Tom Sinclair
May 03, 1996 AT 04:00 AM EDT

”I’ve committed the sin of growing older,” says former Replacements frontman Paul Westerberg, 36. ”The worst part of it is, I embrace it. I don’t have to pretend to be 22. I can write music that speaks to who I am now.”

To hardcore Replacements fans, Westerberg’s gradual metamorphosis from untamed punk icon to introspective rock & roll adult has been a bone of contention, with many derisively rejecting the kinder, gentler Westerberg revealed on his two solo albums, the new release, Eventually, and its predecessor, 1993’s 14 Songs. Westerberg remains undaunted by such naysayers: ”What I essentially do is write songs and play guitar and sing, and I’ve gotten better at all three over the years. If someone has a problem with that, well, it’s not my problem.”

Clean and sober for the past seven years, the once perpetually besotted Westerberg now views his former band’s vaunted legacy with a healthy dose of skepticism.

”I guess I’m not the biggest Replacements fan,” he says candidly. ”I played some of our early records the other day, and the playing and singing — some of it was just atrocious! Still, being in that band with those particular guys was a very special thing. I knew it then, and I know it now. I don’t fault anyone who takes [the Replacements’] approach — which is basically to flail away with all your heart and hope you hit the right chord — but that’s sort of the easy way. It is funny, though. The more new bands I hear, the more I hear our influence.”

That influence can be heard in almost every corner of the alterna-rock world. The Goo Goo Dolls’ recent hit single ”Name,” for instance, is a ballad that clearly echoes Westerberg’s style.

”’Name’ isn’t a pure rip-off,” says Westerberg. ”For one thing, we would never have made the song that long. But to any band that wants to steal from [the Replacements], I say, ‘Steal!’ We certainly stole from the bands of our day, whether it was Rockpile or Johnny Thunders. It’s rock & roll; it’s for the takin’.”

Ironically, the man who once sang raucous anthems like ”I Hate Music” and ”F— School” now seems a bona fide elder statesman, an unimpeachably important artist whose albums probably won’t go gold but whose impact on rock extends far beyond record sales. Somewhat like, say, Van Morrison. Pretty good company — but Westerberg bristles at the comparison.

”Hey, I want to sell records!” he says. ”I’d like to be more than just a jewel in my record label’s crown. Somewhere between Van Morrison and Hootie would be nice.”

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