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.
He was also looking to bury Mike Findling. He started hiding his lazy eye behind a pirate patch. "Before the patch," he says, "I'd be onstage and the guy over here would think I was looking at him. Meanwhile, the guy over here thinks I'm looking at him! I couldn't connect with my crowd."
The pirate shtick evolved to include a hoop earring and a black bandanna pulled tight around his forehead. He scoured library shelves for a band name that would lend cohesion to his new accessories. Blackbeard was too obvious. He settled on Slave Raider—the term given the pirate traders who captured slaves and sold them to the British Empire in the 19th century. It was at best an unfortunate oversight by a man who had sought out black band members. His own definition of a slave raider is a "black pirate." He admits he has no patience for books.
He christened himself "Chainsaw Caine" and purchased a chainsaw as a stage prop. After less than a year of playing the Twin Cities club circuit, Slave Raider was selling them out, building a regional following, and making the kind of cash that would make any pirate proud. In the never-written history of Twin Cities metal in the '80s, in a music scene full of bands with stratospheric aspirations, Slave Raider was the band that "made it," if only for a second.
Hairball is Findling's 401k. He is on contract with the band for his services as manager and booking agent. For Findling, who some years ago took his first and only "straight job" working for five months as a roofer, the safety net is not just financial, it keeps him "off the roof" and inside the only world he knows well.
The patch, the chainsaw, the screaming guitars and his signature show-starter, "Let's get this party started!"—without these things Findling looks every bit the world-weary tradesman he is. And with his blue flannel work shirt and close-cropped hair, you'd never guess that his trade was heavy metal.
IF THERE WAS anything that distinguished the local metal bands of the '80s from the punk bands, it was money. The punk bands almost never made any and the metal bands made plenty. At the dawn of the era, the standard-bearer in the Twin Cities scene was a band called Dare Force. At a time when bands like Hüsker Dü and the Replacements were traversing the region in dirty vans, playing in dirty clubs, and sleeping on dirty floors, Dare Force was packing ballrooms and clubs 300 nights a year and riding around with a four-man crew and a bus. It would not be unusual for the band, with bangs feathered and shirts opened, to find themselves in the back of a limousine.
Their show was divided into three sets. Half the songs were their own and the rest were covers: Thin Lizzy, Van Halen, the usual suspects. Dare Force was the first Twin Cities band to buy wireless systems for their guitars. The guitarists would walk the venue and step onto tables at opposite corners—a guitar war would ensue. Brian Bart, in tight blue jeans with zippers on the thigh and a studded leather vest for a shirt, would call out with his white Gibson Explorer, an archetypal metal guitar that looks like a misshapen star. John O'Neil, in a white hip-hugging jumpsuit, would answer on his Flying V, the guitar riding on his thigh like a pair of spread legs.
And the girls? "The dance floor was full of them," Bart says. "And they were all dancing with each other. There were unbelievable groupies. Especially with Dare Force. It was always like: 'Two o'clock, check that one out!'"
In those days, a band like Dare Force, for all its success, was nearly as DIY as the punks who disdained it. Bart recorded the band, booked the shows, handled the press, found the transportation and the crew. The band owned its PA and designed its own light show—complete with "pyro."
"Our light show was unbelievable," Bart remembers over breakfast at the Hilltop Family Restaurant in Excelsior. "There were the rain lights, the flash pots, the god lights—you would stand on those—and we'd have 60 par lights, even in a small club."
Today Bart lives in Minnetonka, where he's made a good living recording music at his Logic Studios.
There was no MTV in 1980, and as far as anybody in St. Cloud, Rochester, or Moorhead could tell, the members of Dare Force were full-blown rock stars.
The biggest crowd they ever played before was at a stadium in Puerto Rico. The band stayed in a top-flight San Juan hotel, and 5,000 people bought tickets to the concert. Five thousand more, who could not afford tickets, burned cars and crashed the gates. "We were in the backstage area outside," Bart says, "and we saw the burning cars, and all of a sudden there were thousands of people running past us toward the stage!"
They gave San Juan an hour of Twin Cities metal. "We got $10,000 for that one hour," Bart remembers with a smile.
He remembers most things with a smile—like when he is asked: "Was there a lot of partying?"
