In the early ’90s, my two bandmates and I took a vow of poverty just to play music in Minneapolis. Our city had earned the unfortunate nickname of “Murderapolis,” but we fooled ourselves that we were loyal to our hometown while other musicians fled to Seattle. In fact, we just couldn’t afford to go.
Wasn’t Minneapolis the musical center of the world? The Witch’s Hat Tower near Dinkytown supposedly inspired Dylan to write “All Along the Watchtower,” the Ramones saw signs for “Cretin Avenue” in St. Paul and penned the punk rock anthem “Cretin Hop,” and of course Prince sang about “Uptown” where he zoomed through on his purple motorcycle. My bandmates and I had a revelation at the Stardust Lanes in the Hub of Hell neighborhood that revealed our band’s name: Vinnie and the Stardüsters.
New York was impossibly expensive for musicians and Minneapolis had the one essential ingredient for rock ’n’ roll: basements. Only in this literal underground could our fair city breed an unparalleled indie rock scene with regular concerts by the likes of the Replacements, Babes in Toyland, Soul Asylum, the Jayhawks, and Hüsker Dü, but the real gems were the lesser known bands: Lily Liver, Jan, DeFormo, Rank Strangers, Swing Set, TVBC, Urban Guerrillas, Boiled in Lead, Kruddler, Walt Mink, the Sandwiches, Götterdämmerung, and dozens of others—but not the Cows (they were terrible).
We ignored the hazards of blasting music below ground level. The chipping lead paint (it has a sweet flavor), the sprinkling asbestos from the heating ducts (like shimmering stardust), the diseased vermin scurrying underfoot, and the radioactive radon seeping through the floor couldn’t kill invincible musicians. Instead, our main obstacle was paying the rent on almost no income.
We packed our squalid rental houses full of sketchy musicians. In a little Grand Avenue bungalow, our drummer Nick rented a front hall closet for $50 a month that was just large enough for his single mattress and his clothes hung above his head. The payoff was that we could play music in the basement. When his housemates raised the rent for Nick’s closet to $75 a month, he moved his bed into his tan Subaru station wagon, so he could sleep wherever he wanted. “I can just park right outside of my job. I can sleep until the last minute and go right to work,” he bragged. “The only trouble is bathing. Luckily I have lots of friends with showers.”
Even after Nick moved out, we continued to practice in the house. He didn’t know anyone who lived there anymore and the scary new residents gave us strange looks. One day, however, the front door was sealed shut and a note stated that the St. Paul Police shut down this crack house. I moved in with my brother Jonathan who had recently traded his Haight-Ashbury look from his Deadhead days in San Francisco for a partially shaved head and T-shirts silk screened with a large encircled “A.” For some reason, he had a large collection of bowling balls, but no interest in the sport. I soon discovered that he’d joined the “Revolutionary Anarchist Bowling League” (RABL), some of whom lobbed bowling balls through windows of Army recruiters.
My brother’s tactic for surviving was shopping at the Red Owl across the street for the cheapest food by the pound: onions, split peas, lots of cabbage, but mostly creamed corn. He boiled the big mess in a giant pot and the gaseous vapors swirled through our rental house and permanently stained the countertop or anything it touched. He bought numerous appliances, especially several toasters, for pennies at the Goodwill outlet, Diggers, to help change his diet from the gut-wrenching soup. “If a toaster breaks, I’ll just grab another one from the garage,” he reasoned.
With all the bowling balls, toasters, and mystery soups, I wondered if I shouldn’t be roommates with my brother. My suspicions were confirmed when I noticed him cutting holes in his thick foam mattress. He explained that his cat didn’t like to get her paws wet or dirty in the litter box, so the sweet feline had taken to peeing on his mattress that soaked up any liquid. He couldn’t find another replacement at Diggers, so his mattress looked like Swiss cheese.
I then moved into a house with five guys with a large, filthy basement perfect for band practice. I didn’t have a guitar, so I borrowed one from my friend Scott, whose brother took the photo of his swimming baby for the cover of Nirvana’s Nevermind album. I imagined that this fame would rub off on our band. The next day, though, one of the roommates named Chank left the backdoor open to air out the grease fumes from his daily hamburgers fried in an inch of fat. Fresh air poured in along with mice and music thieves who plundered our instruments. I was forced to find new friends to lend us their musical instruments, and our chance to ride on Nirvana’s coattails was squandered.
The mice burrowed right through my laundry bag and out the other side. I couldn’t afford new clothes, so I wore the holey ones, hoping to finally be in style when I noticed the new catalog from Macy’s featuring trendy “Grunge Wear” pre-ruined outfits. Suddenly our poverty was chic. The mice didn’t chew my clothes in the “right” places, however, leaving holes that sometimes left intimate parts of my body exposed.
My roommate Willy recommended his dubious method to “procure” (steal) better clothes. Rather than loading up on bowling balls at the Goodwill, as my brother Jonathan did, Willy wore his worst clothes there. He chose nicer clothes, changed in the dressing room, and simply left his old clothes behind as he walked out of the store in his new outfit.
