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It's Thursday night and the regulars are packing into Mayslack's, an old Northeast Minneapolis polka bar turned hipster watering hole. Punk boys in bright bowling shirts clink their bottles, mod girls in bobs smoke thin cigarettes, and middle-aged couples of all stripes swing-dance their way across the floor. If it weren't for the exceptionally skillful musicians onstage playing an obscure rockabilly tune, Don Woody's "Morse Code," it might be any other night at the club. But the fortysomething men in Safety Last are thumping through their Carl Perkins and Hank Ballard standards with uncommon ease and feeling.
Folded up in my pocket is a flyer touting the band's music as "Rock and roll like God, Elvis and * intended it to be." The asterisk adds some 30 other names in a list at the bottom of the flyer, beginning with Little Richard and ending with Oakland blues legend Jimmy McCracklin. It's no surprise that in concert these guys showcase the repertoire of fanatical record collectors (they play an average of 40 songs a night), but what's more impressive is their ability to make the hand-me-downs sound fresh--to play Elvis without doingElvis. The sprinkling of originals helps, too, as do soulful solos by guest sax man Randy Webb. But the key here is their steel-piped singing. When towering, bespectacled bass player Rusty Jones and gray-bearded guitarist Tim Mauseth lock into their vocal harmonies, they're like two freight cars connecting. Suddenly, I'm hearing the Everly Brothers for the very first time.
"We're as close to being a brother act as you can get without being brothers," offers Mauseth with a charming, crooked-toothed grin when he and Jones meet me the next day for beer and lunch at the Bryant-Lake Bowl. (Jones's ten-year-old son and six-year-old daughter come in tow; unfortunately for them, the bowling lanes are reserved.)
The two friends formed Safety Last in 1978, just as punk was sweeping the small Minneapolis rock-club circuit ruled by power popper Curtiss A and punk rockers the Suicide Commandos. Now, in the months since the band began a Thursday night standing gig at Mayslack's, they're seeing a lot of old scenesters from those heady days of gigging at Minneapolis nightspots like Duffy's and Zoogie's (later the Longhorn).
"Locally, Safety Last were the first of the rockabilly revival bands," says Mark Trehus, a Thursday regular who manages the record shop Oar Folkjokeopus. "A lot of bands doing it today seem to get caught up in the trappings of rockabilly and miss the essence of what drove that music in the first place. But Safety Last just came by it naturally."
Rather than trot out '50s fashions (Jones and Mauseth began balding too early for pompadours anyway), the band focused on playing classic tunes with a punklike energy and a catholic sense of music history. "When I was 14, I started listening to the Grand Ole Opry every Saturday night," says Mauseth, remembering the clear radio signal from Nashville that reached his boyhood home in Hopkins. "To me, it sounded like the blues. All these divisions of music are just for people to put music in boxes in stores. There isn't anyone in country music that hasn't been influenced by black musicians."
But local audiences weren't quite as open-minded, shunning rockabilly in the late '70s for the sounds of new wave and punk. So in 1979 Jones and Mauseth moved to the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico to hone their craft in the clubs near Albuquerque. Unable to find day jobs, the two woodshedded in a remote cabin 8,000 feet above sea level. Eventually they picked up a gig once a week with a local drummer, unforgettably named Roland Bourgeois, at a barnlike bar, unforgettably named the Sidewinder Inn, that catered to cowboys and visiting Texas oil riggers. It was there that the two singers found a new fan in Sonny West, Elvis's longtime buddy and bodyguard. "He used to come with a kid who was developmentally disabled--I don't know how they were related--and that kid was our first, biggest fan," says Mauseth. "We'd do 'Twenty Flight Rock' by Eddie Cochran, and one of the lines is 'the elevator's broken down,' and that kid would always come and request, 'Elevator!'"
When Jones and Mauseth returned to Minneapolis in 1980, they re-formed the band with their current drummer and longtime friend Jim Tollefsrud and soon discovered a club scene more receptive to their sound. Safety Last became a mainstay of the 7th Street Entry, rehearsing in what's now the upstairs DJ lounge in First Avenue and headlining the Entry's first anniversary party in 1981. "We warmed up for Hüsker Dü a lot, because we played really fast then," says Mauseth. "Once people figured out that it was okay to like us, they liked us. All the punks would pogo to our songs."
Within a year the band had recorded a self-titled EP for Twin/Tone Records and started touring the Midwest, adding a Richard Hell-styled 19-year-old named Sprague Hollander on second guitar. ("Sprague was the only real fashion plate in Safety Last," says Mauseth. "He taught us how to dress.")
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.
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.