I wanted to make mention of the passing of Sue McLean , whose funeral was earlier today. I often refer to the fact that we are standing on shoulders of giants, Sue McLean might be one of the biggest of them. Independent concert promoters are a vanishing breed, the last line of defense from the clear channel nation, they give alternatives to the “what we know will sell” to what might sell. She championed the underdog .
Starting in the 70’s booking bands like the Suicide Commandos and Curtiss A, later moving onto booking as the curative voice of Duffy’s and later still the Guthrie’s concert series, the Basilica block party, and the Music at the Zoo concert series. She gave voice to female artists, helped to make MPLS the Americana capitol that it is; She believed in the power of live music as a means of bringing community together.
In general the business of music is predominantly male, its a thing that’s easy to forgot living here in MPLS because of the amazing number of strong women leaders we have here. Its folks like Sue McLean who helped to make that possible. I can’t count on both hands how many friends she helped give their starts too. Her loss has left a huge hole in so many hearts.
She and I had never met, save for once, last fall. Our conversation consisted mostly of how surprising it was that we had never met before. Its an overused metaphor, but it felt like talking to Jackie Robinson, and afterwards I couldn’t help but think of her as the domino that tipped so many others , all of which helped to build the amazing and diverse musical foundation of this city.
We live in a special city, and its special because of people like Sue McLean who took the chance to build what they believed in. I think the measure of a person is part, did they make the world better or worse for being in it, She definitely made it a better place. If live music is good for the soul, then she’s probably up sainthood.
You’ve been taking your time
And you’ve been living on solid air
You’ve been walking the line
And you’ve been living on solid air
Don’t know what’s going wrong inside
And I can tell you that it’s hard to hide when you’re living on
Solid air. – John Martyn, Solid Air
1973 was a really good year for John Martyn. He played the perfect game with not one but two amazing albums, Solid Air and the highly experimental yet incredibly accessible Inside Out. John Martyn isn’t a guy you’re supposed to know.
For about a 10 year period Martyn made profound and beautiful records, and the only thing most people have ever heard is the Eric Clapton cover of “May You Never.” It’s the Mona Lisa, versus a tote bag that bears that image, bought in the gift shop for that aunt that you don’t really like. Yet he is a footnote at best.
You start with a plan but you don’t always wind up where you wanted to go in the first place, and that, dear and gentle reader, is where I have found myself. Not where I wanted to go, but exactly where I need to be…. I think.
A few years ago my wife and I had a crazy notion: we would open a hair salon. it seemed like the thing to do: create a business that she could run on her own terms. I could quit my corporate clients and concentrate on the artier side my work. It would give us freedom against “the Bastards” (in the us-vs.-them argument, they is them); the business would allow us to have health insurance, which given that I have one of the more documented cases of chronic kidney disease in the us is kind of a big plus.
So that’s what we did and in August of 2008 we opened Miyagi. It was big bold and different. The walls were bright yellow that faded into acid green, with bits of orange, red, and red, there was graffiti, and hundreds of little ninjas hidden inside the brickwork. The music was loud and it was everything from the New York Dolls, to Skinhead head Reggae We bent every rule that seemed worth bending; no tipping, alternate pay systems, you could only where all black if you knew more than one Bauhaus song. It was high end service with rock and roll attitude and a major focus on education.
Opening a business is often compare to having a kid, and where that might be true on a psychological level, its a lot harder to open a business- for one thing there is a lot more paperwork involved. Its bank meetings and loans, meetings with lawyers and landlords; in all we spent a little over a year prepping before we took on a space, and that’s the easy part. Once its born its a whole other ball game, it became an infant on life support that left no other corner of our life untouched.
It challenges who you are as a person and the roles you are cast to play; when it comes to employees rarely it seems do that you both have the same idea of how the characters are supposed to be portrayed. It’s a mixed up muddled up shook up world, except for Lola of course.
To make the story a tad more complex, five days after we opened the shop, I started work on what was first a TV show and then what would become a film : “Unconvention: A Mix-Tape from St. Paul,” documenting the wonders/horrors of the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul. It is a feature length doc that we made in something like 40 days, which is comparable to running the three-minute mile…on a pogo stick.
