'Bar Yarns and Manic-Depressive Mixtapes', or, Music criticism, Minnesota-style
Jim Walsh’s writing combines heartfelt personal stories with knowledgeable music criticism. Reading this collection feels like having a conversation with an old friend.
Bar Yarns and Manic-Depressive Mixtapes: On Music From Minneapolis to the Outer LimitsPublisher: University of Minnesota Press
Length: 304 pages
Author: Jim Walsh
Publication date: 2016-11
The Law of Jante, or Janteloven, is a sociological concept codified by Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose in his 1933 novel, A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks. It's a system of ten rules that explain the behavioral tendencies of people in Scandinavian communities. At the core of Janteloven is a certain kind of humility and niceness, a downplaying of one’s own accomplishments in favor of social cohesion, and an emphasis on courtesy and the group dynamic.
If you’ve ever spent any time in the upper Midwest, you might have encountered the American analogue to this behavior: “Minnesota Nice”. People in Minnesota smile and wave at passers-by, they help their neighbors shovel sidewalks and driveways, and they are willing to jump-start a stranger’s car in an icy parking lot without any skepticism. In Jim Walsh’s new book, Bar Yarns and Manic Depressive Mixtapes, readers who might not have had the fortune to enjoy Walsh’s regionally published writings will get a taste of what the music critic version of “Minnesota Nice” is, from one of the Cities' preeminent journalists.
This book, a collection of previously published articles and essays from several newspapers and magazines, is a lovingly curated set of writings that highlight one of the Twin Cities’ favorite music critics and scene cheerleaders. Walsh’s long career, which includes stints as Music Editor for the City Pages (a free weekly) and pop music columnist for the St Paul Pioneer Press, has also seen him published in Rolling Stone, SPIN, The Village Voice, Melody Maker, and the Utne Reader, among many others. Walsh is also a musician, playing in several bands, including REMs, a punk band that bubbled up in the same scene as The Replacements and Hüsker Dü.
Walsh’s two previous books, The Replacements: All Over But the Shouting-An Oral History and The Replacements: Waxed Up Hair and Painted Shows -- the Photographic History, both centered around one of the scene’s greatest bands. The Replacements, however, are mostly absent from this collection (although Slim Dunlap, the band’s latter-day guitarist, pops up a few times), probably because Walsh has already spilled quite of bit of ink on them.
His focus here, however, isn't solely on the local scene, but on the joy and pain of what music means to listeners and fans. The chapters are divided into thematic chunks, based on the concept of the book being a ‘mixtape’ of sorts, each one covering a certain artist or mood, as any good mixtape would. If High Fidelity's Rob Gordon was a music writer, he might call this method of categorizing and organizing a life’s work “autobiographical”, to the shock of his audience.
This isn’t just a collection of music criticism, as would be expected. There are stories of the Walsh family, including the love story of his parents, Ann and Jerry Walsh, and the musical bonds that connect Jim and his brothers. There are his ‘bar yarns’, stories about beloved and legendary bars (R.I.P. Nye’s Polonaise Room) and clubs in the Twin Cities. There are sociological treatises on youth culture, including a classic 1989 article on the metal scene at Minneapolis’ Lake Nokomis Park. There are painful reflections on an awkward teenage crush (“After the Dance”) that lead into the happy tale of a Pioneer Press reader who used Walsh’s column to ask his own crush to the prom. (She said yes!)
Further, there are recollections of uplifting moments at a Waterboys show, rock-bard tales of seeing legendary heroes bring beloved bands back to life (Big Star, in Chapter Eight’s “I Am the Cosmos”), and a deconstruction of rock’s most perfect song, The Faces’ “Ooh La La”, that morphs into Walsh’s own advice to youth. Regardless of the topic, every song, every tale, every life-affirming rock show is suffused with humanity and compassion, and it never feels forced.There are a lot of rock critics who focus on the negative, or shrug off the humanity of music fandom in favor of cold logic and bloodless analysis. Walsh is not that kind of writer or critic: even when he struggles with what's going on around him, even when life is unbearably shitty, his writing is usually positive and filled with hope.
