When Mike met Marissa

Last year, I drove to Duluth to visit my old band mate Mike. We settled in to his modest home overlooking Lake Superior, had tea and talked about old gigs, people, parties, posters we made together and how he, a budding artist when our band first got going, once scrawled on the basement wall of the 7th St. Entry a caricature of drummer/songwriter Grant Hart as Fred Flintstone and the caption “Yabba Dabba Husker Du!”

We talked about getting lit up after practice and playing hide-and-seek amidst the corpses and coffins at the funeral home where he and one of the other guys in the band lived and worked. We talked about the afternoon in 1981 when we met Bruce Springsteen at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, and how the Boss plucked him out of the St. Paul Civic Center crowd the next night to present him with an autographed copy of “The River” for an ailing musician friend of ours.  

We talked about the ambition of youth, wanting to rule the world, creative differences, the camaraderie of the scene, and our first gigs at the Longhorn Bar in downtown Minneapolis and Duffy’s in South Minneapolis. We talked about his ex-wife, his daughters, his brief foray into evangelical Christianity, and about how Mike, a burly dude we used to call “the big bear” became Marissa, a transgender woman and graphic artist living and working in a part of the country that gave birth to the likes of Bob Dylan and Low.

“Sometimes after practice or gigs or parties, I’d dress up [as a woman] and go out and have liaisons with men,” she said, sipping her tea and looking, in her jeans, green blouse, earrings and make-up, as tranquil as the mid-afternoon lake outside her living room window. “At that time, it was this scary, dirty little secret.
I would’ve melted if anyone knew. I didn’t know there were other people like me. I thought I was a freak. It would’ve been horrific if you guys found out.

“I had my transition in January 2001. I used to agonize about not being a woman. … My whole soul was telling me I was a woman. And then when you realize what you are, you try to fight it and become ubermacho because you know what it means and what you have to do and you fight it and you’re in denial.”

We shared a laugh over the only two cover songs he sang in the band: Little Richard’s “The Girl Can’t Help It” and the Beatles’ “Boys.” We talked about how the experience of forming the band helped us to be independent thinkers, and to bust out of the confines of sexuality, society and religion.

“I always say everything is a work in progress,” she said. “My house is a work in progress; I’m a work in progress. I’m satisfied not being satisfied. I’m always striving to push the envelope, and get better. I’m sort of a health nut. I can always improve. At the same time, in some ways I’m just a soccer mom and I live a normal life.”

We talked about how his transition has put a strain on some of his oldest friendships. We talked about how music fits into our lives now. We talked about our old band mates and what they’re doing now. We talked about trying to play music together again sometime soon. Then we hugged goodbye, she went shopping with her daughter, and I went back to the Twin Cities.

The next time I saw Marissa was at First Avenue the day after Thanksgiving, for the party celebrating the paperback edition of my book, “The Replacements: All Over But The Shouting: An Oral History.” She had traveled from Duluth specifically for the event, and when I finally found her on the dance floor, I grabbed her and re-introduced her to my wife, brother and sister-in-law.

After some furtive small talk above the band, she returned to the floor with a friend, and I darted to the merch table to grab a copy of the book, which sports a Daniel Corrigan photo of Tommy Stinson, leaping into eternity and cradling Mike/Marissa’s black Rickenbacker. I signed the book, made my way through the crowd and, as fate would have it, handed Marissa the book as Caroline Smith and the tribute band above us uncorked a scratchy reading of the Replacements’ 25-year-old ode to poly-sexuality “Androgynous.”

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.