The True Believer

Robert Wilkinson leads Flamin’ Oh’s through a mini-set at Target Field last summer. Photo by Jim Walsh

“In the end I think we’re just all fans” is something I’ve heard the great rock ‘n’ roll musician and fan Robert Wilkinson say over the years, and the man speaks the truth. One fan’s story:

On Valentine’s Day night, 1978, I walked into Jay’s Longhorn in downtown Minneapolis, and it’s no exaggeration to say that, almost 40 years and many concerts, clubs, shows, songs and friends later, Robert Wilkinson changed my life forever and for the better.

I had just turned 19 years old — the then-legal drinking age in Minnesota. It was the first time I’d ever been in a bar. I was there to see my latest fave rave, Elvis Costello & the Attractions, who were touring America for the first time on their debut album “My Aim Is True,” the cassette and vinyl LP of which I’d worn out since it hit our shores the previous summer.

But first up this night was a new concept to me in this strange new adult world of clubland: the opening band.

Their name was Flamingo, a quintet (Johnny Rey, guitar; Jody Ray, bass; the late, great Bob Meide, drums; the late, great Joseph Behrend, keyboards) from Minneapolis who I’d never heard or heard of before, but who, over the course of the next 45 minutes, lit up the spacious Longhorn stage with their raw, ripping, Stones-by-way-of-punk, guitar-fueled power pop. The singer/guitarist leading the band was a whirling dervish of focused passion and energy with stage leaps that rivaled my guiding lights of the day: Bruce Springsteen, the Clash’s Joe Strummer and the Jam’s Bruce Foxton.

This was local music? These guys were my neighbors? What other discoveries could I make via this school of live music? I was all in, and after that, inspired directly by Flamingo and the blossoming Minneapolis punk scene of that time, I went on to sing in bands and chronicle as much of it as was humanly possible. Thinking back on it now, I’m grateful my gateway drug to all these sounds and people was Flamingo, led by that ’78 dervish, the great singer/guitarist/songwriter Wilkinson. He was my first local musician hero, and I’m not alone in my admiration.

As decreed by Mayor Betsy Hodges and the City of Minneapolis, Saturday is “Robert Wilkinson Day” in Minneapolis, and friends, family and colleagues of the forever young rocker will gather at Famous Dave’s in Uptown (9 p.m.) for a 40th-anniversary reunion of the surviving Flamingo members, and a night-capper with Flamin’ Oh’s, the Wilkinson-led band with drummer Sean Sauder, keyboardist Bob Burns, bassist Jenny Case and guitarist Terry Isachsen that has been churning out rockin’ live sets and recordings for going on a couple of decades.

Make no mistake, Hodges comes correct on the “Robert Wilkinson Day in Minneapolis” proclamation when she testifies, “WHEREAS Robert has continued to write and perform at a high level and share his gift, his enthusiasm, and his charm with generations of music fans. He is a great lover and supporter of local music and his talent and example are there to follow for any young band or artist just starting out. Every show he plays with a full heart, sweaty hands, and a reckless joy that comes from making great rock and roll music.”

Wrote Wilkinson in a prepared statement about his big day: “I’m honored, humbled, and grateful to have received this. We all are in a unique and wonderful position to make a positive difference in people’s lives every day through either a simple kind gesture, or a kind word or other acts of kindness, and for me through music sometimes. I’ve always tried to be a positive light in this world wherever I go, and whatever I do. So let’s keep spreading that Love and Light!”

Wilkinson’s day job is as a media technician for Park Nicollet hospital. By night he takes to bars and turns dance floors into the sort of throbbing tribal dance party that he and his fellow first-wave punk pioneers the Suicide Commandos, the Hypstrz, the Suburbs, the New Psychonauts, the Wallets and a scant few others whipped up. Nostalgia be damned, that scene is from another time, long ago, when euphoric pogoing, slam-dancing and sheer sweaty exhaustion and oneness with the band was the order of the day, not staring at your phone.

So let this stand as a heartfelt note of gratitude from one fan to another. Wilkinson’s huge heart and rock and roll spirit may not be the stuff of gold records or viral videos, but his story as a survivor and thriver is inspiring to anyone who’s ever taken to a stage to kick out the jams in a neon-lit bar. It’s a time-honored profession, of which Todd Rundgren once said, “All it takes to become president is money and a certain kind of power. Being president is the first thing I can shoot for, but not the highest. It may come to a point where people take rock and roll musicians more seriously than they take politicians. It may eventually turn out that musicians have more credibility.”

Truth! On Saturday, during the stupidest election season of our lives, we’re lucky to be celebrating Robert Wilkinson Day. You know what to do, Minneapolis:

1-2-3-4 … Let it rock!


Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. His new book, “Bar Yarns and Manic-Depressive Mixtapes: Jim Walsh on Music from Minneapolis to the Outer Limits” (University of Minnesota Press) hits stores next month. He can be reached at [email protected]