General 11-27-2002

Just what is it that makes Minnesota music critics so different, so appealing?

Part 3 of 3

Is there a “Minnesota Mafia” in rock criticism?

Rock critics who have lived in Minnesota don’t have a shared email list or a secret handshake or an underground lair. If they did, it would have been a snap to write this introduction to their history and influence–plus I’d have a place to put my shark tank. As it is, I’m weeks behind getting this piece in, and the only thing I can find that truly unites the prairie home music literati are the following reluctantly acknowledged coincidences:

  1. 1. A disproportionate number of professional music journalists seem to have spent time in the Twin Cities.
  2. These people are everywhere. Examples are too numerous to list, but let’s just say that if you killed everybody who ever lived in Minnesota, Spin would be out of about a dozen writers and two editors. The Village Voice, Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, Jane, NPR’s All Things Considered, Maximumrocknroll, and countless other outlets would be short of regular contributors. A Prairie Home Companion and Request Magazine would disappear. And Greil Marcus would have to find new articles to teach in his Princeton class on criticism. In other words, civilization as we know it would implode.

The more serious question I’ve been posing to people in the course of writing this piece is this: Why? What is it about Minnesota that connects, for instance, longtime music journalist Tony Glover (the harmonica legend of Koerner, Ray & Glover and author of a new book, Blues With a Feeling: The Little Walter Story) to… say, a hapless fraud such as myself?

One answer is widely agreed upon: the enduring influence of the now defunct weekly arts section at the Minnesota Daily (the student newspaper of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities). This was where Glover got his start in the 1960s, and where I did the same in the 1990s. The arts section launched Garrison Keillor, Bob Dylan, Request senior editor Jim Meyer, City Pages editor Steve Perry, and countless others. Before it was dissolved as an independent entity in 2000, A&E was one of the few places in town where young critics could stretch out, experiment, and be really, really bad.

The importance of such freedom can’t be overstated. Remember, as late as the mid-1970s, mainstream newspapers were still catching up with the rock ‘n’roll generation, its tastes and habits. One journalist who admits taking advantage of this gap is Jon Bream, who for 27 years has written about pop music for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Along with Jim Walsh, his longtime competitor at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Bream is something of an institution in local rock journalism. He began as managing editor at the Daily before a falling-out with the editor in chief sent him into the arms of the arts section, “where I became intrigued by all the free albums we received,” he says via email.

Writing about rock at the student paper, Bream started freelancing for the Minneapolis Star, which already had staff writers covering film, theater, and classical music. “Those critics didn’t mind reviewing James Taylor, but they didn’t really understand Led Zeppelin,” Bream says. “That’s where the freelancers came in. After a year and a half of freelancing, I was hired in 1975 by the Star (which merged with the Tribune in ’82).”

Walsh read Bream closely in the Star, and recalls one 1978 review that irked him. “I’d been waiting three years to see Jackson Browne,” Walsh says, speaking over the phone from Stanford, California. “So my girlfriend and I went to the City Center, and toward the end of the concert, security guards motioned that it was okay to rush the stage. We went up there, and [Browne] did these Chuck Berry moves to us. It turned from this singer-songwriter show to a rock ‘n’ roll show for the last half hour.

“Jon’s review ran the next day and said it turned from a serious show to a teeny bopper show. So I wrote him this letter and at the end, my parting shot was something really lame. I wrote something and said, ‘Fuck you.’ And he wrote me back a really nice long letter.”

Though Bream forgot about the incident, the two became friendly rivals of sorts–and a study in contrast. “Jon and Jim make an interesting juxtaposition,” says Chris Riemenschneider via email. Riemenschneider should know: He left the Twin Cities as a punk-addled teenager, in 1988, and returned last year to join the Star-Tribune as a local-music columnist.

“Where Jim was friends with all the musicians and took a very personal, conversational tone in his writing, Jon had more of a detached viewpoint. You could say Jim wrote as the cool ‘insider’ that most music readers would like to be, but Jon was more like how most fans really are.” (Riemenschneider might belong to the Walsh school, at least judging by how he signs off his email: “Not sure if that helps you any or even makes any sense, especially since I already dropped my acid for the Flaming Lips tonight.”)

Bream and Walsh had predecessors, of course. Bream cites J. Gillespie and Ray Olson at the Daily; Don Morrison at the Minneapolis Star; and Mike Steele at the Minneapolis Tribune. Walsh points to Tim Carr and Dave Ayers at the Daily.

“I remember certain pieces of theirs like songs,” Walsh says. “Like Tim Carr’s piece when the Suicide Commandos broke up. I could quote passages from it. I remember being on the 16 bus reading it, and thinking, this guy’s piece actually meant something.”

