Jay’s Longhorn Reunion. The Community Lives On.


I have often riffed about how the best music is communal.  How my favorite shows aren’t just because the musicianship is stunning.  Or the songs engaging.  It’s not enough to simply appreciate what a band is doing.  Great show demands reciprocity from the audience.  They give as well as they get.  The encore Jay’s Longhorn Reunion at the sold out Parkway Theater was all of that.

A new documentary exploring the short life and immense impact of that seminal Minneapolis nightclub premiers today at The Parkway.  That sold out quickly.  A second screening is scheduled for Wednesday, April 3.  Tickets are available HERE.  If you hung out in that club, which became the launch pad for that early Minnesota punk scene, you will want to see it.  If you are a student of local music history, you also need to check it out.

At the same time that Jay’s was opening its doors back in 1977, I walked into another iconic and short-lived nightclub in South Bend, IN.  The bands were superb.  The artists loved venue.  The staff certifiably nuts.  And the patrons were absolutely passionate about the music.  On some level, we all knew that we were part of something rare and precious. 

Hundreds of us continue to gather about every five years for a reunion concert.  Everybody is older.  We share stories.  Mourn those who have passed away in the interim.  Introduce our own children and spouses to people with whom we share an important period in our lives.  The last time around, about three years ago, it was hard coming up with a national act to play that reunion that traced all the way back.  

Last night I learned that something very similar was going on at the same time here in the Twin Cities.  The Longhorn Reunion show was a tough ticket on the original night back in February and for the encore last night.  The venue was stuffed with people in their 60’s; a smattering of younger generation.  Perhaps a pilgrimage of discovery to learn more about their parents at the time they were moving from adolescence into adulthood.

What really set last night’s reunion apart from my own previous experiences was that this reunion was as much about the seven bands on the bill as it was about reuniting staff and patrons.  This was a chance for some of Minnesota’s most important musicians, who rode the curling edge of a wild scene, to meet again.  To reform their bands and jump on stage with each other.  Shed the ravages of time and to once again bring the noise.  It was a remarkable night, full of chance meetings and great music.  It was an inspiration.

It makes no sense to review seven bands in one written article.  Constituting the bill were Smart Alex, Kyx, Hypstrz, Fingerprints, Flamingo, Curtiss A and The Sub Commandos, an amalgamation of Chris Osgood’s Suicide Commandos and Chan Poling’s Suburbs.

Instead, I’ll share some impressions.  I may well be misguided; after all I wasn’t at The Longhorn when it was all going down.  However, seeing that show still has me reflecting on so many things which I believe make this town the Music Mecca that it is.  It was a bit like being in a room with the first Continental Congress for an American history buff.  It will get you thinking about the journey.

The Longhorn is remembered as a punk bar.  If last night’s bill was representative, it was a much more encompassing melting pot.  Admittedly, it’s hard to genuinely be punk when you’re in your sixth decade.  But the fact of the matter is that most of what was played from that stage last night was high energy, insistent rock.  Some classic sounds, and covers.  New Wave, blues and boogie. Great pop sensibilities.  Big hooks.  What made it cook, was attitude.  That’s why we called it punk. 

To me, punk has always been about burning it down.  It’s aggressive, angry and in no small part self destructive.  The punk that came out of this time and place was different.  It was a bit more middle class.  A lot more collaborative and a lot more musical.   All due respect to The Suicide Commandos’ Burn It Down (which was a 10 piece, flat out freight train last night), but Chris Osgood wasn’t walking the same path as Sid Vicious or John Lydon.  Minnesota punk was smart.  The scene was stuffed full of great players and talented songwriters.  They cut their teeth together.

So what happened to them all?  Where did all those Longhorn based bands go?  Some were lucky enough to catch a break.  The Suicide Commandos and Curtiss A were at the forefront.  Regulars who could fill the club on a regular basis.  On Bob Mould’s first night in town as a Macalaster student, he eschewed the freshman social and figured out the local bus system.  He went straight to The Longhorn because The Commandos were holding court.  Mould and Husker Du figured strongly in that early scene.  Had he not been committed at The Palace last night, one wonders if Mould would have made an appearance.

Some musicians moved on to day jobs and raised families.  A few have continued to work making music.  Flamingos, for instance, have a new record coming out in a couple months.  The Commandos put out a fine record about a year ago.  The Suburbs seem to have been resurrected in a big way.  Playing with Mott The Hoople in a couple days before hitting the road with all 9 pieces.  Sharing the stage with one of rock’s greatest bands.  Did anybody else notice that the All-Star jam going on at the Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony featured Ian Hunter, delivering All The Young Dudes?  That’s good stuff, Mr Poling.

There are a million players who dedicated themselves to rocking out when they were young men and women.  Thirty or forty years later, if you passed them at Target, they’d look just like the rest of us.  But the vast majority of the roughly 30 musicians who hit the stage last night looked different.  Those that still had hair, were still making a statement.  Nobody stepped on stage in a wardrobe that didn’t look the part.  These guys looked rock.  Weathered, for sure.  A few more pounds.  But in so many respects, unchanged.  

