By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Mike Gunther and
his Restless Souls
Burn It Down for the Nails
Heart of a Champion
In a trash-strewn lot, on a day when the local scenery is still the color of a smoker's lungs, Mike Gunther is climbing to the top of a rusty maroon railroad car to check out the design of its roof. "Man, it's so cool up here," he says, rubbing the corrugated metal.
He first discovered the vintage cars last fall at the tail end of a rail yard near Cretin and I-94. Corroded and immobile, they looked like they'd been part of the forgotten landscape for decades. Gunther has been obsessed with how the old cars got there and where they're going ever since. As a train passes by, carrying reams of paper only a few yards down the road, Gunther appears hypnotized by the antiquated transaction. "It's such obsolete infrastructure," he says, staring at each car as it creeps by. "It's a shadow of what it once was."
For Gunther, a musician whose work would probably sound best on a warbling 78, all sorts of deserted effects whisper to him in their hoariness, begging to be noticed again: Not only can he easily find antique railroad cars in the middle of the city, he can discover newspaper clippings stuffed into the dark crevices of an early-century crank record player, and stumble upon the plastic carcass of a creepy Annie resuscitation doll (sans blue tracksuit!) among a box of junk. And, ladies, Gunther can even excavate from a mass grave of discarded photos an autographed picture of country-pop singer B.J. Thomas, donning the Billy Ray Cyrus haircut before Billy Ray even sprouted a curl long enough to tickle the collar of his acid-washed jean jacket. Gunther is a self-taught pop-culture anthropologist who just happens to prefer Bob Wills to, say, Robbie Williams.
It makes sense that Gunther excels at city digs. When he was in junior high, a life-changing moment came when he discovered Robert Johnson in a PBS special. He was living in Robbinsdale during the pre-internet era, a desolate time independent scholars compare to the pre-Paleozoic era before animals roamed the earth. And so Gunther was forced to seek out what he could about Johnson and other blues artists at the library. "It was kind of a backward way of learning about them," Gunther says. "I knew their names and what they looked like and other things about them before I even heard their music."
Here, standing along the wooden tracks in St. Paul and admiring a graffiti-covered silver Burlington rail car that looks like a giant bullet encased in bubble letters, is probably one of the few times Gunther doesn't look like an anachronism in his brown wool newsboy cap and red sweater. His latest release, Burn It Down for the Nails, featuring his band the Restless Souls, would be an appropriate soundtrack to the scene: the harmonicas and chugging percussion on "No Leg to Stand On" haunting like the ghosts of the now-useless train cars. "Easy Money," a trumpet-laden Tom Waits-ian carnival tune, would turn the faces and letters painted across the cars into dancing cartoons. And perhaps down by the river a few steps away, people are getting baptized in the numbing and muddy waters to "Walk All Over It," one of the many tunes in which Gunther, who's spent almost his entire life in Minnesota, somehow conjures the spirit of a Southern preacher.
After crawling all over them, Gunther has discovered all he can about the railroad cars, and he wants to head to Marty's Second Hand Store. It's a place on University Avenue that, while filled with a chaotic assortment of old and unwanted items, feels itself like something that has been used up and abandoned. "This place is so great," Gunther says, jumping out of his decaying 1958 Chevy. "It's like Sanford and Son. I found an old pinball machine here once." Two seconds into the door and Gunther finds the skull of a ResusciAnnie dummy, like the freaky thing was beckoning him from miles away. Gunther recalls in great detail the painful gym classes, where sucking the rubbing alcohol (and the spit of 242 other junior high students) off the doll's face was a requirement for passing.
But in the basement of the place, where the remains of at least 27 years' worth of rummage sales go to be unearthed only by some future civilization, is the real prize of the treasure hunt. It's a four-foot-tall, five-inch-thick glass case housing a glued-together pyramid of 7-Up cans. Each can is poorly wrapped in country-styled paper towels, the kind decorated with blue and pink hearts around the border. "Wow," Gunther says, propping up the case, which rests at his upper chest. "I...I...I think this is art," he says. Though we both agree it's the best piece of art we've seen in months, we leave the store empty-handed. Because sometimes, the thrill is in the discovery.