But Bream and Walsh had timing on their side, emerging just as Twin Cities live music was exploding into the national consciousness–with Prince, the Replacements, and Husker Du putting local perspectives in hot demand. At the same time, the “underground” press was becoming a lucrative enterprise. By the 1980s a new kind of newspaper had entered the fray to compete with fanzines, student rags, and the big dailies. From the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s, alternative weeklies flush with bar ads attracted club-going readers and hired club-going writers, many straight out of the Daily. The Entertainer: The Newspaper for Young Twin Citians arrived first, becoming The Twin Cities Reader. Then came Sweet Potato, which soon changed its name to City Pages (where I’ve worked since 1998).

City Pages was shaped at the outset by a one-man-band journalist, Martin Keller, and revived ten years later by the one-man-band journalist Steve Perry. Both editors were rock critics before they were much else. By the time a single company swallowed both publications and closed the Reader in 1997, these weeklies had established passionate and catholic local-music advocacy as a defining characteristic of the alternative press–a tradition also reflected over the years in NightBeat, The Squealer, The Pulse of the Twin Cities, and Lost Cause Magazine.

“I had a friend at Stanford in the early Eighties who was from Minneapolis,” remembers Terri Sutton, a longtime contributor to City Pages and Spin. “His mom sent him press clippings from Sweet Potato and The Minnesota Daily. I remember good writing from people like Dave Ayers and Angie Carlson at Nightbeat. Seems like from the beginning of this scene, there were smart people writing well about it. And that inspires more smart people.”

Steve Perry’s byline was appearing in Musician by the time he was hired at City Pages in 1989. As editor, he recruited talented critics. “In the late 80s, he signed up Greil Marcus and Howard Hampton, still one of the best music writers I know of, to write occasional pieces,” Sutton says. “At that time, I was writing for fanzines and the obscure Art Paper, and Perry tracked me down and asked if I’d write for CP. That was quite a step up for me.”

When Perry promoted Sutton to arts editor in 1991, she found herself among writer-editors with national aspirations, including Jim Walsh and Britt Robson. Out-of-town luminaries, including Creem veteran Dave Marsh and the Village Voice “Dean of Rock Critics” Robert Christgau, regularly appeared in the paper. The editors networked like mad, establishing City Pages as a presence in New York and at the South By Southwest music festival, and before a steady stream of employees began moving to Gotham.

Sutton and Walsh were writing for the New York-based Spin before arts editor Will Hermes took a job there as editor. Today, former City Pages music editor Jon Dolan is a senior associate editor at Spin, and credits Walsh with convincing the magazine to take alt-country seriously.

“The East Coast establishment hates Uncle Tupelo,” Dolan says, speaking over the phone from New York. “But Jim, Will, Terri, and Britt were detached from the major media centers, so people glommed onto them. It’s ‘the exotic Midwest.’ You come up with your own sensibility because you’re not bombarded by 400 publicists every day.” Dolan remembers Sutton’s pan of Beck’s Odelay as an example of her oppositional stance. “It’s kind of hard to imagine a New York critic doing that,” he says. “At the paper there was always a suspicion toward some of the big trends that were getting played up in the Voice. And Will’s attempt to integrate dance music into the DIY ethos was real distinct. Dance music and indie-rock had a conversation at City Pages that they wouldn’t necessarily have in New York.”

Dolan admits that the pull toward larger cities is irresistible for many local critics seeking validation in the cultural capitals. “It makes for this mixture of pride and self-doubt,” he says. “You go there with a chip on your shoulder, which I think we all have.”

It’s this attitude that unites the so-called Minnesota Mafia in New York, not a conspiratorial exertion of influence. “We’re too scattered, and besides, we don’t particularly get along,” says former Minnesota resident Michaelangelo Matos, by phone from Brooklyn, where he contributes to the Village Voice, Time Out New York, and City Pages. “But it’s a pretty strong word of mouth community,” he allows. “Christgau wouldn’t have known or cared about Atmosphere if Dolan hadn’t have told him about it. I was interested in Atmosphere because they played at First Avenue. Slug introduced himself to me while I was changing the towels in the men’s bathroom.”

There’s also something other than Midwestern insecurity and networking among ex-Minnesotans. Walsh sees a unique quality in critics incubated here. “I would compare it to the music that comes out of Minnesota,” he says. “I think there’s an open-heartedness, but I think there’s also a great bullshit detector. If I read something that doesn’t discuss the soul, the emotion, the mystery of music, something that just talks about it like a V8 engine, I wonder: What did it do to you? I’m more interested in emails than in a three-inch review that compares a band to its forebears.”

Terri Sutton agrees, which is understandable: She shared a cramped office with Walsh at City Pages. “Maybe he taught me the value of coherence, and perhaps I showed him how to break some style rules,” she says. “But I think what we stumbled into, as a shared sensibility, was smart writing with a vivid individual voice. And by ‘voice,’ we meant personal storytelling, unique writing style, emotional editorializing. It was all about honoring who MOVED us and showing off our writers’ passionate craft.

“Around that time City Pages started getting letters bitching, ‘I don’t care what your reviewer FEELS about _____! What’s it f**ing sound like?!!!’ I guess they still get those letters.”

Yes, we do. Note to Jim and Terri: Can we start forwarding these letters to your addresses?