The Music of Chance

An artist of the accidental, Jim Ruiz croons a lounge music of personal loss.

But Ruiz (he pronounces it "Reese") is well accustomed to being misperceived, personally and musically. A third-generation Chicano from Richfield who does a white-bread take on Brazilian bossa nova pop, he has found kinship in places as far away as Japan, Sweden, and Holland. His music has unintentionally fallen in with the neo-lounge craze, yet it transcends such novelty status. And while the new album does boast the Mexican-flavored "Uncle Wieny"--a tribute to the L.A. family member who male-bonded with Ruiz after the 1990 death of his first fiancée--Ruiz swears that there's no other relation between his south-of-the-border genes and his south-of-the-border genres.

"The Japanese saw that as a connection as well," he says, sitting back at his favorite LaSalle Avenue sidewalk cafe. "And I thought, well, no. The connection I have to Brazilian music is through Everything But the Girl, not because my name is Ruiz. What did my parents listen to? They had the Doctor Zhivago soundtrack. My dad liked Dylan. [The music] had absolutely nothing to do with my ethnicity, but I'm beginning to think I should play it up. It might help my record sales!"

Ruiz seemingly prefers to operate on the far side of expectations, a tendency that goes back to his early days at the fringes of the Minneapolis rock establishment. His first musical distraction came in the form of a teenage "stupid new-wave band," the Abstracked, followed by his forgotten ska band, the Liquidator. Ruiz had a brush with the bourgeois life when he played bass in a band of privileged Minnetonka kids, an experience so alien to him that he would later write one of his best songs, "Glad They're Gone," about the banal suburban party culture he had discovered in the west metro. ("But it was a black abyss/Of well-planned lives and marriages/And all the kinds of things which lead to nothing," the song concludes.)

Brian Garrity

Upon his arrival on the UM campus in 1983, Ruiz continued to experiment with more proletarian rock forms, and he soon fell in with Minneapolis's Anglophile, retro-oriented "mods." While the rest of the rock scene was fixated on the Replacements and you-know-Hü, Ruiz ran in a crowd that venerated the cacophonous local "beat" band the Funseekers. Many of the local musicians who were once mods--Ana Voog, Ruiz, Ed Ackerson of Polara--are now in their early 30s and only now garnering wider attention for making innovative pop music of all stripes. But circa Purple Rain, Ruiz made his entrance as the bassist in Ackerson's fanatically purist mod group, the Dig.

"It was all about having a scooter, looking as much like the Jam as possible, leaping around onstage, playing through Vox amps," says Ruiz. "And we totally went over horribly! That's the hardest I've ever worked in a band. You could not be more in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Indeed, the most important thing about Minneapolis's mods is that they were an alternative for rock kids who felt no affinity with the monolithic Minneapolis sound of the time. "Allison says I have a big chip on my shoulder, and I probably do, but I got so used to the idea that no one was ever gonna like anything I ever did that it really freed me up," Ruiz says. "It was the biggest surprise of my life when someone wanted to put my stuff out. Maybe it gave me a sense of despair: 'Well, no one's gonna like this anyway, so I'll just do what I want.' It's very liberating to be not listened to."

Eventually, Ruiz liberated himself even further by rejecting rock 'n' roll altogether. He left the Dig and slowly learned jazz guitar--a shift not unlike that of his hero Paul Weller, who gravitated from the neo-mod band the Jam to the bossa nova balladry of the Style Council. "I didn't want to do 'Summertime Blues'; I wanted to learn jazz chords, which is probably not a good idea for a beginning guitarist," says Ruiz.

This detour mostly kept Ruiz off the stage for several years, time he spent with his live-in girlfriend of six years, Rena Erickson, a popular mod with an uncanny '60s girl-group singing voice, who had played in such garage bands as the Blue Up?, the Cavegurls, and Rena and Her Men (joined by Ruiz). For several years, Ruiz would either take time off from school or study abroad in the Netherlands with Erickson--an experience he would romanticize in one of his first successful flirtations with bossa nova, "Mij Amsterdam."

The hardest aspect of the time spent in Holland, Ruiz says, was his long separation from Erickson; although they had gone together, they were actually stationed in towns on opposite sides of the small country. By the end of their stay, the couple was ready to get married. They decided to forgo a traditional Dutch ceremony in favor of a wedding at home before friends, and the couple returned to Minneapolis in the summer of 1990, planning to wed in a month or two.

Those plans were derailed one day while Jim was giving Rena a ride to work on his scooter. As Ruiz passed the intersection of Park and 38th, a van ran a stop sign and struck the scooter, throwing both passengers to the ground. Jim survived with a broken collarbone, but Rena's helmet had come undone, and she died in the hospital days later, at the age of 22.

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