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Book Excerpts

Foreward by Garrison Keillor

I moved to the West Bank in the fall of 1964, to a little white house behind the Naegele Sign Co. on Washington Avenue, back in a sweet time when everybody was an artist of some sort and stayed up late and talked with fervor and moral clarity and had tremendous metabolism. I was a senior at the University and was hoping for interesting things to happen to me and thought that living there would improve my chances. And the very second day I moved in, I saw a man on the street who wore a bead necklace and whose hair came to his shoulders. He wasn’t an Indian, though he may have been trying to be one. I couldn’t help staring at him. He smiled and asked if I wanted to buy a poem. “Sure,” I said. It cost a dime. One whole page of poem, in English, and I couldn’t understand a word of it. This had never happened to me in Minneapolis before.

The West Bank was a big neighborhood, west of the Mississippi, east of the Milwaukee Railroad tracks, north of Franklin Avenue, south of Seven Corners. Old Swedes and Norskies hung on as the bohemians moved in, old men sat in the murk of Palmer’s and stared at young men with girlish hair and young women whose breasts bounced around under their blouses. Melvin McCosh bought an old firehouse and moved his bookstore from the East Bank to the West, a signal event, and the old Danish lodge, Dania Hall, became a rock ‘n’ roll dance hall where bands like the Purple Paisleys played and strobe lights flashed and clouds of reefer smoke drifted through. The Internet didn’t exist, so if you wanted to chat, you headed for Cedar Avenue and the Mixers or Palmer’s or the Riverside Cafe or the Coffeehouse Extempore or the Triangle, and you ran into somebody you knew well enough to sit down by them and they introduced you to other people and gradually your social circle grew.

I had a big bushy beard, was 22, intended to become a writer and the worst fate I could imagine was to work for 3M or General Mills and wear a suit and tie, which I imagined would be like high school all over again. My neighbors around the West Bank seemed to feel likewise. They were musicians. They had jumped off the career bus and were living for what they loved—the true American Dream, to buck the trend and go your own way, guided by your heart. They dressed like itinerant farmworkers, and though they were tolerant to a fault, they were snooty about popular music. When you walked around the neighborhood at night, you didn’t hear Barbra Streisand singing “People” or “Hello, Dolly” or the Beach Boys. You were more likely to hear Gus Cannon than Dionne Warwick. People preferred older, unmediated styles. The Carter Family and other country bands of the Thirties, old blind street singers, Memphis jug bands, old jazz. We were young people trying to scrape up an authentic past. We accepted poverty. We placed a high value on loyalty, integrity, originality, and comedy. All around us were good people, old-fashioned grass-roots intellectuals and artists who made a sort of ramshackle paradise, and all over America were others a lot like it, in Ann Arbor, Madison, Chapel Hill, Berkeley, and around any college campus of any size. Except church schools, of course. Dissenters tend not to stick around the fringe of the church: they get as far away as possible.

I was sitting on the porch of Sam Heins’s apartment on 16th Avenue South, watching his TV that June night in 1968 when Bobby Kennedy was shot at the Ambassador Hotel. We walked around the neighborhood afterward, stunned, feeling that we had walked into a strange dark movie. The West Bank felt peaceful and rather cozy, a neighborhood of hippies and dopers and some students and a few surviving Swedes, and the country had slipped away into a state of unreality, and the rough beast that was Richard Nixon was slouching toward Washington.

The political discourse back then was what it was—I wouldn’t care to have to read all those old screeds and manifestoes again—and the West Bank didn’t produce great poetry that I’m aware of—groups seldom do—but it created legends and it demonstrated that America can be a free country. While other people put on their uniforms and went to work in the thought factories, some people sat in dingy apartments and played the old 78 of “Hop Scat Blues” over and over and over so they could decipher what Blind Bob was singing—was it “hittin’ Pascagoula again” or was it “git yer mule a pint o’ gin”—so they could learn it and play it tonight at the Coffeehouse Extempore. The other people in the Lincoln High School Class of 1958 were working at Federated Amalgamated and dancing to Johnny Mathis and saving for a down payment on a three-bedroom in Coon Rapids and here you were singing your white heart out about wanting to lay your head on a railroad line and letting the 4:19 pacify your troubled mind. (Probably some of your classmates would’ve been riding the 4:19, had there been one, and sitting in a fancy dining car smoking big cigars and heard the bump as your mind was pacified.)

