It Was Twenty Years Ago Today – Part CXXX And Final

It was 12:25PM, August 8, 1991.

It’d been two and a half days. since the labor had started – late Monday night, at the corner of First Avenue and Eighth Street, outside the Target Center. We’d been at the “KDWB Star Party”; one of the few bennies, at least for me, of working at KDWB was the concert tickets. And Bun, in the womb throughout the previous nine months, had always mellowed out when loud R&B music came on in the nightclub where I (and Bun’s mother, who worked in the same bar, and who I long ago promised never to write about in this blog, and I won’t, except to affirm that my daughter Bun does in fact have a mother) worked.  But not that night.  Months of kicking – Bun was a hyperactive little thing – turned into actual contractions.

For two days.

And finally, on Wednesday, August 7, around 4PM, the contractions dropped down to less than five minutes apart.  We raced to the hospital – Regions today, Ramsey County back then…

…where an arrogant little Hindi resident timed the contractions at just over seven minutes.  She sent us home…

…where they promptly dropped to ninety seconds apart.  Which led to another frantic drive to Ramsey, where they stayed at every ninety seconds…

…for the next eighteen hours.

It was a little after noon when, fogged with fatigue, I noticed that we weren’t alone in the room anymore.  There were nine doctors and eight nurses (or so I recall), and one of the doctors was holding what looked like salad tongs, and it occurred to me that “they didn’t talk about this in childbirth class”.

And out of the daze, at 12:25PM, came a little baby girl (I discovered it for the first time; we wanted it to be a surprise), pale and covered in blood and disconcertingly quiet.  She’d been in some form of fetal distress – hence the crowd of doctors and the salad tongs.  But in a moment or two, she caught her wind, and that moment after birth was the last quiet moment any of us ever had.

And I stopped measuring time from when I started my life in the big city, and started measuring it in terms of a family. And it’d be almost fifteen years before it’d occur to me to think a whole lot about the five and a half years before, when I’d started in Jamestown North Dakota a newly-minted college graduate, who got tired of waiting for his real life to begin, and decided on a drunken whim to move to the big city.

Bun came first.  A year and a half later came Zam.  Two weeks later, my first IT job, as a technical writer at a packaging engineering company, writing “how-to” manuals for machines that put Wheat Thins into bags and stuffed the bags into boxes (I’m not making that up), which led to jobs writing everything from the business plan for a supercomputer company software division to a user guide to a system that brokered end-cap space at grocery stores to the highest bidders.  And then – driven by the same restless boredom that had led me to Minneapolis in the first place – into teaching myself a new trade, one that hadn’t really taken off in the Twin Cities yet, “User Centered Design”, by which a guy with a BA in English could become an IT mover and shaker.

But that was all in the next seven years.  Twenty years ago today, I was a nightclub DJ and part-time radio guy, bored out of his mind and living one paycheck away from oblivion who still harbored ambitions of breaking back into radio, but was starting to realize it could never happen.  Not in this life – the life I was in, at that moment.

Now, I was Dad.

And all my time got measured from that moment, from then on.

———-

I think this is the end of Twenty Years Ago Today.  I started the series in September of 2005, really more as a present to my kids – so they could know, perhaps, what and who I was before they were born, in the event it ever occurs to them to wonder – than as something that fit into this blog.

From here on to the present day?  They are the story. And they were both there for all of it.

Oh yeah – and happy birthday, Bun!

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part CXXIX

It was Friday, August 2, 1991.

After my second interview a few days earlier, I got a call very quickly asking me to come in for a third interview. That was good.

I’d also found out from Joe Hanson – the keeper of all broadcast lore in Twin Cities radio – that I was on a short list; me and my co-worker at KDWB, Steve Konrad (who was going by the air name “Wally Pike”, and was producing the “Steve Cochran” morning show.  It was down to the two of us.

The previous weekend, Steve had walked in to the control room at K63, and we’d chatted about the incongruity of it all.  I laughed, and pointed out that I had some pressure; I had a baby whose due date was four days away.  ”Gotta figure out how to pay for it”, I chuckled, not feeling all that funny at the moment.

But it was time.  I drove out to the KSTP studio, out on Highway 61 in Maplewood, and was ushered into Morris’ office.  I sat at a table with Morris and a consultant.  The consultant will remain nameless – partly because I don’t entirely remember his name, and partly because really, all broadcast consultants are the same.  This guy was one of about 500 consultants around the country who were claiming credit for Rush Limbaugh’s emergence as the savior of AM radio.

We chatted for a bit, we talked about my vision for the station.  I had thought out a pretty coherent one; get people to work on the ABCs of broadcasting – the station IDs, the cross-promotion, better call screening (not “tighter” so much as more strategic – bumping better callers, and women, farther up in the queue, that sort of thing), which would move some of the responsibility for the shows’ pacing to the producers, who had been operating as a bunch of glorified board operators for the past couple of years.

There was some give and take; the consultant was poking away pretty hard – but I don’t think he stumped me.

After about 45 minutes, Morris said “I have no doubt that you have the intellectual background and experience to do the job.  My biggest concern is that you’re going to try to get on the air”.  She knew, naturally, that that had been my big goal.  And it still was, to be honest.

But I fielded the hopper; “that’s not what this job is about.  I’ll have other focuses”.

Then the consultant fired back.  ”So you did a conservative show?”  I affirmed.  ”Why do you think Rush Limbaugh is as successful as he is?”

“Because there is a huge base of conservatives out there who have been grossly underserved by the traditional media, and who are finding a voice on talk radio that they’ve never really had before”.

“No!”, he pounced.  ”Rush is successful because he’s irreverent.  Because he takes politics and has fun with it.  He could be talking about sports, or cars, or real estate; as long as you’re having irreverent fun with the topic, it’s all the same”.  He extolled Bob Yates (of whom I was a big fan), and Turi Ryder (of whom I was not, but who was someone the station had hired at the consultant’s direction) as examples of where talk radio was going.

I put the pieces together in my head.  They see me as a political talk partisan. Steve Konrad is the producer of a “comedy” talk show.  He sees “comedy” with a thin topical veil as the future of talk radio.  He’s got his mind made up already. 

I could feel the water leaking into the boat.  I started bailing.

“Have you ever heard of a guy named Don Vogel?”

“I’ve got his tape, but I haven’t heard it yet”.

“I used to produce him.  Give him a listen.  It’ll show that I’ve got good chops at both kinds of talk radio”.

Things slowly fizzled after that.  They thanked me for coming out.  And the body language said that that was as far as I was going to get.

———–

I found out on August 6 – my baby’s due date – that I didn’t get the job.  And that Steve Konrad had given his two weeks’ notice at KDWB.

I also heard some other things – things I’d suggested in my second and third interviews.  The station’s hosts got a lot more punctual about “formatics” – giving the station’s IDs in and out of breaks, giving several of the four Arbitron diary identifiers every they did an ID.  Barbara Carlson softpedaled her “political insider” persona, in favor of her “big crazy personality” one.

And a few months later, Don Vogel started on the afternoon shift, in place of the afternoon guy they had in place that I’d mentally noted I was going to get rid of anyway.   His producer – in his first fulltime radio job – was Tom Mischke, who’d been the “Phantom Caller” during my time producing Don.

Oh yeah – and when Joe Hanson, whom Steve Konrad eventually hired to produce first Mischke and then Jason Lewis, next worked with me on the Northern Alliance back in 2004-2005, he told me the consultant had finally averred that his whole “people don’t care about conservative talk because they care about conservatism” line was the biggest mistake he’d made in his career.

So I made an impact – not that I got anything out of it.  And it did grate on me.  Bad.

But the time was coming fast to move on from that part of my life.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part CXXVIII

It was July 29, 1991.  It was exactly 11:30 AM.

And after a four year drought, I had a shot at getting back into the game.

After Joe Hanson sicced me on a lead for an “executive producer” at KSTP, I had had a phone interview with KSTP-AM’s general manager, Ginny Morris, the previous Monday.  I can’t honestly remember much about it…

…but it must have gone well, since she’d arranged a second interview immediately. We’d meet for a lunch interview.

Which was today – at 11:30AM.

We met at “Keys”, a cafe in the Midway.  Morris – one of the scions of the Hubbard clan, a granddaughter of Stanley Hubbard, the founder of KSTP, one of the great pioneers in broadcast history and one of the founders of radio as we know it today – arrived.  We traded some small talk as we took a small table along the side wall.    Or ordered a club sandwich; having never had a lunch interview before, I had actually gone to the library and researched what was and was not a good idea for eating at interviews.

The first half the interview was mostly your standard interview questions – “what’s your biggest weakness?”,that sort of thing.

And then, the second half?  ”What would you do if you were the executive producer?”

I hadn’t expected that.

But after listening to what they’d done with KSTP-AM – my station – the previous four years, I’d certainly thought about it.

I remembered what Bob Richardson had taught me at KEYJ ten years earlier.  ”I’d make sure everyone on the air did the station ID whenevever they open or close the mike”.  Radio station ratings back then were rated by people who kept diaries of their listening.  They’d track stations by one of four things that the people who analyzed the book could recognize; the call letters, the frequency, the motto and the air talent name.  ”So every time they turn the mike on or off, it’d be “…this is KSTP, AM1500, the Talk Station, I’m Barbara Carlson.  Every time”.

