Posts Tagged ‘Minnesota


Kidney Tones (with apologies to Jeff)

From the cover art of Wain’s 2001 release That Was Then, This is Now

These days, my good friend Wain sticks mainly to cranberry juice. He jokes now about his bar tab. Not long ago, he’d drop a twenty at the most on a night out, because so many people would buy him drinks and the bartenders would do him favors. But no one gets anyone a cranberry juice, even good friends. He has to buy his own. And at a bar they charge you like it’s a cocktail. So now he spends much more not drinking than he ever did drinking.

He’s no alcoholic, and this is no 12-step program. Trust me, if he had his druthers, Wain would be back to the booze — free or not. But he’s got a problem with his kidneys that makes alcohol highly … um … disagreeable to his system. He’s on doctor’s orders. (And when that doctor is from the Mayo Clinic, one doesn’t argue.)

Wain’s kidneys are functioning at roughly 6 percent capacity. He needs a new one pretty badly. And as a musician, he doesn’t have heaps of disposable income and he doesn’t have great health insurance. He does have three things, however, in abundance: luck, friends and connections.

The luck came in at a bar in Walker, Minnesota, out in the north woods. He plays up there sometimes. At this bar, by chance, he met a doctor. That doctor knew a kidney specialist at Mayo. And suddenly there was Wain’s golden opportunity. Introductions made … 87 miles each way between Minneapolis and Rochester, Minnesota … tests taken … and voilà! We have a surgeon and we have a donor (one of Wain’s brothers).

The friends came in shortly thereafter. A bunch of musicians decided to get together to produce a benefit concert on March 10. Wain fronted a funk/reggae band in the ’80s and ’90s called Ipso Facto, and he’s been around the block a few times, having played with Prince’s band, Dave Pirner, Jonny Lang, UB40, Tracy Chapman and scores of others. This is where connections come in.

A few years back, Wain’s brother was Cyndi Lauper’s tour manager, and she became friendly with the family. Wain tells me he once saw her at a party in a gorilla costume. A musician he mentored toured with her. When she performed at the Minnesota State Fair in 2004, she let Wain sing “Time After Time” with her, letting him ad lib a verse dedicated to his late sister. She brought him back out on stage for “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” which Wain and her bass player spun into an impromptu reggae jam.

A connection.


So, we are told, Ms. Lauper has graciously agreed to lend some of her time and abundant talent to the cause. And many other people he’s worked with are helping out, too: Lifehouse, Mint Condition, Soul Asylum. You can read about it on her Web site.

Wain was our neighbor for more than three years. His wife Catherine, another good friend, was our landlady. He sang at our wedding. We planted vegetable gardens and herb gardens together. They babysat our cat. We’ve had Easters and Thanksgivings. We’ve dined on curried goat. We’ve toasted aquavit. He once gave us 15 lbs. of crab legs (there wasn’t enough room in his freezer for 30 lbs.) because the parents of a kid he tutored are fishmongers and they paid Wain in fish.

We just saw Wain right before Christmas. And I guess we’ll be back in March. Apparently he thinks we don’t visit enough, so he’s hauling out the heavy ammunition. I’ll take any excuse to go back to my adopted home for a visit. Even in a month as c-c-cold as March. But it’s not Cyndi Lauper who’s luring us back. It’s the prospect of being part of a concert full of people who are there to give their love to my friend.

(Truth be told, having Cyndi Lauper there, too, doesn’t hurt.)

To all my Minnesotans: Please buy tickets!


Goode Grief!

It’s always great when lunatics on the Right demonstrate their ineptitude and blatant xenophobia as clearly as Virgil Goode, a Republican representative from Virginia. It justifies so many of my liberal convictions.

He objects to the decision of Keith Ellison, a recently elected Democratic U.S. representative from Minnesota, to use the Koran when he is sworn in next month. Apparently some voters in Virginia wrote to complain to Goode — who knows what for, except perhaps to put ignorance, idiocy and irrelevance to paper. Goode rewarded them with a heart-warming personal response in which he incongruously rails against illegal immigration and advocates severe restrictions on legal immigration. According to the Times, some intern somewhere must have screwed up, because the good Congressman’s mailing list accidentally included a guy from the Sierra Club — who had written the Congressman about an environmental issue in Virginia, not a representative from Minnesota. This is apparently the guy who made the letter public.

Goode says Ellison’s decision to make his oath on the Koran is unamerican. I guess what he’s saying is that America is not the land of the free and the home of the brave, but rather the land of the Christian and the home of the white man.

“I fear that in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America and to prevent our resources from being swamped,” he wrote.