It was all off to a glorious start, as starts are want to be: the shop was the cute new girl at school getting lots of write-ups, and the film was moving along even getting funding from John Densmore from the Doors and getting enough buzz to merit conversations and considerations from Sundance.
The honeymoon was about 6 months; by the time 2009 rolls in, my minor illness becomes a major one that eventually leads to dialysis, and later on a kidney transplant. Everywhere outside of MN passes on the doc, because it’s a new era of “Hope”, and we find ourselves in the worst economy since Hoover.
I don’t get discouraged easily; a lifetime in the music and art world will do that to you. My favorite artists have almost all walked a crooked path to get to their place in the pantheon of swell. Nick Drake, John Martyn’s close friend and label mate(Martyn wrote Solid Air for him): his three records selling a cumulative total of less than 5000 copies. A few high profile fans, but not enough to keep the records in print. Cut to 1999 and a Volkswagen spot featuring “Pink Moon”. Within two weeks, that single sold more than his catalog had till that point. Now there is nary a mix tape of sad ironic hipster music that doesn’t include one of his compositions. Sure he’s dead, but the legacy, the work lives on, and with art isn’t that what matters, or is supposed to at least?
Time passes, the economy gets better, kinda.. The RNC convention becomes a faded memory save for the legalities, with the historical significance of a fifth grader’s birthday party–the whole world may have been watching, but they quickly flipped the channel and in the process forgot the show entirely. I get another person’s organ, and Miyagi, well, that’s the thing isn’t it.
Businesses come and businesses go, and sadly this one went. Lots of reasons, but in the end the reasons are ours and ours alone, but living in public make the loss all the more noticeable. It’s why I have been absent from these pixels the past few weeks. Much how the birth of a business touched every aspect of our lives, so to does the closing. We decided to take the opportunity to change, radically. We got rid of most of our furniture, a small stores worth of antiques. We moved from 2400 sq feet crammed full to 750 sq ft of relative sparseness all to embrace the radical change.
The point being sometimes change can be gift, if you let it. So we accepted and with no return receipt. I often get accused of bravery; it’s a tag that I find laughable mostly because my initial reaction to everything is a cocktail of panic and anxiety. I swallow it down heartily and then dive in headfirst into the unknown anyway, because I refuse to be ruled by anything, and least of all fear. Everything is unknown till we know it. I fear change, so the only way to conquer it is to meet it head on. There is sadness, but the show must go on, much like the clown’s rubber nose and floppy shoes.
The thing about closing a business is that it can feel like failure. It’s not. It’s just a choice, it’s just that the perspectives of it all would give MC Escher a headache. There is a parable about a Zen master who observes the people of his village celebrating that the son of a popular citizen had been given a horse, who were singing of the boys good fortune. “We’ll see,” the Zen master says. Later the boy falls off the horse and breaks a leg, The town in consensus says the horse is a curse. “We’ll see,” says the master. Later still a war breaks out, the boy cannot be drafted because of the injury, and everyone now says the horse was a blessing. “We’ll see,” the master says again.
Shuggie Otis was another guy supposed to be the next big thing; the son of rock and roll pioneer Johnny Otis, with all the talent and baggage that comes along with that. He should have been a Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix and Arthur Lee rolled into one, only he wasn’t. He ran the same race, but the drugs and drink took their toll, which is what they do to those that don’t have the Keith Richards gene. He made 3 amazing records, forgotten to AM radio, and a few young soul rebels. Today Shuggie Otis is bigger than he has ever been.
Sometimes an idea needs to be lost so it can be found again when the time is right. Sometimes that time never comes around, or the audience isn’t as big as you hoped. Shuggie wasn’t a big name ever, not really, and bam! He comes out of the dollar bins to be a college radio all-star.
