An excess of civic pride: Two books about Twin Cities music

We Minnesotans have something of a reputation for self-obsession, especially regarding our accomplishments. Somebody could have lived here for just a few years, such as Vince Vaughn or Judy Garland, and we’ll claim them as Minnesotans and never let anybody forget the fact. It’s sometimes treated as being a sort of inferiority complex. We’re not a Los Angeles or a New York, but, by the beard of Erik the Red, we’re never going to admit to the fact, and if you bring it up, we’re going to remind you that The Man from U.N.C.L.E. went to college here.

I think that’s an uncharitable read. There’s nothing strange about rooting for the home team, as it were. I think it’s important to instill what Tony Wilson once called “an excess of civic pride.” Wilson, a media personality and scenester in Manchester in the 1970s and ’80s, probably did as much as anybody to encourage the development of the legendary music scene in this Northern English town. And there’s a lesson there in the value of civic pride: We do not encourage greatness by envying Los Angeles.

It’s no accident I mention Tony Wilson, as the subject of today’s column is the devlopment of a regional music scene. Specifically, the Minnesota scene, and, even more specifically, two books about the subject. The first was inevitable, really, although welcome: Andrew Earles‘ “Husker Du: The Story of the Noise-Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock.” The author is not a Minnesotan, but a … Memphisian? Memphisite? Whatever you call him, the fact that a non-Minnesotan took it upon himself to write about one of the state’s defining bands gives a sense of their influence.

If you came up in Minnesota during the ’70s and ’80s, as I did, Husker Du cast an enormous shadow across the city, along with The Replacements, who are currently the subject of a documentary that is making the rounds. Prince had exploded on the national scene, but Husker Du and the Replacements stormed college radio and independent record stores. Both bands were responsible for an envious selection of short, witty, dazzling songs, and both had an enviable sense of bravura. The Replacements released an album in 1984 called “Let It Be,” a breathtaking act of cultural appropriation — who else tries to steal the title of one of The Beatles best-loved albums? They joked that their next album was going to be called “Let It Bleed,” after the Rolling Stones album, and while their music was rarely as ear-scorching as the hardcore punk scene that was developing at the time, this was as bold a punk gesture as has ever been made.

Husker Du, in the meanwhile, made a similarly brash gesture the same year, releasing an album called “Zen Arcade.” Husker Du made fast music — their songs tended to clock in at less than two minutes. So they did the most astonishing things they could, they put out a double album. None of this would mean much, except as a sort of act of enviable cheekiness, but both The Replacements and Husker Du trumped their bold gestures with an even bolder move: These albums turned out the be classics. Seeing as this was the same year that Prince released “Purple Rain,” Minnesotans had a right to some excessive civic pride. After all, in one fell swoop, our native sons had captured the mainstream and the underground. And those are the sorts of moments in history deserve to be remembered and celebrated.

How is Andrew Earles’ book? Well, to an extent, that’s a question best answered by the band itself — I recall when Neal Karlen’s book about Babes in Toyland came out and Maureen Herman, the bass player in the band, declared that Karlen “would make a great fiction writer.” Sometimes the recounting of a tale doesn’t jibe with the band’s memories of the tale — but, then, sometimes that’s for the best, as a band’s memories can be self-serving. Earles smartly mixes research with interviews with members of Husker Du, except Bob Mould, who has his own autobiography coming out.

Earles’ resulting book, as others have noted, has the dry, fact-based quality of a very long Wikipedia entry — albeit a very well-sourced one, including snippets of interviews with the band that appeared in fanzines, published 20 or 30 years ago. This is an especially smart move on Earles’ part. If you were an audience for punk in the ’80s, fanzines were your primary source of information, and bands often gave fanzine publishers unexpected intimate and detailed interviews. I think it had a lot to do with a mutual support for the shared DIY sensibilities of punk and zines, and the sense that both were being created by members of a community that encouraged a sort of chatty camaraderie. Whatever the cause, zine authors frequently got quotes that professional rock critics would have surrendered a lung to get — and seeing how much rock writers smoked in the ’80s, this was not something easy to surrender. Earles’ use of these zine quotes gives the book an immediacy and insider quality look that it might otherwise be missing.

