The Bar at the Edge of the World
On a recent evening at Lee's Liquor Lounge, Louie Sirian leaned against a wall and removed one of his shoes to offer a visitor a good look at his foot. This was a repeat performance; the visitor had seen Louie's foot before. It is not an attractive sight. Horribly stunted, with splayed, twisted toes and squashed arch, it is the casualty of years of foot-binding labor--20-hour days, seven days a week, including many long hours behind a floor scrubber in the dead of night. Clean floors are an obsession with Louie, the man who has owned Lee's since 1976. Seriously clean floors. Waxed, gleaming floors. They mean something; represent an ethic, a correct way of doing things. It is not likely that Louie would survive a visit to the men's room in First Avenue. Growing up on the east side of St. Paul, Louie cleaned bars up and down the streets of his old neighborhood. He got so busy that he had to take on help, but even that rare concession gave him no relief. "Nobody else passed muster," Louie says. "The owners of these joints wanted me to do the work, because I did it the right way."
Take a good look at the floors in Lee's sometime. Louie still does it the right way. Over the years he has contracted out his floor cleaning to two different outfits, but fired them both because they couldn't do the job the way he could.
When a hot new club opens these days, the odds are pretty good that it's a blazing house of cards owned by either a corporation or some guy between bankruptcies and drug rehabilitations. Such places are usually high concept, heavy on style points--and seldom long for this world. Or as Louie likes to say, "The horse that shits the fastest don't shit for long." For more than 20 years Lee's has been Louie's bar. Given all the things going against it, it should have closed years ago. Instead it became a kind of urban fairly tale. And so this is the story of a remote and unassuming street bar's slow and remarkable ascendancy to "It Club" status. It is, among other things, the story of a truly harmonic convergence between a bar owner and a band.
In 1993 Louie had been a struggling bar owner for almost 20 years. He owned a quiet bar on the eroding west edge of downtown Minneapolis, the corner of Glenwood Avenue and 11th Street to be exact, a spot that grew more obscure and isolated with each passing year. And no matter how many hours he worked, nothing he did was going to stop the flight of blue-collar jobs that was taking his best customers and their paychecks out to the suburbs, or wherever the hell it was taking them. Street bars just like his all over the city were being eradicated. The Longhorn, Moby Dick's, the Flame, the Speakeasy, Mousey's--they all disappeared, and Lee's remained stranded, with 394 wrapped around it like a moat that cut him off from downtown. Louie had been fighting the trickle-down of industrial flight for years; for a time Vikings' great Carl Eller ran a liquor store out of the space that is now Lee's dance floor. There was a short-lived attempt at a game room as well. None of these schemes worked.
And then one day Louie got a phone call from Nate Dungan, an irrepressible schemer and raconteur who was looking for a home base for a band called Trailer Trash.
to Minnesota from Knoxville, Tennessee, in the 1980s. After a stint at Carleton College in Northfield, Dungan moved to the Twin Cities and put together a band that he hoped would capture the ethos of the old Friday and Saturday night VFW circuit he had grown up with in the South. "You know," he says, "where it's no big deal to play 200 minutes a night. Where people don't go out to see a band, but to dance, to have fun. The band's job was simply to rock the place. Old guys like Bob Wills and Bill Monroe would think nothing of playing five, six hours without a break. They just fed off the crowd. That's what I was after, and right from the beginning I wanted to find some place where we could be the regular house band."
In 1993 the original Trailer Trash line-up--Dungan, his brother James, John Duncan, and Noah and Adam Levy-- started gigging at the old 24 bar on the edge of downtown Minneapolis. When that bar was gobbled up to make room for the new Federal Reserve building, Nate started looking around for a new home. "I was tired of crawling around begging for gigs all over town," he says. "Mary Johnson, who has been a regular at Lee's forever, had been badgering me to play her bar. We finally played a birthday party for her there, and afterwards I called Louie and made my pitch." The relationship was initially casual, and the band played a few intermittent gigs at the bar before it eventually evolved into a regular Wednesday night engagement.