Shuggie Otis got a second chance; John Martyn didn’t. Oh, he made a bunch of records afterwards, he to got a hip label reissue in the late 90’s and a semi healthy cult status in the UK. He never got the chance to be the soundtrack to kids on a TV joyride. It could still happen of course, but he passed away in 2009, and while the music may be eternal, people not so much. Still, in the UK he is a cult icon. When he died he even got a posthumous OBE. Success is a matter of perspective, its not the cards we are dealt, its how we play them.
You really don’t know how the story is going to turn out, you just play along with the choose your own adventure. While consequences can sometimes suck you never know how it plays out till the end, and even than not always. It all tends to work out as it should.
Miyagi is closed, and even though it should have worked, it didn’t. just because it seems like something should succeed doesn’t mean it will. Things end everyday, some good, some bad; It’s the impact that has the power. We closed it on our own terms, and by our own hands, it ends but its little ripples in that world go on. Mo has a quote that she really likes about people that they are in your lifetime, a season or a reason; has corny as I find that, its pretty accurate. Businesses are like that too.
I think we find out who we are mostly in the worst of times, and in our best. Its fairly easy to be agreeable when its all running at a steady boil. Kippling said it better than I could ever hope to” If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster And treat those two impostors just the same;” Its those extremes that we find out who we are. Its just life you get up dust yourself off and live to conquer, fail or just exist another day.
As I write this I find that I keep starting out of my new studio window, it looks onto the block where I really started about two decades back a lot has changed, but that’s always the constant: things change. I try and live without regrets or apologies but really that only works in Clint Eastwood movies, that said Miyagi isn’t on either of those lists.
I have stumbled before, I will stumble again; mostly because I am always trying to soar. Its only when we stop trying, that we truly fail.
Thomas Spiegel, Dj Man-x at the cricket theater 1990- Photo Tony Larson
Thomas Spiegel or DJ Man-X his nom de guerre passed away this week; he was a friend of mine, he was a business partner, he was a teacher, and for one magical night in 1990 a fellow monster truck enthusiast.
I met Thomas at some point in lets call it 1988 (I suck at dates, and order of things so times may be way off but it gets the gist and that’s something) he had moved back from New York after doing a House Nation night, and wanted to start doing them here in Mpls, he had partnered with Kevin Cole doing some shows and starting their regular Thursday night gig in the 7th street entry opposite More Funk. I think I started working with him on the second night of it. It was during that time with my business partner Sonia (she owned Hair Police, I ran the Gallery and did the events) that together we started doing bigger events late nights at the salon, and eventually turning to what would later be called raves, but to us were just events.
Most “techno” fans know about Detroit, they know about Chicago, but what they don’t know that we had as big a scene here and we did it all without any press or radio. Because at the time this was the real underground music, you had to know someone to be on the in at all. It was wild, reckless and just barely legal; it was glorious. You have to understand that this was a different era, up until this point you never saw the DJs name on a flyer, you didn’t go to a party unless there was beer, and certainly not to dance, maybe drunkenly pogo but never dance. In fact dancing after bar close was a crime in Mpls- seriously. You can thank Sonia for busting that rule up. The point is there was a big secret scene that existed and largely because Thomas wanted to play house music really really loud.
Eventually the band broke up, one by one we all splintered away to do other things, each person moving to the next bright shiny thing (it may sound a tad nostalgic but things did seem much shinier and brighter then) But Thomas always stayed true, he was Deep House through and through. , I always admired his ability to always find new and interesting threads in the same flag; I wish I had told him that. Over the years we stopped speaking as much, because that’s what people do. That said he has never been far from my heart, because those days have never been far from my memory. We started a small quiet revolution that begat some much bigger ones, ones that don’t even necessarily know about the previous wars- it’s the downside of a culture based so much on the” now” that we forget the how, and ultimately the “why”.
I could go on about how many are standing on his shoulders, how many folks got there start there, or it was the inspiration point to start doing something new .the fact that you can here techno and house almost everywhere, and can really only hear the alt rock of the time on oldies alternative. Or that even First Ave, where it was fight to get equal rights for dance nights is more disco than ever. And its not like he stopped- ever, he was a staple of that deep garage scene, and a mentor to generations of up and comers, but in truth that doesn’t matter, not really anyway, not tonight.
