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Club-hopping one way to gauge nation’s nervous mood

The cover photo of this week’s Time magazine has been lurking in the psyche of America for the past two weeks: A bread line, circa 1931, buttressed by the headline “The New Hard Times.” Whether or not that’s overstating things by the liberal media e

 Liz Phair at First Avenue Saturday
Photo by Daniel Corrigan
Liz Phair at First Avenue Saturday

The cover photo of this week’s Time magazine has been lurking in the psyche of America for the past two weeks: A bread line, circa 1931, buttressed by the headline “The New Hard Times.” Whether or not that’s overstating things by the liberal media elite remains to be seen, but I took my own pulse of America this week, stopping in at Minneapolis bars and music clubs (and one strip club), to imbibe in the healing qualities of good music and gathered people, and to gauge the post-crash mood.

Unlike the Republican candidate for vice president, it wasn’t pretty. In fact, the only comparable such club tour I’ve taken was in the week immediately following 9/11, when hushed roomfuls of people stuck their head in the live music sand and wondered what the bleep would happen next.

First stop was Wednesday at Nye’s Polonaise Room, that storied venue that Esquire magazine named “best bar in America” a few years ago, and, with Mikey the bartender on watch and the best roadhouse country-rock-blues band in town, Molly Maher and Her Disbelievers, at the ready, it figured to be another night to remember. Which it was, musically, but the number of patrons in attendance was in the single digits, and less so in the piano bar, where drunk businessmen sang shrill versions of Sinatra and Bennett and no one got around to my request for “Happy Days Are Here Again,” because they were self-medicated beyond any coherent communication with anyone other than themselves.

Which, perhaps, is understandable. The macro side of things is serving up massive amounts of fear and loathing at the moment, while the micro in all of us is a little “on edge,” you might say. That probably explains some of the strange conversations and frayed arguments I’ve had with loved ones over the last week, but I’m trying not to sweat the small or big stuff because my summer ended with the funerals of two friends who drank and drugged themselves to death a good 30 years before their time was up. Cause of death: loneliness.

I don’t mean the sort of loneliness that gets sated by the company of other people, but the feeling that no one else is going through what you’re going through. To wit, in the last two weeks, I’ve had three separate chats with writer pals who asked if I thought that their drinking a bottle (and a half or so) of wine every night means they’re drinking too much, which brought to mind what my pals who’ve been through AA say: “If you have to ask, you probably are.”

Then there’s the fact that, almost every day I go to pick up my kid at school, the grade- and middle-school moms are talking about getting together for a drink, or drinking alone, or how difficult it is to pay bills, raise kids, and navigate the “Lutheran valley,” where no one talks about — much less engages in — medicating, masturbating, fornicating, celebrating, or learning in ways that go outside the boundaries of this tight-lipped and -butt-cheeked area.

I report all of this to simply let you know that if you are in your dark hole somewhere, you are not alone. Far from it. If you listen between the lines, you can hear it every day in nuanced tones, whispers, and screams. The Chinese proverb famously goes, “May you live in interesting times,” but if you’re paying attention — and how could you not be? — the times are insane. To quote Bob Dylan, “Things are breaking up out there.” To quote Husker Du, “Everything falls apart.” To quote the Weepies, “The world spins madly on.”

 Anyway, back at Nye’s, I was happy to have a mostly private concert by one of my favorite bands, but as I looked around the drafty room I was reminded of something Arnellia Allen, owner of Arnellia’s, told me in the summer when I stopped by for some chicken wings, catfish and soul music. “When the economy tanks, people stay home, buy a bottle and drink,” she said, sitting on a bar stool and surveying the tiny crowd. And that was before the Wall Street crash, the bailout, and the sense that, as one Lee’s Liquor Lounge manager put it to a customer late Saturday night, “People are nervous.” 

All that said, the Ray LaMontagne show at the Orpheum was sold out, and the Alanis Morrisette show at the State looked to be doing a brisk gate as we tooled our way down Hennepin to the Liz Phair show at First Avenue Saturday evening. The rest of my unofficial survey goes like this:

Amy Rigby and Wreckless Eric (Friday, 7th St. Entry): 100 people

Ashleigh Fumich (Saturday, Nicollet Island Inn): seven people.

Belfast Cowboys (Saturday, Lee’s): 50 people.

Then there was the Seville Club on Friday night. In the strip club game, there’s a saying: “Beer and titties sell no matter what.” And while the club was doing brisk after-hours business, one of the dancers told me that, “I just talked to a bunch of the girls, who say they just had their first (lap) dance.” This was at 1:30 a.m., which means that many of the working girls had already been on their shift for a few hours, and the fact that many of them were going home without a fistful of cash is as good an indicator of the economic downturn as any: Men are not paying the 20 and 10 dollars a pop to have scantily-clad women writhe in front of them, like they were a couple of weeks ago.

After 9/11, the president famously told Americans to go shopping. At the moment, it might behoove him to remind “we the people” that going out — to clubs, bars, music venues — gets us out of ourselves and out of our own burrowed-in blues, and that it’s important to keep the blood pumping and the elbows rubbing, even when the world can make you feel, as one mourner put it to me at a funeral home recently, “I’m lost.”

