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Blue Guitar Highway

Blue Guitar Highway

Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Blue Guitar Highway
    Book Description:

    This is a musician’s tale: the story of a boy growing up on the Iron Range, playing guitar at family gatherings, coming of age in the seventies, and honing his craft in Minneapolis, ground zero of American popular music in the mid-eighties. Paul Metsa’s book gives us a close-up, dizzying view of the roller-coaster ride that is the professional musician’s life.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-7874-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xvi)

    Underneath the music business we see on television, at the Grammy’s, on the radio, and in the big arenas, there is a vast long tail of two-bit gigs, recordings that never left the garage, and a thousand nights of songs hurled against an indifferent crowd. In that context, musicians—many as talented or more so than the ones who rule the airwaves—become human accessories. Under certain common circumstances, visible in any juke joint or tavern down the block, the music from the guy playing in the corner becomes no more than a kind of coaster you set a beer...

    (pp. 1-1)

    This is a musician’s tale, probably best told from the rail at the end of the bar while the band is still playing and before last call. As a seeker and survivor, observer and participant, chronicler and historian, I offer stories that are gleaned from a life lived in the skull orchards and blood buckets of this fine country and occasionally on stages that were raging with glory blessed by the gods and masters who have guided my journey, navigating switchbacks, detours, dead ends, and glimpses of the promised land on the blue guitar highway.

    There is a drop of...

    (pp. 2-5)

    I have played thousands of gigs, on hundreds of stages, from four empty beer cases in the corner of a saloon with a hanging light bulb to Texas Stadium engulfed in a hundred thousand watts of light and sound, where the encore included forty performers and the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders. On a certain karmic level, they are all equally important, though some are obviously more fun than others, sort of like the difference between dates with your new girlfriend and holidays with the in-laws. Some are a whirlwind of excitement, in the eye-of-a-hurricane sort of way, and some are just...

    (pp. 6-16)

    At the age of seven, in the idyllic summer of 1962 when I got my first guitar, I was too young to know that the little plywood beauty, with the cowboy and horse stenciled in yellow and red on the front, was really a woman.

    She looked just like a pretty girl in the guitar store window when I first saw her and she beckoned me to take her home. We started out just holding hands. Over the next forty-five years she blossomed, turning season after season, in ever-changing wardrobes, each more randy and dandy than the next. First a...

    (pp. 17-20)

    Dudley was from Eveleth, Virginia’s archrival in sports. He wore a headband over his long hair and across his forehead and mostly wore sunglasses day or night. He drove an old black hearse, a conveyance for his absurdist style. He always held his cigarettes between his third and fourth finger and would flick the ash into a rolled-up pants cuff. Though just a few years out of high school, he seemed an old and wizened sage. At the time there was at least one hotshot electric guitar player in every town. We knew them by name, by band, and by...

    (pp. 21-23)

    He was the new kid in town in the summer of 1973. I’d see him walking his little tan dog several times a week down the main drag. He had long hair, a ruddy complexion, and walked like he was going no place in particular. He was usually wearing a jacket, plaid flannel shirt, a beat-up pair of Red Wing boots, and if you walked by close enough, you’d notice the little dog had a somewhat menacing sharp tooth hanging over his lower lip. His name was Tim O’Keefe; the dog’s name was Rip.

    I heard that his dad was...

    (pp. 24-41)

    I knew John Pasternacki since I moved to Horace Mann Grade School in the third grade. John was a year older than I. In Virginia to this day, people are referred to as Southsiders or Northsiders, depending on what side of town you live on. Johnny and I were Southsiders. We got to know each other a little better in high school. He was a superb athlete, lettering in both football and track. He still holds the Virginia Blue Devils record for longest touchdown run in a high school football game. His coach and teammates used to call him All...

    (pp. 42-50)

    Jerry Garcia, lead guitar player for the Grateful Dead, was as good as America got on a Saturday night. On his best night, he went where no man had gone before. Beyond Main Street, beyond church, beyond the ballpark, bedroom, or boardroom, Jupiter and back and yet still down by the riverside, an electronic sugar shack where anything seemed possible. Trailed by hellhounds and at least a step or two ahead of Mr. Charlie most of the time.

