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"I hated these guys at the time," Reidinger says. "But hey, these agents had mouths to feed. They were doing their job."
Arens remembers the agencies well. Obsession worked with nearly all of them. "They had sexy receptionists," he says, "the whole bit."
All the big Twin Cities metal bands played covers. Dare Force did. Obsession did. Slave Raider had a Led Zeppelin medley that people talk about still. Pressure to dabble in Top 40 was something the big bands had leverage to circumvent. For a young band it was different. The bands thought of themselves as heavy metal bands. The agents saw them as bar bands. The scene still had plenty of bands writing their own music. But many other musicians started to internalize the pocketbook logic of the talent agencies and started filling their sets with covers while their own songs died slow deaths on demo tapes or self-released records. With heavy metal music worming its way into the Billboard charts and onto prime-time MTV rotation, the fans on the dance floor wanted to hear the radio, not the demo tape.
There was another, more aesthetic transformation happening: Heavy metal was becoming "hair metal." To the untrained eye, it is all hair metal. To a guy like Arens, hair metal was heresy—and he blames Hollywood. "Before Hollywood," Arens says, "metal had more ties to bands like the New York Dolls than bands like Loverboy. We would glam it up in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way, like old English guys wearing drag—but the drag turned into bands beginning to look like the chicks in their audience. Then the guys started singing with those stupid high voices."
Bart says once hair metal hit MTV, it very quickly "transposed itself on the Twin Cities clubs."
"It just became bloated," Arens says. "Then again, if you take anything in this whole wide world—from rock 'n' roll to teaching—and throw enough money at it, it will eat itself."
The new hair metal bands, Reidinger says, "always sort of rode the shoreline. They were never trying to 'make it'—or they weren't trying very hard."
One of those bands was Gemini. At the end of the '80s, Reidinger, a working drummer all his adult life, joined the band, attracted to their predictable draw and income. Gemini had an album of original material when he joined. He wasn't yet ready to admit to himself that he had joined the kind of cover band he had fought to keep Axis from becoming. A few years later he ejected himself from the scene altogether.
His epiphany moment was particularly lucid. Gemini was playing the Press in St. Cloud, a rock club that went back to the Dare Force days. The place was packed. Come encore time, the rest of the band walked backstage and Reidinger was stuck on the tiny stage behind an enormous drum kit. "So I just ducked down behind the drum riser. I had two bass drums. Nobody could see me." The crowd was shouting, but not for Gemini: "Me-tal-li-ca! Me-tal-li-ca! Me-tal-li-ca!"
"And it just clicked," Reidinger says. "There is a fundamental flaw here. We don't have an identity. We're never going anywhere. Jesus, that was scary. I was in my early 30s. I'd forsaken a college education and trade school and this is what I do."
THE HEAVY-TURNED-HAIR metal scene in the Twin Cities died quietly but suddenly.
"The era ended," says Sabin, "the day Nirvana came on the radio."
For that, Arens still gives thanks. "I don't understand these guys who say grunge killed rock 'n' roll. Fuck that—grunge saved rock 'n' roll."
In the Twin Cities, a fire preceded the Nirvana explosion. Mr. Nibs, with its wall museum to the genre, burned to the ground in 1989. A larger club, the Mirage, was built from the ashes of Mr. Nibs. But the Mirage was more a concert venue than a rock club. A band could draw 300 people and the place would still look empty. Today the space is a bakery.
AT THE COFFEE SHOP on Hiawatha, Arens takes the last sip of his hot chocolate and pulls out the keys to his dirty white minivan. He pounds his finger on an Obsession photo on the table: "Selling out a nightclub in St. Paul was more exciting for me than playing to 250,000 people at Woodstock. Building it with my own sweat and blood out of our own fucking ideas and not thinking business or anything that would equate in any sense to fashion or to corporate America—this was pure adrenaline rock 'n' roll. All day long in my head I just heard grrrrrrrrrr...."
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