Look, I’m not in the practice of poring over the USA Weekend magazine that comes with the Sunday Star Tribune, but there it was last Sunday, falling slowly and glossing up at me with all its puffery and pandering and brightly colored photos of delicious acoustic guitars, and this headline: “Summer Travel Report: The Top 10 Places to Hear the Best of America’s Music.”
Swell; three things I love – summer, travel, live music. Let’s see.
Turn to the inside charticle, looking forward to reading about the embarrassment of riches we regularly imbibe in here in the twin towns, maybe a little sidebar on how Republican conventioneers will react when they discover Wednesday nights at Nye’s with Molly Maher and Eric Koskinen and their Disbelievers; or the frothing, fomenting singer/songwriter scene exploding with original songs and styles in every coffee shop and dive bar from here to Apple Valley; or the most vibrant indie hip-hop scene in the land; or an independent label milieu kept alive by dreamers and schemers who still believe in the worth of a label’s tastemaking abilities; or [your favorite local musician’s name here]; and the winners are …
Asbury Park, N.J.; Detroit; Bean Blossom, Ind.; Seattle; Miami; Clarksdale, Miss.; Oahu, Hawaii; Los Angeles; Bronx, N.Y.; Gene Autry, Okla.
Um? No Minneapolis, no St. Paul, and no surprise, because here in the great arts and music incubator known as the Midwest, we are used to being ignored or patted on the head condescendingly — especially here in the, as the title of singer/songwriter David Brusie’s forthcoming CD so succinctly nails it, “Flyover State.”
The truth is, I’m not that bugged. But the USA Weekend snub comes on the heels of Paste magazine asking the question, “Does Seattle Still Matter?” or some jive, followed by more glossy pages of hand-wringing over another non-scene. Meanwhile, MinnePaul quietly does its thing, what it has always done: churning out great music that few hear because the country is doped up on talent shows and cover songs. (Speaking of which, if Ashleigh Fumich went on American Idol and did her version of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” it would bring Simon to his knees, and the world would subsequently be introduced to the world’s hottest 24-year-old suburban church-going thrush who just might be the most emotive jazz-pop singer since Eva Cassidy.
The country’s worst self-horn-blowers
Anyway, it’s well-known that MinnePaulites are the worst self-horn-blowers in the country, as we’re all afraid to get called on the carpet by town criers constantly on the lookout for hubris and big heads. But the USA Weekend report came out the same week that Mason Jennings released one of the most important testaments to the inner life in recent memory (“In the Ever,” which came out Tuesday). Then there was Prince tearing it up last month as the Coachella headliner; Slug appearing with Atmosphere on MTV wearing an Obama ’08 T-shirt; a nonstop live scene of every genre that tests the mettle of even the hardiest partier, and an ongoing, ever-evolving and -devolving discussion about local music that goes on in print, the airwaves, the blogosphere, bus stops, bars, etc.
Deep breath. OK. To be fair, any gauge of a music scene’s health is dubious, and such bean-counting is probably best left to the Chamber Of Commerce and stat-keepers. So as with most things, the only way to really check for a pulse is to talk about your own experience in vitality and rebirth.
All I know is that I’ve lived in this town for most of my life, and what I know today is that you can be 49 years old and be having the time of your life writing about music, and playing your songs, and having people in your neighborhood and beyond reading and listening and sometimes paying you money for it.
You can go down to First Avenue and find yourself on stage, as I did last Friday night, with a bunch of other local musicians who gathered in the name of the David Bowie songbook. You can be dead center in front of the stage, watching Lori Barbero, looking like a white Ronette, singing a beautiful, unsure, uncool and finally transcendent version of “Changes,” the money part of which came when the fortysomething former Babe in Toyland sang, “Ooh, look out you rock-and-rollers, don’t you know you’re gonna get older.”
Adorned in makeup and glitter …
You can sing along to “Young Americans,” and have it take on new meaning, what with all the youth and American-reinvention fomenting at the moment. You can be wearing eye makeup and glitter that was applied by the transgender-bending band’s black vinyl-clad mistress, and you can grab the microphone and introduce Pete Hofmann, a shut-in songwriter, husband, father and educator who this night is also adorned in glitter and eye makeup, and you can find yourself testifying to the crowd “this [bleep] is my kids’ music teacher.”
You can have your breath taken away when John Eller, leader of the David Bowie tribute band, leads the crowd in a tease of a singalong to, “Ain’t there one damn song that can make me break down and cry?”
You can still be wearing the makeup the next morning as you coach your 13-year-old Little League team to victory (sunglasses on) and as you drive to the dog park later, doing the iPod shuffle. You can be thinking about all of this, all of this happiness, all of this strangeness, all of this beauty, and then Bellwether’s “Willing to Trade” comes on and there it is, Eller’s one damn song, and you break down and start bawling, the third time in the last couple of years; a grown man crying, and yes you can count on one hand how many times that has happened, but this is a first: Your mascara is running.
You wipe it off with your green LARC Coaching Staff shirt and clean up your face and go to the dog park, that great sociology study-slash-petri dish by Lake of the Isles, where people watch dogs mate and nibble and chase each other, and, especially in the springtime, try to contain themselves or not, and in your head you hear another great Minnesotan, Bob Dylan, sing, “If dogs run free, why can’t we?”
You sit there in the sunshine and revel in the clouds and the happy humping dogs, and on your way home you stop at the light on Bryant and 31st and you see a woman in the car next to you, scribbling furiously. You have a penchant for asking complete strangers what they’re reading or writing and so you yell over to her, just as the light changes. She says she’s trying to get the name of the song they’re playing on the radio, but she missed it and now she’s jotting down the time and she’s going home check it out online.
Heading for the CC and Lisa Lee
You can have the radio on a couple nights later as you drive to the CC Club, that storied pub populated by a fabled jukebox and countless rock & roll ghosts. The man on the radio plays “The Seeker” by the Who, which comes out of the dashboard like an autobiography, reveling as it does in the kind of wisdom gleaned from such mystics as Dylan, the Beatles, and the Stones, and the man on the radio follows that up with the equally poignant “That’s Entertainment,” by the Jam.
You can go into the CC and there will be Lisa Lee, the punky waitress who will hate that description if she ever gets around to reading it, and who will tell you that she despises hearing the overplayed Beatles and Stones and if you know what’s good for you, you will not play them on the jukebox. You will fear for your life and comply.
You can sit there in a booth for a couple of hours talking with old and new friends about music and life, and though you will come to no hard-and-fast conclusions, on the drive home you can be thinking to yourself how much you love this town because it, and you, can still surprise and be surprised.