"Massive sex and groupies and parties," he says. And drugs. Bart remembers "scene" dealers—in it for the girls. At the after-show parties, the dealers would supply the bands for free. "They'd just drop eight balls on the table."
Bart remembers his Dare Force days like they belonged to somebody else: "We'd play gigs at night, then party, then wake up the next day in the band house and go rollerblading around all the lakes and just hang out until the gig that night. What a life."
IN 1982, Brynn Arens was a wildly enthusiastic, 21-year-old guitar player who had been playing in bands since the fifth grade, when he used to haul his amp to his drummer friend's house on a sled. He had joined a new band, and before the group even had any gigs to advertise, he drove out to the parking lot of a Dare Force show with a stack of flyers to stick under windshield wipers. "LOOK OUT!" the flyer began. "HERE THEY COME! THE GREATEST BAND EVER INVENTED! OBSESSION!"
Today, at a south Minneapolis coffee shop, Arens sips from a hot chocolate and spreads out some old Obsession photos on the table. The young men in the photo look absurd. Spandex, torn shirts, and big hair. The singer, for some reason, is wearing a lab coat.
Arens is as psyched about Obsession now as he was then. He's done well with himself. The now-defunct Flipp, Arens's most successful rock band, played Woodstock in 1999 in front of hundreds of thousands of people. He's recorded with Sean Lennon and Christina Aguilera. And still he gets fired up talking about his early-'80s metal band.
Anyone who remembers the band remembers the theatrics. Brian Bart recalls squeezing into packed Obsession shows and thinking: "They are so damn entertaining. People don't get excited like this for Dare Force."
A City Pages review of an Obsession show at Ryan's Corner in 1992 calls the band "muscular Nazi Rockettes in a heavy metal cartoon." And this is a compliment. "Obsession should really be seen and heard," wrote Eric Lindbom, "because theatrics were a vital part of the package."
In the quiet coffee shop on Hiawatha, Arens gets up from his seat to demonstrate exactly what Bart and Lindbom were talking about.
He had this thing, he said—crouching down, then jumping—where "I'd do like 50 air splits in a row at the end of the show. Then I'd collapse to the floor." The bit was that he had run out of gas—he needed a recharge. There was an over-sized electrical outlet he built as a set piece. He would play-act exhaustion, "then our roadie would attach a cord to my back. And behind the drums he fit this giant plug into the outlet. The plug would light up. I'd come back to life and they'd kick on the fog machine. Then sparks would fly and I'd be jumping around again. It was so fucking cool."
The light show was a series of car headlights Arens picked up for next to nothing at a junkyard. "I'd string 12 of them together in a box. It was like 50 cars coming right at you!"
He even made his own clothes. "My look was sort of Johnny Thunders meets Alice Cooper—with a little Paul Stanley thrown in for good measure," Arens says.
All of his tinkering paid off. The band had a huge following. When they moved from clubs to ballrooms and started filling those, the band hired a guy to stand at the door with a clicker and count heads to protect against getting ripped off by the promoter at the end of the night. "Just because there is money to be had," he says, "doesn't mean it'll be sent to you in your mailbox."
In 1984, the band started getting opening slots for national metal acts. Their first was at First Avenue, opening for Accept, whose Balls to the Wall record had just exploded. Obsession had a 40-minute set planned—all originals ("We were one of the few bands in town who could actually do that," he says). Arens had never met a national act before. He talked himself down from getting there early. He wanted to project professionalism: not too early, not too late. When he got to the club, he headed straight for the dressing room. He pushed the door open, he says, thinking: "They're talking about the shit that's going through my head every day—guitars and amps and building lights and..."
Inside there was a woman lying on a desk. The band and their road crew were there, and somebody was penetrating her with a beer bottle.
More than two decades later Brynn, now a father of three, clutches his chest as he replays the scene: "My...heart...was...just...broken."
"That was my first real rock 'n' roll dressing room," Arens says. "My first real concert. I literally walked in from nothing...to that. I told it to my psychiatrist."
In 1985, the Minnesota Music Awards created a Heavy Metal category. Its first nominees were Dare Force, Obsession, and Hüsker Dü. MTV was there at the black-tie event at the Carlton Celebrity Room in Bloomington—mostly to capture Prince's predictable sweep for Purple Rain.