"I didn't have anything to lose," Louie says. "And Nate is very impressive and he puts himself across very well. He's a real gifted salesman. The whole group is just a bunch of fine young fellows, so clean-cut and likeable. Each and every one of them is basically sound, with personality beyond reproach. I could see they were a class outfit, and it just looked like the way to go." That first Wednesday night was Oct. 20, 1993, and now, almost four years later, Trailer Trash's Wednesday night gigs at Lee's are a raggedy-ass, sweat-drenched Minneapolis music tradition.
"Trailer Trash: The Lee's Years," Dungan says. "We've become the joke that wouldn't die."
"I'd never had much business to start with," Louie remembers. "So I didn't have any real expectations when we started with the music. And it was slow going initially. Nothing really happened for quite a few months, but then it just started skyrocketing. Now the most important night of the week at Lee's is Wednesday. For the first time in my years as a bar owner I've been able to reap some of the pleasures. The young folks have such clean, good fun, and often they will thank you as they leave. To be able to distinguish yourself in the field after all these years, well, that's just a great honor."
Mary Johnson--"Mary B. Johnson," she says--has been a Lee's regular for 10 years, and as the matchmaker between Louie and the band she's been on hand since that first gig. "I'd come down here with friends forever," she remembers. "You know, just neighborhood drinking. Friday nights we'd get all gussied up and come to Lee's. In the old days there was just a jukebox with a bunch of country oldies, and maybe twice a year this band from Annandale would come in and play. I think that first Wednesday with Trailer Trash there was just Ed the bartender, me, and a handful of other people. And then all of a sudden it was the place to see and be seen."
Crowds or no, it was an almost perfect fit from the start, which is part of what made the early days of the Trailer Trash/Lee's boom so heady for all involved. "All of a sudden we were everybody's favorite hip pocket gig," Dungan says. There were regular celebrity sightings at the jam-packed Wednesday night shows, with luminaries from the local and national music scene dropping by to jam with the band or simply check out the action. Bob Stinson was a regular, as were members of the Jayhawks, Soul Asylum, and Wilco. Nate's brother James had by this time left the band for the seminary ("He went down to put the fun in fundamentalism," Nate says. "These days he's helping the farmers.") and the Levy brothers split to form the Honeydogs. Drummers came and went, but the revamped Trailer Trash--with new members Dan Gaarder, Randy Broughten, Andy Olson, and Keely Lane--kept right on ripping through their catalog of more than 300 roadhouse and honky-tonk staples.
The marriage of band and bar was successful beyond anyone's imagining, and led to a couple major renovations designed to open up the room and improve sightlines. The PA was upgraded substantially and pool tables were eventually jettisoned. A couple years ago Dungan took over the booking in the bar, and his particular genius has been to build up a calendar that plays to Lee's identity and strengths while continuing to draw diverse crowds from all over the Cities. The emphasis is always on a mix of loopy good fun (Thursday's Two Tickets to Paradise and Sunday night's Cosmic Slop) and solid roadhouse roots (the Legends at Lee's series, which has brought in Marvin Rainwater, Sleepy LaBeef, and Sonny Burgess). "I don't try to book the bar into any kind of a niche," Dungan says. "I just look for bands that understand the importance of entertainment and fun. The whole self-consciousness thing is not something that really works in Lee's. I think--for lack of a better word--Americana is what does well here. Because, essentially, Lee's is a roadhouse. It's a bona fide honky-tonk right in the middle of a city."