There might be no better example of this than the series of eulogies that make up Chapter Five, “Showman’s Rest”. In these articles, Walsh speaks lovingly and hopefully of life after the deaths of Kurt Cobain, Joey Ramone, and Clarence Clemons. The Cobain article, addressed to Cobain's daughter Frances Bean, makes the bold claim that “I felt pretty close to your dad. Even though I never met him, I felt like I knew him.” (120) This heartfelt admission of being one fan among millions is, in part, what makes Walsh so unique as a rock critic. Simply by stating these the reader feels, in turn, like they are close to Walsh, in turn.
The most touching of his eulogies, however, is reserved for the artist who looms largest over the book: Prince. He gets his own chapter, “Prince in the 90’s” and the most recent previously published piece in the book, “I Wish U Heaven”, was published by Minnpost.com just hours after Prince’s tragic death in his Chanhassen studio, Paisley Park. Walsh's words are simple, but express the loss that a lot of fans could not verbalize on that day: “…that’s what we mourn today -- the loss of an eternal seeker, which all great artists are at heart” (254). The just held back tears glisten in Walsh’s bare words, for all to see.
In the heart of the book, buried in Chapter Seven (“The Beautiful Ones”), are a series of stories from 1995, 2001, and 2007 about the life-affirming power of rock 'n' roll. In the middle of the series, Walsh opines, “I have seen the past, present, and future of rock ‘n’ roll and his name is Ike Reilly” (p. 152). After a piece (reprinted from the liner notes of a Prince album) about the power of Prince’s famous Glam Slam shows, Walsh introduces his readers to a mostly-unknown singer-songwriter from Libertyville, Illinois. The almost breathless preview of an upcoming four-night stand by Reilly and his band at Saint Paul’s legendary Turf Club is followed by an equally breathless post mortem that lauds Reilly’s performance, his band, and the audience’s reaction, but makes the sober pronouncement that “it is never going to be like that again” (159).
Reilly never broke as big as Walsh predicted: his major label debut, 2001’s brilliant Salesmen and Racists, tanked and Reilly still lives in Libertyville, but Reilly, much like Walsh, still continues to plug away in true rock ‘n’ roll style. One of Reilly's songs, that gives a title to one of Walsh's articles, is called "Put a Little Love in It" and that sentiment seems to bind these two men, journalist and journeyman rocker, together. The final article in the chapter, “Magic”, is a wonderfully emotional reflection of a night spent with fellow fans at a 2007 Bruce Springsteen show. Walsh’s writing is always personal and graceful, but this thought stands out in a book full of deeply heartfelt admissions: “It felt more important this time, because I have kids, the world is in the shitter, and the voice in my head that says I’m not always on my game, not always inspired, not always doing the best I can, was quelled by an echo of my best self, and the music allowed me to forgive myself and showed me yet again how to be tougher than the rest of my former selves and keep going” (163).
In “One Love”, Walsh drags the “Minnesota Nice” straight into the light of a scorching Minneapolis intersection. His car broken down, waiting for a tow truck on the hottest day of the summer of 2001, Walsh recounts how 25 strangers offer to help him out in just 25-minutes, with Bob Marley’s “One Love” ringing in his ears. The story is Walsh’s writing in microcosm: a heartfelt personal story, ripe with hope and goodness, interspersed with knowledgeable music criticism that feels like a conversation with an old friend. With a litany of these kinds of deeply personal musical anecdotes, it would take a pretty cold hearted soul not to find some connection to Walsh here. I grew up in the Twin Cities and haunted some of the same clubs as Walsh. I saw him play in bands. I read his articles as a neophyte music fan in a city full of gods. I don’t know Jim Walsh, but (to paraphrase his words to Frances Bean Cobain) I feel like I know Jim Walsh. I left the Twin Cities in the early '90s, but these essays made me feel like I was catching up with an old friend after being apart for decades.