How the Terminal Bar neither evolved nor died

How the Terminal Bar neither evolved nor died
Artwork by Chris Strouth

Makes No Sense At All captures the visions, ramblings, and memories of Chris Strouth, a Twin Cities-bred master of music, film, and everything else.

There is nothing cool about the Terminal Bar. It's dingy, it's dirty, it's where you can get a stiff drink at a reasonable price and up until about two years ago, you could do it at 9 in the morning. It's always 5 o'clock somewhere, and 9 a.m. counts if you're doing third shift work, which is why they were open before most of us were ever awake.

Here in Gimme Noise land we tend to talk about the cool, the hip, and the mustachioed. That's what music mags have always done; they give the news, anoint a few and cast off plenty of others. So it is sort of odd that we are talking about the Terminal Bar. Oh, its a music venue, and everyone from Martin Dosh to Tiny Tim has played there, but its so not cool. It's not even anti-cool, it's just a little bubble in the time space continuum that is a universe unto itself. The coolest thing about it is that is has endured.

"Where everybody knows your name / and they're always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see / our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows / your name."

Sure, those are the words from the Cheers theme, but it is a universal truth. It's one of the reasons that the show was so popular, the universality of it. Admit it: the first time you walked into a bar and they knew you and greeted you, didn't have to card you, or better yet, knew exactly what you wanted, it was borderline magical. It's a sign, a secret handshake with the universe that says "you belong."

It might not be a bar, it might be a sandwich shop, or a Halal meat market, or a comic book store, or a place of worship -- which for the last two is quite often the same. Humans want a sense of community, even if their primary reason is to pretend they want nothing to do with it. It's that bond strangers have, because they went to the same school or have a strange need to wear foam cheese on their heads and bitch about the Vikings.

Thats what the Terminal is to at least a small group of the Northeast community: a refuge from the rising tide of pet boutiques and $30 sandwiches. It's the last stand for the working-class bar in an increasingly polo collar market. Then around 9 p.m., most nights at least, it becomes one of the few places in the neighborhood where you can see a rock band.

Times change, and that neighborhood certainly has. For one thing, the Terminal Bar has lasted infinitely longer then the train terminal it was named for. That whole area as "the end of the line" as it were. Which makes its transition all the more ironic.

It's easy to give Northeast the "Brooklyn" tag. It's across the river from downtown, and Nordeast was originally a mostly working-class neighborhood, where the people that made the great engines of the city turn drank beer, went to church, and watched Ed Sullivan. Which explains the high number of churches and corner bars. Also, the more-reasonable rents eventually made it hipster bait. If you're reading this and you have an old-timey beard and are wearing a bowtie and suspenders over a pair of jeans that all but guarantee that you will never be able to procreate, then yeah, I am probably talking about you. The last fight I (almost) got in was with Canadian documentarian Alan Zewig who referred to me as "the quintessential American Hipster." My response was to pull over the car I was driving, and tell him that I was going to kick his ass. Thing is, I totally would have.

The hipster movement has taken a lot of the ol- time bars and made them if not posh, a comfortable mix of the old and new. For example, the 1029 Bar whose ceiling is literally covered in brassieres, and walls with shot up police car doors (rumored to have been done by Country kitchener Toby Keith). Yet there you can get the best lobster roll this side of Maine. Anyhow, the part of town where my mom didn't like me hanging out has become a foodie paradise that's written about in pull-out sections of newspapers.

The saying goes, evolve or die, and that seems to be the way of most of the bars in Nordeast. This is what makes the Terminal Bar weirdly special: It has done neither. The interior is much the same as I remember it from when I went in as a dare in college. I imagine it's much the same as it was in 1964, when the current owners, the Flemings, took over from the previous owner who happened to be the parents. They had owned it since 1935. Prior to that it was -- you guessed it -- a bar.
For about four years I shared a wall with the Terminal Bar. The shop that I owned with my wife was next door, and my studio above it, which later became my home as well. The Terminal is a dedicated music venue. They have a band playing almost every night. Cover bands, original bands, good ones, bad ones, really really bad ones, metal ones, even hip-hop ones. It is sort of hilarious watching someone go on stage and talk about what a player he is while drinking a 3 dollar Mich Golden.

The booking and the bartending are all handled by Flem. He's a former Marine, owner, bartender, and just all-around good guy. He also has been sober since 1968, which given that he is behind the bar six days a week, eight hours a day is saying quite a bit. Flem is in his 70s, yet spry as a 60-year-old.

While most bars have a strong curative sense, trying to get a specific vibe or groove that sets them apart from the rest, the Terminal tends to roll with anyone that gets butts in the seats, and in doing so is sort of the ultimate bar of the proletariat. Anyone can play.

During my time next door I heard "Stairway to Heaven" approximately three gazzillion times. Also the entirety of the Heart catalog and the occasional Ramones cover that would make Joey Ramone want to rise from the dead just to be sedated again. Then there were rare occasional moments of sublime beauty: a James Taylor song that I always hated, done totally wrong but in a most excellent way.

Over the years, different people have tried to book shows there, making it into one kind of a venue or another, but it's never stuck. It's had its big moments when bar bands of major notoriety started out there, like the Big Wu, but once they graduate they only come back to visit.

Still, the bands come and go. There's the first-timers who bring mom, dad, and the rest of the family for what can only seem like a coming-out party for soon-to-be Guitar Center employees. There's the 50-60 somethings in big suvs with" Vote Bachmann" stickers and a fistful of AC/DC covers. There's the metal band that drove here from Topeka and will play to the bartender and some college drunks in search of cheaper beer. These aren't the bands your going to hear on the Current, or really anywhere save for someone's garage. This wont be their career, but it is their passion, at least for today. For them, this isn't the end of the line -- it's just a place to sing a familiar tune, loudly.

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