I spent the weekend listening to Linden Hills’ own Bob “Slim” Dunlap and his two solo CDs, “The Old New Me” and “Times Like This,” both of which remain unheard by far too many and are must-haves in any real music lover’s collection.
I haven’t sat with his music since Slim suffered a massive stroke in February that left him mostly paralyzed and speaking in a whisper. But hearing his songs and that beautiful Minnesota creek-clear voice ringing out with so much heart and soul made me want to “write down everything you see here,” which is what wheelchair-bound and crippled-but-not Slim ordered me to do in the spring, his big probing brown eyes fixed on mine with everything he’s got.
What I saw — what I continue to see — was love, everywhere. Pain, everywhere. Strength, in numbers. Humor, in the face of abject horror. Wisdom, hard-won through this bounty of good times, bad times, and everything in between. What I saw — what I continue to see with every breath he takes — was music, in every sense of the word.
I saw something heroic in how he has fought and in how his devoted and loving wife Chrissie and their three kids have responded to their new lives caring for Slim. I saw the walls of the various hospitals that have housed Slim over the past 10 months plastered with posters of Hank Williams and Pete Seeger; photos of his grandkids and other musical heroes, and cards, letters, and good tidings from around the world, including one from Slim’s favorite band, NRBQ.
I saw the man laugh, cough, moan and cry at the mention of a story, game, person, song, drop of hat. I saw him say he wanted to die and live forever in the same breath. I saw my friend at the bottom of well, crying out for relief, redemption, understanding, medicine. I saw him worry about Chrissie and ask me to take her dancing. I saw him hold hands with friends, silently flip the bird at the television, and maintain a steely will to communicate with visitors real and imaginary.
Last week I saw the wheelchair ramp newly installed on the front steps of his home, which sits a stone’s throw away from Chrissie’s beloved refuge of Lake Harriet’s Rose Gardens, Peace Garden and Bird Sanctuary. Last Tuesday I saw Slim back home for the first time since February, amidst his guitars, books, photos and a peaceful healing feeling that only a man’s home can provide. The stay was short, however, as Slim developed another case of pneumonia that landed him in the ICU over the weekend.
That’s where he is now, and where he’ll be when a bunch of us get together to sing Slim tunes Friday night in the 7th Street Entry, as part of First Avenue’s sixth annual tribute to The Replacements and “Pleased To Meet Me,” the great Minneapolis band’s majestic 1987 release that saw the departure of guitarist Bob Stinson and the arrival of Slim, whose nickname was bestowed upon him by band leader Paul Westerberg.
Listening to those harmonica- and guitar-driven Slim-penned tunes in the wake of all that’s happened this year is nothing short of prophetic and soul reviving. “We’re on a fast cruise headed to the bottom, but we’re having one hell of a time… Baby, it will work out fine,” he promises on his ode to Chrissie and life’s fragile pageant, “Partners In Crime.” A similar philosophy is at play on “Taken On The Chin,” a blues song of the first order and one more reminder that, as Bruce Springsteen sang in St. Paul last week, “Hard times come and hard times go.”
“Ballad Of The Opening Band” is the lament of every barroom singer who’s ever played to an indifferent crowd (and one more reason so many musicians love Slim), but he sings it the way he tells a story, lightheartedly chortling at some ego-crushing moment or character — testing predicament. The impossibly poignant “Times Like This” has been running through so many people’s heads and hearts since February (“It’s times like this that we know what we really miss”), while the singer in “Hate This Town” wonders at the end of his life if he’s made any difference at all.
In Slim’s case, the notion is ludicrous. What I saw — what I continue to see — is that his impact has been profound and inspiring, and will be for many years to come.
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.