The Bar at the Edge of the World

Four years ago Lee's Liquor Lounge was just another dying neighborhood bar. Then this guy Nate calls the owner, Louie, and the place turns into--well, no one is quite sure what. But there's nowhere else like it.

On a recent evening at Lee's Liquor Lounge, Louie Sirian leaned against a wall and removed one of his shoes to offer a visitor a good look at his foot. This was a repeat performance; the visitor had seen Louie's foot before. It is not an attractive sight. Horribly stunted, with splayed, twisted toes and squashed arch, it is the casualty of years of foot-binding labor--20-hour days, seven days a week, including many long hours behind a floor scrubber in the dead of night. Clean floors are an obsession with Louie, the man who has owned Lee's since 1976. Seriously clean floors. Waxed, gleaming floors. They mean something; represent an ethic, a correct way of doing things. It is not likely that Louie would survive a visit to the men's room in First Avenue. Growing up on the east side of St. Paul, Louie cleaned bars up and down the streets of his old neighborhood. He got so busy that he had to take on help, but even that rare concession gave him no relief. "Nobody else passed muster," Louie says. "The owners of these joints wanted me to do the work, because I did it the right way."

Take a good look at the floors in Lee's sometime. Louie still does it the right way. Over the years he has contracted out his floor cleaning to two different outfits, but fired them both because they couldn't do the job the way he could.

When a hot new club opens these days, the odds are pretty good that it's a blazing house of cards owned by either a corporation or some guy between bankruptcies and drug rehabilitations. Such places are usually high concept, heavy on style points--and seldom long for this world. Or as Louie likes to say, "The horse that shits the fastest don't shit for long." For more than 20 years Lee's has been Louie's bar. Given all the things going against it, it should have closed years ago. Instead it became a kind of urban fairly tale. And so this is the story of a remote and unassuming street bar's slow and remarkable ascendancy to "It Club" status. It is, among other things, the story of a truly harmonic convergence between a bar owner and a band.

In 1993 Louie had been a struggling bar owner for almost 20 years. He owned a quiet bar on the eroding west edge of downtown Minneapolis, the corner of Glenwood Avenue and 11th Street to be exact, a spot that grew more obscure and isolated with each passing year. And no matter how many hours he worked, nothing he did was going to stop the flight of blue-collar jobs that was taking his best customers and their paychecks out to the suburbs, or wherever the hell it was taking them. Street bars just like his all over the city were being eradicated. The Longhorn, Moby Dick's, the Flame, the Speakeasy, Mousey's--they all disappeared, and Lee's remained stranded, with 394 wrapped around it like a moat that cut him off from downtown. Louie had been fighting the trickle-down of industrial flight for years; for a time Vikings' great Carl Eller ran a liquor store out of the space that is now Lee's dance floor. There was a short-lived attempt at a game room as well. None of these schemes worked.

And then one day Louie got a phone call from Nate Dungan, an irrepressible schemer and raconteur who was looking for a home base for a band called Trailer Trash.

to Minnesota from Knoxville, Tennessee, in the 1980s. After a stint at Carleton College in Northfield, Dungan moved to the Twin Cities and put together a band that he hoped would capture the ethos of the old Friday and Saturday night VFW circuit he had grown up with in the South. "You know," he says, "where it's no big deal to play 200 minutes a night. Where people don't go out to see a band, but to dance, to have fun. The band's job was simply to rock the place. Old guys like Bob Wills and Bill Monroe would think nothing of playing five, six hours without a break. They just fed off the crowd. That's what I was after, and right from the beginning I wanted to find some place where we could be the regular house band."

In 1993 the original Trailer Trash line-up--Dungan, his brother James, John Duncan, and Noah and Adam Levy-- started gigging at the old 24 bar on the edge of downtown Minneapolis. When that bar was gobbled up to make room for the new Federal Reserve building, Nate started looking around for a new home. "I was tired of crawling around begging for gigs all over town," he says. "Mary Johnson, who has been a regular at Lee's forever, had been badgering me to play her bar. We finally played a birthday party for her there, and afterwards I called Louie and made my pitch." The relationship was initially casual, and the band played a few intermittent gigs at the bar before it eventually evolved into a regular Wednesday night engagement.

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