Tuesday, June 21, 2005

My Karl Mueller Story

Amsterdam before noon always reminds of the feeling you have when you wake up and find your house trashed and people sleeping on your couch the night after a great party. There is gray haze that lifts around noon, when people start to think about doing whatever it is they do, again. I am sure there are people in Amsterdam who go to work in the morning and go home to their families at night. I’ve never seen those Dutch people; then again, I don’t go looking for them.

Riding the train in from Amersfoort with my friend Ryan and his sister Andrea my stomach is spinning and contorting inside my torso. I try to point my green nauseous head towards the empty seats in front of me and just focus on a single spot and wait out the ride.

We walk from the train station towards where we think the Bulldog is. Ryan and I desperately need something to fill our legs with blood again. We buy a couple tall cans of beer from a small, dirty store and find some chairs set out in front of a café that has not opened yet. It is 10:30 in the morning and the three of us discuss what to do for the day. Ryan and I are nursing our morning beer and Andy is looking at us with bewilderment.

A giant is walking down the street towards where we are sitting. He is over six feet tall and at least 250 pounds. He has wild unkempt hair like licking flames of the sun trying to escape his skull. He has a beard and wears dirty, grungy clothes: this is 1994. He is obviously American and he walks with determination holding a stack of green postcard size paper. As he walks by the table where we sit he lays one sheet of the green paper down. We all watch him walk away and then our eyes float toward the green piece of paper. We, in unison, look at the paper, look at each other, and then back at the paper.

“Does that say what I think it does?” I ask.

“Yeah. Holy Shit!” Ryan exclaims.

Printed on the paper was a picture of four scruffy Minnesota grunge guys and in print it said: SOUL ASYLUM / The Paradiso / Amsterdam.

Ten hours later the three of us are drinking warm German beer and smoking cigarettes inside a beautiful converted church with stain glass windows and elaborate, articulate woodwork. We stand stage right directly in front of where the bass player is set up.

The band walks out and fills the church with feedback and the crowd goes silent, attentive, and ready to erupt. Just when the feedback reaches such intensity that you swear you can actually hear your heart vibrating sympathetic tones: the band falls into Somebody to Shove.

This is the first of many times I would see Soul Asylum perform. They rock for two hours and the Dutch kids are flying all over the place. This is the politest moshing and stage-diving I have ever seen. After the final encore, there is a scramble for anything left on the stage such as set lists and picks and drumsticks. Failing to procure any of that stuff, Ryan finds Karl Mueller’s can of Heineken, still one-third full. The three of us finish it off and Ryan carries it with him on the train back to Amersfoort.

He proudly displayed that can in his dorm room until the day we left Europe. There were many nights listening to Put the Bone In on repeat and singing along, drunkenly, merrily.

The music scene of Minneapolis was one of the reasons I moved to Minneapolis three years later. I can’t make any grand conclusions about Karl’s life. I can’t make any knowledgeable statements about what Karl Mueller meant to the scene. However, I can say that Soul Asylum is legendary in this town and when I think of Soul Asylum, I think of that empty green Heineken can carried from continent to continent and from coast to coast. I remember my first weekend in Minnesota, standing for hours in the cold outside the 400 bar, waiting to see them play. I remember the Thanksgiving eve shows and walking home to Loring Park drunk as hell and being hung-over as I tried to keep the turkey and stuffing down the next day. These are tremendous memories for me. Thank you Soul Asylum for being there, and thanks for the beer Karl.

Friday, June 10, 2005

His Barstool of Choice (revisited)

Larry had been frequenting his pub of choice, The Shamrock, since he moved to Fridley last summer. It was the kind of establishment where mullets, white tennis shoes, and denim were accepted and encouraged. The first time he walked into the bar, Motorhead was blasting from the jukebox. Larry knew he had found a home.

He started coming twice a week, then three or four times a week, and eventually he was there every night. Larry always sat in the same place: at the near end of the rectangular bar, at the first barstool by the wall directly in front of the taps. He drank Michelob Golden Light and smoked Marlboro reds. Frank the Bartender, still though, could never remember. Frank the Bartender knew the other regulars and their preferences, but when it came to Larry, Frank the Bartender never seemed to remember him from one night to the next. Looking and feeling unremarkable his whole life, Larry was used to this. He took pride in his anonymity.

The Shamrock was a local’s kind of place. Everyone knew each other, even if they didn’t necessarily speak to each other. It was a comfortable domain.

Then one night things changed in a peculiar way. A beautiful man walked through the door to the tune of Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town.” The man had dark, wavy, and slightly greasy, shoulder-length hair and smooth unwrinkled skin. His brilliant green eyes immediately commanded attention. Larry would not normally call a man beautiful, but that is the word that immediately came to the front of his brain. The man was with two squirrelly looking men. They came in, sat in a corner booth and kept to themselves until closing time. They were drinking Guinness and smoking American Spirit cigarettes. All the regulars went about their routine: shooting stick, playing pinball, and pumping quarters into the jukebox for Motorhead, all the while, keeping one suspicious eye on that corner booth.

The next night, all the regulars were there plus the beautiful man and his friends. Then something odd happened: two young, thin, blonde girls opened the front door. They apprehensively scanned all the bodies in the building until their search found its aim. Once their eyes locked on to the beautiful man’s they strolled in as casually as two giddy blondes could. They sat at the booth adjacent to the beautiful man and his squirrelly entourage and ordered a couple shots of courage.

