Logrolling Johnny Swardson

So my buddy Jeff just sent me a link to an article that Jim Walsh wrote about our friend Johnny Rock.

It’s a story about “Highway Songs,” a song on Johnny’s new album, Silver Dust. Walsh writes how Johnny was inspired to write “Highway Songs” after making eye contact with a stranger driving north on Highway 8 just before her apparent suicide. It’s an incredible story–one of the best behind-the-song stories I’ve ever read (probably number one, actually, because the Phil Collins “Something in the Air Tonight” backstory has been discredited). But it was strange for me to read–it’s one of those you wish you would’ve written yourself, you know? And not just because I’ve known Johnny for years, and now a story that he told me over Camel lights in the Green Mill parking lot is being told by other writers, on other websites.

It’s strange writing about art in this town, because it’s small enough that you wind up being friends with a lot of artists, sometimes before the piece comes out, sometimes after. And let’s settle down with the “these people are going to try to be your friends” Lester Bangs in Almost Famous shit. An article in City Pages or Mpls.St.Paul is not going to make or break anybody’s career, but there’s a good chance it will cause an awkward conversation at the Triple Rock.

Most of the time with these things, there’s a chicken-or-the-egg scenario…was I this dude’s friend first? Or his fan? Later, followed by, (even if only on an unconscious level, but usually pretty goddam consciously), do I like this dude, but have major problems with his new [record, movie, play, book]? Then there’s the matter of what’s actually out there on the public record and how much private stuff do you know simply because you’re a friend. If you go to the dude’s wedding, and a year later, have to write a story on him, how many intimate details can you include? What does your friend the artist consider to be intimate? Even after you’ve successfully negotiated what’s in and what’s out, after you’ve agreed to a version of the “official story” you both can live with, it’s not uncommon that I’ll get a call two days after the interview…”uh, dude, would it be cool if you didn’t mention [blank]?” And all of it is complicated by this objectivity paradigm that you’re supposed to adhere to as a journalist. So are you violating some H.L. Mencken blood oath if you critique your friend’s shit positively? Are you violating the friendship if you critique his shit negatively? Do you have divulge where you rank on the BFF scale in your lede? Bottom line, with all this angst, you run the risk of pussing out or overcompensating and turning in a corny or worse, phony, piece.

My point is (let’s just get it out of the way), go see Johnny’s new band tonight at Barfly. They’re called John Swardson and the Get Gone, and they go on at 9:30.

Quickly, before all this gets swept under the friendship rug: I met Johnny in ’98 when we were both waiting tables at Sidney’s on Grand Avenue. Back then, he played rhythm guitar in this R&B band, Blue Dot Trance. They were a good time–used to catch them at the old Loring or The Red Sea. Their frontman was this six-foot-four black dude with dreads down to his ass that would hug a bongo drum between his knees and sing like Lenny Kravitz. BDT did a killer cover of the Atlanta Rhythm Section’s hit “So Into You.”

Johnny had a weird dye job back then, and he had these ridiculous sideburns that ran from his ears to the corner of his lips–he looked like a stag beetle with frosted highlights. So I guess he fit in with the funk soul brothers in the band, most of whom he went to high school with, or knew from the St. Paul neighborhood they grew up in. But he had one song that he would perform in the middle of the set, “Chasing the Rabbit.” It was germane to the whole funk-on-acid vibe, but it told a darker, more sophisticated story than some of Blue Dot’s other songs. And when you got to know Johnny, he was obviously more into artists like Bruce Springsteen and Eddie Vedder than the Atlanta Rhythm Section. (Uh, thank Christ?)

Blue Dot broke up five years ago (maybe more), and in the meanwhile, Johnny’s been doing the troubadour thing–playing his songs solo with an acoustic guitar at different rooms around the city. In 2006, he put out a record, Ablaze, of songs that he’d been been playing solo for awhile. The record sounded dramatically different though. He recorded it in his friend’s home studio, and he got a bunch of musicians from around town to guest star on different parts–Dave Boquist played slide on one song, and Mark Mallman did keys on another. But Johnny never got a band together in real life. Never played a “CD release party” that City Pages could hype in the A-List. I don’t know if he just wasn’t confident enough in the record, or if he didn’t want to be responsible for getting his own band together. Who knows. It was kind of frustrating, because Johnny had these great stories to tell, but they were great rock songs, not great coffeehouse songs. Honestly, they were songs that I wanted to write about, but it seemed like Johnny was consciously avoiding putting himself out there. Maybe he didn’t want to be written about, didn’t want to be evaluated by anyone publicly.

