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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Minneapolis 1985 (and a few other years)

Thinking quite a bit about Prince's death. Coincidentally, I'm currently reading Trouble Boys, the recent biography of those other Twin Cities icons, The Replacements. I have Minneapolis on my mind.

Just a warning: This is not the story of a cool kid who was hip to the 1980s music scene in Minneapolis, but a somewhat dorky teen who had little idea of what was happening but could definitely feel the vibe of a hip city. Though I didn't know about the Replacements and Husker Du until 1986, I had the sense that Minneapolis had it going on like few other places I'd ever been to before.

Now a little backstory...

I may have mentioned this before, but I took trips to Minneapolis in the summers of 1981, '82, '84, and '85. My uncle Jim worked for the chief of the Baraga (MI) Ojibwa Tribal Community and made business trips to Minneapolis. I don't know if this was coincidence, but almost every time I went up north to visit my aunt, uncle, and cousins it coincided with one of their trips to the Twin Cities. I suppose it's possible that they purposely planned my visits for these trips, knowing that it would be fun for me.

When we went, my aunt and uncle preferred to stay at the Normandy Inn at 405 S. 8th Street in downtown Minneapolis. I have fond memories of the place, and am happy to see that it's still in business (now under the Best Western umbrella). The Normandy had (and perhaps still has) a good restaurant, and one of my fondest memories of my uncle is him becoming particularly ebullient and playful after a bottle of wine (or two) when we all dined in the restaurant on one particular evening (I don't remember the year).

The Normandy is where I played foosball with a friendly kid about my own age from Winnipeg, Manitoba. I also remember watching, with my cousins in our hotel room, the cheesy Sylvester Stallone/Michael Caine soccer flick Victory and equally corny Saturday Night Fever sequel, Staying Alive. I'm not really sure why I remember those movies, but it might be because I had so much fun laughing with my older cousins and hooting on the movies while we watched them. I think it also felt very "adult" for the three of us to have our very own hotel room away from the adults.

Minneapolis is where I saw Brian DePalma's Blow Out in the summer of 1981. I'm pretty sure my aunt, uncle, and cousins wanted to see it because it was the latest John Travolta flick, not quite realizing the graphic subject matter. However, I don't think I was scarred from the experience.

I'm straying a bit from what the focus of this post is supposed to be, which is the first year I went to Minneapolis alone, 1985. As it turns out, that's the last time I've been to the Twin Cities, even though one of my cousins currently lives in the suburbs of Minneapolis.

If 1984 was the pinnacle of the Minneapolis music scene--which with the exception of Purple Rain, I was completely oblivious--1985 was the victory lap. Unfortunately, I was still pretty clueless about Minneapolis music in '85. One thing that was clear to me though was that Minneapolis was the most cosmopolitan city I'd ever seen. It was clear that the people, buildings, streets, restaurants, and retail establishments were much more happening than anything I'd experienced in Michigan. If only I'd been aware of The Replacements, Husker Du, Suicide Commandos (who I believe were defunct by 1985), and to a lesser extent The Suburbs were, my mind would've been completely split open. (I actually kinda knew who The Suburbs were, and will explain later).

So how did I end up in Minneapolis in 1985, you might ask? (if you haven't already bailed on this long-winded blog post). By 1985, my two eldest cousins were out of college and both living in Minneapolis. (Coincidentally, my cousin Joe worked at the Normandy Inn). After visiting me and my parents in Michigan, the plan was for me to drive with my cousin Joe back to Minneapolis where I'd stay for about a week and then take the bus to Baraga. My aunt and uncle would then drive me to Mackinaw City and hand me off to my parents, and we'd head home from there.

After failing miserably in my attempts to master driving his automatic transmission Subaru, Joe ended up driving the two of us all the way back to the Twin Cities. If I remember correctly, Joe lived with two roommates in a St. Paul apartment. It was here that I got my first taste of fresh-out-of-college bachelor life. Actually, both of Joe's roommates were still students, though I believe one was a grad student at the University of Minnesota.