Not that we should make it our business to specifically screen Muslims out of immigration proceedings, but Goode seems to have completely missed the mark here anyway. Keith Ellison is from Detroit. And while that may seem like a foreign country to many people (trust me, I grew up nearby), he can trace his family history in the United States back to the 18th century.

He also wrote that “if American citizens don’t wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran.”

Heaven forbid.

It may have escaped his notice that the Constitution allows for people of all religious stripes to run for Congress. Further, their swearing in does not include the use of a religious text. It’s only at the public ceremony that a book is used.

And why should we care if it’s the Koran or The Lord of the Flies? The Hebrew Bible and Mormon texts have been used in the past.

Goode’s attempt to conflate wrong-headed anti-Muslim sentiment, fueled by anti-terrorism rhetoric, with immigration issues is little more than an admission of his gross ignorance and incompetence.

So, bravo! to the intelligent voters of Virginia’s 5th district for electing this loser to Congress. I hope he gets them everything they deserve.

Virginia Democrats, don’t despair: There are some decent folks in Minnesota who are willing to vote in a competent person to represent their interests to the U.S. Congress. You may want to move up north and cast your lot with them.

(Mind you, Minnesotans are also responsible for the election of Michelle Bachman. There may be no hope anywhere in this country.)


Hwy 55 Goes Digital

Waka waka waka. Someone in Minnesota has Pac Man fever.

Being from the Midwest, I’ve spent a lot of time on highways. Mesmerized by the dots and dashes racing toward me and passing under my car, I have often imagined what Pac-Man might feel like.

Someone with a lot of yellow paint has made this daydream into a two-dimensional reality in Minnesota. The Star Tribune reports that someone has painted a large Pac-Man on Highway 55. Ironically, this act of whimsical vandalism may actually aid the highway patrol in slowing down lead-foot Minnesota drivers — at least for that short stretch of road.


Norway, José

KARE 11, a TV station in the Twin Cities, has issued an ad campaign in — what else? — Norwegian. At the end, he even says, “Ya, you betcha.” They’re promoting their new weatherman. And let me tell you, weather(man) or not — this kid is a little hunk of cute.

With a name like Sven Sundgaard, he sounds like he owns a coffee shop in Lake Wobegon. What choice is there? It begs for a little Scandinavian navel-gazing.


R.I.P., Oddfellows


My favorite restaurant in all the world was a darling little number in Northeast Minneapolis. (“was” … It hurts just saying that.) It was attached to a gay bar called Boom! under the same ownership. I just learned that the venerable gay-owned Oddfellows closed down on the 10th and Boom! will pull up stakes later this month, which makes me very, very sad. Some heteros got in on the “Nordeast” economic boom and bought them out, I guess.

Oddfellows always claimed it wasn’t a “gay restaurant,” which I found to be a.) usually inaccurate given the clientel, and b.) irrelevant and a slightly off-putting designation.

However, their chow was magnificent. The menu changed every season and was always fresh. Oddfellows described its food as “Contemporary American Cuisine with an ‘odd’ twist of flavors from around the world.” (Read the description here, before their Web site completely disappears.) Their orange-lacquered pork tenderloin was one of the finest dishes on earth. And I once had a lavender-infused custard dessert there that nearly made me mess my pants. Oddfellows taught me to appreciate excellent gourmet food in human-sized (read: non-Applebee’s) portions, and to not be so uptight about a high restaurant bill — as long as it’s worth it. And it always was.

The inimitable Dara Moskowitz of the alternative news and arts weekly CityPages predicted upon its opening that it would become a “big destination restaurant.”

The shingle soon to be removed.

The restaurant and bar occupied a historic building (c. 1891), the meeting lodge of the Independent Order of Oddfellows. Lots of exposed brick and holes in the wall where heavy timber floor joices once inserted. The high pressed-tin ceiling throughout was cool. The blonde woodwork was a little bit too “Target” for my taste, and the stainless steel bar felt a little cold to me. But it was always clean and bright.

I’ll miss that place. Lots of anniversaries, birthdays, Valentine’s Days and impromptu “fancy” dinners out.

As for Boom!, I can take it or leave it. As a bar, it was not remarkable. The burgers were fantastic, and the fries were tasty (both were from the Oddfellows kitchen), but the drinks were too pricey and it was famously impossible to get a bartender’s attention on a busy night.

The one thing that impressed me about it (besides its Nordeast location — I lived in the neighborhood) is that it was the first gay bar I had seen in the Twin Cities that had enormous windows that were not blackened out or boarded up. It left the ‘mos inside exposed to the blue collar and the sunlight. To me it represented a proud declaration that Minneapolis’ queers would not be kept underground and in the dark.

