"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.

So Starfire moves on to the next song, "I Like it in Duluth," trying on the melody in various voices. Between takes, friends and lovers start quietly trickling in. Eric Swanson's fiancée shows up with soup; Father Hennepin's guitarist arrives with beer. Chris Monroe, a cartoonist for Duluth's alternative weekly the RipSaw News, and the Star Tribune, walks in and smiles when she hears the lyrics of the song, a "California Girls"-style tribute to the Twin Ports written, I'm told, by a local jug band from the Seventies with a name that screams "local jug band from the Seventies": the Moose Wallow Ramblers. "Where else in the nation can you get cheaper refrigeration?" goes one line.

Those lyrics notwithstanding, this room is warm, and it grows warmer and more relaxed with the company. Finally Starfire sets down the headphones to take a break. Everyone talks about recent events in town--like the decision of Lake Superior College not to fund a downtown charter school. And everyone seems engaged by issues with a neighborly immediacy. The folks in the room all seem locally active in a social way--in art, music, and politics--and everyone seems somehow connected to the RipSaw News, a weekly newspaper that combines all the dark, close-knit community humor of a doomed Russian submarine with up-to-date broadcasts and broadsides written for activists who, on second thought, might yet storm the palace.

"The political climate here is really in turmoil," Starfire tells me. "I love it. Because there's an old-boy network of developers who are used to just sort of pushing things through--like the Tech Center." He's referring to the Technology Village/Soft Center project, a block-long downtown office complex that spurred the muckraking RipSaw into existence two years ago--and where the charter school was slated to take up tenancy. Volume 1, issue 1 of January 1999 broke the story that the city had begun demolishing historic buildings before a wrecking permit had been won (or even legally bid), in order to dodge a legal appeal. The paper went weekly last April and has since become the hub of the local counterculture, drawing dozens of volunteers, while the hopeful Soft Center stands largely vacant. Starfire, who shares an unpaid paper route with Chris Monroe, says the newspaper has, in many ways, picked up where his 100-watt station, Random Radio, signed off. The RipSaw is its own sort of village and center.

The very notion of alternative culture has become so co-opted and commercial and debased as to have lost all meaning; it's a marketing term now. But living in a city where nearly the only live music is rawking cover bands, and the only movies on offer are those at a solitary six-plex--which is to say, Duluth about three years ago--will erase one's cynicism, and fast. The existence of an organic alternative to prefab national entertainment product takes on a special urgency in a town where paint huffing is said to be on the rise.

Besides, imagining alternatives to Duluth's stark economic situation--the city has been losing population for some 25 years running--may be less an issue of "lifestyle" than a matter of civic survival. As the state steel industry does its impersonation of Pittsburgh in the Seventies, the search for some other local identity takes on new meaning. This would help explain why the sighting of two city-council members hanging out at the NorShor Theatre--sort of the Uptown Theatre and First Avenue rolled into one--might be seized upon as a sign that the revolution is nigh. The 90-year-old NorShor is a concrete metaphor for how art people know music people know political people in Duluth. By day it features an art gallery and art films; by night it hosts concerts on the elegant mezzanine. Remarkably, the key to the venue's revival has been local music, which began rallying three years ago with the HomeGrown Festival, organized by Starfire for his 31st birthday.

Duluth has since become almost giddy with its own momentum. It's a feeling perfectly captured on a descriptively tagged new compilation, Duluth Does Dylan (Spinout), which features 15 active local bands and sleeve art by Chris Monroe. "Dylan's our ticket," explains the ever-frank Swanson. "He was born here, so we might as well use him to get noticed."

Swanson says the music scene is better than it has been for 30 years, and he should know. He remembers attending dances at the National Guard Armory as a kid, the same place Dylan saw Buddy Holly before the 1959 plane crash. Swanson watched local rock 'n' roll sputter to life here in the Sixties, from the teenage Titans through such hippie bands as Trinity Freak. The antiwar counterculture left at least one enduring local institution: The Whole Foods Cooperative. But like a lot of residents, Swanson left when the going got tough in the Eighties, landing a $50,000-a-year job at a guitar company in L.A.

"I had to put up with too much corporate bullshit out there," Swanson says of his L.A. years. "I came back and said, 'Hey, the air is clean, there are no drive-bys.'" He has been here ever since he returned for a visit in 1990 and has lately been busy mixing yet another local CD, this one of live music sponsored by the HomeGrown radio show on KRBR-FM (102.5).

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