THOUGH HE WOULD surely laugh at the notion, it wouldn't be inaccurate to call Peter Jesperson the father of Minneapolis rock. And though he'd probably chuckle and shrug, he was my rock 'n' roll Moses. Today the underground mogul has a new title in a different locale--Vice President of A&R and Film and Television Licensing at New West Records in Los Angeles--but he's still touting talent and shepherding his unheralded charges to appreciative clusters of fans.
Jesperson and I have never met, but beginning in 1994, I came to know him as the host of the freeform radio show "Shakin' Street," on Rev 105. I was in high school, just a few years beyond the revelatory day that R.E.M. mumbled to me a map describing worlds of smart, expressive, and willfully obscure pop. Jesperson's playlists, drawn from his apparently limitless collection, were like a guided tour of those still-strange worlds, confirming my obsession with the Replacements and R.E.M. while tracing for me their lineage to my mom's Beatles records. His boundless enthusiasm for the music he loved stoked my own--the show was the older brother I didn't have, saying, Yeah, the Jayhawks and Uncle Tupelo are cool all right, but check out Hawks and Doves. I taped it every week, and made compilations of my favorite tracks: Elvis and Vic Chesnutt, Captain Beefheart and Iris DeMent.
Jesperson never bragged on air, but I knew his résumé: In the previous 20 years, no one on the local scene had been more active or influential. During a particularly manic eat-sleep-rock binge in the late Seventies and early Eighties, Jesperson DJed and booked bands at the Longhorn, managed the Oarfolkjokeopus store, and, with Paul Stark, founded Twin/Tone Records. At Twin/Tone he famously served as the Replacements' manager, producer, baby-sitter, and biggest fan. Of course, he's credited with "discovering" them too: In spring 1980 Paul Westerberg gave him a demo tape in the hopes of getting the band an opening gig at the Longhorn. Jesperson said he'd rather make a record.
In 1995 Jesperson moved to L.A., where he ran a Twin/Tone offshoot label, Medium Cool, out of the offices of its parent, Restless Records. Medium Cool's catalog included albums by Jack Logan, Slim Dunlap, Marlee MacLeod, and ex-'Mat Tommy Stinson's band Perfect. But by 1998 Jesperson's relations with Restless had soured.
"I had turned in two nearly completed records," he told me by phone from his New West Records office. "One was the Jack Logan record [Buzz Me In] and one was the Perfect record [Seven Days a Week], and they decided they didn't want to release either one of them. I was like, 'Well, then, it's obvious that I've got to go.'"
Eighteen months later, Jesperson was already itching to get back in the record business. Labelless, he'd already missed out on signing Marah, for which he still hasn't forgiven himself (or Steve Earle, who inked the band instead).
He had been talking to Cameron Strang, a former Twin Citian and the owner of New West Records, the fledgling home of country renegade Billy Joe Shaver and former True Believer Jon Dee Graham, among others. Jesperson officially joined New West in January 2000, shortly before the label took over the defunct Austin-based Doolittle Records in a deal that netted the band Slobberbone and a cadre of deep-pocketed investors for New West. Jesperson's presence, the infusion of cash, and releases from Slobberbone and Jim Roll helped boost the label's profile.
Jesperson hopes that momentum will launch his latest find, roots-rock songwriter Tim Easton. Sounding almost bug-eyed with excitement, Jesperson says that last summer he spent a week in Chicago with Easton and producer Joe Chicarelli recording The Truth About Us with the Wilco guys. Ever the acolyte of new music, Jesperson touts this latest work with ample enthusiasm: "I'm hysterical about it."