With popular, Eisenhowerian drink-and-dumpling hole Nye’s Polonaise Room closing in early 2016, speculation is feverish: What about the weekend polka house band?
Joe Hayden, 73, lead singer and trumpeter of the World’s Most Dangerous Polka Band, says he always answers the same way since last year, when Nye's owners announced the establishment’s closure to make way for a 30-story tower.
“Musicians don’t retire," Hayden says by phone Thursday. "They die, and I’m not ready to die.”
Roll out the barrels!
Actually this would violate rule No. 1 (more on that later). But the band isn’t going anywhere (figuratively, since Nye’s is). Recent gigs have seen Hayden and the gang sun-lighting at the similarly throwback-y Turf Club, where they’ll perform again August 30. A post on the band’s Facebook page noted a soundman and meat raffles.
August is usually slow time at Nye’s, but Hayden says people have packed the joint “like crazy.” WMDPB band will play 45-minute sets both days at this weekends’ outdoor Farewell Tent Party at Nye’s, including their regular nighttime gigs.
But they won’t tire.
“I’ve got a midi trumpet that was made in Australia,” Hayden says. “If we play some harder stuff, like 'Ring of Fire,' I’ll call a slower one and rest my lips.”
Hint: The band plays only a little polka, including old standards, but also includes country, Latin, and occasionally hip-hop. Over the years, Hollywood, documentarians, and a short-lived Comedy Central bowling show grew their legend. So did Ruth Adams, the beloved dog-barking accordionist who died in 2011.
“After Ruthie passed, I bought the two accordions from her family, so some of her signature sound could carry on," Hayden says.
Adams joined up in 1975 with a band that had been playing Nye’s long before that, Hayden says, meaning there had been someone within shouting distance of “Misty” or “Pennsylvania Polka” on weekend nights for over half a century.
“There used to be a whole bunch of ballrooms when I moved here,” remembers Hayden, who arrived from Chicago in 1960 and worked for over three decades as a computer programmer. He didn’t even play trumpet until he turned 51.
“When you’re a teenager you’re too busy with sports or chasing girls or whatever,” the veteran polka man points out. “Now I have time to focus.”
Hayden hustled shows before joining “Ruthie and Al [Ophus],” the other two original members (now deceased) of the polka power trio. And he mentions places, such as Lee’s Liquor Lounge and the basement of Gasthof’s, that entice him as future regular venues.
He’s got a stable of musicians and only three rules:
“No booze. No ... and I’m sorry for the word choice ... broads. And no jeans. Dress respectfully for the people who come out to see you.”
The booze-rule makes sense. At one of Hayden’s first gigs the band leader — a drummer — passed out.
“We were playing that 'Release Me' song by Engelbert Humperdinck, when I heard crash boom," he recalls. "Looked over and he’d collapsed.”
Hayden says he picked up his gig bag and walked out of the St. Paul bar, vowing to never play with drinkers again.
As for rule No. 2, he says flirting with groupies makes guys lose focus. He’s there to orchestrate love on the dance floor.
Says Hayden: “At Nye’s it’s not strange to look out and see a 25-year-old guy dancing with a 75-year-old woman, you know what I mean?”
And as for his last rule, well, at least dress codes aren’t needed by Nye’s patrons. “It’s comfortable,” according to Hayden. “You wear a tux, or you come in jeans. Everyone is welcome at Nye’s.”
In that democratic spirit, Hayden mentions his loyalty to the bar’s owners, brothers Tony and Ron Jacobs. (“I’ve never worked for a better employer.”) Throughout his tenure at Nye’s (once named by Esquire the best bar in America), he has enough memories to fill a sepia-toned photo album. There was the time he wore a referee’s jersey to “keep Ruthie and Al from fighting.” Or the time a priest’s Easter vigil mass was interrupted when his wireless headset got crossed with that of a not-so-uncertain neighboring polka singer’s.
The priest waited to call 'til Monday morning, when he explained to Hayden what song blared from his holy headset.
“Do you know what he heard? 'I don’t want her, you can have her, she’s too fat for me.'”
Hayden says in the heyday of WMDPB, he and the band might start playing at a suburban parade at 9:30 a.m., hit up house parties during the afternoons, and finish up at Nye’s around 1:30 a.m.
“You don’t really get to know each other playing music," he says. "So we started inviting Ruthie and Al over to our holidays with my family.”
He reports they only once broke out the instruments.
“You just want to have a beer with someone and get to know them. Have a conversation, ya know?”
And that’s the joke, he says: They’re really not that dangerous at all.
“You look up and see a bunch of young guys and it wouldn’t make sense. But us, it does,” Hayden says, his baritone laughter filling the phone. “For us, it’s a job. But it’s a fun job.”
What will the final show be like?
“Same as the first one,” he says, adding, as if only the entire world might operate this way, polka bands and corner bars included: “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.”
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