Obsession went home as the best metal band. One year later, they would eschew metal altogether, change their name to Funhouse, and eventually cut their hair.
IN 1986 Slave Raider, a new band in town and a frequent warm-up act for Obsession, was nominated in each of the heavy metal categories: Best New Band, Best Original Band, and Best Band. Hüsker Dü was nominated with Soul Asylum for Best Garage Band. Limited Warranty (the Midwest's answer to Duran Duran) and the Jets (a sibling R&B act who enjoyed marginal national success and then fell into bankruptcy) were nominated generously. The event was broadcast live on KTWA, channel 23.
Chainsaw Caine and his posse—the Rock on drums, Leticia Rae on bass, Nikki Wicked and Lance Sabin on guitar—took the nominations as evidence that what they had prophesied with their self-released debut, Take the World by Storm, was manifesting, if only in a small slice of the world called Minnesota.
Chainsaw wore a reflective pirate patch, a top hat, and tails. Rae wore a torn prom dress. Sabin wore a trench coat. Wicked and the Rock wore tattered shirts. The band had splattered its entire wardrobe with acrylic paint. "We were going for a Road Warrior look," Sabin remembers, sitting in the offices of his Institute for Production and Recording with shoulder-length hair and a lavender sports coat, "only colorful."
The band took their seats next to the members of Soul Asylum. Sabin was seated next to Dave Pirner. After tying with Hüsker Dü in the voting for Best Garage Band, Pirner came back to his seat holding the award and itching for a smoke. There was no ashtray. "So he just knocked his award against the floor and broke it in half," Sabin remembers, "and what was left was a perfect ashtray. I shrugged my shoulders and lit up a smoke." The pair shared the tray.
That night Slave Raider won in all three metal categories, cementing Slave Raider as the boss of the local metal scene. "Dare Force was about to break up and Obsession had just peaked," Bart remembers. "And Slave Raider came along and broke all the records."
Most significantly, they broke a losing streak in Twin Cities metal: They won a recording contract. Jive records, a subsidiary of RCA, had no metal bands on its roster when it signed Slave Raider. That roster was packed tight with lucrative fluff: Flock of Seagulls, Billy Ocean, Samantha Fox. An executive with the label, living in London, wanted to start a metal wing of RCA. Slave Raider were to be the trailblazers.
The band was invited on a trip to London to make another record and play a headlining show at the legendary Marquee Club.
Their entrance on the Marquee stage—the chainsaw, the light show, the frenzied crowd—was a triumphant moment. But triumph was not the theme of the visit. The band arrived in London to find that their guy at Jive had quit. The band had no ally left in the company. "Really," Sabin says now, "signing that record contract was the death of the band."
THE UNSEEN HAND in Twin Cities metal was the talent agencies. There were a half-dozen of them. The Good Music Agency, or GMA, worked with Findling to assemble Slave Raider, but there were always tensions with the agency. The band insists it developed its image organically, but GMA built an entire development wing claiming it could do for metal bands what it had done for Slave Raider. Findling has a good relationship with the band's GMA agent to this day. Sabin has nothing but venom: "They were whores."
The agencies had a lock on the big clubs in town. They would sell packages to the clubs—if the Payne Reliever wanted a Slave Raider show, they'd have to take three other, lesser-known bands as well. And the lesser-known bands, by the mid-'80s, were everywhere. Most of them were cover bands, and the agencies wanted them that way. For bands looking to showcase their originals, it was tough going. Drummer Brian Reidinger started a band called Axis in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, in 1981. The Twin Cities, he says, was a sort of epicenter for bands like his. "All we wanted was to play Ryan's and Mr. Nibs."
Today Reidinger runs In the Groove Music in downtown Minneapolis, a publishing company and recording studio where a team of engineers and musicians make music for the advertising industry and television networks. He came to town in the early '80s and met with a talent agent at Alpha Entertainment. "The guy handed me a list of songs we'd have to learn if we were going to play in the clubs here," he says. Billy Ocean's "Caribbean Queen" was on the list. "But we're a hard-rock band!" Reidinger protested. The agent shot back: These are the songs people want to hear. When they hear these songs they want to dance. When they dance they get thirsty. When they get thirsty they buy drinks.
"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...."