And then he puts a band together and records a new album that he’s so proud of he hands the “Highway Song” scoop to Jim Walsh. I mean, Jesus! That’s what friends are for, I guess. As Dan Barreiro says, “We’re happy for ya.” So sure, go to his gig tonight. Go crowd the stage. I’ll be the guy in the back with his arms crossed.

The guy into the earlier material.

The Most Interesting Thing CJ Has Ever Written

Seriously. It reminds me, I need to check this Tino Seghal dude out. Possibly douchetacular.

Thom Pham Attacked Outside of Azia

The Strib reports Temple/Azia owner Thom Pham was jumped by a group of dudes outside of Azia on 26th and Nicollet when he was leaving work around four A.M. Tuesday morning. I just got off the phone with his assistant/best friend Liz G., and evidently, he’s pretty fucked up: broken eye socket, concussion, gashes and bruises on his face. Liz said he was getting into his car when he was hit in the head with a brick. He managed to get away down an alley, and then one of the thugs hit him from behind with a 2×4. Somehow, he made it back to Nicollet, at which point, the perps dipped.

I did a story on Thom for MSP last spring, during which Thom told me that as an Ameriasian living in Vietnam after the war he’d been, alternately, covered in honey and tossed on an ant-hill, beaten, and thrown in a well. So he’s survived worse. But what’s especially troubling about this incident is that the gang of men didn’t steal anything from Thom–neither money nor his car (it was left with the keys in its door). My story was one of many that dealt with Thom’s sexuality–he’s an openly gay man. Liz told me that last month, somebody keyed “Fag” into the door of his Mercedes. So did the attackers target him because he was alone on the street at four in the morning? Or did they target him because he was a high profile homosexual alone on the street at four in the morning?

UPDATE: Just got off the phone with Thom. He’s feeling better, up and around after being released from the hospital Tuesday afternoon. But he’s got a big gash in his forehead and his face is swollen from the beating, so he won’t be seen around Azia or Temple for awhile. Thom told me the attack seemed premeditated. There was a Chevy SUV parked in the Azia parking lot on 25th and Nicollet that the first group of attackers may have been driving. Thom described the first three men that jumped him as white, or at least light-skinned, well built, and in their late-twenties or early-thirties. When Thom fled the first three, another group of men, this time five or six of them, jumped out of a minivan on Nicollet and gave chase. “But by this point, I was bleeding and covering my face with my hand, so I didn’t see much,” he said.

It was a creepy scene. “None of them said a word the whole time,” he said. “They didn’t seem angry like you would normally be in a fight. I’d never seen anything like it. I kept asking them what they wanted, but they didn’t say anything. They were there to kill me. I thought I was going to die.”

Worthwhile Local and National Links

Popular Mechanics Editorial
City Pages
Lambert at the Rake
Platt at MSP
Minnesota Monitor
Flip survives the collapse from espn.com

Bridge Conspiracy Theories

Just got back from joining the downtown lunchtime bridge gawkers. Nobody can get closer than two blocks out. Pretty tight perimeter of cops and yellow tape. There is tape blocking off the Stone Arch Bridge so emergency personnel can cross back and forth, so hundreds of onlookers were congregating on the 3rd Ave. Bridge sidewalk, alongside the Mill Ruins, and on top of the tall mound in Gold Medal Park. The most popular vantage point was the Guthrie, with people waiting in line for the Endless Bridge, although the best spot was the large windows next to the entrance to the McGuire Proscenium Stage. Even from there, couldn’t see much with the tall trees obscuring most of the scene, just the crumpled green steel and the sheared off concrete on the East bank of the river.

I’m still an onlooker, listener, and watcher in this thing. We don’t even have an accurate death toll yet. None of my friends or family were drowned or crushed. But people that should know better are already pointing fingers and playing the blame game. Nick Coleman even took the opportunity to blame the Twins Stadium in his rushed out pop protest single, “No More Collapses.” Sure, it sounds a little familiar, but what did you expect from Nick? “Ohio”? Trust me, “No More Collapses” might strike some stale poses, but it’s a classic rock anthem with a chance to supplant Prince’s “Guitar” as the old guy on auto-pilot hit of the summer. Point is, I don’t want to fall behind; it’s time for Stephenhero to shake off the daze and put some odds up. Let’s really play the 35W bridge blame game, huh? Who has the most to lose? The most to win? Anyone need the action already? Pin the tail on the donkey, or the elephant, or the front office, or the news director, depending on how “media savvy” you are. And remember, if I’m a conspiracy theorist, you’re a coincidence theorist.