Tonight I am thinking about how much I owe this guy, the fact that he let me produce things well before I was of legal age to go to them, that he wanted to make sure that I knew the music, its roots well deeper than my acid house summer of love entry point. Thomas was the guy who always got on my case for not paying myself what I am worth, a problem I still have to day and truth be told when I hear my subconscious telling me that it’s in Spiegel’s voice. He was complex, and difficult, a day trader in dreadlocks, a fighter with a rather large collection of Fred Flintstone items. People are complex, and Thomas wasn’t any exception.
The golden age of anything in music seems to last for 3- 5 years and I don’t know that was any different for House. For a time: it was utter and complete fucking magic. If you were there it changed your life, and if you weren’t than it sill sort of did anyway, we were surfers on a wave of drum machine inevitability.
“From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.” sure Shakespeare was using this as a rallying cry to battle. But I think it covers the battles already fought.
Bon Route, brother I hope Heaven has enough Bass bins for you
As a transplant patient you are taught to live in an almost continual state of thanks, it is a thing that I sort of suck at, in part because of my rather Daffy Duck like tendencies towards frustration. Fortunately thankfulness isn’t a destination it’s a journey, one that we all have to work towards. Sometimes the frustrations no matter how great or small get in the way of knowing how fortunate we are. In the midst of making turkeys or trying to open canned cranberries we can miss the point. To be thankful for what we have and how we got here, to remember that we are all standing on the shoulders of the ones before us. It’s a sentiment too easily lost in football games and black Friday sales.
To be honest who truly relates to Pilgrims – I mean outside of the Amish. It’s a day where we celebrate there devotion to puritanical ideals by indulging in a bunch of sins: gluttony, sloth, greed (seriously you celebrate thanksgiving by camping out in front of Best Buy? To get a deal on a tv- its not a free tv. It’s a deal on tv), and of course wrath, envy and pride- that all involves football though. Not a lot of lust, but I think that’s because most of the nation is in a tryptophan hole.
In ’89 or ’90 I started to do an Orphan’s Thanksgiving for everyone like myself who had nowhere to go (one parent had disinherited me, the other was living in the UK) so my friend and partner Sonia and I talked a bunch of people to come out to Fridley eat Turkey and watch Disney and John Waters movies. At some point the stove may have caught fire and people may have been voguing on the kitchen counter. It was the first time I actually truly connected with it as a holiday the very simple idea of giving thanks.
It wasn’t until 92 that it became a tradition with guests who have come in from all of the world, its been host to whoever was on tour, its been the meeting point for lifelong relationships and super unfortunate hook ups We have had it in time of great prosperity and utter disparity, When Mo and I separated for a time we even got back together in time to do it, I did it at my sickest, it was actually where I first came face to face with Scott my kidney donor since he had agreed to be my donor and 4 days before the operation.
Until this year, today there is no Orphans thanksgiving, a move to a new place which is a sea of boxes, and home to a stove that seems to know only one temperature and a dishwasher that refuses to drain So what has lasted through the best and worst of times has been temporarily waylaid by appliances. It will return next year- bigger badder, rougher and tougher, Much like Bond in skyfall a brief absence, quickly forgotten upon its return.
Nonetheless I am thankful, so unbelievably thankful. I am thankful for friends that understood we needed a year off, thankful for friends that wanted to share their holiday with us., Thankful for friends that are a part of my life now and friends who aren’t anymore for whatever the reason, it’s the stuff that makes us who we are, and who we will become. I am thankful for my country, which has gotten a little punched up as of late but keeps getting up off the mat, and fighting all the harder. I am thankful for my state and the fact that we voted down the Gay marriage amendment. I am thankful for my family both my extended and my actual albeit they are more Charles Addams than Norman Rockwell but none the less I am thankful. I am thankful for the good and the bad, we are alive , and it might be chaotic but like at all times in human history we stand at a crossroads; there will be good and there will be bad, and I am thankful for both and all the glorious bits in between.