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Ooh La La

James O'Brien

Saturday afternoon, Karl Mueller sat in an easy chair in his south Minneapolis home. The only sound in the room was the steady wheeze of his breath as it moved through the tracheotomy tube fastened to his throat, the chomp of his gum, and the scribbling of pen on legal pad--which is how Mueller has been communicating since he was diagnosed with and started treatment for throat cancer on May 3.

"I've heard several stories of people surviving many years after a similar diagnosis," he wrote. "Lance Armstrong is inspirational. The doctors are as encouraging as they dare be. And I have all intentions of kicking this thing's ass."

Seven hours later, Mueller was with his Soul Asylum mates, Dave Pirner and Dan Murphy, at the 400 Bar, where Soul Asylum posters and gold and platinum records adorn the walls. The room was packed with family, friends, and fellow musicians taking in the sight of a Minneapolis rock institution making its way through uncharted waters, and bearing witness to a new chapter in a friendship that was forged out of a mutual desire to make a racket. "Yeah, it's been the fuckin' three of us all these years," Murphy said before the show. "The best of times, the worst of times."

Wrote Mueller: "Dan and Dave have been a part of my life for almost 25 years. I'm only 40. That's a big part of my life. We've practiced the last couple of days, and we're playing tonight, and now I guess I do realize how special that relationship is, even if they make me crazy sometimes.

"I'm a little worried [the Saturday gig] could turn into an 'Oh, Poor Karl' thing. That's all wrong. I love playing, it's a little something I can do now, in case chemo and radiation knock me down later."

After an opening set by Beau Kinstler, who told the crowd, "Every one of the musicians coming up here are heroes of mine," Mueller walked through the throng and made his way to the basement dressing room. He was accompanied by his wife, Mary Beth, who has taken to issuing daily St. Blaze blessings to Karl's throat with holy water imported from Ireland. As she moved through the neon-lit club, her face wore the strain of the past three weeks that have brought words like "inoperable" and "incurable," and a grit to match her husband's. "I'm a fucking fighter," she said. "I'm a scrappy-assed little broad, and cancer is no match. No one is taking my husband away from me."

Pirner and Murphy took the stage first, playing songs about freak accidents, obsessions, and blood turning to wine. Marc Perlman joined the two on mandolin, and then Pirner bellowed, "Karl Mueller, ladies and gentlemen!" The crowd whooped, Mueller climbed on the stage, flashed a metallic "rock with Satan" two-fingered salute, and sat on a chair. As the band's roadie, Nate, gently laid an acoustic bass over Mueller's shoulders, Tim O'Reagan and Gary Louris came up from the dressing room and leaned against the wall next to the stage. Mueller plucked out an easy lope on his bass, and Pirner and Murphy strummed and sang, "The field burns away, the sky breathes it in, so why sit and wait for the new world to begin?"

And though they avoided sentimentality, every song took on added significance this night. After "Closer to the Stars," Pirner stepped to the mic, unleashed a long cackle and said, "I can't tell you what a fucking relief it is to have Karl up here." With trademark good-natured stoicism, Mueller flashed a gap-toothed grin, drank a can of Coke, and played bass with a red string around his wrist, a gift from some Tibetan friends who've been chanting for his recovery. He cracked up when Pirner and Murphy gave each other shit, and, at one point, hung out his tongue wearily and mouthed something to O'Reagan, who'd joined in on drums. After five songs, Pirner hollered, "Karl Mueller, ladies and gentlemen!" but Mueller wasn't about to milk a thing. He waved to the crowd quickly, and, on his way off stage, bear-hugged Murphy.

"I met Karl in ninth grade," said Murphy before the show. "He was the first kid I knew who got on the punk rock tip. He started wearing bondage trousers to school and stuff like that. He had a friend who lived in London, and he visited him, and he came back a punk rocker. We saw the Clash together, and we'd sneak into the Longhorn and Duffy's. Karl was totally my window into that whole type of music. I was sitting at home listening to Aerosmith and Tom Petty, and he was like, 'There's this other shit, you gotta check it out.'"

After Mueller left the stage, Murphy and Pirner debuted a batch of new songs, slated for a forthcoming Soul Asylum record. His work for the night finished, Mueller made his way through the crowd of well-wishers and headed out into the night. From there, the show turned into an all-star jam as Louris, Jim Boquist, and Kraig Johnson joined the fray for a cathartic last round of covers--a muscular take on John Prine's "Angel from Montgomery," a poignant version of Albert Brumley's "I'll Fly Away," a celebratory "Summer of the Drugs," and a free-form medley that made cousins out of "Amazing Grace" and "I Wanna Be Sedated."

Considering the extraordinary circumstances of the evening, the set's most memorable tune may have been Murphy's urgent reading of the Faces' "Ooh La La." With his eyes pinched tight and his face corkscrewed by the cumulative effect of three weeks of hospital visits and out-of-the-woodwork old friends, Murphy recognized a moment and gave it witness. In the end, he backed off the mic and let the crowd sing, "I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger/I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was stronger."

While their friends toasted Karl with guitar solos, cymbal crashes, and alcohol, Mary Beth indulged her husband's latest wish: "acting like fucking teenagers" and making a trip to White Castle for a post-gig feast. Earlier in the day, a visitor had asked Karl what he'd like to say to people who've been concerned about him. Knowing full well that he faces 25 more radiation treatments and two more rounds of chemo, and that this cancer supposedly gives him two years to live (or, as Mary Beth said, "five to ten if we get aggressive with it"), this is what he wrote:

"I'd say to people just live the best you can. Enjoy the lilacs while you can and slow down. There are also some people I need to thank. I can't do it individually right now, but here I go. Mary Beth you've been a rock. Love forever. The St. Paul Grill has been more than generous to all people concerned. My family is better than I ever imagined. And to my friends--wow. It's been overwhelming, touching & flattering. Thank you all so much."

He put down his pen and handed the legal pad to his visitor. Then he took it back, and wrote a final thought.

"Can we make those Thank You's not look like album credits?"


Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or jwalsh@citypages.com.

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