Young Spuds in a Longhorn Daze

The late Seventies weren't exactly an era for what the Clash called "the career opportunity (the one that never knocks)." Unless you were making Minneapolis your hang. With inflation and unemployment under President and peanut farmer Jimmy Carter at an appalling high, the big small town germinated the impossibly named Sweet Potato monthly music publication in August of 1979, offering work for anybody hungry enough to work for peanut shells and free records.

The city already cradled a lot of flammable contents under pressure in its now historical music scene, with Sixties hi-fi bands from the Trashmen to the High Spirits (then all but forgotten) to the R&B likes of Willie Murphy and the Bumblebees; the Explodo Boys; Koerner, Ray & Glover; Lamont Cranston; Inside Straight; and more. Folkies such as Larry Long, Cowboy Pop Wagner, Peter Lang, and many others still held forth at the Coffeehouse Extempore on the West Bank and often were a resource for the formative days of Garrison's Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion. There were a couple of token jazz joints, Yanni was still in town working with Chameleon, and a few noteworthy "world beat" bands like Shangoya made a living with their day jobs. Eventually the supremely influential indie label Twin/Tone Records and a south Minneapolis neighborhood record shop, Oarfolkjokeopus, would help spawn the next generation of rockers, including the Replacements, the Suburbs, Flamingo, Hüsker Dü, Soul Asylum, Jayhawks, Curtiss A, and countless others. All Big Hitters of Mid-America.

The paper, derived from a Maine version of the same and named after the ill-begotten ocarina, a screwball instrument Harpo Marx used to play, succeeded in spite of its agrarian moniker (imagine the time it took to explain to smarmy record-company publicists on the coasts who verbally wondered why a farm journal would want to interview the B-52's or Talking Heads). Still there it was, the old right-place, right-time Spud, targeted at lake-locked left-brainers in windchill land who were raised on downright bad local radio, remnants of a musician's fish-wrapper called Connie's Insider and that old local Maoist hippie rag A Hundred Flowers.

Sweet Potato first sat five floors up on Lake Street off Lyndale, in an old half-vacant office building where the janitor and his wife lived upstairs. There was a podiatrist on the first floor named Dr. Keister and no AC for the few new computers to breathe. By the time the paper had its weekly plans in mind, along with a move to the swanky Butler Building downtown, the Spud was already targeting its arch nemesis the Twin Cities Reader. Randy Anderson was editor (the guys called him "Pops"; one eventually fired calendar editor called him "fuck stick"). Dick Dahl, who dug monochromatic British angst bands whose lead members committed suicide, was news editor. It was a cheerful place, without roaches. Freelancers hauled in copy regularly. Since marketing had yet to take over every nanosecond of our lives, the stories and the writing really sold the rag. But the times readily inspired the writers.

It was an era when you could wax or rip about the Police or Elvis Costello and the Attractions in the Longhorn, where maybe 60 people would be at the gigs. Sam's, soon to be called First Avenue and the 7th Street Entry, where you could see Hüsker Dü flailing about in front of another 60 folks, was "transitioning" out of its heavy dance-club era, with manager Steve McClellan "officing" upstairs in the same vault he's in today. "Impactful," "cyber," and "phat" were not in the popular lexicon. But McClellan, whose facial hair had a future-tense body language all its own, truly kept up on world culture and with the help of Walker Art Center czar Chuck Helm booked the first hip-hop act into the club. Lipps Inc.'s "Funkytown"--written by that nice Jewish boy from Highland Park, Stephen Greenberg--broke like a tsunami right before the dawn of Prince. Even then, when it had crossed over onto every Billboard chart including the Hasidic Top 10, the downright bad local radio wouldn't play it because--like the many Prince records that followed--it sounded "too black."

The Suicide Commandos were the leaders of the punk pack back then, and played a scheduled Longhorn show the night Jim Jones and his commune went out with the Kool-Aid cut with poison. It didn't matter what the occasion; there was something essential to see and hear just about every night of the week for about eight years straight. Duffy's over in no man's land at 26th and 26th, got hot for a while, showcasing everybody from William Burroughs the beat writer to Wendy Williams the porn actress. It was a small room, but the Time used to gig there occasionally, unannounced, to balance all the unadvertised Prince shows downtown on the Avenue. The Upper Deck catered to new bands and lots of punks until there was a Final Conflict show that ended in a good riot with the cops.

Meanwhile, Pops got fired before the move downtown and tried futilely to organize the freelancers and editorial staff to strike. Dahl got his shortly thereafter, inside the Butler building. Tony Schmitz came in as editor, along with Patty Ohmans (an omen, fer sure) and Dahl's job was taken by a New York scribe named Philip Weiss, who today writes for lots of big-name pubs and believes Clinton has struck a Faustian deal with the devil.

Next Page »