Liz Phair at First Avenue Saturday
Photo by Steve Cohen
Liz Phair at First Avenue Saturday

Phair and the New Depression

“It’s a privilege to play for you, it really is,” said Phair near the end of her 90-minute live reading of “Exile in Guyville,” the lo-fi opus that set indie rock on its ear in 1993, and you could tell she meant it. Like most mortals loitering on the planet these days, Phair realizes we could all be toast tomorrow, so she was happy to be with her tribe and seize the night and show her mettle in the face of a world gone nut-job.

That’s what I heard, anyway.

And before you go all Walsh-is-whipped-on-another-girl-singer, you should know that all my hours spent with “Guyville” in the early ’90s was as formative as all the hours I spent in my three sisters’ bedrooms, learning about girls and women. That is, “Guyville” told me something intimate about the yearnings of my girlfriends; yearnings that are still there, no matter how many kids or jobs or other unrecognizable lives they’ve graduated to. Dressed like a recovering Catholic girl who traded in her uniform skirt for mall vintage or skatepunk mom, she reclaimed her sexuality to set her apart from an adulthood disease that Nabokov wrote about in “Lolita” in 1955:

“She was, obviously, one of those women whose polished words may reflect a book club or bridge club, or any other deadly conventionality, but never her soul; women who are completely devoid of humor; women utterly indifferent at heart to the dozen or so possible subjects of a parlor conversation, but very particular about the rules of such conversations, through the sunny cellophane of which not very appetizing frustrations can be readily distinguished.”

This photo shows Phair at her pissed-off uberwoman best. She made eye contact with the audience most of the night, not like Team Wink (McCain/Palin), but like the time Dylan scanned the front rows in St. Paul and sang “Masters of War” to see if it was registering with the youth. It reminded me of something she told me about audience eye contact when “Guyville” came out, before she played First Avenue for the first time in 1994 ($6 cover, as opposed to Saturday’s $25):

“Oh my god, I think that all the time. The Police — ‘He can see me!’ The English Beat- – that guy with the blond mohawk [Rankin’ Roger] — ‘He can see me!’ This is bad, cheesy, high-school stuff. And now people come up to me after shows and say, ‘You were looking at me. You were singing that whole song to me.’ And the truth is, maybe I was, but I’m completely unconscious of it. And there’s no way I was thinking what they think I was thinking!”


“I don’t really want to be up there. But some nights, it can be really great. Some nights, it can be about things way bigger than any of the small things, and you start to see things like, ‘Wow, I’m in 1994.’ You know, you feel like you’re another step in the big long history of touring and music and playing.”

Saturday night it was about things way bigger than any of the small things. It takes guts to get up on a stage and open your veins, but people continue to do it even when other people say they suck, because they know that such risk is the lifeblood of rock ‘n’ roll. To that end, “Guyville” stands the test of time, and remains a cry of freedom on par with “Born to Run” or a darker, poppier “Velvet Underground With Nico.”

Like so much great art, hunger and desire are at its core. “I want to be mesmerizing to you,” she cries, the way we all do to someone, sometime, and, “I want a boyfriend/I want all that stupid old shit like letters and sodas.” And, “I only wanted more than I knew.” And the reissue’s bonus track “Ant in Alaska” is a fevered testimonial of yearning for someone who doesn’t even know you’re alive, and one that would do Hank Williams proud.

The show was good, not great, but any chance I get to hear “Divorce Song” and “F— and Run,” I’ll take it. Unfortunately, the crowd was made up of too many one-show-a-year drunks who came to sing the naughty bits, and when she recruited a couple of audience members to sing along to  “Flower,” it gave the yahoos license to pick fights and scream. My personal little Liz experience was getting hijacked, so I moved to the back of the bar and thought about something Terri Sutton wrote about frat boys singing Nirvana’s “Rape Me” in hockey arenas.

The photo that didn’t get taken was of Phair genuflecting in front of her guitar, back to the audience, tuning up in front of the kick drum. In that moment — and I may have been the only one who saw it — I decided that, gathered though we may have been to share an experience we all had in dark rooms with the headphones on, maybe some things are better experienced alone, some things aren’t meant to be shared.

But some things are. That’s why you go out, why you continue to troll in search of something bigger than yourself.

Because if you do, if you get your butt off the couch, you might get something out of it. You might be sitting there one night in the back of the 7th St. Entry as Martin Devaney sings “Nobody writes letters anymore” and Amy Rigby and Wreckless Eric walk in the room and the air changes.

You might curl up in the corner stage right and watch as Amy unhinges on a couple of songs like “Raising the Bar” and “Like Rasputin” — more femme-freedom anthems — but split before Wreckless Eric gets around to his classic “Whole Wide World” because they’ve teased you for too long, you’re ready to go home but, all in all, happy that you took the plunge, happy to have seen some old friends and new strangers, and grateful to come away with one more thousand-words-worthy photo.

Amy Rigby and Wreckless Eric at 7th St. Entry Friday
Photo by Steve Cohen
Amy Rigby and Wreckless Eric at 7th St. Entry Friday