She took notes.

“Oh, and Barbara Carlson?” I started, speaking of the station’s morning host, a legendary Minneapolis socialite and ex-wife of the sitting governor, Arne Carlson.  Her show was kind of a melange of her larger-than-life, “brassy” personality on the one hand, and all sorts of political insider stuff on the other.  ”Pick one”, I said, “and incorporate the other side into it, so the show has a coherent identity. Be either a serious, sober political insider with a fun side, or be Barbara Carlson, with some politics”

We carried on like this for a good half an hour.  I had plenty of ideas.

Finally, she had to get back to the office  We shook hands.  The body language seemed…good?

I couldn’t really tell by that point in my life.  Nothing had worked out well for quite a while.

———–

I was getting better at body language.  She called me later in the day  I was on the short list; she wanted a third interview, with her and the station’s consultant.   Next week.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part CXXVII

It was Friday, July 19, 1991.

A few weeks back, Joe Hanson had tipped me off that KSTP-AM was looking for a new “Executive Producer” – sort of a Program Director, but less power.

That night, I wrote a resume.  It took some stretching; the sum total of my experience was…

  • A year and change at KEYJ/KQDJ back in high school.  A great learning experience, to be sure – I reported news, did sports, and wrote and cut commercials as well as spinning records – but it was a year and change of part-time work.
  • A summer at KDAK in Carrington, ND as a full-time jock, play by play guy, and the station’s main commercial production guy.
  • Another couple of years part-timing at KQDJ in college.
  • My year and change at KSTP-AM, producing Don Vogel and Geoff Charles and doing my weekend graveyard show.
  • The year and a half watching the needle bob at K-63 and answering phones and running the occasional board at KDWB.

I guess my talent as a writer didn’t start with my blog.  I came indoors from some yard work to a message on the answering machine (!) from Ginny Morris, asking for a call back about perhaps talking about the executive producer gig.

I called back, and got through to her secretary.  She wondered if I could come in to the station on Monday.

I sure could.

I hung up, and frantically scoured the house for my suit.  I reassembled it, and whispered a silent prayer than it hadn’t shrunk.

And then I started trying to figure out how to convince Ginny Morris I was management material.

———-

Does it seem to you that this opportunity dropped into my life suddenly, even abruptly?

It seemed that way to me too, at the time.  I heard about the opening one day in June.  I sent the resume the next day.  And while I kept my fingers crossed, that’s about all the thought I put into it.  I’d pretty much given up on anything happening.

Until it did.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part CXXVI

It was June 24, 1991.  I’d been working at KDWB/K63 for a little over six months.  It was my radio fix, of sorts; I got in maybe 24 hours a week, in and among my various nightclub gigs.  It wasn’t much of a living – but, I thought, it at least kept my toe in the racket.

Sorta.

I was in the studio on a Monday morning, picking up some hours filling in for the guy who normally ran the show after “Harley Worthit”, the morning guy, got off the air.

It was exactly the most boring job I’d had in my radio career.  I wasn’t a “disc jockey”; I was a “board operator” running satellite programming; my job was to sit in the booth, make sure the satellite didn’t go down (it was always fun when it did; I actually got to play real music from the studio.  It happened maybe twice) and listen for the cues from the network to drop in local commeercials – and then return to the network.  Hour in.  Hour out.

Endlessly.

It was pure distilled tedium.

It was not what I got into radio to do.

After four years of looking for another radio job…

…wait – four years?  Was that possible?

No  - it’d been more than four years of looking for a job in news or talk radio.  A few nibbles, a couple of tugs on the line – but nothing.   Other than sitting in the dank little control room at K63 and listening for commercial cues and turning pot knobs to keep the needles out of the red.

If it weren’t for the people that I got to hobnob with, and the thin thread to the goal that I held onto by just being in the building, and the people  - well, it was hardly worth it, was it?

Around 11, one of them – Joe Hansen – walked into the studio.  He was going to work the afternoon shift starting at noon – but he liked coming in early to hang out and shoot the breeze.

“Hey, man”, he said, as the smell of cigarettes permeated the room.  ”You hear they’re looking for an “executive producer at KSTP?”"   Having worked at KSTP, I knew the job was really sort of a poor man’s “program director” gig, although Hubbard Broadcasting liked to call them “executive producers” to keep them from feeling too powerful.

But no, I answered.  I had not.

———-

I’d been out of talk radio for four years.  In the eight years I had been in the business, I’d not come close to being management.

I was married, and had a stepson and a baby on the way in about six weeks.

Radio was not packing the gear as a way to feed a family.

But the idea of landing a job in the racket that would not only pay well enough to feed a family, but get me back into talk radio?

I went home and got out my typewriter and started cobbling together a resume and a cover letter that could make me look like management material.

And twenty years ago tomorrow, I addressed an 8.5×11 manila envelope to Ginny Morris, the general manager at KSTP, and dropped it in the mailbox.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part CXXV

It was a Sunday afternoon, at my weekend gig at KDWB.  It was 5PM, and I was back at the pop machine.  Joe Hansen was grabbing a coke.

“So, ah, the boss fired one of our board ops”, he said, in his typical indoor voice, which was loud enough to shush R. Lee Ermey.

It clicked.  “S0 – they’re hiring someone to replace him?”, I asked.

They were.  Joe told me to contact Leighton Peck, the boss at K63 – KDWB-AM, once a storied Top40 AM station from the glory days of rock and roll radio – and let him know I was interested.

Tomorrow.  For sure.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part CXXIV

It was February 3, 1991.  I’d been working my side gig at KDWB for a few weeks.

It was a pretty menial gig by radio standards; come in on Sunday afternoons to work with Spyder Harrison and Kris Adams.  I did get the occasional call to come in on weeknights to produce Spyder’s weekday evening show – which was four solid hours of pure adrenaline.

But this was not one of those days.  The weekend gig was fun.  Low-key, but fun.

But it wasn’t the kind of radio I really dug.

During my last radio gig – my stint at KSTP-AM which, it pained me to remember, had ended almost four years ago, I’d tacked an extra layer onto my radio addiction.  In addition to the addiction of the ozone and the pace and the buzz, there was the intellectual addiction you got in talk radio – the buzz you get mixing it up with an unpredictable, sometimes hostile, sometimes drunk, sometimes dissociative audience.

After that?  Spinning records (more like “firing off tape carts”) didn’t have the same buzz it did when I was 16.

Still, it was a gig.  It kept me in the business, more or less, for 4-10 hours a week.  And as long as I had to have a menial, crummy job, it might as well be one in the same industry as the one I wanted to be in.

But how to make that work?  I pondered that constantly.

I may have been pondering it when a big, swarthy guy with black hair, piercing eyes and a bushy porn-star mustache walked into the KDWB studio.

“Hey, Spyder”, he said in a booming voice that set the stack of carts on the console rattling.

“Hey, man”, Spyder responded in his off-air voice, which was basically the same as his air voice, an octave above “whales only” range.

The swarthy guy looked at me.  ”Hey, you the Mitch Berg that used to work for Don Vogel?”

I brightened up.  ”Yeah”.  I was amazed anyone remembered that.  And maybe validated, just a little.

“Cool, man.  I’m Joe Hansen.  We gotta talk sometime!”.

I made a mental note.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part CXXIII

There’s something about every addiction.  Something that reminds the addict of the rush, the cool part, of their addiction.

To me, it’s the faint smell of ozone  you get around electrical equipment that was part of the atmosphere, literally and metaphorically, in every radio station.

I’ve noticed you get a lot less of it at AM1280 than in the stations I grew up with; radio’s become a solid-state, computerized industry, and computers just don’t give off ozone like the stacks and racks and rooms full of 1930′s-1950′s vintage relays and tube  preamps and wired electrical gear in the KEYJ studio I grew up in, or the 60′s-era remotes and ’70′s satellite demods and 1950′s diesel generators at KSTP-AM; you can get the faintest whiff of it in the engineering bay, upstairs from our studio bunker.

Just enough for the smell to trigger the memories.

———-

It’d been a week since I had talked with “Mister Ed” at the Mermaid.  After almost four years of head-banging futility, it was dizzying how fast the process of getting onboard at KDWB had been.

What was not dizzying was my actual job.  I’d be a phone screener/producer/gofer for the station’s Sunday disc jockeys – which, in radio terms, meant the weekday people doing their obligatory weekend shift.  I’d be making something like $6/hour, for six or eight hours of work on Sunday afternoons.

It was a toehold in radio, after all those years.  The pinkie toe on my left foot, but a toe, nonetheless.

And today, January 13, was my first day.

I drove from the house in Saint Paul to Thresher Square, on Third Street by Chicago Avenue, more or less kittycorner (at least conceptually) from the Metrodome, parked in the side lot, and opened the front door with my brand-new key.  I took the elevator up to the third floor…

…and stepped back into the world of the addict.  The hustle and bustle – even on the weekend, in its own way.  The burble of speakers.  The throb of different audio signals – KDWB’s “Contemporary Hit Radio” (what used to be called “Top Forty”) groove mixing with the oldies at “K63″, KDWB-AM, as they wafted out the door of the engineering room.