After all, there is a lot that Earles glosses over. Husker Du was rather unique for an ’80s punk band in that two of its three members were gay. They weren’t exceptional public about the fact, and if it figured into their songwriting. It was as subtext, but the fact was a fairly open secret; it’s barely touched on in this book. There’s scant discussion as to why the band broke up, or various hardships and tragedies along the way (their road manager, David Savoy, committed suicide at the start of the band’s 1987 tour, which put a pall on the tour and may have helped instigate the band’s breakup; it’s given all of two paragraphs here). To an extent, that’s understandable, as Earles is more interested in how the band came together and made music than in how they fell apart and stopped making music, but it leaves the story feeling half-told.

But this is the way it is with the telling of history. Each telling is just a part of the story and, fortunately, when the story is important, others will tell another part. We can suppose that Mould’s autobiography will fill in some of the gaps. We can also suppose that there will be other books about Husker Du, and they will add more to the story as well. The advantage of being obsessed with our history is that we’re not liable to forget it.

It happens sometimes. For example, Minnesota is not generally seen as a jazz town. Oh, sure, we have jazz clubs and an audience for the music, but we’re not understood as having pioneered, or even particularly supported America’s most significant musical genre. I addressed this fact in an essay I wrote on my blog quite a few years ago, as my research had led me to discover that saxophone giant Lester Young had spent his formative years living in the Twin Cities and playing in bands here. In fact, he was an avid record collector, and it was his Minnesota habit of learning solos off records, especially those of Louis Armstrong, that led to his distinctive saxophone soloing.

Now there’s a book about the Minnesota’ jazz history called “Joined at the Hip,” written by journalist and bass player Jay Goetting and published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press. And, sonofagun, on page 79, Goetting quotes my essay. So it is, as I said: One writes a few paragraphs of history, and another writes a little more, and expands the discussion, and so it is that we learn our past.

Goetting expands the discussion admirably. His book isn’t just a look at the various jazz bands and personalities that made Minnesota their home — although there were many. Besides Young, Goetting writes about Oscar Pettiford, a brilliant bass player responsible for a selection of absolutely monumental jazz songs. He also details Frank Morgan, an astonishing talent on the saxophone whose hard-living life has left him a supporting player in the history of jazz, when Charlie Parker himself thought Morgan would dominate the genre. Goetting also does a careful job setting the scene of Twin Cities jazz, including the succession of speakeasies and gangster -ontrolled clubs of the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s.

Jazz has become something of a connoisseur’s art nowadays, played in upscale restaurants and Orchestra Hall. But it’s like an uncle who, now mellowed with age, nonetheless has an entire life of stories of brothels, criminals, and vice — and the truth is, jazz wasn’t just associated with this world, it was often the soundtrack to that world. Goetting remembers this, and remembers that the Twin Cities were, once upon a time, pretty knockabout and rough and rowdy. It’s a great story, and it’s about time somebody told it.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Dan Emerson on 04/20/2011 - 01:03 pm.

    The Twin Cities developed an OK jazz scene in spite of a major handicap — the relatively small Afro American population. The musicians did their best to overcome de facto segregation — a force that also hampered Prince and other “Minneapolis sound” originators, before they became big enough to play First Avenue.
    The book is pretty good but could have benefited from closer proofing; William’s Pub is in Uptown, not the West Bank.
    It would have been nice to read more about the “avant garde” scene that developed around Steve Kimmel’s Rainbow Gallery back in the ’70s. Bobby Jackson’s Cafe Extraordinaire was another hot spot (albeit short-lived)overlooked in the book.

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