    Th e Grateful Dead was an experiment in rock and roll improvisation by way of Bakersfi eld and Brubeck. Trucking around the...

    (pp. 51-58)

    My grandpa was my best buddy. He’d take me to the cabin when I was just a kid to get it ready for summer when the family stayed there, or in the fall when it was time to shut it down. It was our private time. Occasionally, he’d bring along one of his old barroom buddies. I thought they were there just to help with the chores and cut wood but realized when I was older that Grandpa also wanted to help them dry out away from the bars and city life.

    I’d sleep next to Grandpa in his cast-iron...

    (pp. 59-70)

    There are two great moments for a songwriter. One is when the idea or inspiration for a song drops from the heavens; you happen to run into a piece of poetic graffiti scrawled on a barroom wall, or you overhear something somebody says and realize it would be the perfect building block on which to write a song. The other is when you are strumming your guitar mindlessly, trying a new set of chord changes or riffs, when they finally fit together like a railroad man’s handshake. When the calloused grip relents and the fingers open, a melody appears. Now...

    (pp. 71-78)

    My friend Billy Alcorn used to say, “Hang around the barbershop long enough and you are bound to get a clip.” What he meant was, dabble in illegal substances long enough, and they will eventually bite you in the ass so hard you will be seven ways from Sunday before you realize what hit you. It all of course starts out innocently enough.

    I remember when I first moved to town and was hustling like hell to find gigs. I would drop off cassette demos, some promo material, and wait for the phone to ring, and wait for the phone...

    (pp. 79-84)

    I took a month off of doing cocaine and was doing whatever gigs were left. In a moment of boredom I called Tony the Hat and said I’d stop by. It was a mild evening, but I picked up a quarter-gram for the hell of it, stuck it into my jeans pocket, and after a couple of whiskey Cokes went to bed in their upstairs bedroom. That night, a mule from Milwaukee came in and picked up a couple of ounces from Tony’s sister. All I knew is that he used to work for the Beach Boys, taped the blow...

    (pp. 85-91)

    I met my girlfriend in 1984 at the Union Bar. I was standing by the ticket taker on a break when she came up wearing a gorgeous red wool jacket and her brown hair cut in an angle right above her shoulders. She looked absolutely beautiful. She asked, “When are you going to take me out?” She wasn’t being forward and seemed genuinely interested in me. She told me she worked at a Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop in Uptown, and we exchanged numbers. I stopped by the next day for a cone, and she looked even more adorable in her...

    (pp. 92-100)

    Bucky Baxter was one of the original members of Steve Earle’s band, the Dukes, a white-lightning-fueled band of renegades that backed Earle for several years and threw down live performance like escaped prisoners, bloodhounds on their trail. Steve was one of the best of the new brand of songwriters out of Nashville in the mid-’80s, who stomped on the old Music City set of rules and ground them into dust with their boot heels. He was also a friend, disciple, and running buddy of Townes Van Zandt, one of America’s greatest songwriters. Townes was man of Godgiven talent, Jesus in...

    (pp. 101-107)

    I have probably given away more records than I have sold: to the press, to bartenders to square up a tab, and to interesting people I’d meet in my travels. I would save what money I could from gigs for the recording projects and was always lucky enough to bump into friends with a little extra cash in their couch cushions to help move the projects along. When the musician is ready, the investor will appear.

    I recorded my second single, “Ferris Wheels on the Farm,” in 1986. It was my take on the disappearance of family farms. The chorus...

    (pp. 108-117)

    I met Kim Fowley at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Music Festival in 1993. Fowley was a Zelig-type character, based in Los Angeles, who’d influenced hundreds of projects over the years, starting with his recording of “Alley Oop” in 1960 under the assumed name of the Hollywood Argyles. He was most successful with creating the Runaways, the teenage all-girl group based in rock and roll and sexual fantasy that featured a young Joan Jett. He resembled Willem Dafoe, though taller. I bumped into him after he’d just wrapped up a panel session. I introduced myself, we chatted briefly, and I...