And the ozone.  I could smell just a hint of it; from the amps in engineering, from K63′s twenty-year-old control board, from wherever.

I was back in the ozone.

I wandered past the unoccupied receptionist desk, down past a row of offices across from a glass wall looking out over the building’s atrium, past K-63′s small studio (manned by a wan, swarthy-looking fellow who pointed me two doors down to the FM studio).  The “on-air” light was on.  I stood in the hall as a wiry guy with an impossibly deep voice talked through a break.  He “hit his post” (radio jargon for “talked over the song’s instrumental intro, bitting off “One Oh One Point Three, Kay Dee Dubbleyou Bee” a fraction of a beat before the song’s vocal kicked in), and flicked the mike off.   I knocked twice and opened the door.

“Hey, I’m Mitch”, I said.

“Heeeey.  Spyder Harrison”, in a booming voice two octaves below mine. After the introductions, he sent me to the other end of the hall, to the break room, to get him four – count ‘em, four – cups of coffee, each with three sugars.   He set them on the console table, on the far corner from the control board and the “log” paperwork – and seemed to forget about them.

I spent the day learning the Top Forty Gofer trade; I pulled each hour’s music and commercials, in order, and had them stacked on the console table ready for each hour, half an hour before the top of the hour.  When Spyder ran a contest, I answer the phone (Hint:  When he said “We’ll take caller 101″, it was really more like caller four); while Spyder recorded his conversation with the caller, I ran the board, playing songs and spots (and never, ever talking on the air; an absolute, inviolable rule), watching as he slashed the tape of the “interview” with the winner into a neatly-packaged twenty-second audio gem, with a razor blade, on reel-to-reel tape, with seconds to spare before his break.  He took the board, quickly fine-tuned the tape’s cueing, opened the mic as I got back in the producer seat, and started his patter…

“101.3 KDWB, we have a winn-ah!  Who’s this?”, he said, rolling the tape to the sound of Ashley or Brandi or Cari from Brooklyn Center or Maple Grove or Richfield’s disembodied voice replied off the tape, timed perfectly, sounding like it was a live phone call.

And we did it again next hour.

After a couple of hours, Kris Adams – a short, ebullient twentysomething woman with dark brunette hair in a Dorothy Hamill hairdo – came into the studio to take over.  The station’s former graveyard shift jock, she’d gone part-time (I learned that afternoon) to pursue voice-over work (quite successfully) and have a real life – including getting married (the month before).  We had a great chat as the shift wore on through the afternoon; contests, phone calls, stacking hours…

…and then my first day in radio – sort of – in three and a half years was over.

I walked out, and drove home, the smell of ozone still knocking around my brain.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part CXXII

It was Saturday, January 5, 1991.

I was working at the Mermaid, the supper club, sports bar, bowling alley and nighclub in Moundview where I’d been spinning records, three nights a week, for a little over two years now.

One of our regular features was the Saturday night live appearances from “Mister Ed”, a disk jockey at KDWB.  He’d come out to the bar, talk on the mobile mike, hand out prizes, and generally work the room (for a nice little fee).

We had a pretty good working relationship; I ran a great floor when I was working, and I set up his appearances pretty well.  We got along – which was better than most of the club jocks managed.

It’d been over three years since I’d been out of radio.

And then, it occurred to me; for the first time in three, almost four years, there was a radio guy with some clout who actually had a good opinion of me.

So…

As the evening ground to a close, and Ed was sipping on his drink, I made my move.

“So – if I was trying to get back into radio, would there be anything I could do at KDWB?”

“Sure”, Ed said without skipping a beat.  “Absolutely!  We could use a weekend screener!”

And as fast as I could memorize the details, he said I could start next Saturday, working with Kris Adams and Spyder Harrison.

And that was that.  I was back in radio.

A little, anyway.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part CXXI

It was twenty years ago today that I most likely noticed that it’d been five years since I’d decided to move to the Twin Cities.

Did I remember that booze-fueled night in September of 1985?  My drunken promise to a table of college friends at a homecoming party that I was leaving North Dakota in two weeks?  The madcap seventeen days that followed?

To tell you the truth, I don’t remember. I had other things on my mind at the time.  I was still working – still  - at the sleazy DJ service.  Still spinning records in crappy bars six nights a week.  Still looking for work in talk radio.  Or news.  Or sports.  Or as a DJ, for that matter.  And getting absolutely nowhere.  To the point that the search had more or less tailed off to nothing.

Oh, yeah – and I was getting married in about two weeks.

———-

I started writing this series five years ago.

I took a drive the other day through South Minneapolis – past the house I used to share with the five women, around Lake Harriett where I used to run every evening, past my first apartment down on 37th and Minnehaha.  It’s kind of amazing how changes sneak up on you; the row of dumpy little stores, the Snyder Drug and the greasy old gas station on 46th and Nicollet have been replaced by a gleaming new strip mall.  The old firehouse is now a Bruegger’s.  The dumpy little grocery store is now some sort of “art space”.   The neighborhood bar on 44th and Nicollet is…something else.

The striking part, to me, is how very, very much longer those five years seemed to take, the first time around.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part CXX

It was Friday, August 24, 1990.

Payday.

I was still working for the sleazy DJ service.

You heard that right.  In the fifteen months since my last update to this series, nothing much had changed.  I was still spinning records in bars.

And my ritual every other Friday was always the same; drive from my place in Northeast Minneapolis to Sleazy DJ Company’s headquarters in Eden Prairie.  Aim to get there around 2PM, when the checks might occasionally arrive.  Wait around with the rest of the guys – usually five or six of us would be gathered in the office, waiting.

This we did because the spiky haired boss never put the checks in the mail on time.  They’d ride around in his car for days, eventually getting popped in the mail over the weekend sometime, sometimes arriving at our places by mail a week after payday, postmarked the Monday or Tuesday following payday.

So those of us who didn’t have day jobs would trek out to Eden Prairie and wait.

And wait.

And when the waiting got oppressive, we’d grab bags of rubber bands and have epic rubber band fights around the office.  I had the “sniper” thing figured out, scoring solid hits all the way down the office’s smudgy hallway.

There were some payday regulars:  Scott, the former radio guy and assistant manager; Robbie, a pudgy white guy who looked a little like David Johannson but tried to sound like Flavor Flav,  and was mortified when we found out that his mother ran a temp  service in Edina for which he eventually wound up working as office manager; Ryan, a nerdy guy who resembled Alan Ruck from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and who was planning on going to aviation school in North Dakota; Jeff, a movie-star handsome guy with a wrenchingly cute blond girlfriend who was seen without him only at these Friday paycheck stakeouts, whose stated goal was to become an Army helicopter pilot;  Kevin, a tall, skinny guy whose claims to fame were being an incredibly talented beatmixer and having a knack and preference for picking up the biggest, most obese women in any bar he worked.

And Spiky-Haired Boss usually came dragging in between 4:30 and 5 with the checks.  Just like every payday.

But I kept showing up at 2.

I had Fridays off; being the #1 jock in the place, I had the pull to get a prime weekend night off.  Fridays, I usually went to “Little Tin Soldier” to play, depending on the weekend, either “Clear for Action” (or some other naval wargame) or “Twilight 2000″.

And this night was going to be no exception.

It was a Friday pretty much like any other over the previous three years.

Not much to recommend it, really.

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It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part CXIX

It was Monday, May 22, 1989.

I woke up late at about the usual time, probably 9 or 10. I’d been working late the night before, at “Wallaby’s”, a horrible bar stuck under a strip mall in Columbia Heights.

Since I’d moved into the little upper duplex, life had gotten less eventful.  Living without an addict in the house was a whole lot less crisis-prone.

But there wasn’t a whole lot going on to fill the time, either.  My week pretty much ran like this:

  • Monday: Usually Wallaby’s; occasionally Jam’s
  • Tuesday: The Mermaid.
  • Wednesday: City Limits, normally.
  • Thursday: The Mermaid.
  • Friday: I took Fridays off.  It was one of the perks of being the sleazy DJ service’s favorite jock; I could get out of a prime night.  On alternate Fridays, I’d drive out to Eden Prairie to pick up my paycheck.  I could have waited for it by mail, but it killed more time if I just drove it.  Also, the Spiky-Haired Boss usually took his sweet time popping the checks in the mail.  We all knew this; there was usually a crowd of jocks hanging around the office when the checks came out, around 3PM.  I was always one of ‘em.  It was fun.  More on the rest of the guys later.
  • Saturday: The Mermaid. Ths was always the big night of the week.  We’d usually draw a pretty good crowd – it wasn’t unusual to get 1,000-1,200 through the door on a Saturday night.
  • Sunday:  Either the “‘Maid”, City LImits or Jams’.

And that was about it.

The routine during the day?  Most days, it involved jumping on my bike and riding.  I rode all over the metro.  20-30 miles a day, back in the day before there were bike paths and bike lanes all over the place.  I’d ride whichever way the wind told me to; if the wind were blowing from the west, I’d ride west, across the Lowry Bridge, over to Wirth Park, and off into some maze of northwest-suburban streets or another; I’d have the wind behind me on the way home.  I had no goal or destination, really; I’d just ride.

Whiling away the time.
The band thing had sort of tailed off again; Bill the Drummer had started drinking again, and gotten depressed about the prospects, and I just walked away.  Again.

