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.

What's particularly interesting about Two Tickets to Paradise and their Thursday night gigs is how perfectly they effect a neat nostalgic flip side to the Wednesday nights of Trailer Trash. The bar is made for both bands and both types of music, and both nights continue to draw crowds. But they are, as Dungan is careful to point out, different crowds; the old cynical Uptown edge so noticeably absent from the Trailer Trash experience is out in force on Thursdays at Lee's, with a mostly younger crowd that goads and heckles incessantly. It's the old postmodern ironic limbo thing--"Play an even worse song from my adolescence! I dare you!"--that the Replacements pretty much exhausted 13 years ago. But that's one of the great things about Lee's: Some nights you'll get your usual dose of '90s irony, and other nights the bar simply serves up timeless American music, straight with no chaser, and without the surly edge you might expect to encounter in an Up North bar or your average state-highway roadhouse.

City Council member Jim Niland has long been an ardent supporter of Lee's. "I think since the Uptown bar [stopped booking national acts] there are now two premier places to see live music in town, First Avenue/7th Street Entry, and Lee's," he says. "Nate's done a great job booking the place and really establishing an identity. It's become an important part of the scene. And Louie's just a tremendous character."

Louie has a favorite word: schmaltzy. He'll say something's "almost schmaltzy," and that's the spot-on description of the appeal of Lee's in the Trailer Trash years, with the careful emphasis on almost. There's certainly an element of nostalgia in the bar's appeal; the place seems to touch a familiar chord even in people who didn't grow up in the world of servicemen's clubs and small-town Saturday night dances. What do you call nostalgia that has absolutely no connection to personal experience or history? Kitsch? It's certainly possible that there's something in the bar's smoky, paneled 1950s roadhouse authenticity--with its beer signs, stuffed fish, and demographically skewed clientele--that resonates in young urban types who've received their notions of Americana from, say, David Lynch. At the same time it manages to be convincingly homespun. Louie understands the appeal: "I think it's a bar in the city that reminds people of an Up North bar or a Wisconsin pub. This is the last of the old city, the way downtown Minneapolis was in the '50s. There used to be joints like this all over town."

And the fact that Louie Sirian is the only man who still operates one of those joints suits him just fine. Louie is old school all the way: a saloon keeper in it for the long haul. Like his bar, he is a vanishing but still familiar American type, a holdover from the days before neuroses entered the character equation--when characters were cranks or eccentrics, as opposed to flakes. If Lee's represents the last of the urban roadhouses, then Louie is certainly one of the last in a direct lineage from such classic crusty-but-lovable figures as Casey Stengel and Yogi Berra. He can uncork inscrutable monologues that rank with Stengel's best, and is equally capable of slinging malapropisms that would make Berra proud. Extinguish or distinguish, what difference does it really make? A baguette? What the hell is that but a stale loaf of bread? Rome wasn't built in a year. The Lord works in mischievous ways.

One moment Louie might be discussing his days in the slaughterhouses of St. Paul or his army years in Germany, and the next thing you know he will say something like this: "I was watching The Young Lions last night, with Marlon Brando. That's one of my all-time favorites. A poor little shoemaker's son. Oh, Jeez, what a mess they got themselves into. I'm telling you, a powerful, persuasive speaker can sure stir up a lot of trouble." At which point he will wave a hand and direct your attention to the action on the dance floor. "Look at that. Just like Arthur Murray."

"Louie's a Zen master," Dungan says. "He's always saying these things--'money can't build nothing; it can only tear stuff down'--that are... a little confusing at first. But if you really look at them they're pearls of wisdom."

In 1975 Louie was a longtime employee of the St. Paul city streets department. For as long as he could remember he had been working two, sometimes three jobs to support his extended family. The Sirians were of northern Italian extraction, but early on Louie appropriated what he considers a more Germanic work ethic. He worked days on the city streets. Nights, he went to work with his father on the killing floor of the old Swift's slaughterhouse in South St. Paul. "South St. Paul was really booming in those days," Louie remembers. "Everybody worked for Swift's. My dad worked in that plant all his life. Beef they killed with a sledge, hogs you slit with a knife. My job was to scoop up the hair and toenails and hustle it down the line in a wheelbarrow. That was back-breaking work and the line just kept moving, all night the hair and toenails just kept coming. It was like a vacation when I'd get out of there and go to work for the city."

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