By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
ON MAINSTREET in Hopkins, a bar called Decoy's shares the street with an antiques mall and a bead store. On a subzero night in March, a middle-aged woman with bleached blond hair, skyward bangs, and a winter coat covering a jean jacket is on the sidewalk in front of the bar on her phone, arranging a rendezvous with a friend. "Irregardless," she says, "I'll be on the floor dancing."
Inside, Hairball, a band that bills itself as "a tribute to '80s hard rock," is setting up two walls of amps on a cramped corner stage.
The bass player, a 37-year-old who goes by "Sports" and looks more Danzig than David Lee Roth, is standing on the empty dance floor in front of the stage, plucking through Metallica's "Enter Sandman" with eyes fixed on a corner television screen broadcasting a high school hockey tournament at a St. Paul arena—the kind of place for which Hairball's gear might be better suited (the lighting trusses, drum riser, and pyrotechnics wouldn't fit on the Hopkins stage). The band is a sort of time-machine act, using costumes and staging to evoke a lost era when drug- and sex-saturated rock stars wore spandex and long hair and played heavy metal on arena stages. It was also an era when countless Twin Cities bands emulated these heavy metal stars, angling for record deals, tour buses, and enough fans to fill their own arena concerts.
Off to one side of the Decoy's stage, Hairball has hung a black curtain, creating a tiny staging area for an evening of elaborate costume changes. There are two singers. One will do two songs as Dee Snider from Twisted Sister while the other is preparing his Ozzy Osbourne costume in the improvised dressing room.
When the lights go down, somebody somewhere cues the intro music and the singer called "Rockstar Bob," who is wearing spandex, a sleeveless tee, a blond wig, and dark aviator glasses, peeks out from the black sheet and signals a crew member with frantic hands. He is signaling for the fog—lots of it, his hands say in circles. Everywhere. The band rolls in with the fog. The guitar player, known as "Happy," is wearing ripped, flesh-hugging pants with fishnet patching and is a veteran of Twin Cities metal bands from the era he now spoofs. Happy strikes a chord and Rockstar Bob issues a proclamation: "This is a Hairball party!"
Really, it's a class reunion. Onstage and on the dance floor (which is packed) are the same people who haunted the stages and dance floors of Twin Cities rock clubs two decades ago. They were clubs like the Iron Horse, Ryan's, the Payne Reliever, Muldoon's, and the beloved Mr. Nibs, which had walls covered with glossy black-and-white promotional photos of the local bands that played there—bands with big hair, tight pants, bare chests, and expressions that alternated between come-hither pouts and defiant grimaces. The bands had names like Dare Force, Obsession, Paradox, Slave Raider, Brass Kitten, Mad Atchu, Wonderland, and the Blondes.
In those days, the critical affections of the local press were spent on bands like Hüsker Dü, the Suburbs, Prince, and the Replacements. Heavy metal was the scene the critics didn't want to touch. When they did, they were not often kind.
"Contemporary heavy metal is the spiritual godchild of the Reagan era, facing up to a complex world and responding with a long leap backward into machismo, sexism, militarism, and bigotry," a City Pages reviewer wrote in 1984—a bellwether year for heavy metal bands like the Scorpions, Iron Maiden, and Twisted Sister.
In Hopkins, on a cold night in 2008, the dubious genre was breathing again. And in a still-complex world, Hairball's particular kind of "long leap backward" was producing nothing but smiles, undulating hips, and a crowd full of lead singers, remembering verses and choruses and the scattered pieces of a long-dead era.
MIKE FINDLING, a 52-year-old veteran of Twin Cities heavy metal, invented Hairball seven years ago. And until his retirement from the rock stage in January 2008, he was one of its two singers. But he was having pitch problems onstage and the band was noticing. "You put on a dick suit and sing 'Big Balls' by AC/DC, and nobody gives a shit if you are off pitch," he says. "But with some of the other songs...."
Findling works and lives in Chaska, where he and his wife have raised four grown kids. Seated at a high table in a Chaska bar and grill, he cycles through a long career of war stories between onion rings and sips from a giant glass of Coke.
When he moved to the Twin Cities from his native Milwaukee in 1983, he was 27 and already a road-worn singer, always in the service of groups that were not entirely his own. He decided to start a group—a heavy metal band that would draw on the gruff late-'70s rock he loved. And his eyes were fixed on the stratosphere. He was looking for talent and diversity. He searched in vain for black players. Instead, he hired a woman to play bass. That was an anomaly in the metal bands of the day. Ever mindful of marketing, he was looking to stand out.