But it was a beautiful morning.

And so I rode.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part CXVIII

It Tuesday, April 25, 1988.

My band had a gig.  In the several months since we’d recorded a demo, we’d knocked around with a bit of this, a bit of that, a few practices, a few parties, a little schmoozing…

…and, finally, our band – “Joe Public”, this time – had a gig.  Mark, Bill and I were playing yet another Tuesday “New Band Night” – our third – at the Seventh Street Entry.  Their older brother Chaz was sitting in on the sax for a few songs.

To tell you the truth, I don’t remember much about the evening; I could name probably half a dozen of the ten songs we played, because we played them at all our gigs, songs I’d written two years earlier and that went over OK with audiences, whenever we had audiences; “Great Northern Avenue”, “Fourth Of July”, “Long Gray Wire” and “Five Bucks and a Transfer”, from our demo tape, and a few others I’d written since that are long lost to my memory.  It was a decent gig, although Chaz’ contributions on the sax were a little incongruous; Mark, Bill and I were a pretty tight rock’nroll power trio by this point (think “Gin Blossoms meet the Iron City Houserockers”, not that that’ll help you much), and Chaz was more into “free-form jazz”, meaning honking on more or less random notes and scales as the spirit moved him, which made for a few interesting moments; he took a solo on “Great Northern” that sounded a little like hindu raga music on the sax, albeit in a key utterly unrelated to my little three-minute rock-and-roll tune.

What I really remember about the evening were the other bands that night.  We played third out of the four bands that balmy late-April evening.  The two before us were a couple of sloppy, dissipated groups of college kids who strummed gamely away at first-position chords and did more-or-less-random songs about not a whole lot.  The fourth band of the night – “Full Metal Hangover” – was a trio of local bartenders who, being bartenders, were everyone’s best friends (I knew a couple of ‘em); they thrashed gamely away at first-position chords and did more-or-less-random-sounding songs about being incapacitated in one way or another.

The unifying theme?  They were what someone’d call, at another place and time, “bad”.  But on that evening, it snuck up on me; the Minneapolis music scene I’d moved to – a combination of ultra-motivated R’nB bands (Westside), glibly-vocational new wavers (The Suburbs, Limited Warranty, Figures, The Shoes) and raucous punks with ferocious chops (the ‘mats, the Hüskers, the Clams, The Law) - had given way to a new generation.  And to this new generation, detached cool was king; part of “detached cool” was detaching from the newly-uncool idea of “playing your instrument well”.  The new cool, proclaimed via the official bibles of the Twin Cities music scene, the Twin Cities Reader and City Pages’ various music columns, was angsty, noisy or jangly (Sonic Youth, Killdozer and REM seemed to be the big influences), and seemed to actively eschew the notion of competence, much less proficience on one’s instrument.  It was they heyday of groups like ZuZu’s Petals, the Cheap Dates, and a slew of other noisy, sloppy, angsty bands.

I remember nudging Bill the Drummer as we watched Full Metal Hangover.  “It’s getting to the point where playing your instrument well is a handicap”.  He nodded, not for the first or last time on the subject.  It seemed to us – to me – that the Twin Cities music scene I’d moved to the Twin Cities to be a part of had died and gone away.

———-

Call it sour grapes; I don’t think was an entirely inaccurate assessment, then or now.

But what had died and gone away was my future as a rock and roll star.  Oh, I still loved playing.  I still do.  But little did I know that that would be the last time I’d play in a band of my own in a Twin Cities rock and roll bar. The scene had left me, and I’d left it, driving in opposite directions, although I doubt I knew it at the time.  I had one more gig in one more band coming up – but that’d be in July of 1996, a one-off…

But that’s a story for another day – seven years from now.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part CXVII

It was Monday, January 23, 1989.

I woke up on Mark and Bill’s couch, and drove to Northeast Minneapolis.

I hadn’t spent much time up there in the three years I’d lived in the Twin Cities – really, other than watching the occasional band at the occasional bar on Hennepin or Central, I’d never had the occasion to go.  But I dug out my old map, and found the address – just a few blocks off Central, near 34th and Johnson.

The owner - actually owners, a late twentysomething guy and his older brother – and I hit it off perfectly.  He needed a renter now, and I need a place now.  Better, as we talked, we discovered that we had a ton of common acquaintances; they both worked with my old roommate Liz and her boyfriend.

The place was perfect for me – almost the stuff of single-guy dreams.  It was the entire upstairs of a small house; I had a private entrance, a waffleplate stairway that led up the back of the house.  A nice-sized living room with a south exposure, a tiny (hence less-stuff-to-clean) kitchen with a 20 year old fridge and a beat-up gas stove, a cozy little paneled-wall bedroom, and – mirabile dictu – a bathroom of my very own, for the first time in my life.

They said I could have it; I drove directly to a bank branch over by Apache Plaza, grabbed the damage deposit and a month’s rent, and arranged to move in on Monday.

Life started looking up just a bit.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part CXVI

It was Sunday, January 22, 1989.

And every time I wonder if God is really watching out for me – keeping me from screwing up too irredeemably bad – I remember the events of this day, and sigh, and banish all doubts.

Because it was only through the grace of God that I didn’t end this day in jail.

After yesterday’s train-wreck, with my pan-addicted roommate Wyatt shooting up the house, I should  have called the authorities.  I should have sicced the cops on my erstwhile roommate.

But I took the hard way.
———-

I woke up on Mark and Bill’s couch. I hadn’t slept much that night. Part of it was the adrenaline.

Part of it was the nagging doubts about the plan Bill and I had hatched for the day.

But it was my plan. And I was going to follow through.

I got on the phone with the Yellow Pages and called the Midway U-Haul as soon as it opened. They didn’t have one of the $20, 20 foot trucks in stock – but they DID have a thirty-footer they’d give me for the same price. Overkill for what I needed to haul, but I’d take it.

Like a lot of new converts to shooting, Bill had become very enthusiastic. He had the whole collection laid out in his room; the SKS, a Colt M1911 (his father’s, from the war), a Walther P38 (which his father had liberated from a German officer in the Teutoburger Wald), an Enfield Mark IV, and a Smith and Wesson Model 29 .44 Magnum – a blued beauty with a five-inch barrel. We figured there could be one or more more of Wyatt’s drug dealer friends in the house when we got there; it paid, we thought, to be prepared.

I stuck the .22 into the pocket of my jacket, but packed the .45 and a couple of magazines as a holdout to keep under the seat of the truck. Bill loaded the .44 with hollowpoints, and stuffed it in a jacket with a very deep pocket.

We drove to Saint Paul and checked out the UHaul truck, and left my car parked out on the street. Bill and I very carefully transferred our jackets and their we-had-no-idea-how-illegal cargo into the truck (along with the .45, wrapped in a blanket) , and the three of us lumbered down University to the East Side – to Lafayette, up Tedesco past Morelli’s, up Payne to the Stroh’s brewery, and left on Minnehaha. Finally, I maneuvered the too-big truck gingerly up the too-narrow side street, and parked in front of the house.

Wyatt’s van was there.

No turning back now, I thought. Here goes nothing.

Bill stood behind me, checking out the windows as I unlocked the door and walked inside. The house reeked of dog crap, stale pot smoke and Wyatt’s usual burned cooking. Mookie the little black Chow whimpered, needing to go out, as Jack the Akita – who clearly didn’t need to anymore – slunk away.

But Wyatt seemed to be gone.

———-

The nice thing about being a single, broke guy was that I didn’t have a lot of stuff. We took everything – a little dresser with my small, utilitarian collection of of clothes, my hanging wire and suit bag with my few “good” clothes, my table and little aluminum bookshelf and twin bed/mattress a couple of bags of extra stuff, my cello, and a couple of boxes of books – in less than an hour. Everything I owned in the world fit in one loose layer on the bottom of the huge truck, with plenty of room between items, and plenty more room to spare.  I could have moved eight or ten of me that day.

Depressing, but convenient under the circumstances.

As I went through the kitchen on a last go-round, emptying all of my pathetic collection of utensils, plates and food together into a box, I briefly thought about “rescuing” Mookie, but I had no place to put her, and no indication that I’d find a place that’d take pets, much less stolen Chows. I swallowed the regret as fast as it had popped up, and went to work.

We drove away in under an hour, guns safely hidden and un-used.

———-

We drove back to Minneapolis, unloaded my stuff at the band’s house, and took the truck back to Saint Paul. We picked up the car, and stashed the guns safely – and, finally, legally – in the trunk, and drove over to Henri’s bar for a beer and a pizza, the reward for helping me out in a jam. I picked up a “City Pages” on the way in, and looked at the “Rentals” section as we waited for the ‘za to come up.

I bypassed the “Roommates” column. Hell no, I thought, never again. It was gonna cost more, but I’d had enough.

And my eyes were drawn to a listing; one-bedroom upstairs duplex in Northeast Minneapolis. $300 a month.

I calculated my monthly income against my monthly outgo, took a deep breath, and circled it.

———

We drove back to Minneapolis again. I called the number. The apartment was still available, and I could take a look at it tomorrow at 10AM if I’d like. Until I found a place, Mark and Bill’s couch was going to be my home.

And then it was off to work. City Limits in Rosemount, again.  Much as I wanted the night off, I needed to rack up the hours.