God 11/9
Republicans 7/2
Democrats 2/1
MNDOT 4/1
The Twins 10/1
Glen Taylor 40/1
MnSpeak 100/1
The City of Minneapolis 150/1
Star Tribune headline writers 200/1
Network news 1000/1
The Red Cross 10000/1
Homeland Security Breach 100000/1
ULF blast originating from Augsburg College 150,000/1
Kevin Garnett 1000000/1

Congratulations to Me

Just found out about this today. Shame on Vita.mn for trying to undermine my credibility. “Best Male Socialite”? I know, I know, I should be delighted. Finally, I’m officially in the popular group, well, if you count the Robot Love dork, Matt “size zero” Schmidt, and the PiPress’s intrepid Fargo Transplant Ross Raihala as the popular group. Love those guys, and I know I should feel empowered by the fact that a guy like me, a shlub from White Bear Lake that wears old jeans and drives a vintage Schwinn can become a socialite. You think I’m pretty! You really think I’m pretty! Only in America! But there’s something more insidious going on here. Raise your hand if you’ve read Faludi’s Stiffed. It’s about how men are responding to the advertising/media messaging tractor beam that first subdued the weaker sex. Everybody aboard?

Sure, I’ve been to the parties at our fancy theaters and libraries in the last year. And yes, I’m guilty: I buy shit—-comic books and Nikes and even HBO. But I’m not just a consumer. I’m a journalist (and just because I make it look easy don’t mean it ain’t hard work). I’m not a socialite. Maybe it’s a epithet, maybe not. Probably, here in passive-aggressive, ashamed of overt class distinctions, so-I’ll-just-drive-a-Chevy-SUV-exactly-like-my-employees Minnesota. Usually, that kind of “sensitivity” is irritating, but—-and maybe it’s just because I’m just home from LA—-I’m thinking some of the shame that fuels our reluctance to participate in conspicuous consumption here might be a good thing. So just to be according to Hoyle (if not vita.mn), I have never organized a fund-raiser for my husband. I have never taken my miniature dog to lunch in Wayzata. If you do those things, fine, you’re a socialite. Own it. But I’m not. So who nominated me for this shit? And which 11 people voted for me? And were they all on The Post-Feminist Dumbing Down America Sub-Committee for Commodotizing the Male? Look, ladies, bringing us down to your level isn’t necessarily “equality.” Dudes with eating disorders. Dudes with 100 pairs of shoes and 100 pairs of jeans. Dudes who are considered to be socialites. Of all the things we can learn from women, I don’t know if “grab a Certs after going to the bathroom” should be high on the list.

Boy Friday

Because Stephen Hero isn’t affiliated with my primary employer, Mpls.St.Paul Magazine, you might make the mistake of assuming that on this “blog,” I have abandoned the assets that have made me such an editorial success: a subtle, variegated knowledge of the suburban mind, and the ability to tell my reader exactly where to get the good shit. Stephen Hero is not just some extremely well-written, hyper-literary diary. It could even be argued that I am doing my daytime employer a service by heeding the call for more transparency in the media; that in today’s “Fair and Balanced” climate, a window into the sources of the various isms and phobias that coalesce into what a charitable reader may perceive as my “bias,” and a less charitable one as my “prejudice,” is a good thing. A fringe benefit maybe, but that is not the point. Here, I can tell you exactly where to get the good shit too.

This last weekend, I was in charge of getting two things for my mother’s surprise party for her 60th birthday: The Keg and The Cake. I needed cake for 65, and I’ve heard that sheet cake is expensive, so I was prepared to spend some money, especially considering that I didn’t really start investigating this cake situation until two days before the big party. At first, I wanted to give the job to my girlfriend’s friend Kalinka, a Brazilian pastry chef that works in a St. Paul restaurant. Kalinka is a dessert sorceress. She bakes this incredible coconut fudge cake–it’s the only cake I’ve ever liked (I’m a pie man). There is something spiritual and authentic to her creations that belies the category of “confection.” (A benign eating disorder?) But Kalinka was already baking a cake for a wedding for one of her countrymen, and she didn’t have time for her friend’s big, white American boyfriend. (Racism!) I don’t have any other pastry chef connections, so I called the bakery by my house, the Uptown Wuollet’s, and for $75, I told them the flavor of cake I wanted and what to write on top of it: “Happy 60th Birthday, Mom/Jean Ann.” When the cake was unveiled, I think some people were a little confused by the Mom-slash-Jean Ann thing, but everybody loved how it tasted and one of my mom’s little old lady friends said, “When I heard Stephen was getting the cake, I just knew he would get a Wuollet’s.” (See, how killer that Mpls.St.Paul affiliation can be?)