In the Twin Cities, I quickly learned, excitement...of public transportation. I witnessed a guy on the bus have a seizure and flop around like a fish on the floor. When it was over, he sat back in his seat as if nothing had happened. Quite an eye-opener for a 17-year-old kid.

After that initial bus trip that took us from St. Paul to the Dinkytown section of Minneapolis (home of the University of Minnesota), I saw two men affectionately holding hands. It was the first time I'd ever witnessed two gay people openly expressing themselves. At the time, it was akin to seeing an exotic animal in the wild for the first time. I hope that comparison doesn't sound flippant, it's not meant that way. It's just at the time, I'd only heard of gay people and had never "seen" a gay person, at least not to my meager adolescent knowledge. It was all a part of my education. I wasn't shocked by what I saw, but certainly intrigued.

My cousin Joe and his friends like to blow off a little steam after work and school, so I remember tagging along with them. One time they had drinks at Nicollet Mall while I poked around the stores and bought (gulp) Duran Duran's Seven and the Ragged Tiger. (Did I mention that I wasn't that cool when I was 17? Though I did also buy two other albums on that particular trip to Minneapolis: Simon & Garfunkel's Bookends and The Best of the Doors. Slightly less dorky, perhaps).

On another evening, Joe and his two roommates took me to the restaurant on the top floor of the IDS Center, the tallest building in Minneapolis. They drank Grolsch beers and I was so intrigued by the fancy bottles that I took them home with me. Stowed them in my suitcase. I had those empty bottles for several years.

On my last day in Minneapolis, I had some time to kill downtown before my bus left town. I wandered around and stumbled into the First Avenue/7th Street Entry. I remember thinking that it looked shabbier and seedier than I expected. (For some reason, Purple Rain gave me the impression that it was a gleaming club. Watching the movie again now, I don't know why I thought that way). I also saw a flyer posted on a street advertising a show by local music heroes The Suburbs. "Who are The Suburbs?" I thought. Now I wish I'd had the forethought to rip down all the music flyers I could find and save them for posterity. If only I had a WABAC Machine.

Regrettably, that's the last time I've been to Minneapolis. A flurry of visits from 1981 to 1985, but none in the last 31 years. I think it's about time I went back and took MY family.

In the autumn of 1986, as a college freshman, I learned about two Minneapolis bands called The Replacements and Husker Du. I liked those bands when I heard them, and I still like them to this day. Between the two of them, I own almost everything they ever recorded.

And them there is the late, great Prince. As I have been dusting off the Prince albums I have in my collection (almost everything from Dirty Mind to Diamonds and Pearls--I've never pulled the trigger on Prince's first two albums) I am struck more than ever before at what a genius he was. How is it that I never truly appreciated how amazing he was until after he is gone?

So there is my Minneapolis story. I hope I didn't lose your interest too badly. A dorky teenager who received at least a little education from that fine Midwestern city.

My remaining souvenirs from Minneapolis (1981-1985)

I recently unearthed these postcards I brought home from my various trips to Minneapolis. There is the City Center, where I purchased my copy of Purple Rain in July 1984, the Minnesota Zoo (that I visited in 1985) and a few others that I probably took from the lobby of the Normandy Inn. 

Thursday, April 21, 2016


Alright, this has to stop. Enough with every great musician dying recently. It's getting ridiculous.

I don't even know where to start with this one. It blindsided me. I knew that Prince had a health scare last week, but I never expected him to frickin' DIE a week later.

Do you remember how, after Bowie died, I wrote about how his Let's Dance album penetrated the hinterlands of rural Michigan? It was exactly the same deal with Prince when 1999 was released, and then the doors blew off their hinges two years later when Purple Rain exploded.

Prince introduced R&B and funk to quite a few small town, Midwestern white kids. And it's safe to say that if you came of age in the 1980s, Prince was a major part of your life's soundtrack.