I couldn’t in good conscience follow Willy’s lead, so I considered shopping at Diggers, which sold clothes by the pound. Then our friend Lula warned that she was scouting for good second-hand clothes for her vintage clothing store and spotted a good-looking young man digging through the bins. “There are never cute guys at Diggers,” she told me. Just as she was about to say “Hi,” she noticed him pull out an old woman’s shoe, rip up the insole, and shove it into his face, sniffing violently.
Our singer John offered me advice when he saw my mouse-eaten clothes. He sympathized since he had a vermin infestation where he lived at the “Halfway House,” named for its location halfway between the dingy C. C. Club and the fabulously kitschy Black Forest Inn. Here’s how he beat the mice: “I just take all the empty beer cases and line the walls with them.” The entire kitchen at the Halfway House had boxes of returnable bottles from floor to ceiling. “It makes the room much smaller but keeps out mice, cockroaches, and even works as insulation.”
Nick boasted that he didn’t have to worry about mice in his Subaru, the movable bedroom, but the frigid winter forced him to rent an actual room in a house on Lyndale Avenue. Since he needed rent money, he strategically parked his beat-up station wagon sticking out from the curb near a patch of ice. Late one night, a car bashed into his Subaru. He rushed outside to write down the license plate and reported the hit-and-run to the police. He cashed in, paid his rent, and helped fund the recording of the first Stardüsters’ single.
One morning while we were practicing at Nick’s house, his roommate Andrew wandered into the kitchen to search for something to eat. The fridge was empty except for an old bottle of Tabasco. A convenience store was directly across the street from the house, but the roommate was too hungry—or perhaps too lazy—to venture out to buy something to eat. Instead he took a few sheets of paper towels, sprinkled the hot sauce on top and ate them. When we came out of the practice space, the roommate was finishing up the last of the quilted paper towels with little floral patterns.
We practiced in Nick’s basement, but another roommate had tried to solve their rodent problem by leaving rat poison in every corner. The mice died by the dozens in the walls of the house and their putrid stench made band practice there impossible.
We moved our equipment to the house of our friend Rog, from the band Full Metal Hangover. His roommate, Tony, had a ferret to rout out all the mice in his house, but the stench of this animal, mixed with the mildew in the basement, made us have to leave the windows wide open to let in the freezing fresh air. The smell disappeared and the mice returned when Tony and the ferret moved out. Soon after, Tony was elected as a Minnesota state senator.
Meanwhile, John’s pest problem resurfaced since he had to return the empty beer boxes to the liquor store to get the rent money from the deposit on the bottles. His roommate brought home a cat to catch mice. One night, John was awakened by the sounds of pained howling. He woke up his roommate and together they noticed a small red bubble emerging from the cat’s rear. They carefully inspected the feline’s derriere and deduced that the poor thing had ingested a used condom and was having trouble passing the tasty morsel. To help the suffering feline, the roommate held the cat while John gripped the latex bubble with pliers. John yanked with all his might but lost his grip on the pliers. The semi-digested condom snapped back, causing the poor cat to yelp. Eventually the rubber wiggled free. The cat hid for a week but continued to scrounge for discarded treats.
Back in my house, Chank found two kittens to keep out mice. The cats, however, were far more interested in his hamburger pan and just followed the meat mist that was visible in the air when he cooked. Chank refused to remove the inch of grease from the pan caused by cooking burgers twice a day, and sometimes dropped in shots of 151 rum into the sizzling mass. When guests arrived, he dropped in a lit match for “hamburger flambé” and set off the smoke alarms as a soundtrack.
I decided I’d rather live with rodents than those worthless fat cats. Then one day we realized that we had always had the resolution within our grasp. During practice in the basement, Nick bought a new deafening Zildjian ride cymbal; John and I turned up our amps as loud as possible to compensate. The windows rattled, the joists shook, my roommates shouted for us to turn down, and a mouse fell from the ceiling of the basement, dead.
This story appears appears in Belt Publishing’s newest City Series book, Under Purple Skies: The Minneapolis Anthology, a collection of new essays curated by Frank Bures that will be featured at several events in this week’s Wordplay festival.
Wobegon’s Gone: Writing Modern Minneapolis
With: Frank Bures and selected writers from Under Purple Skies: The Minneapolis Anthology
Where: Wordplay, Target Stage
When: 1:15 p.m. Sat. May 11
Tickets: More info here
Lit Crawl: Under Purple Skies Minneapolis trivia bingo
With: Lisa Brimmer
When: 6 p.m. Sat. May 11
Where: High Point Print Center
Tickets: More info here
Launch: Under Purple Skies: The Minneapolis Anthology
With: Frank Bures
When: 4:15 p.m. Sun. May 12
Where: Wordplay, MPR Stage
Tickets: More info here