If the bar itself doesn't remind you of something, chances are pretty good that most nights the music will. Two Tickets to Paradise, Rex Daisy's Thursday night alter ego, is almost guaranteed to thump a few brain cells in anyone who grew up listening to radio and attending awkward teen dances in the '70s and '80s. Equal parts tribute and parody--and it's an admittedly thin line to start with--Two Tickets could be every clumsy but exuberantly posturing high-school dance band you ever loved to hate. Or hated to love, because there wasn't an alternative for a hundred miles around. On any given Thursday night TTTP will stumble through a set list chock full of blocks of Billy Joel, Tom Petty, Cheap Trick, Kiss, Foreigner, and Bruce Springsteen, complete with false starts, flubbed chord changes, and belly-flop endings. The experience can inspire either an innocuous form of early-onset nostalgia or a queasy and grudging admiration for the ease with which the band and the request-squealing crowd manage to dredge up unpleasant memories. Six Billy Joel songs in a row was too rich for my blood even in 1981.
What's particularly interesting about Two Tickets to Paradise and their Thursday night gigs is how perfectly they effect a neat nostalgic flip side to the Wednesday nights of Trailer Trash. The bar is made for both bands and both types of music, and both nights continue to draw crowds. But they are, as Dungan is careful to point out, different crowds; the old cynical Uptown edge so noticeably absent from the Trailer Trash experience is out in force on Thursdays at Lee's, with a mostly younger crowd that goads and heckles incessantly. It's the old postmodern ironic limbo thing--"Play an even worse song from my adolescence! I dare you!"--that the Replacements pretty much exhausted 13 years ago. But that's one of the great things about Lee's: Some nights you'll get your usual dose of '90s irony, and other nights the bar simply serves up timeless American music, straight with no chaser, and without the surly edge you might expect to encounter in an Up North bar or your average state-highway roadhouse.
City Council member Jim Niland has long been an ardent supporter of Lee's. "I think since the Uptown bar [stopped booking national acts] there are now two premier places to see live music in town, First Avenue/7th Street Entry, and Lee's," he says. "Nate's done a great job booking the place and really establishing an identity. It's become an important part of the scene. And Louie's just a tremendous character."
Louie has a favorite word: schmaltzy. He'll say something's "almost schmaltzy," and that's the spot-on description of the appeal of Lee's in the Trailer Trash years, with the careful emphasis on almost. There's certainly an element of nostalgia in the bar's appeal; the place seems to touch a familiar chord even in people who didn't grow up in the world of servicemen's clubs and small-town Saturday night dances. What do you call nostalgia that has absolutely no connection to personal experience or history? Kitsch? It's certainly possible that there's something in the bar's smoky, paneled 1950s roadhouse authenticity--with its beer signs, stuffed fish, and demographically skewed clientele--that resonates in young urban types who've received their notions of Americana from, say, David Lynch. At the same time it manages to be convincingly homespun. Louie understands the appeal: "I think it's a bar in the city that reminds people of an Up North bar or a Wisconsin pub. This is the last of the old city, the way downtown Minneapolis was in the '50s. There used to be joints like this all over town."
And the fact that Louie Sirian is the only man who still operates one of those joints suits him just fine. Louie is old school all the way: a saloon keeper in it for the long haul. Like his bar, he is a vanishing but still familiar American type, a holdover from the days before neuroses entered the character equation--when characters were cranks or eccentrics, as opposed to flakes. If Lee's represents the last of the urban roadhouses, then Louie is certainly one of the last in a direct lineage from such classic crusty-but-lovable figures as Casey Stengel and Yogi Berra. He can uncork inscrutable monologues that rank with Stengel's best, and is equally capable of slinging malapropisms that would make Berra proud. Extinguish or distinguish, what difference does it really make? A baguette? What the hell is that but a stale loaf of bread? Rome wasn't built in a year. The Lord works in mischievous ways.
One moment Louie might be discussing his days in the slaughterhouses of St. Paul or his army years in Germany, and the next thing you know he will say something like this: "I was watching The Young Lions last night, with Marlon Brando. That's one of my all-time favorites. A poor little shoemaker's son. Oh, Jeez, what a mess they got themselves into. I'm telling you, a powerful, persuasive speaker can sure stir up a lot of trouble." At which point he will wave a hand and direct your attention to the action on the dance floor. "Look at that. Just like Arthur Murray."