Buying The Keg turned out to be much more controversial. Again, I had left planning to the last minute, so on my way back from the Picasso and American Art exhibit at the Walker on Friday night (heavyweight art show, and the Walker was delightfully empty, even after 5 on a Friday), I stopped in at Lowry Hill Liquor to reserve a keg. They were out of everything, and they immediately referred me to Zipp’s. They said it was the spot for kegs in the Twin Cities. I called Zipp’s and asked them if they had Summit Grand Pilsner. They did, but only in 8 gallon kegs, and my father’s family was coming, and I was sure they would be able to burn through a 16 gallon. I asked if they had PBR. They said that PBR was their most popular keg, and their cheapest, at $49.99. I like a top shelf pilsner or a lager, and Zipp’s has everything, but something nice, like Stella Artois, would have cost me $125.

Only one problem: My sister. My sister is a horrible person, basically. This isn’t her fault, of course; it’s her mother’s. With all due respect (she did just turn 60), my mom was given two boys right off the bat, she was probably envisioning–accurately, it turned out–a future filled with broken furniture, small-time delinquency, cursing and the NFL. The good woman was desperate for a little girl. And when she finally got one, she spoiled her rotten. And now the rotten little girl has grown into a monster, a grown-up monster that loves Michelob Golden Draft Light. When I told Megan about the PBR reservation, she screamed into the phone, “STEPHEN, this isn’t about YOU!” This was a shock. I mean, I knew that my sister isn’t emotionally stable, and I knew that she liked Michelob Golden Draft Light, but the day before, when I told her that I was going to buy a Summit Grand Pilsner keg, she just sighed, albeit in an unnecessarily dramatic way, and said, “I knew you would get something weird.” Now she was furious about the PBR. But my dad’s family, a big, garrulous, blue collar family with rural Minnesota roots (Staples-Motley area) loves PBR. At least the men in the family love it. The women prefer Michelob Golden Draft Light, like my sister, and most females that live outside of the 612, but they had grown to tolerate the PBR fixation of the men. And my mom’s family, a smaller family–one younger brother, one younger sister–that grew up in Brooklyn Center in the 1960s, more securely middle-class, is basically a light beer/rose crowd. Still, they didn’t seem like they would be disgusted by PBR on a sunny summer afternoon. I mean, I myself have been a recreational pot smoker since the late 90s, never really a beer drinker, so I admit, I don’t have a deep understanding of beer culture, but nobody had ever betrayed any overt animosity towards the PBR tradition. Lately, PBR has even found some traction with some of my younger, more tattooed male cousins–adding another layer to what is now a full-blown inside family joke. The most reasonable explanation for my sister’s hysteria was that the party planning pressure was getting to her. After all, because it was a surprise party, this would be the first time she’d planned anything without my mother…

Here’s the deal: I’m not a cheapskate, but I already spent $75 on the cake. And at that point, I didn’t know that that was going to pay off in terms of prestige, so I thought the better chance of embossing my image/avoiding confrontation was through a premium beer. So when my brother gave me a ride to Zipp’s on the day of the party, I asked the keg attendent how much it would cost to switch to Michelob Golden Draft Light. “Why would you do that?” the guy demanded. “Why not keep the Pibber? It’s the best beer, and look, it’s only 49.99. There’s a reason we list it in bold! The Michelob is $80 and it doesn’t taste as good. Why would you change it? Why?” I thought he was going to start scourging his breast and tearing his hair out. At this point, the keg attendant, a wiry dude with bleached hair and combat boots that looked like Spike from Angel chimed in, “Why would you do that? Why would you get rid of the Pibber?” I said, okay, okay, give me the Pibber.

In the parking lot, when Spike was wheeling the thing out, I slipped him a five and divulged all of my pent up shame about cheaping out on my sister and asked him if there was anything, anything he could do about this situation, anyway he could help me avoid the inevitable scene at my mother’s 60th surprise birthday party, now only a half hour and a drive to Elk River away. “Oh,” he said, “so you want to make it look like your family is getting the frat boy beer, but you want to keep the Pibber?” I nodded. I was encouraged–Spike looked like he had a plan. “Okay, this is gonna be gross, so don’t look.” He went back to the cooler and returned with a plastic Michelob cap to sub for the Pabst cap. Then he pulled out a white piece of cardboard. He hocked a loogy, spit on the cardboard, and rubbed it in the gravel of the parking lot. Armed with the makeshift sandpaper, he began vigorously scrubbing away the PBR-PBR-PBR ink printed all over it. He looked up, pleased. “I do this all the time,” he said. Continue reading