Young Spuds in a Longhorn Daze

But I digress. Local filmmaker Chuck Statler was making a name as a pioneer of early MTV clips, shooting the first Devo, Costello, and Graham Parker vids. With his British editor Dale Cooper, he threw some defining parties from the period in what then constituted part of the Warehouse District loft scene. One night in Cooper's loft space over the New French, Dylan and Costello came to such a bash, where there was a lot of New Orleans music playing loudly on the tape deck, Bob with his kids in tow and Elvis with his band, who ate all the food. Nobody could hear what the two yakked about, but somebody said they were just talking about the business, their managers, and who they knew in common.

Back then photographer Greg Helgeson--"the Helg"--zoomed just about anybody who was anybody (and piles of nobodies, too) locally or internationally. The other day he reminisced in awe about how much access there was back then: Helg and I interviewed U2 on their first U.S. tour for about three hours the night of their first Minneapolis gig at First Avenue, where earlier that day they wrote much of the album October during an extended sound check. Another three hours we spent in the St. Paul Radisson in the Ganja Honeymoon Suite talking through Rasta esoterica and the haze with Bob Marley, who truly glowed from the inside out.

It wasn't always that great: Joe from the band Flamingo was murdered one summer in what is still an unsolved local crime. And the janitor at the old Spud building, well, he got sliced up pretty bad with a big-ass knife by his old woman who went mad, and nobody felt good about that. But for sheer fun, those days prolonged our collective adolescence by at least six or seven years. One of the two best rock 'n' roll shows I ever saw was at the Longhorn, featuring David Johansen with a guest harp solo spot from Tony "Little Sun" Glover (who started writing for the paper early on). The other was at the State Theatre, back then just a dark tomb of a place. The fuckin' J. Geils Band, a group I always staked to be a second-level Beantown attraction, blew it apart. It's not good to have presumptions--not in rock 'n' roll, writing, or songwriting.

Some funny stuff went down in that period, too. One day Helg and I went over to the Fair Oaks (where all the imported Cabooze blues acts seemed to stay) to interview John Lee Hooker, the father of the boogie and one of the last truly great surviving blues masters. At three in the afternoon, John Lee was still in bed, with his lime-green polyester suit on, watching The Streets of San Francisco, hoping to catch a glimpse of his used-car lot in one of the scenes. Another time I dragged myself out of bed at 9:00 a.m. to do a phoner with Albert King cuz he was gonna play with Lamont Cranston in New York. After about fifteen minutes of a dangling conversation at both ends of the phone, I asked King another question and got complete silence for about five minutes. Eventually I heard snoring.

Replacements shows were always a must, mostly to see how drunk or brilliant they would be. Offstage they were nice enough guys; hell, one time in Westerberg's apartment over on Lyndale and 33rd, he was playing Ricky Nelson records through an entire chatty interview. A couple of years after I got my tail fired and was interviewing the band for the arch-nemesis Reader over a pitcher of beer at three in the afternoon, back before PW quit drinking and Slim Dunlap had replaced Bob Stinson in the group, we were talking about tragic rock and literary figures. Westerberg snapped silently when I asked if the 'Mats were such a band. He did an eloquent tribute to Bob after he died of substance abuse a few years ago.

Today it all seems like a million miles away and as close as the CDs on the shelf. Some of the writers from the paper have gone on to make names, some have stayed here true to the trade, still cranking it out for relatively low pay, free records, backstage passes, the sheer love of it, I guess. The rest are lost to time and their own lives. Writing at a local weekly paper is a tough thing to make a career out of--rock or pop music itself is finally not a careerist's game, unless you want to play casinos and endless reunion tours.

Sweet Potato and the early City Pages were just little dinky papers that thought large while covering the scene. But it was our scene, and we recorded it fairly well, often with hangovers, or car trouble, or devastating breakups with lovers, before life pulled us and the Spud in directions we never dreamed. As any good rock 'n' roll writer will tell you, the rock 'n' roll capital of America unexpectedly packs up its wares over a long weekend like a bad carpet sales company and moves on about every five years. One day it's Motown, the next day it's here, then Seattle. Then Pisgaugh. Sweet Potato survived against Mystic Lake odds to become the more respectable and weekly monopoly it is today. Its survival instincts rested largely on the writing talent it haphazardly assembled with their collective good, bad, and goofy habits, old typewriters, shitty wages, pushed deadlines, mild ambitions, and other personal peccadilloes, but all ultimately bent on covering a scene that was quickly slouching toward American Bandstand. Newspapers like this, when they are any good at all, get people talking while everyone else is "dialoguing." That sounds like a pretty good deal to me, even if the pay's not great and the paper's become just another piece of the multimedia matrix that saturates our lives while our consciousness asks that timeless Peggy Lee question, "Is that all there is?"

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