"Louie's a Zen master," Dungan says. "He's always saying these things--'money can't build nothing; it can only tear stuff down'--that are... a little confusing at first. But if you really look at them they're pearls of wisdom."
In 1975 Louie was a longtime employee of the St. Paul city streets department. For as long as he could remember he had been working two, sometimes three jobs to support his extended family. The Sirians were of northern Italian extraction, but early on Louie appropriated what he considers a more Germanic work ethic. He worked days on the city streets. Nights, he went to work with his father on the killing floor of the old Swift's slaughterhouse in South St. Paul. "South St. Paul was really booming in those days," Louie remembers. "Everybody worked for Swift's. My dad worked in that plant all his life. Beef they killed with a sledge, hogs you slit with a knife. My job was to scoop up the hair and toenails and hustle it down the line in a wheelbarrow. That was back-breaking work and the line just kept moving, all night the hair and toenails just kept coming. It was like a vacation when I'd get out of there and go to work for the city."
In the mid-'70s Louie started scouting around for a business opportunity. Louie was codependent long before Melody Beattie ever stumbled into treatment; it was then, and remains today, one of his greatest virtues. "I was the youngest kid in my family," Louie says, "but I always felt responsible for everyone. My father never learned to read or write, and at the time I had several members of my family who were unemployed. I wanted to find something for the whole family to get involved in." Through a commercial real-estate agent, Louie heard about a bar on the rim of the North Side that had just come on the market. Lee and Sally Triemert had run Lee's since 1962, and when Lee passed away Sally started looking for a buyer. "I looked at the place a couple times and I had my second thoughts," Louie recalls. "I didn't know nothing about the liquor business, but Mrs. Triemert gave me a real nice deal and I went ahead and bought the bar."
Louie had no idea what he was getting himself into. "I found out quick that this is a very tough racket that requires a lot of hard work," he says. "For 12 years I stayed on with the city, and worked both jobs. Every night I was in here, doing everything. I was janitor, bartender, bouncer, and bookkeeper. Seven days a week I was working 21 hours just to pay the bills."
In Louie's early days at Lee's, the bar was surrounded by industry--Kemps ice cream, Munsingwear, McGarvey coffee, Shopmaster, the Boyer Ford dealership--and Louie depended on the business of the working men and women who stopped in after work to drink and cash their paychecks. Freeway construction just outside his front door cut him off from downtown and the neighborhoods to the north and disrupted business for years, and Louie endured what he calls the first of his "many isolations."
"Right from the get-go, this area started going through enormous transitions," Louie says. "The neighborhood's pretty much been wiped out a couple different times."
In recent months there had been much speculation concerning the city's plans for the area around Lee's, and there was a very real possibility that the bar would be sacrificed for a new proposed "public works campus" along Glenwood. Toward that end the city has bought up all the property surrounding Lee's, but thanks in part to the efforts of Jim Niland and Louie's 5th Ward representative, Jackie Cherryhomes, it now looks like Lee's will be spared. As always, Louie falls back on one of his favorite sayings: "We'll just have to wait and see what prevails."
"I feel good about it," Niland says. "I think Public Works understands that they are basically going to have to work around Louie and the bar."
The last time I took a vacation," Louie claims, "I got drafted." It's 7 o'clock on a sweltering Wednesday evening and Louie is out on the sidewalk in front of his bar with a brush and a pail, cleaning windows. Inside a dozen patrons are seated around the bar, braids of cigarette smoke drifting up toward the laboring ceiling fans. On the stereo AC/DC gives way to Tom Petty, Petty to Bob Seger, and Seger to George Jones. Nobody bats an eye. A beer sign hanging from the ceiling kicks up an endless blizzard of fake snow. On the wall at the end of the bar there is a silver beer mug mounted on a plaque, engraved with the names of deceased Lee's regulars and the words: "One last toast to the best. Gone but never forgotten." There is another plaque on an adjacent wall, above a table: "In Loving Memory of Billy Stethem, Companion and Friend." There are no glasses on the bar, only bottles of beer. An illuminated plastic Spuds McKenzie is perched as sentry atop the microwave oven.