It was in a van heading home from a high school golf tournament when I first remember hearing about Prince. The year was 1982. I remember that the Brewers were playing the Cardinals in the World Series. Conversation went from the Fall Classic to this weird guy with equally odd name of Prince who sang songs that were, on the whole, decidedly R-rated. I was intrigued...

But it wasn't until I first saw the video for "When Doves Cry" in 1984 that I was completely blown away. "When Doves Cry," with its hypnotic electro-beat, shredding introductory guitar riff, and the Purple One's enigmatic vocals and lyrics, was (and still is) a mesmerizing song. It has to rank as the one of the most daring singles ever released.

It was a full month and change between the release of this incredible single and when Purple Rain was unleashed. If memory serves me, the build-up for this album was intense. By the time it was released and I finally had an opportunity to buy it, I happened to be on a trip to the Twin Cities with my aunt, uncle and cousins. With Prince's international explosion that summer, the excitement in Minneapolis was palpable. You could just feel it in the air. Thrilled beyond belief in a way seldom approached since, I bought my vinyl copy of Purple Rain at a record story in the City Center shopping mall in downtown Minneapolis.

That August of 1984, I went to a two-week summer camp for high school science and art geeks that was held at Michigan State University. One of my best memories are the dances that we had in the McDonel Hall kiva, absolutely losing our minds to the music from Purple Rain in particular. The slow build and anticipation of "Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life..." and slow dancing to "Purple Rain" (the title track). Teenage hormones and unbridled lust for life. I can't hear Purple Rain without thinking of that summer camp and and all the joyous experience meeting so many kids of like mind for the first time in my life.

Prince was by my side for the rest of high school. Dirty Mind, Controversy, 1999, Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day, and Parade were in heavy rotation throughout those years. In 1985, I took another trip to Minneapolis to visit my two older cousins Joe and Sue, who were living there. I'll never forget walking around downtown and stumbling in the First Avenue/7th Street Entry, made famous in the movie Purple Rain. My impression was that it was quite a bit shabbier looking in person than it appeared in the movie. (I haven't seen it since '85, so I'm not sure if this is still the case).

By the time I got to university, Prince didn't seem quite as cool anymore--as I got into the "college rock" of R.E.M., Husker Du, The Replacements, U2, etc. Though I liked "Sign O the Times" (1987) and "Alphabet Street" (1988), I didn't bother to buy the records. In the skewed, self-righteous logic of a college kid, I deemed the music of Prince to be "high school music" and blew it off.

It wasn't until the mid to late '90s that I backtracked and rediscovered the music that I missed.

There's no doubt that Prince lost his way a bit musically in the last two decades of his career, and Diamonds and Pearls is about where I stopped with Prince. There's no denying the man was a musical genius, and for many of us his albums and singles constitute a major part of our life's soundtrack.

R.I.P., Prince Rogers Nelson.

Me, John, and Pete: 1986 or 1987

A college friend of mine just recently--today, in fact--posted on Facebook this old picture of me and some friends. It really blew me away because I'd never seen it before.

I'm pretty sure this is either freshman or sophomore year at Michigan State, which would make it circa 1986/1987. (In case you're wondering, I'm the guy in the red shirt).

I can't quite put into words how gleeful I am to see this photo. The guy standing next to me is Pete, who introduced me to The Smiths, The Feelies, and Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks. Yes, he was "that guy": the guy you always hope to meet in college. The guy who says, "If you're into so-and-so, you might like such-and-such." He was the cooler guy who leads you down unknown paths.

