Katie O'Brien, 1962-1999

Lipstick traces: Singer and scenester Katie O'Brien

For Katie O'Brien, the simple act of puttering around the house could be a social situation. Though publicly known as a musician with the early-'90s band Dutch Oven and as a local scenemaker, O'Brien brought creative energy to tasks like fixing faucets, rewiring light fixtures, and sewing pillows, and picking up supplies was part of the fun. "When we would go to the hardware store or the plant store together, they would know her," says friend Lisa Legge. "I'd been there a thousand times, too, but they knew her."

On Friday, March 5, Katie O'Brien hanged herself in the house that she and longtime boyfriend Michael Hopp had bought on Grand Avenue in Minneapolis. There was a wake on Tuesday, a funeral on Wednesday morning at Incarnation Catholic Church at 38th and Pleasant in South Minneapolis, and a crowded memorial gathering at Lee's Liquor Lounge. There, friends with drinks in hand talked about a warm, mischievous woman who had had a kind of intoxicating effect on her peers. They recount how O'Brien would walk into a room and flash a smile defined perfectly by dark lipstick, likely to be from a tube of Wet 'n' Wild Moist Berry.

Her signature lipstick comes up repeatedly when talking to O'Brien's friends. Paul Dols, who knew O'Brien for 12 years recalls: "I have so many fond memories of hundreds of times when Katie would give me a warm hug and a kiss on the cheek and she'd leave her lipstick. It was the Katie O'Brien seal of approval, and it would make my night. I would be a couple of inches off the floor."

O'Brien's sense of style was a large part of what the town knew about her. Nate Dungan, from the band Trailer Trash, would occasionally be joined by O'Brien onstage. "Even in 1983 Katie was riding around on her motorbike, in her cotton summer dresses, lipstick, black bomber jacket, army boots, sunglasses," he recalls. "That lipstick that she wore? She's worn it as long as I knew her. We were in a band together called Crush on You that is a whole separate story. Every guy in Minneapolis had a crush on Katie O'Brien at one time or another."

David Carr, editor of Washington CityPaper in D.C. and a former Twin Cities writer and editor, says that he was one of those guys: "I was one of the worshipers, mostly from afar. She was the first girl at the C.C. [Club] who wore leathers that didn't look they just jumped off the rack."

Legge, who calls herself "one of many Katie wannabes," adds that the admiration wasn't all from one gender. "All the women had a crush on her, too," she says.

O'Brien grew up in Tangletown in South Minneapolis and, as a Catholic girl, first attended Annunciation School and then graduated from Washburn. Her parents both died when she was fairly young, her mom of cancer when Katie was 18. But, says longtime friend and neighbor Craig Lassig, "When Katie lost her mom and dad, she tried to build a new family around her--and she did."

In 1992 Hopp moved out of an apartment he'd rented with Lassig and moved in with O'Brien near 25th and Garfield in Uptown. At the time, she was playing bass and co-writing songs for Dutch Oven, a well-known band in town from its formation in 1991 to its dissolution three years later. And though O'Brien took satisfaction from music, according to Nate Dungan, this alone did not define her existence. "To just say that she played with Dutch Oven sounds like an album credit or something," he says. "She was one of the originals of this whole fucking thing that these girls are doing now. Katie was a scene enabler, an encourager. You knew that you were doing something right if Katie O'Brien liked your band."

In a eulogy at the funeral, Nate's brother and occasional bandmate James Dungan described O'Brien's voice as that of "a torch singer looking for her next lucky break--which somehow always came the next week at Lee's Liquor Lounge." O'Brien's vocal cords, probably scratched up a bit from her cigarette smoking, produced a dusky, deep sound that captured audiences at Lee's and other local venues.

To some extent O'Brien's funeral could be described as a who's who of Minneapolis's rock scene, with members of the Jayhawks, Hüsker Dü, Soul Asylum, and many other Twin Cities bands from the last two decades filling the pews. Yet fame, according to Nate Dungan, was irrelevant to O'Brien. "She didn't give a shit about rock stars. Didn't have time for you if you were ego-tripping. We're talking about somebody who would have been their friends had they been rock stars or grocery-store bagboys. She had famous friends, but she would treat everybody the same."

In Minneapolis O'Brien hosted big Thanksgiving dinners for friends who were away from their families, and threw parties on Halloween and New Year's. She was a common link in many local friendships: Through O'Brien, one Dungan brother met his wife, the other his fiancée; numerous others found longtime friends and lovers.

To meet O'Brien often meant meeting her partner Hopp (who worked as art director at City Pages in the early '90s). The two bicycled everywhere. A sighting of them on their bikes was as natural a part of the fabric of Minneapolis as sighting a pair of geese swimming side by side at Lake of the Isles. Hopp and O'Brien also took their bikes to some rougher terrain: San Francisco, New Zealand, Australia.

Last fall friends began to notice that O'Brien "wasn't herself,"as Dols puts it. Says Lori Barbero, a member of Babes in Toyland and a close friend of O'Brien's for 20 years: "She must have been in tremendous pain. People get cancer, they get chemo. But depression is a chemical imbalance, a fatal disease."

In the few weeks before O'Brien's death, Legge says, things appeared to be looking up. "Katie had done some hopeful things," Legge recounts. "She acknowledged that she needed medication, started bartending at the Walker, had taken a job--at Dixie's at the Calhoun Beach Club--with a woman who had wanted Katie to work for her for years."

Says Dols: "She was hiding her illness so well, putting on the smile." He and other friends seem able to force themselves to smile here and there as they tell stories about O'Brien. But at other points, conversation falters. Thoughts turn then to the motorbike with three-dollar parts that won't be fired up this spring, half-used tubes of Moist Berry in a jacket pocket, a closetful of cotton dresses.

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