"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.

We are all following an old Duluth custom: hitting the highway at 12:30 a.m. on a weekend night to head over to Superior--the even rustier, less populated, more impoverished Wisconsin "sister" city, where bar time is 2:00 a.m. and where life's anxieties are rendered blotto under the knowing, helpless eyes of mounted bears and elk. With its dubious billboard slogan "Next to Duluth, We're Superior," the second of the Twin Ports makes up for its inferior culture by having more fun. To get there, I'm told, you take either what's called "the high bridge" or the Bong Memorial Bridge--the joke being, "If you can't get high, go to the Bong." But ask for directions and you're a goner: In Duluth-Superior's Bizarro World, east is north, and north is west.

And bongos are in. When we arrive at Norm's Beer & Brats, a packed dance-floor's worth of flesh-baring young liberal-arts students is screaming at tonight's new-wave outfit, Ballyhoo, who are in the midst of a frenzied conga solo. Goodbuzz informs me that, for some reason, a lot of local bands favor extraneous percussion. Anything to get noticed, I suppose. Besides Low, the most famous band with roots in the area remains the Fuckin' Shit Biscuits, whose very cognomen suggests a certain need to grab attention by its private parts. One local legend has it that when a pre-bankruptcy MC Hammer played Duluth in the early Nineties, the Twin Cities band Dogshine, whose members hail from the Twin Ports, printed up flyers saying, "Fuck MC Hammer, come see our show," and slapped them up all over Hammer's tour bus, later going so far as to phone the venue to make a bomb threat.

Around the time that I'm feeling driven to storm the stage, grab the mic, and wail out a version of "Kumbaya," I meet one of the new twentysomething Duluth city-council members, Donny Ness, and begin to grill him about the remarkable turnout for Nader in northern Minnesota. Before we can really get into it, though, a busty waitress hands me something green with a plastic alligator in it, and I find the drink mysteriously paid for. Everyone knows why I'm here by now, and the goodwill overflowing around the occasion--Brad Nelson's 31st birthday--has begun running in my direction. Gradually, the green concoction does its brutal work.

...and I wake up the next morning to find this alligator staring at me, sitting on top of a beeping clock radio: 10:15 a.m. When I flop out of bed and down the stairs of the Nelson residence, Brad and Tim greet me with coffee and a bunch of local CDs. Apparently they are no longer affected by their own green drinks. Our designated driver, Susan, has nearly completed her managerial shift at the co-op, they say. So we have time to grab brunch before she shows us around. I feel like taping a sign to my throbbing forehead that says "slacker" and putting a bullet through it--or maybe consuming a scale of the alligator that bit me.

Today Brad and Tim are in full slacker-with-cell-phone mode. The slightly older, gaunter Tim has streaky blond highlights and an earring. Brad looks more boyish and neat; he has become a newspaperman. They take me to a greasy spoon called Uncle Loui's Café, shed a layer, and climb into the booth facing the door.

"Uncle Loui's is a rock 'n' roll institution," declares Brad, adding more quietly: "You get to see who slept together the night before." Later the door swings open and they both look up at once, as if the middle-aged waitress had posted a centerfold on the menu board. I don't know what couple just came in, but the Nelsons look at each other as if to say, "So that's who he went home with!"

These brothers and friends embody just how completely the RipSaw and local music culture overlap. Everyone on the paper's staff seems required to play in at least one band. And it's telling that the very first issue ran a music column on the cover. When I speak to NorShor Theatre owner Rick Boo, he describes the RipSaw benefit held at the theater last year as a general bohemian coming-together, with "improv-painting" and bands playing. Noise-rockers the Dames volunteered even after receiving a bad review. Now the paper depends on every corner of the arts community--not to mention the preservationist and environmentalist movements--for support.

"Duluth is still a lot of old money," says Brad. "It's built on timber and steel, and a lot of that money is still in those old families--it sort of hovers there. And I don't really know how it all filters down, but it's more far-reaching than we realize. When the RipSaw first started, we sort of pissed off the establishment, and all of a sudden we were banned from all these hotels for distribution. People wouldn't look at us for advertising because they were worried about reprisals from the city. Rick Boo at the NorShor was afraid to advertise with us because he was worried city inspectors would shut him down."

"At the Brewhouse," adds Tim, "we had electrical inspectors come in more frequently after we started advertising in the RipSaw." Brad says he heard that someone at city hall had called Allete, the power company where he coaches skiing, and urged that they dismiss him as a reprisal for his muckraking.

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