erasing clouds

Never Felt Like This Before: Paul Westerberg's Come Feel Me Tremble DVD

by paul jaissle

Paul Westerberg has ADD. At least that's what he claims in the film Come Feel Me Tremble. Not only is that a better excuse for forgetting songs on-stage than being too drunk to play, this ADD may also explain the ex-Replacements frontman's recent prolific output as well as the disjointed nature of said film. It may also prove to be the secret weapon that has made Westerberg America's first and still best post-punk idiot savant drunken gutter rock poet.

Let's see if I can explain. After the Replacements folded in 1991, Westerberg released a few so-so solo releases before returning truly to form with 2002's Mono, which once again made him a songwriting force to be reckoned with. The resulting tour was the subject of a behind-the-scenes documentary that was released as Come Feel Me Tremble. But, the same day that was released on DVD, he put out an album of brand new studio tracks with the same title as aforementioned live film (got it?). Not only that, but his next album, Folker, is finished and waiting to be released sometime this spring. And that's not even mentioning the albums he put out under his Grandpaboy moniker. Obviously the guy has time and energy to spare (probably due to his recent acceptance of sobriety) and his new label, Vagrant, is more than happy to have him bang out as much music as he wants in his basement without interfering. Does this sudden outpouring of lo-fi guitar rock mean that he is watering down his material and spreading himself to thin? Surprisingly, no: Come Feel Me Tremble was not only one of the best albums of last year, it was one of the best Westerberg has done since the 'Mats called it quits. Once again the guy is on top of his game delivering some fantastic Stonesy guitar swagger as well as more tender acoustic material.

But I can hear you asking, Is the movie any good? Well, it's not a perfect film, and it's not really a straight concert movie either. In fact, it looks more like a celluloid depiction of the world of touring through Westerberg's ADD-riddled brain than a traditional rock flick. That is to say, Come Feel Me Tremble does a better job explaining Westerberg, his music, and his importance as a songwriter than any interview or straight documentary could ever hope to do.

The film starts with a message from Paul himself thanking those who bootlegged and snuck in cameras to the concerts since the majority of the live footage in the movie was fan-shot and has both the washed-out, shakey handi-cam feel and the warm, personal intimacy of bootlegs. These portions of the film capture Westerberg in his element: alone with just a guitar and his words in a room full of strangers who know every note by heart singing themselves hoarse. However, most of these segments are short and fade-in and out inexplicably throughout the film. The editing here seemed annoying at first since almost none of the songs featured here were shown live in their entirety. This becomes somewhat annoying when he pulls out a bunch of Replacements-era tunes like "Can't Hardly Wait," "Alex Chilton," and "Never Mind" (thankfully "Unsatisfied" and "I Will Dare" are presented in their entirety). And would someone please explain why they chose to drop in a quote of Westerberg discussing Bob Stinson's death over the opening lines of "Valentine"? It's one of the best couplets the guy ever wrote, and you can't hear it! Despite these qualms, the film begins to make more sense as the other material fills in and gives a depth and meaning to these live parts that they alone would not have.

Filling out the spaces between performances are a hodgepodge of professional "behind the scenes" shots of the tour, brief interviews with both Paul and his fans, and homemade videos for songs from the album of the same name. Most of the Come Feel Me Tremble studio album does make its way into the movie, and that for me is the most effective and compelling material in the film. The shots of his pre-show rituals and pantomimes (rubbing ice cubes on his nipples, etc.) speak volumes as do the fan testimonials shot outside the clubs and the extended scene of Paul signing autographs while "Meet Me Down The Alley" plays in the background. Most of the professional interviews are turned into sound-clips and played over scenes of Westerberg performing, but there are a few scenes featuring him in a psychiatrists chair playing word-association with Replacements album titles or re-telling anecdotes about meeting Kurt Cobain in an elevator (they didn't say a word to each other).

But even moments without Westerberg or his fans speaking at all do a great job at analyzing the singer. There are a few homemade music videos for "Hillbilly Junk" and "What a Day (For a Night)" which feature Westerberg accompanying himself in his basement with a sort of eccentric, devil-may-care attitude. These may be fun and loose, but there are a few such scenes that, for me, are the highlight of the movie and are the most personal, telling moments Westerberg allows. The tale of Sylvia Plath's suicide he penned as "Crackle And Drag" is presented here in a different version than the two on the album: a lone acoustic guitar dirge with Westerberg looking straight into the camera, haggard and hollow as if the words hurt as he sings them. This take trumps the two other versions on the album, although the ability to deliver the same song with three very different emotions is an interesting achievement. Later, there is some unintended humor as a visibly frustrated Westerberg struggles to record "Wild & Lethal" while illegible lyric sheets, faulty equipment, and un-lit cigars make the whole ordeal almost impossible. Finally, after the credits there is another song that didn't appear on the Come Feel Me Tremble album, the wonderfully catchy ode to fucking up "Everything Goes Wrong" where his basement becomes the target of Westerberg's rampage. This song and the alternate "Crackle and Drag" are really worth the price of admission, and should have made the album.

Aside from some odd editing, Come Feel Me Tremble is a pretty solid and enjoyable look at Paul Westerberg's music. Any fan will enjoy it, especially if they managed to catch the tour it was culled from. Also, anybody who's knowledge of his music ends with the Replacements should check it out as it offers a good overview of his better solo output. Oh, and the DVD has bonus live performances of "Skyway" and "Lush & Green," so buy it today.

Issue 20, February 2004

this month's issue
about erasing clouds

Copyright (c) 2005 erasing clouds