I stuck the .22 in the pocket of the tweed jacket. I didn’t know what kind of drug Wyatt and his friends were going to be on that night, but I figured if he was addled and impaired enough to blast holes in the ceiling at imaginary crack dealers, either he or his friends could get just as crazy about someone who knew everything about their little business disappearing.

———-

In the years since then, I’ve pondered how lucky I was that day. Lucky the night before that Wyatt wasn’t awake and irrational and reaching for my loaded, chambered rifle when I burst into his room with my own loaded pistol. Lucky that neither he nor his “partners” or customers were around when we went to the house that day, with big attitudes and warped post-adolescent priorities and hollow-points. Lucky we didn’t get pulled over, strapped like the Barker kids. Lucky we didn’t all end up in jail.

I’d like to say that life bottomed out that day. In a way, it did; I’ve never done anything quite as dumb as that since then.

I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

And at least I learned something.  I pondered, for the first time in two decades – whatever happened to Wyatt?

After almost two decades of not really thinking about this whole stupid chain of episodes, I googled Wyatt (which is, by the way, not his real name) when I first wrote this installment (back in March of 2008, as I recall). Putting the story together, Wyatt – the scion and only son of a mind-warpingly wealthy Connecticut/New York family, son of a Korea-era Navy UDT frogman who’d become a multimillionaire in the insurance business - was apparently arrested about two years ago, at age 41, for breaking into a liquor store in a major coastal city and stealing $300 worth of wine. He apparently then jumped bail, and was arrested months later on a “Failure to Appear” warrant.

I can’t say I was much surprised.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part CXV

It was Saturday, January 21, 1989.

Just so you know, I have standards. I had ‘em back twenty years ago, too. Examples:

  • Steal my stuff? I could get upset.
  • Trash my place? Don’t do it, buddy.
  • Threaten me? Not a good way to make me happy.
  • Bring a criminal trade – and plenty of criminals – into my place, putting me at risk of getting arrested as an accomplice if I don’t report you, and getting beaten up or killed by a bunch of drug-dealing thugs if I do? Wooooh, now I’m starting to get upset.

To those of you out there who are keenly aware of how addicts and their enablers work – yep. I am – or was, in 1988, anyway - a ripe suck. A pushover. An easy target for a real addict.

But even I had my limits.

———-

It was bitterly cold night. Wyatt had left early before going to the bar to do his bouncer shift, so I relaxed a bit for the hour before I had to head out to my bar for the evening, the Mermaid. I drove out, grabbed a burger before my shift, and went to work.

It was a Saturday night at the Mermaid.  As crappy as I’d felt the previous night (er, morning), Saturdays at the ‘maid always made me feel good.  I mean, I hated my job, but at the ‘maid, at least I was able to do a good job that I hated.  The bar was jumping.  I kept ‘em out on the floor.  It was a good night.

The bar closed down around 2AM (no booze after 1, of course).  I had an after work drink with the staff, and went home.

One drink.  In retrospect, it was a good call.

I parked out on the street, and walked in the door. It was about 2:45 AM, and very dark.

Shane was waiting in the front hallway. “Hey”, he whispered in the voice he used when he was about to let you in on a big secret.

“What’s up?” I asked, tired and waiting on the punch line.

“Wanna know where your rifle is?”

I felt a cold chill race up my back.  My heart sent a message to my brain; “Permission to start pounding, sir?”.

“What do you mean?”

Shane padded over to the stairwell and pointed up.

There were three jagged holes in the plaster above us. I felt a cold draft; I couldn’t tell if it was the cold night air leaking down through holes through the roof, or just my blood running ice-cold in fear and anger.

“He came home with some bar snatch” Shane started. “He was coked up…”

“Naturally…” I responded, leaning over to pick up a cartridge casing from the floor.

“…and thought he heard a crack dealer in the attic”. He’d been paranoid, apparently.

“So he…”, I started, already knowing the answer.

“He grabbed your rifle, loaded it, and busted off a couple of shots”, Shane completed the thought. “I was sitting in the living room watching a movie. It scared the shit out of me”.

“So where is he?”, I asked, waving Shane toward my room.

“Up in his bedroom, with the skeeze”.

“Where’s the rifle?”

“He took it up there with them”.

I walked through the door to my little garret in the front room, which Wyatt had helpfully left open, and flipped on the light. A box of cartridges lay on the desk, with a bunch of rounds scattered on the floor where Wyatt had let them scatter, apparently in his frenzy to shoot the “crack dealers in the attic”.

“I can’t handle this shit any more”, I muttered.

“Yeah”.

A plan formed in my head. Or, should I say, a “plan”.

I grabbed a day or two’s worth of clothes, the box of cartridges, a couple of personal treasures – some photos, books and so on – and stuffed them into the duffel bag. I took them and my acoustic guitar (my electrics were over at the band’s practice space) and a little .22 rifle I had stashed behind the bed, and ran them out to the car. Shane grabbed a trash bag full of his own stuff and did the same.

One more thing to do.

I reached into my jacket pocket and grabbed the little .22 automatic.

Shane’s eyes got wide.  ”Mitch, what the f**k?”

“I’m gonna get my rifle back”.

I racked a round; the little .22 chambered with a not-as-reassuring-as-a-.45 “snick”. I lowered the hammer (it was a double-action) as I padded up the stairs as quietly as I could go in my “work” dress shoes.

I held the gun in my right jacket pocket; I slipped the safety off as I stood aside the door frame, in case he figured he’d missed one of the “crack dealers” in the attic who was now coming to avenge his riddled buddies.

I knocked on the door. “Wyatt?”

Nothing.

“Wyatt?”

Still nothing.

I opened the door and stepped inside, moving out of the doorway into the shadow by the wall. The room reeked of booze and pot smoke. Wyatt and a woman I’d never seen (not that that was anything unusual), a thin black-haired woman who had the too-skinny look of someone who was no stranger to coke and uppers, were passed out under the covers. Soundly unconscious, they didn’t budge.

I saw the rifle, leaned against the wall by the bed. I grabbed it and quickly left the room, not bothering to shut the door. I safed and pocketed the pistol as I walked down the stairs, and checked the rifle as I walked into my room. The safety had been left off, I noticed as I remembered Wyatt’s “all the guns in the house should be under my control” rant the previous weekend. I unhooked the magazine and racked the bolt carrier back; a round flipped out onto the floor, and one more glared up from the detached magazine.

I cased the rifle, and ran out to the car. I stuffed the case in the trunk and drove away. I don’t think I locked the door on my way out.

———-
I’ve wondered about many things about that evening for the past twenty years. Did nobody in that loathsome neighborhood hear a bunch of large-caliber rifle shots coming from the house? Did nobody call the cops? (Why, indeed, did Shane apparently just keep on watching his movie?)

And, above all, for twenty years, I’ve pondered – what was the chick Wyatt brought home thinking? You’re met a skeezy, lowlife bouncer at a bar. You go to his place. He hears crack dealers in the attic. OK, if you’re drunk or jonesing I can see maybe letting all of that slide.

But then he grabs a rifle and blasts several holes in the ceiling – and then you go upstairs, hoover up some blow, and get the freak on?

Sometimes I’m happy that I got out of that time of my life with any regard for the human race.

Also, alive.

———-

I drove Shane to his friends’ place in Frogtown. Their phone had been disconnected, so I drove over to the old Texaco station on Snelling and Minnehaha to use the pay phone. I called my bandmates – it took a couple of tries – and arranged to sleep on their couch that night.

And one other thing.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part CXIV

It was Friday, January 20, 1989.

I worked at City Limits in Rosemount.  It was a pretty tame night.

Bummer.  I’d hoped for a fight to break out.

Because I wanted to hit someone.

My heart raced, I think, all night; I seemed to be on a big adrenaline buzz, and for no good reason.  I didn’t do drugs – and I didn’t have anything positive going on that’d justify it, either.

It was a slow, cold night.  The bowlers took off by 10.  The few girls that tried dancing left by 11ish. By midnight, the bar was down to me, the bartender, a waitress and a couple of regulars.

I looked around.  I hated the place.  Not just this place; I hated every one of the horrible bars I was working, City Limits, Jams, Wallaby’s, Whispers, Shooters, the White Bear, Silks, you name it.

I hated the way my ratty tweed jacket smelled like smoke.  I hated the ratty tweed jacket.  I hated the music I was playing – indeed, I was starting to hate music.  I rarely listened to music at home anymore.  Music – the joy of my life, the thing that’d led me to the Twin Cities three long years before – was an irritation.

Toward midnight a bunch of drunk snowmobilers came into the bar.  Four of them sat at the table next to the DJ booth.

“Heeeeeeey”, one of them bellowed.  “When are you gonna quit playing this…”

He’s gonna call it “n***er sh*t, I thought

“…n***er sh*t off and play some…”

He’s gonna call it “white peoples’ music”, isn’t he?

“…white peoples’ music?”

I hate my job, my jacket, music, the smell, the sound…I hate my life, I thought. But not as much as I hate you, you fat f**k.

“Ah.  White peoples’ music.  Sure.  What did you have in mind?”  Hank Junior? Lynyrd Skynyrd?

“Play some polkas“.

My jaw may have dropped.

