Rock of Ages

James O'Brien

In 1984 I was a cook at the downtown deli D.B. Kaplan's, working with a revolving cast of characters that played in bands such as Safety Last, the Neglecters, Borrowed Time, Information Society, Late Night Fish Sticks, the Altared Boys, and Bwana Devil, to name a few. As we survived breakfast and lunch rushes together, we talked about what we were doing and creating at night. That summer, with my band Laughing Stock, I tried to capture the moment by writing and recording a song called "The Local Bands" that concluded:

Twenty years from now
At kitchen tables we'll tell how
Our heydays have cracked and gone
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times
And everyone I knew was in a band.

Ron Anderson, the veteran 7th St. Entry and 400 Bar soundman, hated the song for its anthemic bullshit, and he told me so. But I kept singing it, because part of my hope-I-die-before-I-get-old soul believed it was my last shot at youth, and that by the time I got to the age I am now, all things rock would be in the past, having been displaced by more serious adult concerns. Now the 20 years from now is nigh, and so the serious adult concerns are well upon me. But none of our passions have been put out to pasture: We may not be fueled by the same chicken-with-its-head-cut-off energy, but neither do we sit around kitchen tables wallowing in nostalgia. There's too much life and music to be had in the here and now--like the set by the Flamin' Oh's that my wife and kids and I took in at Peavey Plaza the other night.

On the way down to the show, we told our boy and girl that we were going to see one of the bands we used to see when we were first dating. But they're not much for mom and dad mushiness--who ever is?--so they steamrolled over it with a song of their own. Once at the plaza, they sat politely and rocked a bit, but perked up most when singer/guitarist Robert Wilkinson introduced a cameo from his teenage daughter Ali, who wore a Bright Eyes T-shirt and played a mean rhythm guitar. My five-year-old daughter insisted on getting Ali's autograph after the show, and ended up collecting signatures from the entire band.

It was late, so my wife took the kids home. I stuck around for the rest of the night/morning, which was highlighted by a ridiculously buoyant set from Olympic Hopefuls that, by its end, inspired street people, survivors of the old Duffy's scene, and indie rockers to waltz under the stars. It was as memorable a local music moment as I've ever witnessed, and this is coming from a guy who used to spend his nights singing, "Everyone I knew was in a band," semi-expecting that at some point, it would all fade to gray, and that bands, like acne, were a rite of adolescent passage.

Instead, bands and the people I know in bands have proven to be a constant throughout my life, as anyone living in this band- and boho-rich burg can attest. I now know people in bands of all demographics and levels, all playing for the unique rush that comes from making music. These days, the rush comes with the rut of responsibility. So it happened that Paul Westerberg, after returning last winter from a family trip to an indoor water park, confessed to me, "I never thought I'd find myself doing that." I told him fatherhood makes you do a lot of things you never thought you'd be doing, including sitting around with a bunch of strangers inhaling domed chlorine.

Around the same time, no less than a dozen people forwarded me Nick Hornby's May 23 New York Times op-ed piece "Rock of Ages." It's a good read, one that reminds me why I love rock 'n' roll and words. And while I liked much of what Hornby had to say about that time-honored rock-crit topic of growing old with the music they grew up with, the thing I liked most about it was the fact that it came over my transom from scattered friends and acquaintances like a string tethering the lot of us together. And that Hornby didn't lament the loss of youth itself, but "the energy, the wistful yearning, the inexplicable exhilaration, the sporadic sense of invincibility, the hope that stings like chlorine."

I suppose that's an unsettling energy to tap into all the time, which may be why some people ultimately minimize the importance of music. The act of going to see a great live band and waking up the next morning to take on work or family can be energizing, but also schizophrenic and jarring--so much so that some stop tapping into it altogether, or relegate it to a bygone heyday.

For whatever reason, I'm still listening--at the moment, to Polly Jean Harvey, who's in my headphones singing about her pocketknife, growing older, and "trying not to fall apart." I'm still singing, too, and even writing a few songs, the most recent of which is called "A Question for Pat Dwyer at Grumpy's in Northeast Minneapolis." It comes from the perspective of a guy who lives in a world where everyone seems to have the answers. Yet he still believes that questions are always more interesting, and that bars--in 1984 or 2024--are where the best questions get asked.


Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or [email protected].

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