Cause Spirits & Soundbar: In memoriam

Black Diet's Jonathan Tolliver at Cause
Black Diet's Jonathan Tolliver at Cause

Jonathan Tolliver is the lead singer for Twin Cities rock 'n' soul band Black Diet. When he heard the Lyn-Lake club Cause Spirits & Soundbar was closing later this month, he was inspired to write this farewell essay.

Cause has always been a very cliquey place. Walking into the bar side on any given night is an exercise in trying not to get stuck hovering next to a large group of friends who've commandeered the bar, or next to a couple having a post-date drink. I blame the layout. Those two-seater high tops right in front of the bar make it impossible to drink and hover. If you're there alone, and there are no seats at the bar, you're left in the lurch, thirsty and adrift.

It makes sense, then, that folks bunch up. A couple of large groups dominate the side of the bar closest to the entrance. Slightly older regulars dodge the malaise and sit closer to the kitchen, making small talk and drinking slowly. If you didn't come in with a group, or early enough to grab a spot at the end of the bar, your best bet is to hit the venue side. There is typically no cover. If there is a cover, it's tiny and probably worth it. Unlimited standing room, much easier to get a drink, Pacman, an ATM. The benefits are endless.

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Cause Spirits & Soundbar is closing

I've never managed a bar. I've never even worked at a bar. I know, however, that two things that determine the lifespan of a bar are location and layout. Cause couldn't be in a better location. Two major bus lines, condos all around, a neighborhood comprised of well-heeled professionals and artists with bad spending habits.

That layout, though. That's a more nuanced issue. A bar can take on many personalities. The way Cause is laid out makes it clear what the vibe is; the in crowd, the regulars own the bar side. New folks, those here to see their friend's band, those unable to ingratiate themselves into the self contained ecosystem that is the bar side should make their way over to the venue side, because the camaraderie found on the bar side can feel like an act of aggression, an assault of closeness. That said, I can't believe it's over.

When I moved to Minneapolis a little over three years ago, I was an absolute mess. I was a drunk, mean, and deeply lonely person. I didn't want to leave Chicago, but I knew I had to. Having deep fear of abandonment triggered by my father's untimely death and my mother's mental disability, which left her hospitalized for large portions of my childhood, I was a walking raw nerve.

Cause was my first institution. Located about a block away from my apartment, it's an easy target for my affection. Live music every night, a rowdy, creative crowd. It stands in stark contrast to the bars that traffic in a very acknowledged and obvious cool. I'm reminded here of the Streets song "Fit But You Know It." The assuredness, the confidence that preoccupies other bars in the neighborhood is nowhere to be found at Cause. It doesn't know what the hell it is, or what it wants to be. Other bars have concepts. Cause, however, relies on the magnetism of its staff, on friends coming to visit them at work, hoping for a cheap drink, a shoulder to cry on.

A bar that relies on friendship to balance its books is going to struggle, especially at the onset. It takes years to develop regulars. Folks have to feel safe in that space. Factor in turnover, heavy competition in the area, and the rumored turmoil that marked the midpoint of Cause's five-year lifespan, and you've got a recipe for uncertainty.

All that factored in, this bar was thriving. Note that all of this is anecdotal, largely based on informal conversations with folks close to the bar's finances, and on my own experience, but it was rare for me to walk in after a certain hour and not see a full bar, a well attended performance going on in the other room, and a cabal of smokers outside, socializing before an ill-advised "one more drink."

After the aforementioned turmoil, something changed. The staff, having always been some of the best in the city, moved with an impressive fervor, effortlessly mixing affability with efficient service and keen memory. Many times I'd have to walk out entirely, because I knew that wait times at other bars would be far shorter, the crowd less voracious.

I always came back, though. My institution. Over the course of three years, if you worked there or found yourself there with any regularity, you watched me grow up. You watched me break up, find love, get fired. You watched me slowly put my therapist's words into action, slowing down my alcohol intake to manageable levels, thus saving you a lot of strife and vomit avoidance. You watched me play, many times very poorly, with a number of bands. You didn't laugh at me, you didn't talk shit. You smiled when I walked in, called out to me, bought me rounds. Even with those goddamn tables, I found my way in.


In its early years, Cause was called Sauce.
In its early years, Cause was called Sauce.
Photo by Michelle Leon / Steve Neuharth

On the day closure was made public, I had brunch at Cause. Not as an act of solidarity or a show of support, but because that's what I do. I pulled up a stool, made some small talk with Larry, and listened to various patrons express their condolences. And then I saw rapper Phillip Morris crying. And then I saw a lot of other people crying. And then, naturally, I wanted to cry.

I walked over to Phillip, sitting at one of the cursed tables. He recounted a story about when he'd been mugged while in town visiting from Chicago, which he did regularly. He'd lost a significant amount of personal property, and probably a good bit of sanity. A visitor with no money, no phone. Cause staff and his friends in the music community, of which there was surely overlap, put together a benefit show for him. On short notice, 160 people came out to support someone who didn't even live here. Many people probably didn't even know who he was. They came out, though, and helped him get back on his feet. This was the spirit of the place.

These are lofty words. In situations like this, rhetoric can get ahead of reality. I'm sure there are plenty of people out there who did not have as transformative an experience, people who had a horrible time and were treated unfairly. Those experiences, however, can't undercut the fact that, by design or lack thereof, Cause was about friendship above all else. It was a place you went to meet your friends before heading somewhere else. It was a place you met the second or third person in your life who truly broke your heart. It was the place that both allowed you to and taught you to bartend even though you had little to no experience. It was a place where weird people could be weird, where you could walk in and spend the first 60 seconds of your time there simply hugging and handshaking.

I don't begrudge time. There was no way a place like Cause was going to survive amidst the crush of eastward moving condo development and aggressive municipal efforts to draw surburbanites to the area. A place like Cause, full of misfits, a tad edgy, and lacking an angle, couldn't withstand the crush of the professional class. Knowing that someone is going to eventually leave you, however, doesn't necessarily prepare you for the void that's there when they're gone.

Cause has two more weeks left. In that time, I plan to raise toast after toast, to hug and love everyone who's meant so much to me. People who bought me drinks, listened to me blather on. People who gave me, for the first time in a very long time, a place to not feel so goddamn lonely. Cause, I'll miss you, baby. From the depths, thank you.

"Once you've become a part of this particular patch, you'll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies, but never a lovely so real." 
-Nelson Algren

Cause Spirits & Soundbar will host its 5th anniversary on July 10-12 before closing its doors.

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