“Sorry, fellas.  I’m fresh outta polkas”.

“I brought some!”

I stood there,mildly agog. “You brought polkas – on a snowmobile…” I started.  Then stopped.  “Sure.  What the f**k.  Bring ‘em in”.

Two of them got up and left the bar.  They came back five minutes later with four albums of Swedish polkas.

Not even f***ing Polish polkas, or German polkas.  Swedish.

I stood there, as I cued up a song, puzzled at the depths of the rage I felt for the fat, drunk, bearded rednecks.   Why do I hate them so?

It mattered not.  I did.

I played a polka.  And counted the beat in my head; perfect.

I reached into the record bin and pulled out Prince’s Erotic City.  I cued it to the chorus, sped up the turntable just a bit…

…and during an instrumental break, mixed in the bit from the chorus:

We can f**k until the dawn…”

The rednecks were none the wiser.

I cued it back, scratching the record over the polka beat.

We can…we we we – we can…we we we – we can f-f-f-f-f**k unti the the dawn

Three of the rednecks sloshed around the floor, dancing with one of the drunk women from the bar, oblivious.
I stowed Prince.  Just an hour to go.

———-

Usually, when driving home from City Limits, I either went to Cedar (and then 35E) or drove up HIghway 3 to get to Saint Paul.  This time, when the bar let out for the night, I wandered over to Pilot Knob road.  Slowly – well below the speed limit – I meandered the back roads through Apple Valley, up through Eagan, and to the West Side of Saint Paul.  I crept through the side streets, as if I were sneaking up on an animal in my car – shifting, applying gas slowly, driving slowly and quietly.  Trying, it felt like, to disappear into the dark.

Eventually – like toward 2:30AM – I crept up Smith Avenue above the High Bridge. I turned onto Cherokee, which runs along the top of the gorge on the south side of the Mississippi River, across from downtown Saint Paul.  I slithered my car into a parking spot and sat, looking over the city.

I looked around.

I saw nothing but rejection.  My career had rejected me, I thought, flipping the radio off.  The music racket had pretty well had enough of me.  Girls, friends, attempts to break out of the rut – all of them shaken their figurative heads and looked elsewhere.

And so here I am.

F**k. There must be a reason for this.  There must be a reason my life has completely stalled.  That I’m living in a rat trap, getting conned monthly by a f***ing drug addict.  

I deserve this.

I looked over the city.

No.  Bulls**t.  Something’s gotta change.

I felt cold.

But it isn’t gonna change.

I was right.

And wrong.  But not in the way I’d have ever predicted.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part CXIII

It was Wednesday, January 18, 1989.

I was getting ready to head out to one of my bars. Wyatt was about to head out to his.  He’d just sent one of his girls – a bartender from a bar on University where he worked – on her way before Teresa came over for the night.  He was drunk and high.

After the blowup a few weeks ago, we hadn’t talked much.  I was looking for a way either to get him out of there or, perhaps even better, get me out of there.

I’d lived with roommates pretty steadily since my sophomore year of college. Some were good, some were insane – but this was getting ridiculous.  Maybe I can figure out a way to afford a place of my own, I thought as I heard Wyatt padding down the stairs.

“You got the rent or NSP for the last two months?”

He snorted.  “I told you I’d pay that when all the product gets moved”.  He walked on, apparently thinking that settled it.

I’ve heard that before, I thought about saying.  But what’s the point?
“Hey”, he said padding past my room again.  “I’m thinkin’ maybe all the guns in the house should go through me for safekeeping”.

“Uh huh”, I muttered, tying my shoes.

“Because I’m the only person in the house who knows how to handle them”.

“Whatever”.

He padded back upstairs.

I headed out to the car and started driving to work.

He’s dealing drugs out of the house.  AND he’s a moron.  And when, not if, he gets busted, I’ll end up in a world of s**t too.  What can I do?

Part of my brain strained to recollect the names of cops I could talk to, that I’d met while covering police stuff for neighborhood papers back in ’86 and ’87.

Nothing, another part of my brain thought.  Not a damn thing.  Ever.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part CXII

It was Saturday, January 7, 1989.

You might recall a couple of weeks ago – Wyatt, my omni-addicted roommate, decided to start selling cocaine from our hovel on the East Side of Saint Paul, to “pay up what he owed me” among other things.

I hadn’t had the highest hopes on that.

Like most things in life, the situation lived down to, and below, my least stringent expectations.

He hadn’t started paying the bills. He had, however, been dipping into the stock – so in addition to selling coke out of the house and from the bar during his evening “job” (as a a bouncer at a sleazy bar on University), he was starting to behave less rationally.

On the other hand, there was the never-ending entertainment of watching the parade of bimbos trooping through the house even faster. He’d occasionally bring home a floozy from a bar during the day, bring one home after his “shift”, and then have the girlfriend over after he shooed floozy #2 on her way.

But the bills? They went begging.

It was about 5PM. I’d just made a frozen pizza, and was watching some Kung Fu movie in the living room, on a ratty recliner that one of us had dragged home.

Wyatt slouched through from the kitchen. “I’m headin’ out to Fargo with Michelle”, he said, referring in his fake arklahoma accent to one of the semi-regular floozies “to the casino”. He was addicted, need I add, to gambling.

It’d be a mistake to say I “snapped”. But I had had about enough.

“You got money for blackjack?” I looked up from the TV. “Could you spare a buck or two for the rent or the NSP?”

Shane, sitting on the couch, looked at us.

“F**k you” Wyatt muttered, continuing toward the stairs.

“I’ll take that as a no?”

He turned around, and stomped back into the room, shoulders squared back, teeth gritted, standing right in front of the chair.

“F*WK YOU!” he bellowed.

“Uh huh”, I nodded my head. “I pretty well am, these days”.

“YOU ARE F**KING PATHETIC!” he bellowed. “YOU WANNA F*CK WITH ME?”, he said, grabbing the arms of the chair on either side of me, leaning over until his face was three inches from mine. “I WILL EAT YOU! THE STRONG EAT THE WEAK! AND YOU ARE THE WEAK!”

It smelled like booze.  His eyes looked coked-up.
Kick him in the nuts, I thought to myself. Buy yourself enough time to get out of the chair. Pull the knife, I thought, the lockblade that I kept in my back pocket and cut him up. Kill him.

Wyatt stood up and stomped to the stairs.

“Yeah, “strong”, Mister Addicted-To-Everything”, I muttered, standing up, reaching my hand into my back pocket for the knife just in case.

“FA*K YOU”, he bellowed. “THE STRONG EAT THE WEAK!”

Come back here and do something, you f****ng scumbag, I thought. Give me an excuse. I don’t care anymore.

“Wow”, Shane said, grinning grimly. Wyatt was into him for bill money, too.

“You need to move the f*ck out of here!”, I yelled.

“F*CK YOU!”, he yelled from upstairs.

“Pay the bills, or move out!”

“YOU MOVE OUT. THIS PLACE IS MINE!”

“Pay the bills or move out”, I yelled, stepping into my room. I slipped on my tweed jacket I wore to work.

The one with the little .22 pistol stuck deep in the pocket.

Wyatt had to go.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part CXI

It was Sunday, December 11, 1988. 

I was working at the Mermaid.  It was my 26th birthday.  And my life was pretty much going nowhere.  And I was feeling very, very sorry for myself.

I watched the small, desultory crowd in the bar – a few pool players, a few alcoholics, a few couples out on the town on a cold Sunday – and felt the warm wash of…fatigue?  Disappointment?  Frustration?  Whatever it was, I marinaded in it.

“This is my f****ng life”, I thought, spinning one inane record after another, standing in the dusty, smoky booth in my ratty tweed jacket and khaki pants.  Of the four jobs I’d interviewed for in New York not two months ago, two had tanked completely, one was giving me the impression that they’d be “waiting for funding” until long after all the principals were dead, and the final one, doing voice-overs at WOR for $225 a week, which didn’t even count as “starvation” money in New York, just wasn’t going to be worth moving for, all on its own. 

So I was back to square one.  Again.  And I was seriously doubting I had what it took to get to square two, or that it’d matter if I did.

The evening was uneventful.  I shut things down at the end of the night, and grabbed an after-work drink.  And another.  And another.  I let it slip that it was my birthday, so the bar staff kept ‘em coming.  I was pretty lit up by the time the bartender decided to wrap things up, around 2AM. 

I got in the car and drove across the parking lot to the Perkins; I needed coffee and lots of greasy food to be in drive-home worthy condition.  I grabbed a booth and ordered the Potato Pancakes. 

They came, I noticed – as I always did when I went to Perkins, since the potato pancakes were the most addictive thing on the menu – with syrup.  Which made no sense, since potato pancakes were basically more-cohesive hash browns, and everyone knows that ketchup is the only condiment that mixes with hash browns, dammit.

I sat in the booth and slowly ate the pancakes and read the Twin Cities Reader until 4AM or so, and then drove home.  I took the long way – down Highway 96 all the way over to Rice Street, and then all the way down Rice to Maryland, and then east across the freeway to the East Side. 

I stopped at the top of one of the many choppy hills on the East Side, probably close to 5AM; it was dark, and very cold, and the lights of the city shown like a million crystal-clear little gems off into the distance.  It was a vista that would have filled my soul with delight not so long before. 

