Karl Mueller, 1963-2005
By Jim Walsh
A few years ago, Karl Mueller handed out pens stenciled with the words, "Your Friend, Karl Mueller." The gesture was inspired by Suicide Commandos founder Chris Osgood, who a few years earlier had passed out guitar picks inscribed with, "Your Pal, Chris Osgood."
Last Friday morning, Karl died in his wife Mary Beth's arms. That night, Osgood found himself at a cabin in the north woods with friends, several who consider Karl to be a dear friend. At dinner, Osgood lifted a glass of wine to his tribe, present and not, and talked about the gift of friendship and the preciousness of life. Then one of the diners, in an attempt to make sense of the day's events, grilled Osgood for two hours on the history of the Commandos.
"It started when [Commandos drummer] Dave Ahl and I were kids," began Osgood. "We were skateboard buddies." Which is how so many great bands start--friends first. And though it went unsaid, it was the kind of conversation that Karl would have loved, overflowing with names of long-lost musicians and clubs, and the kind of secret-code minutia (amps, gear, and guitars) that musicians use to talk about the passion, and which forge thicker-than-blood roots.
A few weeks ago, I knew Karl wasn't doing very well. He was my neighbor, and he'd come out of the house to see my puppy and talk to me and my daughter and her friend through his newly installed voice box, the price of his yearlong battle with throat cancer. I asked Mary Beth, who sports an "(eye symbol) (heart symbol) K" tattoo on her right arm, if she wanted me to write anything.
She was optimistic. She said there was a good story about "band as family," which I presumed to mean how the Soul Asylum circle had risen to the occasion and helped care for their mate. But she may have also meant that once in a great while, a rock band becomes a really big family.
If you're reading this, if you were one of the girls who crushed out on him when he was a 14-year-old punk-rock bag boy at the Uptown Lunds, or the owner of Ron's Market down the street from his house who was devastated by the news of his passing, you were part of Karl's family. He wasn't that particular. There wasn't an insider-hipster bone in his body. He just loved rock, and he loved to rock. His dad died when he was young, so it was just Karl and his mom, Mary, and so when he became friends with Dave Pirner and Dan Murphy and unleashed Loud Fast Rules on the bars of the Twin Cities, his family grew. When Soul Asylum got bigger, his family got bigger.
In the fall, Karl drove with my family and me to the funeral for our friend Dave Ayers's father. Ayers was Soul Asylum's first manager. Karl sat next to me on a folding chair as Dave's wife Ambrosia sang "Amazing Grace." God knows what he was thinking at the time, but as we drove back from Shoreview to the cities, he told us much of his life story, but never once mentioned the chemo or radiation or the shitty cards he'd been dealt, probably because he didn't consider them all that shitty.
Up in the north woods last Friday, people talked about the first time they met Karl and the last time they saw him, and took silent comfort in the knowledge that similar spontaneous memorials were going on all over the world. A couple of hours after getting the news, Ayers told a few of us about Dan Corrigan's photo shoot for the cover of Clam Dip and Other Delights, the 1988 Twin/Tone EP that spoofed the cover art of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass's Whipped Cream and Other Delights.
"He was this silly, funny guy with such a heart. He was such a good sport," said Ayers. "That thing stunk so bad that day. It was a combination of sour cream, paint, and whipped cream, and then there was all this seafood. He sat there for hours. After a while, he got tired, and a little cranky, and just as he was about to climb out, someone put a dollop of the stuff on his head and put a chip in it. He sat back down, and that was the shot."
And that was Karl, who died on June 17, 2005 after a courageous battle with cancer. He is survived by his family.
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