Artists of the Year

12 Rods, Jon Stewart, Howard Stern, Quentin Tarantino, Garrison Keillor, MF Doom, Lawrence Lessig, Randi Rhodes...

Quinton Skinner is the theater critic at City Pages and the author of several books. His next novel, 14 Degrees Below Zero, will be released next year. He is also working on the authorized biography of Tupac Shakur.


12 Rods
by Lindsey Thomas

When Ryan Olcott screams, I want to scream right along with him. That's saying something, because I'm generally the passive-aggressive type--someone who'd rather just spit in your coffee when I'm mad. When I was a teenager, angst was never part of my vocabulary, especially since my parents listened to the same music I did and didn't mind if I came home from concerts at 2:00 a.m. But Olcott's scream isn't that of some frustrated high school kid getting back at Dad. It's the intelligent noise of a man who studied music as much as he studied sound. If not for his rock-star dreams, Olcott would have gone to college to become a symphonic percussionist. Instead, he applied his knowledge to practice spaces, creating an orchestra out of synthesizers, guitars, and his own rebel yell.

When Olcott's band 12 Rods called it quits last August, I realized just how sympathetic I was to that voice. In the mid-'90s, talent scouts flew halfway across the country to see this buzz band play in crappy Midwestern bars. The group signed with up-and-coming indie label V2, which promised them music videos, radio airplay, and big-name record producers. But according to Olcott, the label couldn't pigeonhole their music and soon gave up on trying to market it. They were dropped. By the time I moved to Minneapolis five years ago, I got no response from telling people that my favorite local band was 12 Rods.

A few weeks before their final show, I sat with the band as they traded stories about their time together, from the night they trashed a hotel room to the shows they played for clueless high schoolers. Eventually the conversation changed from what the band was to what it could have been. Years of trying to beat the label execs had taken their toll on Olcott: Soon he was near tears, so upset about the band's failures that he questioned whether he should have become a rock musician in the first place. The rest of the band watched as a man they greatly admired broke down. It was like watching him finally release a dream that started fading a long time ago.

But sometimes that's the best thing a musician can do. When Olcott walked away from the music industry, he moved on with his life. By starting new projects, he may be letting go of 12 Rods. But something tells me I'll hear him scream again.

Lindsey Thomas is a writer and listings coordinator at City Pages.


Louise Erdrich
by Peter Ritter

The funny thing about Louise Erdrich's novels is they don't always behave like novels. Characters drift in, scarcely announced, from previous books. Things happen off the page. Narrators change voices, change skins, sometimes vanish. Stories unfold in an antic tumble only to trail off into indeterminacy. Ancillary subplots bloom into books. What I mean to say is: Erdrich's novels wander.

Never more so than in this year's Four Souls, Erdrich's 10th novel. The setting is again the Little No Horse reservation, which is by now as familiar to Erdrich's readers as Red Cloud is to Willa Cather's or Macondo to Gabriel García Márquez's. This is, for Erdrich's sprawling multigenerational family of characters, a place half-remembered and half-dreamed: Memory lingers in the landscape as destiny courses through the blood. For Fleur Pillager, the mysterious woman warrior whose story is the heart of Four Souls, the loss of this land threatens to sever all ties to the past. As she plots an elaborate revenge on the white landowner who stole it, she inexorably becomes a mirror image of her enemy. For Nanapush, the Rabelaisian clown who becomes Fleur's biographer, the land also holds the possibility of her restoration.

In Ojibwe legend, Nanapush is the trickster who names the world's plants and animals. The power and potential danger of naming is also central to Erdrich's tale. "Names acquire their own life and drag a person on their own path for their own reasons, which we can't know. There are names that gutter out and die and then spring back, distinguished. Names that go on through time and trouble, names to hold on your tongue for luck. Names to fear."

Four Souls doesn't feel like a capstone to or a culmination of the big interconnected story cycle that Erdrich's novels have become. So: an in-between story for a somberly in-between year. Perhaps we could do worse than to end 2004 thinking about the emptiness of revenge and the inevitability of renewal.

Peter Ritter is a Minneapolis-based writer and a frequent contributor to City Pages.


Stuart Pimsler
by Caroline Palmer

Performances about the awkward experiences associated with growing up in the suburbs are plenty common, so it takes a unique point of view to transform the familiar boy-becomes-man tale from mere sitcom to something more meaningful. Stuart Pimsler Dance and Theater's You've Got to Be Kidding!, presented by the Southern Theater in April, achieved this tricky goal by combining the company's new and repertory works (including Joy or Portrait of the Artist as a Young Jew and The Men from the Boys) into a comprehensive examination of personal and artistic maturity, as well as the family ties that bind, sometimes a little too tight.

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