“Whoop di f****ng doo”, I thought. 

I drove home to the rat-trap house full of drug dealers and my roommates girlfriends-du-jour, to hibernate for another cold winter day and get up to do it all again.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part CX

It was Wednesday, November 23, 1988. 

I was going to head back to Jamestown for Thanksgiving.  I didn’t want to miss Christmas in the bars; lots of extra money and tips for working the Xmas holiday, so I figured I’d tough it out. 

So I worked out a Wednesday through Saturday “vacation” with my boss, packed up the night before, and got ready to leave. 

The phone rang; Wyatt, hung over as usual, grunted “got it” upstairs before I could get to it.

Wyatt, as usual, had been “entertaining” again.  I’d never really kept track, but he’d kept to his old average of seven or eight women a week, including the “girlfriend”.  There were a few semi-regular ones, but I hadn’t gotten a look at whomever it’d been the night before.  I’d gotten home from the bar a little too late. 

As I was packing my duffel bag, Wyatt walked down the stairs wearing a pair of basketball shorts.  He was moving with a little more purpose than his usual hung-over shamble.  He looked worried.

“Hey, dude”, he said in a whisper very unlike his usual booming baritone with the fake arklahoma accent.  “Could you do me a favor?  I’m in a big-ass jam.  Teresa’s on her way over.  Could you give Jennifer a ride home to Saint Louis Park?  And keep it all quiet, OK?  She’s hot, man”.

I stood for a moment.  On the one hand, Saint Louis Park was on my way out to 94, more or less.  It wasn’t far out of the way, really.

On the other, I wanted Wyatt to rot in hell.  He was late on the bills again.  His dog was crapping all over the place, again.  He was hitting the bottle with both fists, again.  And his drug-dealer friends – oh, yeah, the coke dealing – were over at all hours of the day and night.

“Ummm…”, I started, looking up the stairs as a woman came down the stairs.  Early twenties, auburn hair, gorgeous…

“…sure”. 

“Hi, I’m Jennifer”, she said. 

“Mitch”. 

“See ya, Jenn”, Wyatt said, ambling toward the kitchen as we walked about door. 

We walked out to my car. 

We started talking as I drove down the hellish little one-way, past the crack house.  Jennifer was an art student at Minneapolis College of Art and Design.  She loved Russian literature, I found out around Dale Street.  By Snelling, I found she knew some people I knew, in the Minneapolis music scene; we had at least two common acquaintances.  And she played guitar.

By the U of M, we were comparing Bob and Tommy Stinson anecdotes.

And by downtown Minneapolis, I was falling madly in love. 

And damn, that sucked.  I was living in a garret next to a crack house, working as a nightclub DJ, eating ramen most of the time, sharing a miserable rodent-trap house with a slacker and an addict.

Worse?  We were hitting it off. 

Worse“, I thought, as I listened to her talking about her big senior project.  “That’s how screwed up my life is.  I’ve met someone just mind-warpingly gorgeous, and we’re hitting it off famously, like I’ve never hit it off with a woman at a first conversation before, and the first thing on my mind is all the reasons it can’t possibly work out.” 

I drove down Hennepin to Lake Street, past the Walker and the Guthrie; she loved the theatre, and I could fake a love for art as well as anything else.  She’d been in plays.  I’d been in plays.  She’d been to a production of Lion in Winter that she’d loved, recently; I’d played Henry II in Lion in Winter, just five years earlier, in college.

As we drove past Lake Calhoun, I was grinning ear to ear, as I cringed inside.  “There really is no way.  There is no f*cking way“. 

She lived at her parents’ place, near the junction of 7 and 100 in Saint Louis Park, the near-western suburb of Minneapolis. 

“So what can you tell me about Wyatt?” she asked after directing me down an arterial off of 7.

And if there’s no f*cking way for me, there’s no f*cking way for him, either”.

“Wyatt has a girlfriend.”

Her head spun toward me. 

“On top of that, he is probably banging seven or eight other women a week that he picks up in bars.”  She cocked an eyebrow.  “Serious.  The guy’s a whore.  If he’s bagged one chick in the last year, he’s bagged two hundred”. 

 I felt a weight lift from my soul.

Jennifer was quiet, except for directing me down a street toward the cul-de-sac where her parents lived, in a brownish rambler with trees all over the place.

“He doesn’t believe in protection.  Not at all.”  A brief flash of alarm crossed her face.  “Seriously.  Get yourself tested.  The guy’s a poster boy for “high VD risk”.  [Anyone but me remember when it was called "VD"? - Ed.] 

She was looking at me; like I was crazy, or she was alarmed by the information, or (I’d suspect at twenty years’ remove) a little of both.

“Look, sorry, but the man is a pig.”  I paused for a moment.  “You deserve better”, I added. 

She sat for a moment and wrinkled her face in contemplation. 

“Well, thanks…”, she said, sounding a little nonplussed.  “Good to know.”

I gritted my teeth.  “Look, sorry.  But when I say he’s a pig…”

“Yeah…” she said, opening the door.  “Gaah.  Seriously – thanks…”

Our eyes met for a moment. 

“Happy Thanksgiving”.

“You too!”

She got out of the car and closed the door.

I watched her walk in the door, and inside. 

I turned back toward Highway 100 for the six hour trip to Jamestown.

It was good news, in a way, that I never saw her again.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part CIX

It was Monday, November 21, 1988.

Wyatt’s ”plan” to “repay” the money he owed me involved…:

a) …spending a few thousand dollars that his grandmother had sent him on…

b) …a bunch of cocaine, that he would…

c) …sell, to…

d) …make money, to…

e) …pay Shane and I.

I suggested the obvious alternative – give us the $600 or so he owed us from the money from his grandmother, and buy his cocaine with whatever might have been left over – might have been better for all concerned.  He had bigger plans, naturally. 

I pondered – how do I get rid of a roommate?  My ponderings usually resolved to “there’s nothing I can do”. 

Which seemed to be a habit I was in with most areas of my life at the time. 

I had left to do some grocery shopping early in the morning.  I came home to Wyatt presiding over a living room full of people – all of whose body language, dress and attitude looked you in the eye and said “drug trade” without a hint of worry. 

“Hey” said Wyatt, “this is Marshall”, pointing to a stocky, unsmiling black guy with a big scar on his cheek in a Members Only jacket “and that’s Jeff”, a too-thin white guy with a porn-star mustache and long hair wearing a yellow plaid flannel shirt.

“Hey”, I nodded.  They eyed me, making not the faintest sign of acknowledgment.

I walked into my room, shut and hooked the door.  Then I sat down at my “desk” – a party table on which I stacked a bookshelf, which actually made for a fairly handy deskoid structure - and called the radio station in New York I’d interviewed at last month.  The program director had told me to check in in a month or so.

The receptionist answered.  “Is Charlie there”, I said, asking for the program director.

“I’m sorry, Charlie is no longer here”.

My heart fell like a shot goose.  I sat, my jaw too heavy to move for a moment.

“Um…why?” I finally blurted out.

“The station changed ownership and format.  We’re now a gospel music station!”, she chirped.

I thanked her, hung up, and leaned back in the chair, my legs and arms too heavy to move anywhere for the moment. 

Crap.

I sat for a moment, having a hard time focusing on much.  I still have the voiceover gig at WOR, and that network gig out there, I reassured myself.

But they’re not going to happen, I de-assured myself.   

I heard Wyatt, Marshall and Jeff doing their business through the wall.  It took a moment to focus; unsurprisingly, they were moving some of Wyatt’s “product”. 

I walked to my bed, and reached down behind the mattress and took out the little .22 automatic pistol I’d been keeping there for emergencies.  I checked the chamber – empty.  I checked the magazine – full.  I stuck it in my pocket.  It’d stay there for a while.

Crap. 

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part CVIII

It was Monday, November 7, 1988.

I came back from New York feeling pretty upbeat. 

And even if the stuff in NYC didn’t pan out, I had other irons in the fire, and of course my band was happening again.  Some of the things that made me me were starting, it seemed, to work out again.

Either way, it looked as if I’d be able to bid the whole miserable situation goodbye soon.

I was right, although I didn’t know exactly how right I was, or why.

Wyatt was already a month behind on his bills – rent, power, phone, the works.  Shane and I were both getting tired of carrying him.

It was about 10AM, and I was heading out to go downtown when Wyatt came downstairs.

“Hey”, he said in his fake Arklahoma accent, “I got a plan to get the bills caught up”

“Ah.  Cool”, I responded.  It wouldn’t have been the first “plan”. Some of them worked, although none of them lasted.

“Yeah.  I’m bringing some product up from Florida”.

“Well, cool”, I said, walking out the door.  “Later”.

I was a couple dozen feet down the sidewalk when it sank in.  “Product?”

I occurred to me he wasn’t talking Amway…

It Was Twenty Years Ago Next Tuesday, Part CVII

It was Tuesday, November 1 8, 1988. 

Although I fully expected to be moving to New York before too terribly long, I’d long since learned that job leads weren’t a gift horse you could look in the mouth.  And there was a station in the east suburbs that wanted to talk with me. 