Louie comes back into the bar and escorts a guest into his office, which doubles as his check-cashing operation. For 21 years Louie has been cashing checks out of his bar for people in the neighborhood. In the old days he'd do a booming business on Thursdays and Fridays, cashing the fat payroll checks from the businesses around his bar. He has always charged a ridiculously minuscule fee for the service. These days many of the checks are from Dolphin temporary services up the street, and often as not Louie waives his cut. "A couple bucks might not seem like much to you or me," he says. "But you'll see these checks for $50 or $60 and I can't take those people's money."
Nate Dungan calls the bar Louie's "private welfare state." Spend much time around Louie and you'll see what he means. Welfare to Louie is not a pejorative, and it seems like somebody is always hitting him up for something. There are 11 apartments above Lee's, and there is seldom a vacancy. "I don't know where else you can find an apartment for $60 a month," Louie says. "And even at that I sometimes have a tough time collecting. Most of these people are elderly, and this is a tough day and age. Sometimes you just have to let things slide."
Mark VanBerkon lives in one of those apartments, and spends most of his nights downstairs in the bar. "This is my living room," he says. "There's not another place like this in town. This is a real rock & roll club with a tavern attitude. There's no dirt, not with Louie, not with this bar. Louie's the most hard-working son of a bitch I've ever met, and they don't come any better. I was on the street when I first came in here and Louie put me up."
Despite its reputation as "the bar without a neighborhood," Lee's survived precisely because it was a neighborhood bar, and Louie inspired loyalty in a core group of regulars who recognized and appreciated his place for its effortless and comfortable authenticity, for its character and throwback charm. These regulars continued to make the trek to Lee's, coming down Glenwood from the Bryn Mawr, Harrison, and Camden neighborhoods. Many of them were second-generation Lee's drinkers who had grown up and gone to school together. Guys like Eddie Schmidt and Tom Heikke have been hanging out at the bar in Lee's for almost two decades, and their connection to the bar is personal. Asked to explain the appeal of Lee's, Schmidt says simply, "Louie's a helpful gentleman."
"He's the greatest guy in the fucking world," Heikke adds. "I was born and raised on Glenwood, and my dad and his friends hung out in here. Louie's special to the North Side, he's local all the way. He's all heart. He'll give you anything you need. If you added up all the money I owe him, and everything my friends owe him, you could retire. He hasn't taken a vacation in all the years I've known him."
Schmidt remembers riding the bus between Bryn Mawr and downtown as a kid, and passing the tremendous neon sign of Lee's. "This was my first bar," he says. "Louie's always supported the neighborhood families, sponsoring sports teams and throwing big spreads for weddings and funerals. It's a safe and comfortable place, you know? The waitresses and barkeeps know your name. A lot of us regulars grew up together, and on almost any given night I'll still run into somebody I haven't seen in a long time."
There's a sign on Louie's desk that says, "A cluttered desk is a sign of genius." The tiny office is full of all sorts of zealously American artifacts and knickknacks: busts of Lincoln and Kennedy, a John Wayne clock, a collection of whiskey decanters and figurines (Elvis, more John Wayne, the Statue of Liberty, Hank Williams Sr. and Jr., Tom T. Hall). There is a photo of Louie and his family with Tiny Tim, who played his last show at Lee's. There is also, curiously, a collection of corncob pipes. "I had an uncle who was called Corncob Nick," Louie shrugs. "He was a saloon owner over in St. Paul in the 1930s." Louie fishes through a file cabinet and comes up with a photo album from his days as a tank driver in Germany in the late 1950s, where he served at the same time as Elvis. "I went to see him when I was over there," Louie says, and he now keeps an elaborate shrine to the King of Rock & Roll in his bar. He has never been to Graceland--"I've never had the time," he says--but he does have an album full of carefully hand-labeled photographs that a friend took for him on a visit. As payback for all his good deeds, Louie's friends have apparently been kind enough to take his vacations for him.
