"Hey, we're in Duluth"

A radio pirate-turned-country rocker who doubles as a nanny. A newspaper that rips the establishment. A deconsecrated church. And a very quiet band called Low. Notes on a tiny counterculture.

Starfire's jacket is not warm enough. The wind off the lake seems to be bypassing his measly layers of T-shirt and skin to pierce right through to his vital organs. Yet Starfire, who is well accustomed to a malicious climate, lifts his hands up as if to rub the air between his thumb and forefingers and discover just what substance is blasting through his cotton delivery jacket.

"There's a definite vibe to Duluth right now," he says, gesturing toward the space between us. "There's a mystery to the place. And I don't know what the secret is or how to explain it. I almost don't want to figure it out, because as soon as I do, it might disappear. I don't want to ruin it by thinking about it too much."

Leave that to me, I say. And we laugh, cutting across the cobblestone toward an almost empty parking lot that curves steeply uphill, like the rest of downtown Duluth, toward the gray mists of the waterfront sky. I'm convinced that the "vibe" Starfire can't put his finger on--call it the emerging sense among Duluthians of an emerging sensibility among Duluthians--might be gauged by the water levels in his eyes. These pools are known to overflow before the live majesty of Duluth's best-known band, Low. Today they shine like a bluish version of Bill Bixby's "Don't make me angry" irises in The Incredible Hulk. You can believe, from their intensity, that this onetime ambulance driver would power his own pirate radio station, as he did on the sleepy hillside between 1997 and 1998, before the FCC mailed out the usual threats against person and property.

Teddy Maki

If Duluth is like a New Orleans cemetery, beautiful but dead, no one has told Starfire, who seems to hope for spring weather in January. Right now he's too busy making local culture to explain its causes, so I give him a lift, driving past the one-of-a-kind R.O. Carlson's Used Book & Record--my ideal store: a garbage house with price tags--toward a large warehouse filled with art studios. Inside, we come upon a dark rehearsal/recording space adorned with oil paintings and white Christmas lights, a room that Starfire says his country band--of course this sentimentalist fronts a country band--shares with a few other groups for a total of $100 a month. He introduces me to sound engineer Eric Swanson, a grizzled industry vet with a white ponytail and plenty of mellow production advice for Starfire, who is polishing off vocals for what will be the debut album from Father Hennepin.

"I always feel like 'We Are the World' when I sing like this," Starfire says, clamping a pair of headphones around his dirty-blond bed-head and sidling up to the standing mic.

"A friend of mine worked that session," remarks Swanson, remembering an anecdote about Stevie Wonder showing Ray Charles the way to the urinal--the blind leading the blind. The tale has the scent of urban legend, though it's also the kind of yarn you want very much to be true.

Anyway, Starfire is ready to go. "What would Jesus do," he begins in a Martin Zellar-pitched quaver, "if he spent a day in my shoes?" I look at Starfire's shoes: suede tennies. How perfectly thirtysomething punk, I think. Like his "Technicolor DJ" title in place of the blunter birth name Scott Lunt. Or the modest cultural transformation he has tried--and tried and tried--in this perennially depressed industrial port.

Watching Starfire sing, I'm put to mind of an incongruous but memorable image that I return to whenever I think about Duluth's revitalized alternative culture, which lately is a lot: the sight of a lawn mower jutting out from beneath the curtain of a church confessional. I noticed this very thing upon my first visit to the century-old Sacred Heart Cathedral, a historic landmark that was saved from the wrecking ball by preservationists who turned the place into a secular music center. Just think how much good humor was required to relocate the garden tools to the booth of contrition. The mower struck me as a characteristically "Duluth" balance of defiance, self-deprecation, and practical good sense. (In the end, somebody probably just needed to find a place for the damn thing.)

This is also the composite attitude you find among counterculture types beneath the layers of army rags and wool. You can even hear a certain practical defiance in Starfire's song about what Jesus himself would do after a day of being Scott Lunt. Answer: "He'd probably just say, 'Shame on you.'"

Swanson says that he once wondered how Low guitarist Alan Sparhawk, a former member of Father Hennepin and a current Bible teacher, felt about "What Would Jesus Do?," the first song Starfire wrote for the band. But there's nothing offensive there, he adds. "Oh, and that $5,000 microphone Starfire is recording on was loaned by Al, too," Swanson says--one of the many benefits of having a nationally known indie-rock trio in your cozy midst. In a few short days Starfire will hit the road with Low to assume yet another hat--as nanny to the ten-month-old daughter of Sparhawk and drummer Mimi Parker--and he wants to finish the album before he leaves.

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