What we saw is who these people still are, rather than who they once were.  In those rare periods when a musical scene explodes somewhere, invariably it’s down to people.  People who don’t come to the stage seeking stardom.  They are people doing what they have to do.  It wasn’t a job back then any more than it is today.  It’s simply who they are and they have both the talent and generosity to share that gift.

It wasn’t only the musicians who looked like real life rockers on the stage.  The audience garb was also something to behold.  Carefully curated t-shirts, battered leather jackets, boots.  Some may have been a wee bit tight.  But think about it.  If you’ve ever attended a reunion, be it school, family or something like this, a part of you thinks seriously about how you want to look.  Maybe it’s to remind others how you used to be.  Maybe it’s to impress on others who you have become.  The Longhorn crowd had unwritten rules and it seemed everybody received them.  You dress like a young person headed out to dance the night away.  This is about a shared time and place.

And, ladies, I just want to say that you all looked beautiful!  You may spend most of your time in Mom jeans these day.  Many of you are now pitching in with grand kids.  But last night, the old stuff came out of the closet and years melted away.

Another revelation came while watching the women crowd the stage and dance their hearts out.  The late 70’s was a battle ground for culture.  Music, fashion, taste.  Rock’s glory days at the opening of the decade were fading.  Try to name big classic albums released as the decade waned.  Punk had exploded and was beginning to grow up as a genre; looking for a new voice and direction.  All of it was being swept away by the tides of Disco and Line Dancing.

As last night proved, rock music was dance music long before those others showed up.  Punk was much the same, except it incorporated pogo-ing and slamming into bodies next to you.  Disco was all about the blow-dryer, polyester and choreographed moves.  You learned the steps.  Getting weird and letting the music bounce you was verboten.  Not much different when it came to artificial bull riding and line dancing.  Just add a Stetson, cowboy boots and rhinestones on your shirt.  Grab your belt with a ridiculous buckle and do exactly the same as everybody else.  As if any of them had ever ridden a pony outside of the county fair!

No man on earth did more to threaten rock culture than John Travolta.  May the movies “Saturday Night Fever” and “Urban Cowboy” burn in hell for eternity!  They drew the battle lines in every town as rock clubs and discos faced off.  In an era of sky high interest rates and back to back recessions, the outcome of that battle was written in stone.  Bands cost money.  Really good ones cost a pretty penny.  And they deserve it.  Records are free.  Do the math.  Iconic clubs closed all over the land.

I felt good last night, surrounded by people who fought that tide the best they could.  I reveled in watching them crowd the stage to dance.  I witnessed community alive and well.  We may have lost that major skirmish back in the early 80’s.  But we won the war.  We still grab our favorite t-shirt, squeeze into our jeans and dance without rules or self respect.  Our blow dried, polyester brethren were all sitting in front of the boob tube last night watching commercials on network TV.  Their heads hit the pillow by 10.

But before you think I overly sing the praises of an age and a community, let it be acknowledged that all of us have aged.  Some remain committed to the scene.  I see those faces out at shows.  They are people who through word of mouth come out to support what is once again a bustling young rock scene in the Twin Cities.  Some were there simply because it was a reunion. 

We’re not all hardcore.  I actually found myself chuckling because midway through Smart Alex’s opening set, the place was packed.  By the time The Sub Commandos took to the stage around 12:15 for their brilliant 7 song set, half the crowd had headed for home.  Midnight is still midnight to a grandparent.  Those that stayed, packed to the front to dance.  Remember the days when even contemplating heading out to the club prior to 10 pm was considered uncool? 

Like I said in the beginning of this reflection, I wasn’t there when Jay’s Longhorn was the epicenter of the scene.  Part of me is sorry I missed it.  I would have enjoyed being one of those walking up and down the aisle, seeing somebody I hadn’t seen for nearly 40 years.  There were hugs and laughter everywhere.  And no shortage of drinks.  I suspect some people are a bit fuzzy today. 

For the musicians themselves, it was also a special night.  Between sets they mingled with the crowd.  It must have been heartwarming to have people come up to say how much they enjoyed the set.  About how much they loved their band when they were growing up.  About how their art made a difference to them.  Isn’t that what most artists crave?  Some kind of acknowledgment that what they do is worthwhile and will continue to live in the world for years to come?

One of the frontmen from the evening laughed and said:  “Hey, I remember all you guys!  We all look the same.”  For a few hours, that was true.

In my own mind, if there’s a guy who’s the nexus, it’s Commandos’ founder Chris Osgood.  Bob Mould called him friend and mentor.  Last night Chan Poling called him friend and mentor.  Seeing him on stage with all his talented friends was worth the wait and one hell of a way to conclude a party. 

Osgood looked out into the audience before they commenced to knock the walls down.  He thanked the people who put together the event and acknowledged the film’s director Mark Engebretson.  Then he smiled and said:  The most important thing to remember is that we were Really.  Really.  Lucky!”