It was a dangerous life. Alcohol took a toll, of course. When you’re young and immortal, you’re inclined to engage in daring deeds of boozery, and now and then you climb into a whiskey bottle with your cronies and talk big talk and summon up whole vast empires of wit and ambition and invention and then morning comes, which is bitter and cruel, and afternoon, which you piss away, and you recover just in time to go out and do it all over again. And one day you realize you’re 30 and don’t have much to show for your life except a lot of empties. The romance of poverty is vastly overrated, too. It’s romantic to pursue a life of stubborn integrity and you make the best of it, but after a few years in low-rent housing with cockroaches and rats and no money to replace the busted sofa and guests dropping by in those communal days to eat your food and play your records late at night, it can depress you half to death, unless you’re St. Teresa, which most of us aren’t. I used to leave the West Bank and go out to Hopkins to visit my girlfriend at her parents’ house and it was so beautiful and luxurious: a fresh-mown lawn in summer, beds of pansies and geraniums, a living room with a carpet and drapes, a girlfriend’s father who offered you beer in a glass. And freedom is a heavy burden to bear, no doubt about it. A musician who can scrape up enough money for rent and food still has to figure out what to do with all those afternoons and evenings.

Maury Bernstein was the prince of Cedar Avenue back then, who conducted an all-day moveable seminar on folk music (free) wherever he went. His radio show Folk Music and Bernstein was a work of art every week. You put a nickel in Maury and he talked for 15 minutes about cowboy herding songs or “John Hardy” or the history of the hardanger fiddle. In a just world, he’d have been professor of folk music at the University, but instead he was scrapping for a living playing birthday parties and bar mitzvahs and living up over the Mixers bar on Washington Avenue.

Koerner, Ray and Glover were a big draw wherever they played, the first locals after Bob Dylan to make a national name. The Sorry Muthas were successful too, though they were careful not to overdo it and to break up before they could make too much money. From that band came Bill Hinkley and Judy Larson, still playing the old watering holes, still true to their calling, and Cal Hand the dobro and steel master who sparked a big country-western craze, and Papa John Kolstad, who has seemed approximately 24 years old for the past 40 years, and the late Soupy Schindler, a fabulous blues harpist and soul singer.

If you walked down to the Riverside Cafe on Cedar and Riverside, you might find Bob Bovee and Little Stevie Beck singing Carter Family songs, or Peter Ostroushko and Dakota Dave Hull doing flatpick duels, or Robin and Linda Williams in close-harmony duet, or Willie Murphy and the Bees with the West Bank Trackers in a big horn-band girl-group R&B rave. I sat and listened to everything with great earnestness. We were all earnest. We really felt that music could save the world, or at least save us and the people we knew.
A neighborhood of musicians suited me just fine. Other writers made me nervous because I was afraid they might be better than I, but I could hang around pickers all night. Even after I moved away to more genteel districts, it was fun to come back and run into people and hang out with them. That’s my abiding memory of the West Bank, how easy it was to enjoy each other’s company. The political rants, the musical obsessions, the eccentricities of dress and behavior, the dope, all of that seems superficial now: What those bohemians created in the West Bank was a small Midwestern town in the middle of the big city where you could come and be accepted more readily than in most small towns, and where you could enjoy a graceful social life, dropping in on people and enjoying their hospitality and passing an hour or two, maybe three or four. Back then we all seemed to have more time and we spent it freely conversing with each other on one broken-down sofa or another, a big ashtray at our feet, a bottle of beer in hand. Glorious days. It’s lovely to have this book of conversations to bring the memory back.