RIP Steve Kramer of the Wallets (1953-2013)
Photo courtesy of MPR
By Reed Fischer and Chris Strouth
Steve Kramer, frontman for the genre-defying Twin Cities group the Wallets, has died. He was found in his hotel room Saturday while attending the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. He was 59.
Kramer and the Wallets released two original albums via Twin/Tone in the mid-'80s, including the celebrated Take It, featuring their breakout single "Totally Nude." In a similar vein to some of the Talking Heads tunes of the era, Kramer was comfortable incorporating hip hop and world beats into his band's sound, and it was a rewarding gumbo of those influences on display.
In the 1970s Kramer was part of the burgeoning New York art scene, as an artist and even an actor in noted punk auteur Amos Poe's The Foreigner. He was also an assistant to pop multimedia artist Red Grooms, and did illustrations for New York Rocker and other alt-scene publications. Along with his ex-wife Patti Astor, founder of the Fun Gallery, he was also considered one of that scene's most dazzling socialites, and had one of the first one-man shows there. This same gallery later launched the likes of Jean Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Dondi White, Kenny Scharf, FUTURA 2000, FAB 5 FREDDY and numerous others.
Musically, he played bongos and organ in the second and best-known lineup in No Wave legend's James Chance and the Contortions. including during their performance at the much lauded "M-80," the first No Wave festival. They performed at the University of Minnesota's M-80 Festival in 1979, and it's some of the most engaging experimental music set to tape (see footage of their performances here).
During this period though he was mostly known as an artist, his "Destructive Mouse" was featured in the now infamous 1978 "Punk Art Show" at Washington Project for the Arts in Washington, DC. It was the first show of punk rock art, and widely considered to be the starting point of the post modern age. "I don't want to be known as a Punk artist. I think I'm more or an inventor, a mad scientist. I like that image better," Kramer told Punk Art Show Catalog that year.
His friend, former roommate in the lean years in New York, and former bandmate in the Contortions Kristian Hoffman says, "There was no laugh like Steven's -- he was the advocate of the ridiculous as the sublime. Creativity came so easily to him that there was no telling where his fanciful obsessions would lead him -- now to music, now to art. Ultimately he seemed a musician, but was much more than that, I believe. He was an inventor -- inventor of self, of mind, of moment, of humor, of sound, and yes, of apartment destroying robot mice. "
If not for a fall from a roof during a party which caused him a severe injury, and painful facial reconstruction surgery we might well be talking about him has a visual artist. Instead the accident prompted a return to Minnesota, where he recovered and battled and beat addiction. This year was his 33rd sober, he was very active in AA -- often functioning as a sponsor.
With the Wallets, Kramer rocked the accordian and stepped into a frontman role, but retained the funky intensity of his past outfit with backing help from Jim Clifford, Max Ray, Rod Gordon and Erik Anderson. Their 1986 Twin/Tone Records debut, Take It, garnered some zydeco influence from New Orleans-based producer Allen Touissant. The follow-up, Body Talk, arrived in 1988, and the band gave their farewell concert in 1989 at the Guthrie Theater. A hits compilation called 17 Songs featuring rarities and remixes arrived that year, as well.
The Wallets will stand as his lasting cultural monument. In a time that most of the Twin Cities rock intelligentsia were divided into three camps of idol worship and emulation with the Replacements drinking beer in one corner, Hüsker Dü with Burroughs and Speed in the other, and the Suburbs somewhere in the middle of the ring drinking martinis, there were the Wallets off to the side making works of incomprehensible beauty and absolute silliness.
They were more of an art project than something as mundane has a punk rock band. They couldn't have been from any other time, or any other place. They represented the Minneapolis iconoclast at its finest, love them or hate them, you always walked away entertained. They knew it was about more than the music; it was the set, the lighting, it was more than a rock show not quite theater but definitely not just a night in the Entry.
Cafe Accordian Orchestra's Dan Newton told City Pages recently: "The accordion's moment in the Cities started with Steve Kramer and the Wallets. I came to town right around the time they were doing their last performances." The Talking Heads's David Byrne was a fan, and once sat in with the group at the 7th St. Entry.
Ultimately, the demands of a long touring schedule -- which the Wallets took to in a converted Ambulance -- got to Kramer and that led to the band's demise.
In more recent years, Kramer collaborated with local playwright Kevin Kling, and created work for Minnesota Public Radio and the Children's Theater. He and 33-year business partner (and former Wallets manager) Bob Hest formed the agency Hest + Kramer, and brought their sparkling creativity to the ad world. Target, Buick, MTV, and more were among their clients. For Minnesotans, nothing might be more iconic than the voices used in Erik's Bikes ads. You know, the whole "Erik the Bike Man" bit? That was Kramer's voice.
Hest put it best: "He had the 'it.' He was one of the guys that had that special thing. He was just one of those guys. You know it when your around it, and he was it."
The Chicago native Kramer is survived by life partner Cathy Young and stepdaughter Bobbie Young, as well as his parents and two nephews. Update: A service celebrating the life of Steven Grant Kramer life will be held on Sunday, January 27, at 6 p.m. at Lake Harriet United Methodist Church, 4901 Chowen Ave South, Minneapolis, MN 55410. In lieu of flowers, memorials preferred to the family.
Send memorials to: Gassedelen & Goldberg; Suite 100; 7201 Ohms Lane; Edina, MN 55439
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