Oh, how I used to love standing in front of those wide-open windows on Showtunes Night, belting out “Nothing Dirty Goin’ On” from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, being gay and free.


A Prairie Homesick Companion

We saw A Prairie Home Companion yesterday. I loved it, but found it truly odd, rather like the radio show on which it is based. The movie seemed to be about nothing. It followed no particular path or plan. This is the mark of an Altman film, of course, but also shows a heavy influence of Garrison Keillor. It was like a two-hour “News from Lake Wobegon” monologue set to a screenplay: an aloof, meandering, and largely ad-libbed story told in Keillor’s grave, butterscotch voice. Just a slice of life. Nothing important. Nothing more to see here, folks. Move along now.

And that is precisely is why it was so good.

It was also an intensely personal experience for me — to the point of distraction. It made me strongly nostalgic for my adopted home. My North Star. My Minnesota.

I lived in Minneapolis for six years and worked at Minnesota Public Radio in downtown St. Paul, where the film was shot. (Keillor’s folks would want me to take great pains, I am sure, to make clear that Prairie Home Productions is a separate company from MPR, and that A Prairie Home Companion is distributed by American Public Media, also a separate company. Though they are all like in-laws at a family reunion potluck wondering whose ambrosia salad will go home untouched.)

Half the fun was seeing people and places I once saw daily. I knew that the movie would be like a photo album for me, but I did not want to be the annoying guy up front pointing out the bottles of Grain Belt Premium beer stacked up at the Fitzgerald Theater concession cubby (Who but a Minnesotan knows what this stuff is?) and that the interior of the Fitzgerald had been repainted for the movie and that the room with the box seats where Tommy Lee Jones sits is actually a production booth in real life.

The film takes place at the Fitzgerald, where the real show happens every week for most of the year. We used to have all-staff meetings and our holiday cabaret party there. In one of the final scenes, some of the men working backstage are theater staff in real life. I never knew their names, but I recognize them!

I annoyed Jeff right away by squealing quietly when the camera panned to Mickey’s Diner in the opening scene. Mickey’s looks like an old, stationary railroad dining car at W. 7th Street and St. Peter. A historic St. Paul landmark. Essentially a burger joint. But you don’t go there for the food. You go there because it’s Mickey’s.

A ridiculous movie called Jingle All the Way used exterior shots of the diner, but the interior, where Gov. Schwarzenegger and Sinbad get into a fist fight over a toy robot, is a lamentable fake. Keillor’s movie, however, authentic down to the Grain Belt, is the real chrome-plated deal.

“You’re not going to do that all through the whole movie, are you?” he said.

And truly, I wasn’t going to.

The radio show in real life is actually better than the radio show in the movie. The musical feel is the same, but there’s more humor and a number of radio sketches and fake commercials and such.

My connection to Garrison Keillor is minor at best. I met him when I worked on the A Prairie Home Companion Web site for a year at MPR. My first meeting with him was in his cluttered office. He was barefoot. I had just been given responsibility for the Web site representing his show. He wanted us to completely redesign the site, which was the largest, most visited, most visible and most beloved of all the sites that MPR produced.

No pressure.

Oh, and have it done in three weeks in time for the launch of the new season.

And we did. The home page, and the major architecture, anyway. The rest of it came in phases throughout the next year.

I met with him again to show him design sketches from our truly marvelous Web designer Ben. (I mean it. This guy is good.) It was at his house in a fashionable St. Paul neighborhood. We sat at his dining room table. I fell in love with his kitchen. And I couldn’t help but think, “I’m discussing Web site navigation with a genius.” But he’s so… normal and homey. So… Minnesotan.

As we were leaving, he gave me and the designer copies of his latest book at the time and a new CD compilation of Lake Wobegon stories. I didn’t dare ask for an autograph. It felt petty and ungrateful at the time. Unprofessional. And I didn’t want to seem impressed. I was a colleague first, a fan second.

I can remember back when he was working on a nebulous “screenplay.” Who knew what it was about? Didn’t matter. The man was always writing something. He is so busy and so prolific. I respect him immensely. A weekly radio show, a book or two, a screenplay, an op-ed, an essay, plus whatever we could squeeze out of him for the Web site. Sure, he has time for it all! I remember a blog I had set up for him, to use as a travel log while the show made stops around the country one summer, in which he noted a visit from Robert Altman, who attended the L.A. show. Hmm… Interesting… That Keillor sure gets around, don’t he?

And here we are with a full-blown movie.

Oh my god! Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin are sitting in the seat at Mickey’s where I always sat! I had chili fries Right There!

(P.S. It’s also the same booth where Jeff spilled a whole Coke on his lap. Maybe that’s why he shushed me.)

the untallied hours