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.

"I didn't have anything to lose," Louie says. "And Nate is very impressive and he puts himself across very well. He's a real gifted salesman. The whole group is just a bunch of fine young fellows, so clean-cut and likeable. Each and every one of them is basically sound, with personality beyond reproach. I could see they were a class outfit, and it just looked like the way to go." That first Wednesday night was Oct. 20, 1993, and now, almost four years later, Trailer Trash's Wednesday night gigs at Lee's are a raggedy-ass, sweat-drenched Minneapolis music tradition.

"Trailer Trash: The Lee's Years," Dungan says. "We've become the joke that wouldn't die."

"I'd never had much business to start with," Louie remembers. "So I didn't have any real expectations when we started with the music. And it was slow going initially. Nothing really happened for quite a few months, but then it just started skyrocketing. Now the most important night of the week at Lee's is Wednesday. For the first time in my years as a bar owner I've been able to reap some of the pleasures. The young folks have such clean, good fun, and often they will thank you as they leave. To be able to distinguish yourself in the field after all these years, well, that's just a great honor."

Mary Johnson--"Mary B. Johnson," she says--has been a Lee's regular for 10 years, and as the matchmaker between Louie and the band she's been on hand since that first gig. "I'd come down here with friends forever," she remembers. "You know, just neighborhood drinking. Friday nights we'd get all gussied up and come to Lee's. In the old days there was just a jukebox with a bunch of country oldies, and maybe twice a year this band from Annandale would come in and play. I think that first Wednesday with Trailer Trash there was just Ed the bartender, me, and a handful of other people. And then all of a sudden it was the place to see and be seen."

Crowds or no, it was an almost perfect fit from the start, which is part of what made the early days of the Trailer Trash/Lee's boom so heady for all involved. "All of a sudden we were everybody's favorite hip pocket gig," Dungan says. There were regular celebrity sightings at the jam-packed Wednesday night shows, with luminaries from the local and national music scene dropping by to jam with the band or simply check out the action. Bob Stinson was a regular, as were members of the Jayhawks, Soul Asylum, and Wilco. Nate's brother James had by this time left the band for the seminary ("He went down to put the fun in fundamentalism," Nate says. "These days he's helping the farmers.") and the Levy brothers split to form the Honeydogs. Drummers came and went, but the revamped Trailer Trash--with new members Dan Gaarder, Randy Broughten, Andy Olson, and Keely Lane--kept right on ripping through their catalog of more than 300 roadhouse and honky-tonk staples.

The marriage of band and bar was successful beyond anyone's imagining, and led to a couple major renovations designed to open up the room and improve sightlines. The PA was upgraded substantially and pool tables were eventually jettisoned. A couple years ago Dungan took over the booking in the bar, and his particular genius has been to build up a calendar that plays to Lee's identity and strengths while continuing to draw diverse crowds from all over the Cities. The emphasis is always on a mix of loopy good fun (Thursday's Two Tickets to Paradise and Sunday night's Cosmic Slop) and solid roadhouse roots (the Legends at Lee's series, which has brought in Marvin Rainwater, Sleepy LaBeef, and Sonny Burgess). "I don't try to book the bar into any kind of a niche," Dungan says. "I just look for bands that understand the importance of entertainment and fun. The whole self-consciousness thing is not something that really works in Lee's. I think--for lack of a better word--Americana is what does well here. Because, essentially, Lee's is a roadhouse. It's a bona fide honky-tonk right in the middle of a city."

If the bar itself doesn't remind you of something, chances are pretty good that most nights the music will. Two Tickets to Paradise, Rex Daisy's Thursday night alter ego, is almost guaranteed to thump a few brain cells in anyone who grew up listening to radio and attending awkward teen dances in the '70s and '80s. Equal parts tribute and parody--and it's an admittedly thin line to start with--Two Tickets could be every clumsy but exuberantly posturing high-school dance band you ever loved to hate. Or hated to love, because there wasn't an alternative for a hundred miles around. On any given Thursday night TTTP will stumble through a set list chock full of blocks of Billy Joel, Tom Petty, Cheap Trick, Kiss, Foreigner, and Bruce Springsteen, complete with false starts, flubbed chord changes, and belly-flop endings. The experience can inspire either an innocuous form of early-onset nostalgia or a queasy and grudging admiration for the ease with which the band and the request-squealing crowd manage to dredge up unpleasant memories. Six Billy Joel songs in a row was too rich for my blood even in 1981.

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