    (pp. 118-125)

    All artists are mama’s boys, or daddy’s girls. My mother often told me that as a little boy I’d run around the house saying, “Mommy, I got all this music in my head and I don’t know what to do.” Like her father, Ernest Paul, my namesake, Mom could spin a good yarn and was never shy of exaggerating a story if it helped sell it. Nothing wrong with that. She was a wonderful singer, too. Her brother Gerald played soprano saxophone in a jazz band while in high school in Bemidji, near Lake Itasca, headwaters of the Mississippi River...

    (pp. 126-139)

    It was the worst summer of my life. I was emotionally destroyed by my mother’s death and felt like my soul had disappeared with hers, and in a way it had, gone up in ashes and smoke to wherever souls go. I had barely enough money to cover rent and groceries as I had spent a large chunk from the proceeds of my Mississippi Farewell show to cover the recording costs at Pachyderm Studio. I had done my Minneapolis swan song and couldn’t really swim back to play any more gigs in town. Every river and road out looked dark....

    (pp. 140-145)

    To find true love before it even blossoms is a beautiful thing. Like rare magnets that attract without touching, souls connect and intellect catches up in its own time. My little brother Johnny was lucky like that.

    John met Dianne when they were in fifth grade. Our families were neighbors. Dianne wore her brown hair in a bob, and her bright blue eyes danced beneath dark brows and long lashes. By her early twenties Dianne’s naturally curly hair was shoulder length, framing her face that had matured from cute to head-turning beauty. In that time their relationship also evolved, from...

    (pp. 146-153)

    When Nora Guthrie called in May 1996 and invited me to perform at the Tribute to Woody Guthrie at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, I was honored, thrilled, and jazzed like a beatnik on stolen Benzedrine. I spent the summer rereadingBound for Glory, Pastures of Plenty,andWoody Guthrie: A Life,and listening to all the Woody Guthrie stuff I had. In caff eine-soaked mornings and nicotine-laced afternoons listening to Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson, I was living in that holy world of vinyl records again. Occasionally I’d see it with my eyes closed—unamplified...

    (pp. 154-169)

    I got back to Minneapolis in the spring of 1996. I had done my time in New York having experienced as much as that town had to offer and, thanks to the generosity of friends, more than my limited means would have allowed. Over the years I had daydreamed about living in Nashville and Austin, Texas, two great American music capitals. But Minneapolis had always had its own magic, and unlike Nashville and Austin, a working musician could always make a living in town apart from the rigors of the road that have broken up more bands than girlfriends and...

    (pp. 170-177)

    I was on break at my regular gig at Nye’s Polonaise Room when the bartender handed me the phone. The bar was packed with the usual regulars making the usual noise that always got progressively louder as the clock moved toward last call. It was a fellow by the name of Bob Wilson. He was a harmonica player and said, with summer approaching, he had a gig at an outdoor patio on the banks of the Mississippi lined up at a place called Gabby’s Saloon and was looking for a guitar slinger. It happened to be in my neighborhood. I...

    (pp. 178-185)

    I have met some of my best buddies bellying up to the bar. God may have created Sunday as a day of rest, but he designed Friday and Saturday, the fifth and sixth days, to stop by the saloon to blow off a little steam after a hard week of work.

    I met Eric at Eli’s Bar in the early’ 90s. My friend Fast Eddie and his girlfriend Laurie bought the place a few years earlier. Eddie was my buddy from the McCready’s Bar gang of the mid-1980s that included writer David Carr and comedian Tom Arnold. Eddie bartended at...

    (pp. 186-192)

    In June 2001, I was playing at a blues festival at Ironworld, on the border of Chisholm and Hibbing, that included a library of artifacts and old newspapers where one could research the history of the Iron Range, and an amphitheater that featured musical events and everyone from Tony Bennett to Waylon Jennings. The most popular yearly event at Ironworld was Polka Days. I was approached by one of the promoters whose main gig was booking Famous Dave’s Barbeque and Blues, a club in Minneapolis that featured blues seven nights a week. He asked me if I would like to...