The first time I met Pete was my second or third day on the MSU campus in September 1986. I was dragged out of my room by a few other freshmen to take on the daring odyssey of visiting each and every dorm room on our floor, just to meet these other kids and see what was going on. It beat sitting meekly in our rooms twiddling our thumbs. G-69 was the last room on our floor before one hit the stairwell: the room of Paul, Pete, and their third roommate whose name escapes me. Their room was already pretty well appointed, and music was playing. Pete lounged on the top bunk and the moment he saw me, he said something like, "Hey, you look like this guy!" as he pointed to a magazine picture of (who I later learned was) the Smiths' lead singer Morrissey that was taped on the wall behind him. I must admit at the time that I had no idea who Morrissey was and, in fact, thought it was Neil Tennant of Pet Shop Boys. (Embarrassing admission--but I think I've finally reached the age where I just don't care about "embarrassing admissions" anymore).

Anyway, my nickname was firmly and irrevocably in place, created by Pete. I would henceforth be referred to as "Morrissey." As a result, I had to know more about who this Morrissey guy was, and I quickly became a Smiths fan--aided by Pete who let me borrow his copy of The Queen is Dead. I learned that the Smiths' music spoke to me, as it did many angst-ridden young people. (By the end of the 1986 calendar year, I believe I owned all the albums the Smiths had released up to that point).

This photo is wonderful in so many ways. My roommate John is in the foreground, covering his face. He's either laughing or in pain--I'm not sure which. All of your 1980s college dorm room signifiers are there: my life-size Jim Morrison poster, my proudly framed "Walked, Swam, Hunted, Danced, Sang" Lifes Rich Pageant-era R.E.M. poster, and the Sports Illustrated Cheryl Tiegs. We had to have some cheese cake on the walls, that was a must back in the '80s. (I have no idea if, in these somewhat less misogynistic times in which the objectification of women is frowned upon, guys have pictures of scantily clad women on their dorm room walls anymore. In fact, I have no idea how college kids decorate their rooms these days).

This old photo probably means nothing to anyone outside of myself and maybe a few people who lived on Ground Floor East Shaw Hall in 1986-1987, but it gives me a tremendous amount of joy to see it again after all these years.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Great Procrastinator does some catching up

This is my last day of my spring break vacation, so naturally I put off writing in this blog until the last hour of said last day. Such is the life of a habitual procrastinator.

We went to Chicago and were there from last Sunday until late Wednesday afternoon. We did most of your typical touristy things that families with kids tend to do: Millenium Park (on an unseasonably warm Sunday afternoon), a long Monday spent at the Art Institute and then a few minutes at the top of the Sears (aka Willis) Tower, a stroll through Navy Pier with lunch at the Billy Goat Tavern (or what passes as the Billy Goat Tavern), and finally a brief shopping excursion on the Magnificent Mile, where I felt completely out of place at Nordstrom's, but picked up some Cubs swag at the Lids store. Finally, it was a long train ride back home in the cold, dark Midwestern drizzle.

I had the opportunity to decompress and relax a bit from Thursday until today. I watched the Tigers' home opener on TV Friday, and have actually enjoyed quite a bit of early season baseball. The MLB Network features different teams playing each day, so I've seen Hunter Pence hit a dramatic grand slam for the Giants, the Blue Jays stumble against the Red Sox, and the Mets take on the Phillies today in a sun-drenched (but probably chilly) Flushing, NY.

I'm currently trying to read three books simultaneously, something I almost always fail at. I picked up Tim Wendel's Summer of '68 on remainder at Schuler Books & Music about a week and a half ago. I'm enjoying it immensely.

I'm also immersed in Bob Mehr's enormous and thoroughly researched book about The Replacements, Trouble Boys. He deserves a tremendous amount of credit for the digging he did, and for avoiding the usual, "look at how wild and crazy those guys were" shallowness of most stuff written about the 'Mats.

Finally, I'm trying to get into Charles Leerhsen's Ty Cobb bio. I don't know what it is, but it's just not grabbing me yet, and I've been going back and forth with it for months. I have a feeling I'll be finishing the Wendel and Mehr books long before the Leerhsen.

Oh, one final note. I picked up the new Bob Mould album and it's great so far. Maybe more on that later. Now, I need to get some shut eye.