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In My Tribe
Then & Now: Jim Walsh on the ’80s Twin Cities Music Community

By Jim Walsh

A Twin Cities music legend in his own right, journalist and songwriter Jim Walsh has chronicled the scene for publications from MinnPost.com and the Pioneer Press to Rolling Stone and Spin. His 2007 book The Replacements: All Over But The Shouting (Voyageur Press) captures a particularly colorful slice of local music history. In conjunction with the exhibition This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s, he kicks off our series of reflections on Minneapolis-St. Paul during a critical decade.

“No one ever had as much fun as we did.”

That’s what Chris Osgood said once, when I was interviewing him about his earth-scorching punk rock band the Suicide Commandos. I know what he means. Chances are good that you do, too, because if you’re reading this; if the title alone of This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s flips your wig; if you grew up or are growing up as an outsider with a penchant for found community and a greater good of your own making, you could say the same thing:

I was and am part of something.

For me, that something started around September 22 and 23, 1979, when the University of Minnesota Field House played host to M-80, the now-storied punk/new-no-wave festival organized by Tim Carr and sponsored by the Walker Art Center. With the scent of sawdust permeating the airplane hangar-size barn, the weekend served to simultaneously bid adieu to the ’70s and light the fuse on the ’80s with performances from new music pioneers the Contortions, DEVO (performing as DOVE), the Fleshtones, the Suburbs, NNB, the Girls, the Commandos, the dB’s, Fingerprints, Monochrome Set, and many more, all joined under the same flag of raw, no frills, forward-pushing rock-as-art.

I was 19 years old. It was insane.

“It was a rickety venue, but with all the assembled talent and excitement surrounding each band’s performance, [M-80] felt like something historic was happening,” wrote Hüsker Dü’s Bob Mould in his recent memoir See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody. “In my mind, it was equal to Woodstock or Altamont or the Beatles at Shea Stadium. There was a great scene building in the Twin Cities.”

That scene, as we all now know full well, took root and exploded in the ’80s. Fast-forward to Sunday, June 13, 2012, at the Cedar Cultural Center, where many of the folks who were part of M-80 in flesh or spirit showed up for the Kill Kancer benefit, a tribute concert in honor of Soul Asylum bassist and cofounder Karl Mueller, who succumbed to esophageal cancer in 2005.

For much of the five-hour show, a poster-size portrait of a smiling Mueller hovered stage left, and his wasn’t the only ghost conjured. To be sure, the Twin Cities music and arts community has been hit with some tough losses over the past few years, the kind that come with age, the kind that force-feed poignancy and wisdom onto the survivors, the kind that numb during the day and get pierced by music at night.

Curtiss A started off the evening with a set of stripped-down blues so minimal-animal that the spacious Cedar felt like the 7th St. Entry circa 1979. I ended the night up front, almost involuntarily pounding my open palm on the stage as the all-star group Golden Smog (Chan Poling, Jessy Greene, Gary Louris, Kraig Johnson, Tim O’Reagan, Janey Winterbauer, Marc Perlman, Danny Murphy, Jim Boquist) uncorked an unforgettable version of the Suburbs’ ever-elegiac “Girlfriend.”

On lead vocals was ‘Burbs cofounder Poling, who undoubtedly dedicated the moment in his heart to his late wife, Eleanor Mondale, and his late bandmate, ‘Burbs guitarist Bruce Allen. On lead guitar was Soul Asylum’s Murphy, who started playing music with Mueller when both men were teenagers. Murphy delivered an incendiary note-for-note reading of Allen’s symphonic solo and then, a few tunes later, cranked up his amp and yowled a Soul Asylum tune into the microphone that pled, “Didn’t I blow your mind? The dream is never over.”

Dream? What dream? The dream of youth, I suppose, primarily one that seeks out a tribe based not on bloodlines but on passion, and which is often only acknowledged in the light of loss. Which brings to mind one of the ’80s guiding lights in the Minneapolis rock scene, Katie O’Brien, who took her life in 1999. Here’s what I wrote then, which still rings true today:

“Some people have old friends from college. For others of us, college was, and to some extent remains, a smoky bar filled with loud music, drinks, gossip, bouncers, and shouted conversations over the band. Out of all that comes one of the more disparaged, and, I fear, out-of-vogue, notions of the day: a music community.

“Which, like any good community, is kindled chiefly by its people. People who come out at night to get away from, and to help make sense of, their day. People who seek out another family, away from the one that doesn’t exactly share their passion. People with whom you’re in a perpetual state of catching-up, who you say goodbye to at night’s end with bear hugs and the promise of more to come somewhere down the line.

“People like my friend—everybody’s friend—Katie O’Brien, who took her life one long week ago Friday.”

