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For the past nine years, Jim Walsh has prowled the Twin Cities music scene for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, researching the rock demimonde under cover of night. In August, though, he'll be leaving the paper to bask in the light of Stanford University. He seems to recognize that trading in Paul Westerberg and Bruce Springsteen for Thomas Mann and James Joyce could be perceived as a little, well, bookish. And so sitting down to an interview over a Cuban breakfast a few weeks before he leaves, he starts off with a warning: "If you call me a 'Fellow' in this thing, I'll hunt you down and kill you."
He's kidding (let's hope), so it's safe to tell you he is one of 17 U.S. and international journalists--including heavyweights at Time, Newsweek, and NPR--to be awarded the prestigious John S. Knight Fellowship. Walsh will receive a $55,000 stipend to study whatever he chooses for the next year. "We received our course books the other day, and there's a Spanish class and an Irish literature class I'm interested in," Walsh reports. The columnist's only bylines during this period will go on term papers: One of the program's rules forbids writing for publication. "They want you to concentrate on your studies," he says.
The Pioneer Press, for its part, will bring Walsh back in some capacity at the fellowship's conclusion, according to senior editor Vicki Gowler, but they will hire a new music columnist when he leaves. Walsh backs that decision. "They've been very supportive, and it's time for somebody else to do it....I'm looking to do something different."
Before writing for the Pioneer Press, Walsh was music editor for City Pages from 1990 to 1994. Before that he was an editor for the A&E section of the Minnesota Daily. And before that he was the lead singer and songwriter for a couple of local bands, REMs and Laughing Stock. So in a way, Walsh has had a career in music since he was a teenager. After all this time, he confesses to being a little burned out: "Twelve years of writing about music from the gut have taken their toll."
He openly worries about the possibility of repeating himself. "I need to get better as a writer," he says. "I need to figure out a way to do it differently--in terms of describing music, or referencing music." But when pressed about plans beyond his fellowship, he looks up from his pancake as if he hadn't thought about the question before and chirps, "Jeez, your guess is as good as mine."
Walsh explains that the Knight Fellowship is part of a series of efforts to better his craft, including a writing class he took several years ago at the Loft. He credits that experience with inspiring one of his best-known stories for the Pi Press: a piece he wrote about the Bob Stinson memorial at the Turf Club. "One of the assignments was to write something you would like to read," Walsh recalls, "and I came home from this class and sat down and I made up this New Year's Eve fantasy concert where the Replacements reunited. Now, did I want the Replacements to get back together? Well, no, not really. But sort of. And it would be fun to read. But it went all over the Internet, and Rolling Stone called the Turf Club. And there were people very close to the man that thought it actually happened."
"Oh, I remember the Replacements-reunion article," says former Babes in Toyland drummer Lori Barbero. "People called me and were like, 'Oh my god, the Replacements are getting back together!' I lived with Bob Stinson for two years, so I thought I would have known, so I ran out and got a paper." Despite Walsh's ruse, Barbero is one of many who agree that he will be missed here; ironically given that semi-hoax, she cites honesty as one of the reasons.
Others, like Treehouse Records owner Mark Trehus, talk about Walsh's willingness to go against the grain in the music business. "Who's going to go to bat for the bands that are just kind of bubbling up?" Trehus asks. "Certain other writers in this town seem to get caught up in catering to their readerships a little bit. People might be a little critical of what can be perceived as his mushiness, but it takes courage to say what you think."
Because we've all read him, everybody seems to have an opinion on Walsh's style. Sure, he has a tendency to gush: Some of his stuff would make Cameron Crowe squirm in his chair. And who isn't sick of having Ike Reilly and Mason Jennings pushed on them? But as Mark Baumgarten, publisher of local music journal Lost Cause, points out, "There isn't an ounce of cynicism to his writing. Which is so refreshing, especially in the world of music criticism." And Craig Wright, formerly of the Tropicals, now with Kangaroo, thinks Walsh's "genuine vision" would stand out in any city. "He doesn't stop being a real person when he sits down at his computer," Wright reasons, "and that's the basis for any real writing talent."
We wish Jim luck for the next year, and we'll be happy when he returns--but a warning seems in order before he goes. Toward the end of his breakfast, Walsh mentions how Greil Marcus walks around the Stanford football stadium in the morning, cup of coffee in hand, with the air of a Professor Emeritus of Rock 'n' Roll. Isn't "Dr. Rock 'n' Roll" even worse than "fellow"?