The death of the Belmore/New Skyway Lounge
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.
Last week the Twin Cities lost a club, the Belmore/New Skyway Lounge. It was the most recent entry from Minneapolis iconoclast and character Doug Anderson. Chances are pretty good that you didn't know it closed; chances are even better you didn't know it was open in the first place. The Belmore stood alone in the downtown club scene. It wasn't fancy; it had the stripped-down sensibilities that made it feel more like a New York neighborhood bar -- not the slickness that tends to dot the downtown landscape. No perfectly untucked shirts over jeans that cost more than a 40-hour week of minimum wage at this establishment.
The Belmore had a definitive curative style, and one that I may add was not for everyone. It was noisy and chaotic with an ear toward the guitar heroes of generations past: definitive for post-punk, guitar-noise rock. It was a temple for bands that loved Television, which makes sense given Richard Lloyd's residency there. It was home to cult acts from Curtiss A to Hugh Cromwell, and a lot of music that doesn't rate much more than a mention on the Current, but is the stuff of crate diggers' deepest fantasy baseball team.
The voice behind the viewpoint belonged to ex-New Yorker Anderson, the runner of previous establishments -- most importantly Nick and Eddie -- and pioneered the recipe that seems to be working like a charm for the Icehouse. Left-of-the-dial music meets high-end but not too high-falutin' cuisine. Sprinkle liberally with reasonably priced cocktails and serve. That's not to say that one inspired the other, but it's nice to see that formula keep in motion. The Belmore, like Doug, wasn't about polish. It had a feeling of "take it or leave it" and only on its own terms.
Doug is the kind of guy who everyone has a strong opinion of -- for better or worse. Hero or villain, threat or menace. He is a big personality and a man of big opinions. In an alternate universe he would have beat Hilly Kristal to CBGB's punch, or a Knitting Factory that didn't eventually become a sonic snoozefest. Anderson has always struck me as a man out of time and place, a character in search of a story.
There was a time when cities were filled with characters and eccentrics. Cities breed them like pigeons and trendy restaurants. Characters are the ones who build cities; they create the restaurant that looks like a giant hat, or the hotel that has goldfish to rent to guests. They are the people you might not know but you always recognize. A character built the Longhorn, and First Avenue too.
Then there are guys like Augie Ratner, who was chronicled in one of the best books on Minneapolis history that doesn't involve grain: Augie's Secrets by Neal Karlen. (Augie was a gangster, scoundrel, loved and hated often at the same time*.) Characters aren't easy, and they shouldn't be.
The Belmore was a downtown bar not regulated to the douchebag crowd. (No offense meant to the D-bag crowd -- actually all offense to the D-bag crowd.) Downtown used to be the heart of the city, really any city, Its where the ideas and trends start and work their way out to the outer rings of urbanity. As a whole, downtown Minneapolis has as much edge as a dinner at Applebee's. Its strip joints and pop bars make it seem as if the strip of First Avenue below Washington is some sort of spring break destination for people in their late 20s.
Downtown Minneapolis had a good legacy of great clubs, from the Longhorn and Goofy's Upper Deck, to of course the gold star of American nightclubs: First Avenue. Once upon a time First Ave was the alternative. It's now the standard bearer, given that it is now responsible for the booking of most of the major rock shows downtown. That's not a bad thing; it's great, it's wonderful, but it makes one sometimes want an alternative. Or rather an alternative to the alternative. When everyone wears black, black is no longer black.
The death of the Belmore was nothing all that interesting. A neighborhood not progressing the way it expected, a hotel development not developing, not to mention a brutal winter that kept most of downtown confined to the executive habitrails affectionately known as skyways. But the surprising factors, according to Anderson: "It didn't really occur to me that people would be afraid of downtown Minneapolis."
"People going to a rock show next to a police station," he continues. "People were so worried about the cops; the police weren't interested in them. It's a fantasy that rock kids have that somehow they're dangerous and warrant the attention of the authorities. They don't fucking care."
The Belmore's now-shuttered storefront.
Courtesy of the Belmore/New Skyway Lounge
"People like the suburbs, south Minneapolis is the suburbs as far as I am concerned, Northeast is a suburb," he continues further. "People don't like downtown because it's difficult. They have to park their car, the bottom of it is the perception of what downtown is and it's really too bad."
In 2010, to little fanfare save a few 300-word articles, MTV dropped the Music Television portion from its name. It's a subtle change, one that on some level seems little more than trivia. It changed nothing, and everything at the same time. It triggered the post-music age.
That's the thing about sea changes, they come in increments so small that we barely notice, slow and steady with the efficiency of an ice age. No big bang, or thrilling climaxes, they just change to the point that no one notices, 'til someday a while from now you might look up and notice that it's gone. For a moment you might be sad. Then, inevitably, you will find happiness in the small shiny object that is that week's current cultural fetish. The Belmore closing was self-imposed, a get out while the getting was still good. At some point in the not too distant future that flag will rise again, a new take, more restaurant than club. For now though, downtown just got a little less interesting.
*I don't think Augie was actually a gangster. He just knew them all. Maybe say Augie was a character that knew all the other characters or something like that.
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