Explaining the unexplainable

With two new books out, Jim Walsh reflects on his career in journalism

Jim Walsh. Submitted photo
Jim Walsh. Submitted photo

After more than two decades chronicling the Minnesota music scene, Jim Walsh has not yet tired of the loud bars and late nights. Or writing it all down when he gets home.

The longtime Southwest Journal columnist recently released two books: “Bar Yarns and Manic-Depressive Mixtapes: Jim Walsh on Music from Minneapolis to the Outer Limits,” collecting dozens of his columns on music and life written for a variety of news outlets, and “Gold Experience: Following Prince in the ’90s.” The latter compiles Walsh’s coverage of the Purple One between 1994 and 2002, during his tenure as the St. Paul Pioneer Press music columnist.

Walsh, who grew up and lives in Southwest Minneapolis, has also written for City Pages, MinnPost and a number of other local and national publications, and in 2007 released his first book, an oral history of the legendary Minneapolis band the Replacements. He spoke about his two new books — and what lies ahead — during a mid-March interview at Kingfield’s Five Watt Coffee.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

 

Southwest Journal: Explain how it was that you had two books come out within a span of a couple of months.

Walsh: The first book was set to go. I had just filed it. University of Minnesota Press wanted it very fast because of their production cycle, and I just said, “Yeah, I can do it.”

That ended and (the book) was getting put to bed, and Prince died.

I had a couple of small boxes of memorabilia from when I covered him in the ’90s for the Pioneer Press, and there were two things online, including my liner notes to “The Gold Experience,” his terrific 1995 record, as well as this open letter to Prince that I wrote.

(Prince) called me out to Paisley Park and we had a two-hour chat about that column, him reading the column back to me line-by-line, which was amazing.

But those were the only things that existed, and I wanted to read all that stuff because I didn’t remember it. It’s going on 20 and 25 years ago.

So, I went to newslibrary.com, bought all my (newspaper) clips back for about $60.

(Covering Prince) was sort of like covering an underground band in the ’90s, because it was post “Purple Rain” and he was at war with Warner Brothers and it was the dawn of the Internet, and he really saw the future of independent recording and releasing and publishing. That’s all in there, starting with the first column I wrote about him for the Pioneer Press and ending with the last one.

UMN28 Walsh Bootlegs D1.inddWhat was it like going back over two decades of your own writing? Your writing tends to be diaristic; was there any embarrassment?

Some of the more personal things were. Frankly, I couldn’t believe they were in a daily newspaper.

I remember when I went to the Pioneer Press, I wanted to see if that alt-weekly voice that I had written with at City Pages could translate to a daily. Because I thought it could, always — especially writing about music.

And it worked, and I had readers who responded to it in the same way they do now. You’ve got to have guts to do it, to blend the personal with the journalism. Thankfully, I’ve had good editors who get it and (are encouraging).

It was interesting to read that your dad — and maybe your mom, in her own way — was this spiritual searcher since music and spirituality are so entwined in your writing.

It’s true. I wanted to put that up front in the book (“Bar Yarns”) with a couple of those pieces — and really just for context for the reader. Anyone who stumbles on this book, this is where it came from for me: very Irish, very Irish-Catholic, in a way.

(My parents are) two big book lovers to this day. They’re in Nokomis Square right now waking up and there’s books strewn across their apartment. They’re in their 80s and they’re as passionate about books and reading as ever.

I think mortality has really hung over me since friends have died and Prince has died. There’s been all this death around, and I really wanted to get this book done and be, like, “Hey, mom and dad. Love you. Thank you.” You know?

My mom gave away several to her friends at Christmas. I was happy that she dug it. My dad and my brothers and sisters are all entwined in it, too, because we’re all readers and musicians.

It’s like A plus B equals C: I was born to write and document and play tunes. It feels very anciently Irish to me, and yet we’re South Minneapolis kids.

Speaking of that job that you created for yourself, you write that what you do is “trying to explain the unexplainable.” Tell me more about that.

I come from a time when you spent time with records like they were books. So, it was very much a journey with the music-maker. It remains that today. Trying to represent for that (musician’s) story as well as how it resonates with you, that’s the unexplainable, because it’s mysterious. A single musical note presents a lot of mystery.

When you’re left with words to try and get at that, it is kind of unexplainable, but you try. That’s the fun of it. That’s the inspiring part of it. I’m trying to explain, as much as I can, why this matters to me.

That’s with every piece, though, whether it’s about music or not. You start out a column and you’re trying to tell the reader, “This matters to me, and I’m going to tell you why.” That’s just very basic. But with music you’re diving into something that’s pretty bottomless. It’s explainable, but it could be a whole other explanation the next day.

GoldExperience.FINALLet’s go back to Prince. It’s been almost a year since he died. Between putting together the book and the passage of time, do you have a new perspective on him as a person and an artist?

I’m very sad that he died of an opioid overdose. That was a shock to me. Last time I saw him was the last time he played at Paisley Park, for the Piano & a Microphone Tour, and I thought he was going to be sitting here at Five Watt playing the piano like Cornbread Harris does or Willy Murphy or any of our great local lights. I just really thought he’d live to be 90.

I’m not naive about musicians and drugs at all. And even Prince. You can look that up. But I was very surprised at how he died.

I think I was also surprised at the outpouring of grief that continues. And I think that there are two reasons for that. I think that he lived his life to the hilt and gave of himself, and musicians love him because of that and because he was so purely music.

The whole will and money legacy is pretty distasteful. I have not been to Paisley Park. I might go out there to see the Revolution (and) New Power Generation for the celebration series.

I drove by it one day. I was like, “See ya man. You’re gone. Sadly.”

After spending all this time with your own work, looking back over 20-plus years of your career —

I’m sick of it. I’m bored with it.

Well, where do you go from here as a writer and a person?

I’m working on it. I am. That’s a good question.

I’m inspired by people who are still doing this in their golden years. At the moment I have a new record coming out May 20th, and hopefully I have another collection (of newspaper columns) coming out next year.

For the first time, I am working on a historical fiction novel that’s clipping along pretty well.

What year is it set in?

I’d rather not say it. That’s all I’m talking about, just because I don’t want to puncture the balloon.

But it’s good and it’s fresh — for me, for sure. That’s why it feels good.

I will continue to write. It’s tough. But I do believe I was born to do this stuff, so I’ve got to keep going and figuring out ways to tell stories, because it’s really what — in the huge aerial view — it’s what human beings do. We tell each other stories. I’m working on a couple of really good ones right now. I love it.

 

 

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