostly acoustic take – is the one that lasts, and it seems like most live versions of the song indeed feature Westerberg solo and not with a band.
And that’s fitting, because the song is a detailed account of Sylvia Plath’s final moments, in which she meticulously prepared her house before committing suicide in her kitchen. It references the final line of her poem, “Edge” — “Her blacks crackle and drag.” The song itself just as carefully paints the scene, leaving out some of the finer details while laying bare the starker images:
“And while her babies slept, she took a long deep breath…
And they’re zipping her up in a bag
Can you hear her blacks crackle and drag?”
The song hangs over the room, noting the rags on the floor and that “she made a good go for a weeping willow,” hinting at the sadness in Plath’s life without casting judgement or endorsement over her actions. Westerberg’s voice isn’t necessarily joyous or angry, either. It just carries the same raucous delivery that has definitively marked his music since the early 1980s. Plath’s death is such a mammoth moment in literary and cultural history that this isn’t its first pop culture reference. It isn’t even the only reference in my personal music collection.
But it’s certainly the one that’s left the deepest impression. Why I can’t remember him playing that song that night, I’ll chalk up to having the lyrics so garbled that it would’ve been impossible to pick out its delicate subject. I didn’t hear that album until years later, anyway, and again, I’ve never tracked down the setlist. It was hiding in there, half-forgotten and laughed off.
The song is yet another gem in a career full of them. It’s a fantastic example of the way his words can relay such heavy feeling and emotion with such economy and wit. But for sure, it’s a strange song to feature a drunk fan on stage trying to sing along.
Sept. 14, 2014
Email Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org