Rock and Read

Bob Dylan’s there, cupping a harmonica. Next to him are The Replacements, with Paul Westerberg bemusedly looking up at a man playing a one-handed keyboard solo.

“The publisher insisted on putting Yanni on the cover,” says Martin Keller about one of the three photos on his new book, “Music Legends: A Rewind on the Minnesota Music Scene.”

Keller takes a sip from his mug as a group of teenagers gallop past our table outside Java Jack’s coffee shop in the Lynnhurst neighborhood.

Far from being jacked-up on java, Keller is chamomile-calm as he tells me about Chameleon, the band Greek-born Yanni was in while attending the University of Minnesota during the late ’70s.

Keller saw Chameleon perform several times and describes something that must have been even more visually arresting than the band’s billowy-haired keyboard player — the unusual drum set played by Charlie Adams.

As Keller writes in chapter nine of Music Legends, “It not only rotated 360 degrees but flipped upside down, with Adams pounding away the whole time, never missing a beat … ”

“It was great rock and roll shtick,” says Keller. A passing minivan honks, the woman inside waving. Keller tilts his head in recognition. “My wife,” he says and tells me their home is just four blocks from the coffee shop.

While doing research for “Music Legends,” Keller says he re-read many of the articles he has written over the years. “And that was painful,” he says. “I can’t believe I wrote that. Secondly, I can’t believe they published it.”

In 1979, when Tom Bartel began publishing a music paper called Sweet Potato, Keller was the first and — for a time — only writer hired.

“I wrote almost the entire first couple of issues,” says Keller.

And he did so under a variety of pseudonyms, giving the little publication the appearance of a larger staff — albeit a staff of cardboard cutouts that included Frank Schwartz, Shelly Baker, and tellingly, Martin Colour.

In 1981 the paper was renamed City Pages, where Keller worked as music editor until 1983.

In those days, Keller says the Twin Cites radio market was one of the most conservative in the country.

“Funkytown,” the 1980 death knell to the disco era, and now the kitschy soundtrack to … everything it seems, was deemed “too black” for airplay in our fair-haired state. The song, written by Steven Greenburg in his Lake Calhoun apartment, has now sold an estimated 10 million copies around the world.

Keller says he was once at Greenburg’s office and saw royalty checks for “Funkytown” that came from “little obscure countries in Africa. Places you wouldn’t think.”

Certainly, the program directors that banned it 27 years ago didn’t think Minnesota would be one of those places. Keller says radio has gotten much better since then and credits FM station The Current for playing local music.

“I think ‘Funkytown’ is probably more well known than the state bird or the state song,” says Keller. He stares off at the passing traffic for moment. “Does the state have a song?”

Yes. It’s “Hail! Minnesota.” The state bird is the common loon. And, not that you asked, but the state flower is the lady slipper.

That last fact I found out from a friendly waitress at Betty’s Pies in Two Harbors, a Minnesota town near the North Shore. The salient point here is that not only did Betty’s have a variety of delicious pies and a staff with a working knowledge of our state’s official symbols, they were also selling copies of “Music Legends.”

But, even though the scenery is beautiful, you don’t have to drive four hours to get your own copy.

“Walgreens is actually selling quite a few of them,” says Keller. “And they might soon be available at Holiday gas stations.”

If you don’t need to pick up cough syrup, toothpaste, bubble gum, cigarettes, Red Bull or lottery tickets, you can also buy the book at Barnes & Noble.

If you don’t want to leave your house, Keller’s book is available at www.MinnesotaSeries.com along with his other book, “Storms!,” which he co-wrote with Sheri O’Meara. I didn’t ask, but I assume it’s about easily excitable meteorologists.

By day, these days, Keller runs his PR firm, Media Savant Communications. The firm handles small businesses, as well as the occasional music act, such as Neale and Haberman.

Keller says he wrote “Music Legends” at night and on weekends over a six-week period. “I was really drained when it was over,” he says. “Good practice for the next thing I want to work on.”

My mind wanders for a moment and I envision “Sauce Pan!,” a book about easily excitable chefs. Perhaps noting my distraction, Keller takes a weary glance around and tells me it’s about “the so-called UFO phenomenon.” Which, I admit, helps me regain my focus.

“There’s so much misinformation, disinformation and just pure bunk on the subject,” says Keller.

Keller served as communications director for the Center for the Study of Extraterrestrial Intelligence from 1992–1997. He says that on a trip to Mexico with the organization’s founder, Dr. Steven Greer, they “saw some stuff that was unidentifiable.”

Keller says that the Mexican media regularly cover UFO sightings, but adds: “You wouldn’t know it from reading the U.S. press.” Then again, according to the U.S. press, nobody’s reading the U.S. press anyway.

The book, which Keller says is still in the early stages, will be about his personal experiences with UFO sightings and the way media reports the phenomenon.

And speaking of supernatural beings, Keller says “Music Legends 2” (due next year) will pick up with Prince.

“I interviewed Prince when he was 17,” says Keller, “on the evening his first record was
released.”

It wouldn’t be long after that interview that The Purple One would develop an interest in collecting precious metals — namely, gold and platinum. But of course, Prince’s career has not been without conflict.

Immediately after his spat with Warner Brothers, when The Artist finally reclaimed his royal title, Keller interviewed him again.

I imagine Prince had a lot to say.

“He did,” says Keller, “and it’ll be in the next book.”

For more on Prince, see “The Ruffled One Returns” in the Downtown Journal’s archives at www.dtjournal.com

Reach contributing writer Christopher Koehler at ckoehler@inbox.com