Katie and a flood of others were on my mind as I pounded the stage that Sunday night. I can still feel the sting on my palm a bit, and I’m glad for the visceral sensation, because the fact is, all this morphing of the past and present that happens with middle age can be wildly confusing. But in that moment, as these old friends and competitors joined in transcendent song, everything settled. Everything was golden.

Gah. For sure, in order to stay in the glorious present, it’s easy to dismiss the past and very tempting to disavow hey days or golden years, especially when punk rock culture was and remains decidedly anti-nostalgic. But at the moment I’m feeling very lucky that my twenties coincided exactly with the ’80s, because it was during that time that I met many of the people I hold dear today—through the communion of vinyl, art, live shows, politics, books, sex, drugs, music, and Scrabble.

It was a quasi-innocent time, despite the murder of John Lennon, AIDS, the choking conservatism of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, Iran-Contra, big hair, bad clothes, and Wham! We watched Pee-wee’s Playhouse Saturday mornings and went to hear our friends play music Saturday (and most other) nights.

We tuned into KFAI community radio to listen to Fresh Fruit (still the longest-running GLBT radio show in the country), Lowedown (the first all-local music radio show, hosted by David Lowe), Rock of Rages (the underground sounds of the day, hosted by Jon Copeland), and Dead Kennedys leader Jello Biafra’s syndicated shot of punk, Maximum Rock & Roll. Unimaginable in these days of instant intra-connectivity, but once upon a time KFAI (and local independent print media outlets the Twin Cities Reader, Minnesota Daily‘s arts and entertainment section, and City Pages) were virtually the scene’s only pulse-trackers, and when Walker Community United Methodist Church burned to the ground on May 27, 2012, the first reports failed to mention the historic nature of the loss. Not only was the church a vibrant modern-day activist and spiritual center, but the three-level red brick building at W. 31st Street and 16th Avenue South, named for lumber baron and Walker Art Center founder Thomas Barlow Walker, was the first home of KFAI, which started broadcasting from the belfry of the church in the spring of 1978, with an antenna that sent out a whopping 10 watts from the roof of the Seward Co-op.

That was it. That was our beacon on the prairie. For all of the ’80s we tuned into KFAI, and when we did one gray March afternoon in 1987, a slinky bass line and ominous drum track hissed out of speakers all across the Twin Cities. KFAI was the only radio station in town that saw fit to play the lead track to Prince’s then-forthcoming album Sign O’ The Times, and even the most attuned Prince listeners were surprised at the stark reportorial tenor of the opening worldview:

In France a skinny man
Died of a big disease with a little name
By chance his girlfriend came across a needle
And soon she did the same
At home there are 17-year-old boys
And their idea of fun
Is being in a gang called the disciples
High on crack, totin’ a machine gun

Prince had ruled the ’80s, but “Sign O’ The Times” portended the wind-down of the decade and offered a grimness about the world that every generation and world citizen ultimately reckons with. He may have also felt his own significance as an artist eroding, for the ’80s were the last gasp of the superstar entertainer, and the cultural fragmentation that has happened since suggests the community Prince helped create was real, and rare.

As exhibition curator Helen Molesworth writes in the exhibition catalogue for This Will Have Been:

“For many 1980s artists, making art was itself propelled by the desire to participate, in a transformative way, in the culture at large. This shared aspiration may be what prompted curator Ann Goldstein to refer to the ’80s as the ‘last movement,’ the last time artists, however seemingly disparate their respective bodies of work may have appeared, nonetheless held in common a set of hopes and assumptions about the role of art in the public sphere.”

For me, the ’80s was all about that set of hopes. Which is why I reject the idea of a “last” anything to describe any movement, if only for what Joe Strummer famously wrote (“The future is unwritten”) and what Chris Osgood sang in the Commandos’ ’80s anthem “Complicated Fun,” guaranteed, much like the ’80s themselves, to resonate for decades to come:

The new wave is the old wave
’Cos we know it all by heart
We’re looking for an anthem
That we haven’t torn apart
We gotta have fun
Fun, fun, fun, fun…

In conjunction with the exhibition This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s, Twin Cities–based artists and writers share their reflections on the decade. Weekly contributors include:

DEVO on the Walker stage, November 3, 1978

A t-shirt from the Sept. 22-23, 1979, M-80 festival, from Jim Walsh’s archive

Chan Poling of the Suburbs at M-80

Photo: Walker Art Center

Flier for a 1981 performance by Hüsker Dü at the 7th St. Entry

The Suburbs play Summer Music & Movies in Loring Park, July 12, 1982

Photo: Walker Art Center

1980s buttons from Jim Walsh’s collection

DEVO on the Walker stage, November 3, 1978

Photo: Walker Art Center