The program director was a guy who’d audibly lit up when I called, the previous Friday.  “You’re Mitch Berg? From the Don Vogel show?”   He’d been a huge fan.  He’s also heard my old weekend graveyard show – he’d caught it on the way to do his own airshift a few times.  In fact, we had met, at one Don Vogel remote or another.

“I’d love to talk with you!”.  He hosted the station’s morning show, and he wanted a news guy/sidekick type. 

Sure, I was interested.  Anything to get me out of the bars, until something in New York came through.

He gave me directions to a bar in Stillwater for Tuesday at 1PM.

Election day.

“Yeah”, he laughed when I quizzed him, “the bar is open on election day.  It’s kinda ‘under the table”, he said, audibly nudging and winking.

And so I drove out to Stillwater.  I took a right off of Highway 36 and drove down a frontage road that led to the bar – the Club Tara, a funky-looking little roadhouse. 

I walked into the bar.  “Miiiiiitch!”, the program director – a very Minnesotan-looking fellow in his early fifteis – yelled, waving.  He had a half-empty pitcher and a big basket of fries on the table in front of him.  Another guy, thin, sharp-faced and younger than me, sat with him.  Both were nursing beers, although seemingly nursing them pretty quickly.

I sat.  The program director introduced me to his Operations Manager.  We chatted for close to an hour – mostly about politics, Don Vogel, and what a fun place the Tara was.

The Ops guy checked out, and another guy – the Sales Manager, another, pudgier guy in his late twenties, checked in.  We talked for about an hour and a half, polishing off another pitcher and a plate of mini burgers in the process as we talked about…politics, Don Vogel, and what a fun place the Tara was.

It was about 3:30 when the Sales Manager left – just as another sales person, this one Cathy, a mildly zaftig and plenty-cute mid-twentysomething woman with light auburn hair and in high heels, walked in.  We sat until 6PM, knocking off probably a pitcher and a half between us, talking about…yep, politics, Don Vogel, and what a fun place the Tara was.  Oh, I may have flirted a bit; Cathy lived in Saint Paul, as luck’d have it. 

Finally, we all had to leave; the three of us talked until close to 7PM in the parking lot, exchanged business cards, and promised to call later. 

I took the back roads back to Saint Paul that night. 

I followed up a few times in the next year; they never quite got the money bit worked out.

UPDATE:  D’oh.  As Flash points out in the comments, Nov 1 was not election day – November 8 was.  I forgot that election day was the first Tuesday after the first Monday. 

I get the dates (and, occasionally, info) for some of these “20 Years Ago” bits from various notebooks and journals I wrote over the years.  Others, I reconstruct from proximity to other events.  This’d be one of them; there was a long, sloppy loopy job interview at a bar on election day – whatever the date was. 

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, Part CVI

It was Sunday, October 31, 1988.

Mark, Bill and I were in the basement of a house on Dupont Avenue, in the “Wedge” neighborhood in South Minneapolis.

And it was the time of my life.

After Bill called me in September, the three of us – Mark, Bill and I - got back together and started playing again. It worked out very well, actually – all of us worked nights (Bill and Mark were short-order cooks, and I, of course, was in the bars).

One day in early October, we heard that a couple of musicians who lived around the corner had built a recording studio in their basement. Mark and Bill’s sister’s boyfriend’s band, in fact, had just recorded an album there. The price – $15/hour for an 8-track recording studio – was right…

…assuming we planned everything out perfectly.

And so the plot was hatched. We figured that among us we could pool maybe $200 to put into recording…something. That boiled down to about 12-14 hours of recording time. In that time, we figured we’d need to…:

  • put down basic tracks – the three of us doing the rhythm guitar, bass and drum parts
  • dub lead and background vocals and any extra instruments.
  • Finally, “mix down” from eight-track recording tapes to two-track stereo “masters” to be put onto vinyl or cassette or whatever we ended up doing.

We talked with one of the owners – “Ron” (who was the lead singer of an anarchic, Red-Hot-Chili-Peppers meets Grateful Dead band, the “F**king S**t Biscuits”), and booked three of the slowest nights of the recording week and, as it happens, the recording year – nights when the studio’d be happy to get any revenue at all – Wednesday and Thursday (I took a couple nights off from the bar), and tonight.

Wednesday night, we booked six hours to bang out basic tracks. We settled on five songs: four of mine (“Fourth of July”, “Long Gray Wire”, “Great Northern Avenue” and “Five Bucks and a Transfer”) and one of Mark’s (“Black Window”).

How tight were we? In three hours, we had ‘em all done, and managed to put down the lead vocals for a song or two.

Thursday night, it was overdub time. Four hours (which Ron, being a good mensch, let us stretch to five and a half.  I think he was having fun). Mark and I finished the lead vocals pretty quickly, and then it was on to overdubbing. I put down the lead guitars on all of the songs – I managed all of them in one or two takes, except “Fourth of July”, which involved switching guitars and playing one slide-guitar solo between a couple of verses. Then, an organ part on “Fourth of July” (two takes and out, and it sounded great!), and a completely-extemporized piano part on “Long Gray Wire” that sounded a little like Ian Hunter if he’d had a stroke. Next, Bill and I knocked out the background vocals for “Great Northern”, which took a take and a half – we’d been doing the song for almost two years. With the last hour or so, Mark and I noodled around with percussion parts for “Window”, which had morphed from a straight-up minor-key rocker into a psychedelic escape and evasion drill; a bucket of broken glass and me talking through a set of headphones to sound like a police radio completed the effect.

And tonight? The mixdown.

Whether through artistic perfectionism or sheer boredom, Ron wound up throwing in two hours for free, on top of the six we’d booked (and could afford).

And damn, it sounded good. We left the studio around 3AM, and walked around the corner to the band house, lugging our gear about a block, very happy with the results.

Hope, as they say, springs eternal.

———-

Well, hope for my career as a rock star did not spring eternal.  Indeed, my career as a Minneapolis Underground Rocker was very near an end, although I wouldn’t know that for a while.  But Mirror Image Studios seems to be pretty much eternal, and it couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of guys.   I found their website a while ago, and Ron still runs the place, in the same house it was in 20 years ago. They list the band, as well as me. No, I didn’t do a solo album – but I did record there on my own. A lot.

But that comes later in the story.

It’s fun reading the list of some of the people who’ve recorded there, before and since – lots of names that had faded into the recesses of my memory get yanked out and slapped awake:

  • Babes in Toyland – a friend of mine dated Lori Barbero before they became famous – back when a chick named Courtney played in the band.
  • The Fuckin Shitbiscuits – ibid. Famous for shows more anarchic than the Replacements – and done entirely straight. Ron didn’t even drink beer, as I recall.
  • Neomort – I had a roommate who knew these guys.
  • Ingrid Chavez – When she first moved to Minneapolis, she worked at a coffee shop with a friend of mine. We talked. She mentioned she had a demo tape. I hit on her. We had a good laugh. Two months later, she was better known as Prince’s girlfriend.
  • Strange Friends, Perfect Strangers, – in later attempts at starting a band, Bill and Mark and I played with a bunch of these guys.
  • Lisa Wray – I saw her opening for GB Leighton, I think, on one of my first dates after my divorce.
  • Dumpster Juice – I know some of these guys, but I can’t remember how.
  • Tina and the B-sides – one of the great losses the Cities’ music community ever suffered.
  • The Blue Up – The band that was the beginning of the end of the Twin Cities’ punk scene.
  • Mofos – hosts of a zillion great nights at the Uptown.
  • The Flaming Ohs – I jammed with Bob, their drummer, many times. Last I heard of him, he was running worst “open stage” night in the history of music, at the late, unlamented Fernando’s.
  • Rifle Sport – the first band I ever saw performing when I moved to the Cities.
  • Powermad – I met a bunch of them at a party with a speed-metal-singer roommate of mine.
  • Tequila Mockingbird – never saw ‘em, but I always loved the name.
  • Jeff Walker – he sat in on guitar during the last gig I ever played on a stage with a band in the Twin Cities – with “The Supreme Soviet of Love”, in 1996 at the Turf Club. Amazing guitar player.
  • Boiled in Lead – one of the greats bands in Twin Cities music history.
  • John Fenner/Mubla Buggs – Friends of friends. Like Phish for people who aren’t as serious and straightlaced.
  • Paul Metsa – the GB Leighton of the eighties.
  • Duck Kicking Vulture – perhaps the scariest night I spent in a bar in my life, at the First Avenue in 1986.
  • Mitch Berg – Who?
  • John Q Public – That’d be us.  We changed our name to Joe Public soon – but I’m getting ahead of things.
  • Run Westy Run – I never knew how much I hated The Doors until I went to about ten Westies gigs. But their first single, “Dizzy Road”, is one of my favorite records ever to come out of the Twin Cities.
  • Dezzy Dickerson – speaking of your Prince connections…
  • Destroy All Monsters, The Sluts, Beat the Clock, The Neitzches, Halo of Flies, Glennrustles, Spam Grievance, That Darn Kat, Swingin Teens, Farm Accident, Bone Club, The Sizzling Eggheads – all had about eight seconds of Twin Cities Reader-induced fame. I knew some of them, but didn’t make a big deal about it.
  • Cheap Dates – as above, but really bad.
  • Cows – Incredibly depressing noise-thrash band; like Sonic Youth on meth.  But great guys.

Anyway.