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"Why does everyone drink at a funeral?," one longtime music head said to another Tuesday night, as the two bellied up to the Turf Club bar and ordered a couple of whiskeys. It was a good question, if slightly off the mark. For there was nothing remotely funereal about the party that took place on the intersection of Snelling and University in St. Paul, partly because the Turf is not being razed and music will still fill the room. And also because the people responsible for the era that everyone came to eulogize wouldn't have it.
For 10 years, Rob and Leah Rule and Dave Weigart have been the heart of the Turf Club. As head of the loose-knit collection of musicians and fans known as the St. Paul Music Club (SPMC), the Rules and Weigart transformed what was a mostly dormant neighborhood bar into a thriving and homey scene that filled the void left by the degeneration of the old Uptown Bar in Minneapolis. When proprietor Mark Johnson recently sold the room to Dubliner Pub owner Tom Scanlon, the trio reluctantly came to conclusion that their musical and business vision didn't mesh with Scanlon's. It was time to move on.
By the time you read this, the Turf will have been stripped of the rock 'n' roll ornaments and ephemera that had built up over the years: the Christmas tree lights, the CDs hanging from the ceiling, and the heroes on the wall that meant so much to the Rules and Weigart. There was Johnny Cash, stage right, giving the finger to all ye who entered. There was Neil Young, wild-eyed, staring down at you as you quaffed your beer. There was Dan Corrigan's portrait of the Replacements in the elevator at Coffman Union, a one-shot testimonial to the fragile camaraderie of rock bands. There were the Ramones, giving a silent gabba-gabba-hey to all who passed by.
There were the Beatles, Hüsker Dü, the Mighty Mofos, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, and gig posters of yore. Behind the bar were newspaper clips, signed photos, and a couple of headshots of that patron saint of all seemingly doomed clubs, First Avenue's Steve McClellan. Finally, there was a stenciled word, "CURTAINS," all over the walls, a remnant from the club's earlier show-biz era, and an ironically appropriate sign-off for another era coming to a close.
Tuesday night, the once-overflowing bulletin board in the back of the club held just two pieces of paper: a strip the size of a large fortune-cookie fortune that read "here comes a regular" and this farewell note:
Notice to Music Fans. As of April 4, 2005 the St. Paul Music Club will officially end its residency at St. Paul's Turf Club, due to the sale of said business and property. Nearly 10 years ago the SPMC approached owner Mark Johnson about the possibility of booking a rock show at the then predominantly country bar. Not only did the weekly SPMC Tuesdays begin, but a long and mutually benefiting relationship was established, leading to the current state of the Turf. This said, the SPMC would like to publicly thank Mark Johnson and the current/past Turf Club staff. It has been an honor and a privilege to work and play with you. Together we have made a wonderful musical impact on the lives of many in what we consider the BEST LOCAL music scene in the country. Lastly, it is with regret that we announce the cancellation of this year's GRAND YOUNG DAY #9. This celebration will return. Date and location to be determined. Until then SPMC will return to it's traveling state and put on occasional shows around town. LIVE MUSIC IS BETTER bumper stickers have been issued. Thank you for your support.
Tuesday afternoon, Rob Rule told CP's Peter Scholtes, "They [the new management] don't get what we do. I'd like to think there are 2,000 people in the Twin Cities that really get it. And that's enough. Every night is decent, and busy nights are crazy. But O'Gara's probably has 5,000 people that get their place."
A few hours later, several hundred people who get it packed into the Turf's upstairs and downstairs. The basement, formerly festooned with freaky clown portraits and paraphernalia and home to one of the best jukeboxes around, was dark and stripped bare. The stage was empty, save for a crumpled clown sign on one side and a dormant upright piano on the other. It could have been any other night at the Turf, what with people talking about music, work, school, but underneath it were memories of earlier nights and other songs.
Lucinda Williams leaning up against the wall while Ryan Adams sang his newly penned retort to her "Metal Firecracker." Mark Mallman and his marathons. Ralph Stanley and his Clinch Mountain Boys returning the Turf to its old-timey country music roots. The photo booth that launched a thousand romances. Anthony Cox, karaoke, and alt-country in the Clown Lounge. Ike Reilly delivering a four-night stand that was as good as live music gets. The Bob Stinson memorial, which drew a turn-away crowd when a rumor got out that the Replacements were going to reunite. Slim Dunlap doing "Big Star Big" and "Ballad of the Opening Band" at his regular, last-Saturday-of-the-month gig. Curtiss A somersaulting off the stage at Wellstone World Music Day II. The night of the 2004 presidential election, when the few barflies in attendance were so stunned and sick that not a soul clapped.
And so on. Of course, the Turf's calendar will remain intact--as the message gleaming from the florescent blackboard reminded us: "M. Ward, April 22." Holding down the scheduling duties now is longtime Turf booker Dave Ricker. And, perhaps intoxicated by all the good vibes near the end of Tuesday night, Leah left the door open for the possibility of the Rules playing a larger role in the club's future. (She added, though, "It would take a miracle at this point.")
One thing is certain: Tuesday was the last time Rob Rule's 21-year-old band the Mammy Nuns will play SPMC Tuesdays at the Turf. With Rule sporting a black derby and an undertaker's suit, the Mammies tore through a set of originals that included "Three Chord Song," "My Favorite Bobs," (Dylan, Stinson, Dunlap, Mould, and "my favorite Bob of All--my dad"), and their ode to artistic futility, "Stupid Little Band."
The night ended well after 2:00 a.m., with people milling about and refusing to leave. The bouncers weren't keen to kick anybody out, and none of the regulars were ready to go home. Perhaps all were savoring the Mammy's last set, which featured covers sung by guest singers, and taking to heart what Rule told the crowd at the end of the first set: "Thanks everyone. We love this place. We love you guys. This is the way we'll remember it."
Jim Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612.372.3775