Safe at Home

Twenty years ago Safety Last made rockabilly cool in the punk-rock Twin Cities. Now they're making a quiet comeback in the age of swing.

Unfortunately, the new lineup didn't last long. Hollander's interest in reggae jibed with Mauseth's, whose favorite Safety Last gig was an opening slot for roots reggae greats Culture, and by 1982 the two had left the band to form a group called the Solar Knights. Mauseth's then-girlfriend Lianne Smith joined Safety Last on vocals, while future Jayhawk Gary Louris replaced Mauseth on lead guitar, and the new outfit recorded an album on Twin/Tone in 1983, Struck by Love. Hardly representative of their frenetic live shows, the record rides on the strength of its songs alone, including a lovely Louris original, "The One You Love."

When Struck by Love was released, national newspapers approvingly compared Safety Last to the nationwide wave of American roots bands, from Los Lobos to Jason and the Scorchers. But the album had been in the can while the group was doing the bulk of its touring. By the time the good reviews starting coming in, the band had already returned from the road feeling burned out. They folded in 1984.

 

"Rock and roll like God [and] Elvis...intended it to be": Safety Last's Rusty Jones, Tim Mauseth, and Jim Tollefsrud
Kristine Heykants
"Rock and roll like God [and] Elvis...intended it to be": Safety Last's Rusty Jones, Tim Mauseth, and Jim Tollefsrud

These days Jones has lost touch with Louris. Lianne Smith is an acclaimed café singer in Manhattan. Mauseth's band with Sprague Hollander didn't last, and after a stint as Milo Fine's replacement in an improv group called Pet Sounds, he spent much of the late '80s in Arizona and Mexico studying Spanish and eventually earning a masters degree in Latin American studies. He did keep in contact with his old bandmates, even returning to play with them briefly in the Rockin' Pinecones, a local zydeco band. But he soon returned to the Southwest, where he has spent most of the '90s with his family.

When Mauseth decided to move back north last fall, though, Jones and Tollefsrud didn't hesitate to pick up Safety Last once again. The music--and the old sound forged in a New Mexico roughneck bar--remained vital. And in the wake of Safety Last's early-'80s popularity, groups like Jack Knife and the Sharps and (in more recent years) the Vibro Champs had kept a rockabilly audience jumping in the Cities. Now the local swing scene the Sharps and the Champs helped invent may give the old trio another chance at widespread recognition.

When I mention this to the band, they just smile. "We're finally just at a place where we're doing it for pleasure," says Jones. "It's the very deep pleasure of fundamentally not giving a shit," adds Mauseth, laughing. Which explains the low-key gig at Mayslack's. But aren't there still any hopes of becoming the next Brian Setzer? "I just think the most happening thing in all of music is to go see local bands," Jones answers. "That's the tops. To just go to a bar and see what people are putting out. I can't think of anything better."

 

Safety Last performs every Thursday at Mayslack's Polka Lounge, 1428 NE 4th St; (612) 789-9862.

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