I’d been working for three full years at Brit’s Pub when I stumbled upon a thread on a Jayhawks message board with the headline “Where’s Norm Rogers?”
Fans were pleading for info about the Jayhawks’ original drummer, hoping to obtain his signature for their copies of the band’s 1986 self-titled debut album. No one could find Norm Rogers. No one knew where he was.
I did. He was my manager.
Norm Rogers, who died from cancer last Monday at age 61, was never one to talk much about himself. He worked as a manager at Brit’s for over a decade, and many remember him as a fixture there, shuffling about in his uniform of charcoal suit and goofy smile. Underneath that day job though, there was another Norm Rogers, another history entirely, of a secret local legend, a drummer and founding member of the Jayhawks and the Cows.
I messaged Norm the same day I saw that post. “I know your secret.”
“It's always hard to tell when someone genuinely loves the work or if they simply want to boost the value of an album,” Norm said after he read the thread. “Jello Biafra was one of the worst. I loved the Dead Kennedys but I told him to fuck off in San Francisco when he showed up with every Cows album. All he wanted was a complete set of signatures. I think he might have founded eBay.”
After that, he never spoke about it again, never brought up his old life to me.
Last week though, after reading Jim Walsh’s piece about Norm and his obituary in the Star Tribune, I wondered again about that early Norm Rogers, Norm the musician, the one who wasn’t my manager but instead who helped found at least two crucial Minneapolis bands.
Gary Louris says his former Jayhawks bandmate’s feelings about signature-seeking fans line up with what he remembers of Rogers from those early days.
“It makes sense that the completist people—big fans—would want his signature,” Louris says. “But that says something about Norm. He really wasn’t that kind of guy. He wasn’t a rock star dude. He was just a musician who liked playing. I don’t think he ever wanted to be a rock star.”
Rogers was a big influence on the Jayhawks from the start, Louris says, and Marc Perlman, another founding Jayhawk and Norm’s old roommate from those early days, agrees.
“Without Norm there wouldn’t have been any Jayhawks sound,” Perlman says. “There wouldn’t have been any Jayhawks. It would not have evolved the way it did if it were not for him.”
Even before the Jayhawks though, Rogers brought Perlman into the Neglecters, another band Norm drummed for with its own place in Twin Cities rock history. “The Neglecters were looking for a guitar player and Norm recommended me. He rescued me from a not great situation musically that I was in at the time.”
During the mid- to late 1980s, Norm was a ubiquitous presence in the Minneapolis music scene. That his resume was more prestigious than he’d have ever given himself credit for is something that speaks to Norm’s personality, Louris says.
“I don’t think Norm would ever tell you he was the most amazing drummer. I think a good way to put it was that he was humble. We weren’t all the same and I think if there’s one thing you can say about the Jayhawks it’s that each member had a strong personality and played a role. I think Norm contributed a lot to the early sound and the early direction that helped lead us forward into not just being a little country band, but he was a humble person.”
Perlman agrees, and adds that Norm Rogers was instrumental in convincing him to help form the Jayhawks in the first place.
“Mark Olson had broached the idea of getting together and playing. I wasn’t sure if I was that interested,” Perlman says. “I looked to Norm and said ‘I don’t know if I really want to but if you want to do it I’ll do it.’ The two of us went down to go and see Olson play a solo show or something at the Entry. After, we talked and said ‘Let’s give it a shot. It could be fun.’
“That was my thing, if Norm was into it I was into it. I didn’t really feel like playing with anyone else. He was kind of the one drummer I really enjoyed playing with.”
For that first year of the Jayhawks, Perlman and Rogers lived together in a house on 33rd and Lyndale, practicing in the basement. Both Louris and Perlman agree that Rogers’ drumming drove and shaped a lot of that early Jayhawks sound.
As Louris puts it, “He definitely was a rock drummer, which helped define us in the early days as not just a folk-country band. We rocked and a lot of that was Norm.”
Listening to the Jayhawks debut confirms what Louris says—the drumming drives most of the songs past just country into something bigger and more thumping. “He wasn’t a finesse drummer,” Louris adds. “He was just a feel drummer and he drove us and gave us that edge early on, that hold that was almost cowpunk in a way—thrash-folk. We’d play Woody Guthrie songs and it would almost come out as punkish.”
Perlman agrees that it was Rogers’ innovation on that early record that made the music shine. “He was a pretty singular drummer,” says Perlman. “If you listen to the first Jayhawks album, I don’t think a lot of drummers could have done what he did. Norm played those songs in a certain way that other drummers wouldn’t have thought of playing, which I think gave it that unique sound.”
Louris and Perlman both say they hadn’t had a lot of contact with Norm since the ’80s, though when they’d connected with him, the experience was always positive. When Norm sat in with the Jayhawks for a set in 2010, he hadn’t lost his magic, according to Louris. “We were playing a song like ‘King of Kings’ and he would always say ‘Oh, you know I haven’t played in years,’ but he got up and he kicked ass and was so great.”
“More than anything,” Perlman says, “Norm was really easy for me to play with. I was a really terrible bass player when I started and with him anchoring the band—I’ve said this before, but Norm made me sound better than I was and I’m not shy about that. He really did introduce me, bringing me into the Neglecters was a really big deal for me as far as getting introduced to the music scene here. I’m gonna miss the guy.”
“I think he was always proud to say he played in the Jayhawks,” says Louris. “It was good memories.”