"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.

But it also occurs to me that the adults watching Hollis bounce seem to have welcomed an addition to an already good life, and that this life is inevitably bound up in the changing moods of Duluth. "Everywhere you go, there are people with bands," says Sparhawk, tidying up the living room by returning baby toys and a copy of Wired to the designated mess of the band office. "And for some reason, lately, it's really self-aware: Like, 'Hey, we're in Duluth!'"

Such pride seems to amuse Sparhawk and Parker: The place is home to them by force of habit, they say, not to mention the convenient proximity to parents, and a central location for touring. The singers get their fair share of the world on the road but say they miss sushi. If somebody opened a sushi bar in Duluth, Sally deadpans, the local news would run an item explaining what sushi is. Not that everyone in town is chafing at its limits.

"It's close enough to Minneapolis that anyone who wanted to get out of here did," says Sparhawk, smiling. "There's not a feeling of, Oh, we're stuck in this small town."

In fact most natives, like Sally, move away. And who could blame them? When Sally was in high school, and Sparhawk and Parker were attending the University of Minnesota-Duluth together, his favorite driving song was Big Black's "Kerosene," a pyromaniacal rant against small-town life written by the Missoula, Montana, native who recorded most of Things We Lost in the Fire, Steve Albini.

Like a lot of artists who stay, Sparhawk and Parker originally came from even smaller towns--they graduated as high school sweethearts in a class of 28 students from Clearbrook. "I thought it was a big city when the first time I was downtown someone tried to sell me crack," says Sparhawk. "I just thought, whoa, man, I am in the cit-ee!"

"Was it ___?" Sally names a mutual acquaintance, and everyone laughs.

Although turning down a piece of the rock, Sparhawk and Parker seized on the small arty fringe already existing in Duluth. It seems significant now that Low formed in one housing co-op (the Emerson Tenants Cooperative still overlooking the lake) and played their first gig in another (the now defunct Recycla-Bell, a housing space in the old Bell Telephone Building).

Low's start, in other words, was hardly filled with glamour and hype, which makes their current slide toward celebrity all the harder to take. When the crew packs up Hollis to get dinner at Lake Avenue Café on the redeveloped, touristy riverfront, the waiter asks, "You're the people who phoned in?" When I mention this apparently grudging behavior to Sparhawk, he responds quietly, "Oh, no, he's just a big fan."

Do a lot of people act strangely around the band now? "No," Sparhawk says, "but we've had enough experiences where you could almost guess what it's like being famous--how weird it is."

Low have never set themselves apart from their community, and Sparhawk even writes occasionally for the RipSaw News. He enthusiastically recommends the columns of one Slim Goodbuzz, which always begin with the headline "Gettin' Ripped at the..."--and then name yet another bar where slurred high jinks have been witnessed and/or participated in. Identified in print only as "a resident of Central Hillside," this "booze-scene" critic serves as a check on the palpable self-romance of the local arts community. Goodbuzz assumes the persona of the perpetually dissatisfied Bacchanalian overjoyed to find, for instance, a bar attached to a laundromat.

I can imagine Sparhawk eating this up: Mormons don't drink, and I wonder if the Goodbuzz fan isn't the same side of his personality that would dub himself Chicken Bone George and play distorted Muddy Waters tunes with his side band the Black Eyed Snakes--a sort of Sunday 3:00 a.m. to Low's Sunday 11:00 a.m.

And speaking of the dark side, Sally tells me about something called "meat parties," where men in drag get together, invite other men, and eat meat. He grumbles, tongue in cheek, that it took him until he was 26 years old to get invited to one. Is this the "vibe"?

No, Sally says--though his attempt to summarize Duluth is as vague as everyone else's. "It's not a city and it's not a suburb and it's not a small town," he says. "It's just sort of exactly what it is."

 

A week later I'm in a van with Brad Nelson, drummer for Father Hennepin, and his brother Tim, guitarist for rap-folk rockers Gild. Brad and Tim sit in the front of the vehicle, wearing hats emblazoned with iron-on patches of the other brother's band. They share red hair, sideburns, lankiness, and effusiveness. This last attribute makes them perfect tour guides.

Brad also happens to be the publisher of the RipSaw News (oh, and also the drummer for the Black Eyed Snakes). Tim organized Duluth Does Dylan and co-owns Fitger's Brewhouse. Next to me sits RipSaw circulation coordinator Susan Stone, a quieter soul who will serve as designated driver later on. And in the back sits Slim Goodbuzz himself, whose identity I'm duly sworn to protect. The only feature I'll give away is a steadfast ironic glint in sad eyes that might otherwise be given to disappointment--as if his blurred vision quest were doomed from the outset.

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