  27. SISU
    (pp. 193-206)

    Sisuis a Finnish word that simply means stubborn inner strength. Some define it as determination beyond all reason. When confronted with adversity, sickness, or a bad roll of the dice, the true Finn summons something within to rise above it. In the valley of the shadow of death, a Finn fears no evil.

    My father, Elder, instilledsisuin my head before I was even old enough to say my prayers. He learned it from his father, Emil, who learned it from his father, John, who learned it from his father, Isaac, who learned it from his father whose...

    (pp. 207-210)

    In 2007, I was down in Austin, Texas, one of my favorite cities in the country, attending the South by Southwest (SXSW) Music Festival. I have attended this festival several times since 1986. Austin is a lot like Minneapolis–St. Paul: a river town, state capital, and liberal. Both towns have great music scenes. Musicians from all over the world come to Austin in search of fame and fortune. After getting hooked up with three record deals at SXSW that went absolutely nowhere, I go down to Austin to hear music, eat Texas barbeque and fresh breakfast burritos with iced...

    (pp. 211-225)

    On a chilly afternoon in April 2001, Tony “Tilt” Rubin sat next to me on a plane bound for New York City. I was scheduled to play two gigs out there, one at the Mercury Lounge on the Lower East Side and the other at the Stone Pony, in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Tony was a Duluth native and a University of Minnesota student whom I had met at Nye’s and was now renting my upstairs apartment. He had done some Web design for me, and I had told him that, in exchange, I would one day take him to...

    (pp. 226-233)

    In the fall of 2005 I had a meeting with the general manager at Famous Dave’s. I had been working there since 2001. He told me that I would just be receiving one check instead of two. I was getting one check to play and one to book the club. The downside was that they were going to have to start taking taxes out of it, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. (Instead of turning my couch upside down to try and find enough change to pay my taxes on April 15, I would start to get...

  31. IKO-IKO
    (pp. 234-240)

    The summer of 2009 marked thirty years since my first gig in town at the infamous Skyway Lounge that would be followed by five thousand more gigs (and counting) on the highways and byways that led from there. It seemed only fitting to do an anniversary show. I booked the Parkway Theater at Forty-eighth and Chicago in Minneapolis, run by my old friend comedian Joe Minjares. As a play of words on AC/DC’s famous 1979 rock albumHighway to Helland a shout-out to the Skyway Lounge (not to mention Minneapolis’s largest urban skyway system in the world), I decided...

    (pp. 241-248)

    I have always enjoyed playing for any group of people needing a musician to help aid, advance, or artistically support their cause. While in the beginning it was not a bad way to get my name around as well as meet like-minded people, in the end, no matter what your walk of life, it’s all about who you serve. I have played hundreds of benefits, fundraisers, and events of all shapes and sizes. I consider it one of music’s highest callings.

    Recently, I played at a VFW in a first-ring suburb of Minneapolis and, along with my friend actor-songwriter Chris...

    (pp. 249-254)

    I formed my first band, the Positive Reaction, when I was twelve years old. While the name of the band seemed to roll off the tongue, it may have also come subliminally from the whispers of wisdom and encouragement from my dad, a businessman and acolyte of writer and selfimprovement guru Dale Carnegie, the Deepak Chopra of his time with a ’50s suit and tie. Carnegie died on the day I was born, November 1, 1955, and I’d spend a lifetime trying to win friends and influence people one show at a time.

    When it came to bands, the Byrds...

    (pp. 255-264)

    It was the Fourth of July on the Iron Range, 2010. This most American of holidays is celebrated on the Range like a second New Year’s Eve. Starting at sun up and going deep into the evening, it is fueled by some sort of psychic/spiritual nitroglycerin that runs through the working-class veins of this special part of Minnesota, rust red, white, and blue hearts beating as one.

    Since the turn of the twentieth century we have gathered on bandstands, by the lakeshore, in union halls, backyards, town squares, on soap boxes, and down on Main Street where high school marching...

    (pp. 265-267)
    (pp. 268-268)
    (pp. 269-271)
  38. Back Matter
    (pp. 272-272)
  39. [Illustrations]
    (pp. 273-288)