On a tour of his immaculately clean and organized basement, Louie points out the hundreds of trophies he has accumulated over the years--"From the earlier years and the athletics and such," Louie says with a wave of his hand. "In the old days Lee's was a powerhouse in athletics. Sometimes the big ones break and you throw 'em away." He also points out his first-class bottle-and-can sorting operation. Back upstairs he stoops to examine a patch of floor tile that is clearly not up to snuff. "You see?" he asks, shaking his head. "I have to get down on my hands and knees to clean these floors, because this is all I've got."
At 7:30 folks start milling on the dance floor for Katy Olson's weekly "Miss Kitty's Dance Class." Every Wednesday before the Trailer Trash gig, Olson and Alan Raven Hockersmith teach the basics of swing dancing to anyone who comes through the door, and lately they have been coming in droves. Olson has been coming down to Lee's for several years, and her infectious style of dancing has caught on with the Wednesday night regulars. "It's a great opportunity to share the beauty of swing dancing with the public," she says, "and it's free. This is a great place to dance, because unlike so many other places you don't have to fight through all the standers. And our class also makes a great date, because we're the only dance class in town that has more men than women. I like to tell people that Lee's is like the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. You'll run into all these people that you'd never in a million years expect to see here."
Louie pauses to watch the dancers. "If you try to tell people about this it sounds almost schmaltzy," he says. "But it's nice, clean fun, and what an asset to the bar. I'm telling you, this young gal does one hell of a job."
At 9 o'clock Trailer Trash takes the stage and by 10:30 Lee's is once again hopping and the dance floor is crowded. There are those who predicted a short run in the limelight for the whole Trailer Trash/Lee's phenomenon, but if it's starting to grow stale nobody at Lee's is letting on. It's been an incredible run, and has shown no signs in recent months of losing steam. Still, Dungan knows that his little "hip pocket gig" is not unprecedented. He remembers the stretch the Barking Ducks had at the 400, and the Dr. Mambo's Combo salad days at Bunker's. But he also knows that he's got something else going for him; he's got Louie, and he's got a classic catalog of American music. "This is totally Louie's bar," Dungan says. "He puts his stamp on everything. This is a great bar, period, and that has everything to do with Louie and the whole tone he sets. Nobody works harder than Louie. He's the only bar owner in town who has a mop handle in his hands at 2 in the morning. You don't have to over-promote Louie; he's his own best ambassador. Because of him this would be a great place to come with or without us. The whole point was just to work up a bunch of classic tunes, find a great place to play, and rock the joint.
"It's been effortless for us, a total backdive, and I think as long as it's still fun for us, it'll still be fun for the people who come out to visit us. If it ever gets dangerously close to work, I guess we'll pull the plug. Louie doesn't need us. He's been to the fair and seen the bear, if you know what I'm saying. This isn't his first rodeo."
Louie has another saying: "Nothing is any good unless it works." After 20 years in the bar business he thinks he's finally found a formula that works, and he knows it's good. "We've worked hard to make this a clean and responsible place," Louie says. "And I think it's finally paid off. This used to be a rough area around here, but it's gotten so that I don't even need a bouncer in here most nights. I get fewer complaints than any bar in town. I'm sure I have the same goal as Nate--to make Lee's a showplace for the city. And I think we've been a credit to this area all along. The councilmen and the big shots, this ain't their kind of joint; they like the fancier places and that's fine. But this joint will never do them no harm."
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