I started off my 60th birthday celebration in the basement of Studio 2 Café, rehearsing some songs for the monthly Thunderheads and Friends musical free-for-all that’s hosted by singer-songwriter/guitarist Craig Paquette the first Saturday of every month. I was joined by my buddies and bandmates Doug Collins and Shawn Stelton, who’d never been to the former Java Jack’s basement before, so I gave the lads a brief history of the space where we started The Mad Ripple Hootenanny in 2006.
We played a lot of songs in that basement, until the fire marshal shut us down in 2009. Saturday evening, as we went through a few tunes, the quiet space, vivid musical memories and speakeasy stories instantly reminded me of the opening scene of Mark Engebretson’s excellent and invaluable new documentary, “Jay’s Longhorn,” which premieres March 31st and launches with a sold-out tribute concert this Saturday at the Parkway Theater, with live sets from scene-starters Curtiss A, the Suicide Commandos, Flamingo, Fingerprints, The Hypstrz, Yipes! and Smart Alex.
The beginning of the film finds Commandos Chris Osgood and Dave Ahl and soundman/label head/archivist/documentary MVP Terry Katzman touring the old Longhorn space at 14 S. 5th St. in downtown Minneapolis — once a thriving club and ground zero for the punk rock and new wave scene of the day. Now that hallowed ground is a nondescript storage facility, without a single trace of the raw and loud history that was made there, no plaque commemorating the legendary local bands and new music trailblazers that came from all over the world to play there, and the other night it all got me thinking about how fast time moves and moves on, and how in America, preserving important histories of all stripes is usually up to the people who value it most.
As the documentary and Cyn Collins’ excellent oral history “Complicated Fun” chronicle for all time, the Minneapolis punk rock scene started with a meeting at writer Andy Schwartz’s apartment. In the mid- and late ’70s, original music bands were forming and recording and needed places to play, and from that meeting, the Longhorn scene was born. The most memorable thing anyone has ever said to me about that meeting came from Curtiss A, who told me for a 1990 story about the 10-year anniversary of the “Big Hits of Mid-America Vol. III” compilation: “It was that Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland thing of ‘Let’s put on a show!’” which speaks to the innocence of the time and suggests to punks old and young that all it takes is a few organized people with a vision, taste and boatloads of passion to make a scene — a scene that, 40 years later, we’re still talking about.
I was 19 years old when I walked into the Longhorn for the first time 40 years ago this Valentine’s Day. I had just turned legal, so it was the first time I’d ever been in a bar — for the area debut of Elvis Costello & the Attractions, with Flamingo opening. That night (along with many other nights that heady year of 1978) changed my life, and it was fitting that Flamingo leader Robert Wilkinson was in the Studio 2 house Saturday night. For as I looked around the room at all the people and the punk-folk rock happening on that modest café stage, it was clear that another scene has taken root here, there and everywhere, and it’s easy to trace so much of it back to pioneers like Wilkinson and the original music makers who had a vision of what a vibrant live music scene could be.
“Jay’s Longhorn” is hardly a nostalgia trip, because the music remains so fresh and largely underground, made as it was by bands that took a stand against the bland and boring music of the day. It also captures a fleeting time of youth, when the drive to create something new is especially ferocious and intense, with all that energy coagulating into community. Not many hit records came from that milieu, but that was never the point, and today that era’s legacy and influence is in the countless young original music bands out there right now, bands who learned from their elders about that importance of making something original and something of your own.
It’s happening now, just like before. A few weeks ago, Doug and I were at the Dubliner Pub on University Avenue, taking in a set by a groove crew helmed by singer Clark Adams, percussionist Mikkel Beckman and keyboardist Ray Barnard. Standing at the bar, I told Paul Bergen and Becky Kapell, a couple of songwriters and original music purveyors, that my parents met a mile down the road on University Avenue at the (yes, long gone and demolished) Prom Ballroom while taking in a concert by jazz great Gene Krupa and his big band.
Paul hipped me to “The Gene Krupa Story,” the 1959 Krupa biopic starring Sal Mineo. The next day via the magic of YouTube, my dad and I dialed it up, and hell if all the energy, youth, music, competition and scene stories didn’t play out like a “Purple Rain” of its day. Watching Krupa play to wildly wiggling dancers of the ’40s and ’50s, it also occurred to me that if you’re lucky, many nights of your youth will be spent on some dance floor, going so hard and moving so crazily that you’ll wake up the next morning sore (we called it “Suburbs neck,” named for the aching morning-after condition that came from pogoing and head-banging to three sets of the Suburbs) and that part of your adulthood will be spent marveling at all the joy you lived through.
“Jay’s Longhorn” manages to do both, beautifully validating the here-and-now by remembering a time when all was quiet on the Midwestern front, just waiting to explode. See ya Saturday night.
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.