Replacements frontman Paul Westerberg was a teenage punk-rocker when he had his first life-altering experience listening to Prince. Decades later, after playing the same clubs as the late star and recording frequently at Paisley Park, he’s still in awe. “He was like a ray of light in a very cautious place,” the singer-songwriter told us. He spoke with Rolling Stone after hearing news of the rock, pop and funk icon’s death at age 57.
You hear it so often: “It’s such a shock.” And for once, I truly am [in shock]. It’s hard to even believe. I guess it’s just a reminder of how fragile we all are and how quick life is. A lot of people have been calling wondering how I feel, like somehow this is going to spill over and I’m going to drop over. Tommy [Stinson] sent me a text that was like, “Holy shit, can you believe Rog is gone?
I immediately went back to the first times we saw him and all the times we sort of grew up around him. He went to school five, six blocks away from where I was born. So we walked the same streets. But I didn’t know about him until he was already the man. It was probably just right before the Replacements, right as we were getting together. I think it was his first hit, “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” which ironically, was never a hit here at home. I remember reading about it, that there was a guy from Minneapolis who had a huge hit. But it wasn’t played here. I must have been about 19 at the time, and I bought the record and I loved it. It was like everything that we weren’t doing. You know, melodies, and slick and simple and perfect. We were full of the punk stuff at the time. It sort of put us in perspective, like, “OK, we’ll go as far as we can with our limited talent, but this is the real deal. This guy is the real shit.” He would be playing First Avenue when we would be playing the Seventh Street Entry, the little 100-capacity club that connected, and he was in the big room with 900 people. It was night and day. We had our little thing, but occasionally, when we were playing, and he would come in the room for three seconds, walk out and the entire room would empty, following him. I hope he did it on purpose. I think maybe he did. Hey, he was a star. There was no doubt about it.
My first recollection of seeing him was a dress rehearsal for one of his early tours. I was next to another musician, a couple other guys that were up-and-comers and that thought they were hot shit, and we were watching Prince. The guy turned to me and said, “I’m fucking embarrassed to be alive.” And that’s how I felt. He was so good. It was like, “What are we doing? This guy is, like, on a different planet than we are.” It was showmanship, it was rock & roll, it was fun, it was great. I think it helped everyone around. It made us all think that Minneapolis wasn’t the dour town that we tried to pretend it was. He was like a ray of light in a very cautious place. He was a star. He made no bones about it. He was glitz to a place that wasn’t used to it. I remember a little scuffle broke out in front of the stage one night and Prince said, “Stop fighting, you’ll mess up your clothes.”
“He may have been a little more normal than he would’ve liked people to know.”
The first time I met him was at a urinal at a nightclub in St. Paul. There he was, and I said, “Hey, what’s up?” And he answered, “Life.” One word: “life.” And I can’t say that we went on to be pals. But we did record a lot at Paisley Park, and he became comfortable enough to grace us with his presence, not bejeweled and not dressed up. He’d be wearing maybe his jammies and sweat pants or maybe a pear of jeans and sneakers. He could sort of just hang out. He may have been a little more normal than he would’ve liked people to know. That’s the treasure that we got, to be able to sit in the big atrium where you’re taking a break and Prince shuffles by in his slippers and makes some popcorn in the microwave. My sister’s a disc jockey, and he would pass by and say, “Tell your sister hi for me.” People like to paint him as a reclusive this or that; I think he was genuinely truly, truly shy. But one thing says a lot about him: I was there making a solo record a few years later, and I got a message that said that my friend had just died. I was truly rattled, and the next time I went back into the studio, he had filled it up with balloons. Now I’m gonna cry.
I’ve spent more time with Bob Dylan, and I’ve got to say that I was more in awe of Prince. I can’t think of anyone better – an all-around composer, musician, guitarist, star, showman, the whole package, anyone better. If Elvis wrote all of his songs and played guitar, it still wouldn’t quite be there. He’d play Jimi Hendrix-style, between his legs and behind his back. And then he’d do the splits. He could put the guitar down, and Jimi would become James Brown. He could hold the crowd like Mick Jagger, but could Mick Jagger play the piano like that? And then, lyrically, there’s something like, “When Doves Cry.” There’s obviously more going on there than meets the booty.
When I got word today, I was trying to write a song. I put it down. I found myself walking up to the store, and I bought myself a handful of colorful clothes. I was just drawn to do something that he would have done.
As told to Jon Dolan