Subsequent nights followed the same pattern. Within a week, the place was packed nightly with young women trying their luck at wooing the beautiful man. Larry sat at his barstool of choice, with his back to the front door, trying to glean insight from the bar chatter. Apparently, the beautiful man was a film actor. Larry heard the man’s name was Colin Farrell. Larry had never heard of him.

After a month, The Shamrock had turned into an MTV-spring break-girls gone wild kind of place — tanned young ladies baring their boobs in tabletop dances; Frank the Bartender furiously scanning his bartenders guide to find recipes for exotic mixed drinks; Colin sitting quietly in the corner; unfazed.

It was on one of these awkward nights that Helena stepped into The Shamrock to the tune of Motley Crue’s “Girls, Girls, Girls.” She, not unlike all the girls who walked into the bar, looked nervously around with her eyes darting from jean jacket to table-dance to jean jacket trying to find the reason she came in. Helena was wearing a plunging, black V-neck shirt with slight lace around the fringes, tight white jeans, and black sandals. Her straight blond hair shone through the smoke and darkness of the bar.

Helena found the empty barstool to the right of Larry and sat slowly and carefully. She looked at Larry and then dug a picture out of her pocket and studied the young man in the picture and then Larry and then the picture. She did this dance until she was sure.

Helena crossed her legs and pointed them at Larry. She stared into the side of his stubbled face trying to will his attention. After several minutes of failing to capture his eyes, she coughed slightly and cleared her throat; Larry still did not turn towards her. Helena uncrossed her legs, took a deep breath, then spoke nervously, but clearly, “You look just like your brother.” Larry’s heart leapt into his throat and his palms began to sweat. He wished, oh God he wished, that he were anywhere but right here at this exact moment. He started to turn towards Helena, but caught himself and instead focused on a spot just below the Miller High Life tap in front of him.

“I wasn’t sure how… I mean… I knew it was you… right when I saw you.” Helena’s voice cracked, but she was losing her inhibition. She was gaining confidence. “I knew it was you.”

It had been three years since Larry had seen his brother Thomas. It had been three years since anybody had seen Thomas. It was right after Larry had run away from home for what would be the last time. Thomas had borrowed his new girlfriend Helena’s car and drove around trying to find Larry. It was raining and the interstate was a slip-n-slide. From what Larry imagined it was broken glass and bent metal and the jaws-of-life and the helicopter flying Thomas quickly to the doctors that would tell Larry’s mother the news. Larry was not allowed to go to Thomas’s funeral. Larry has not spoken to his mother for three years. He has not spoken of Thomas for just as long.

“I knew I would find you someday,” Helena said. “Because Tommy never did, but also, I wanted to see Tommy in you. I miss him. I can see him right here, in you.”

Larry drank his Michelob in big gulps and then inhaled slowly, but deeply from the Marlboro attached to his lips. He looked at Helena with fright and anger and with red in his eyes. He looked at her as if she was a ghost. He saw Thomas in her as well. He couldn’t think of anything to say, he just had swirling thoughts in his head; they were colliding and destroying each other before any thought could be finished.

“I took this picture the morning Tommy died. This is him: forever seventeen.” Helena said, a little less assured now. She had dreamed of finding Larry, but now that she had him, she was unsure of what she needed from him. She felt sick and the noxious smoke and the boozy body-odor of the packed bar traveled through her nose and down her throat stirring up her stomach acid. “Can I see the picture?” Larry asked quietly.

“I have never seen this picture before, it’s weird, ya know?” Larry’s eyebrows dipped down towards his nose causing his eyes to squint slightly, his lips got tight as if trying to hold his tongue and his teeth in place. “It’s funny to see a picture of him I haven’t seen before. It’s like another second of his life I get to share. It’s like he lived a second longer.” Larry tried to find the right words to make sense to Helena, and to make sense to himself. Larry looked back down at the picture and ran his fingers through his unwashed hair. Larry opened his relaxed his jaw and parted his lips to speak, but Helena, now green with nausea said frantically, “I’ve got to go Larry, maybe I’ll see you again.” She put the picture back in her pocket, stumbled quickly out the door, and vomited on the street in the space between the curb and the wheel of a Ford F-150 pickup truck.

Just then, and just as Billy Joel’s ”Piano Man” ended, a bright light appeared, shining through the shaded windows up front. It was yellow like the sun parked on the street outside. Without exception, every head in The Shamrock turned towards the entrance in anticipation. The chatter silenced; the jukebox was stuck in the space between songs; the cue balls were waiting to be struck; the pinballs were waiting to be launched into orbit. The light could have held the bar hostage forever, but instead, faded, and just as mysteriously, the cacophony of the barroom restarted.

It was a couple days before Larry made it back to The Shamrock. He had spent those days in his dark apartment lying in bed listening to the classic rock station and writing letters to his dead brother. They all began with, “I am sorry….” Larry walked in to the silent smattering of locals, the actor stopped showing up and the young firm princesses stopped showing up as well. It was back to just the regulars and the place seemed barren. Larry walked, with his head down, to his barstool of choice and pulled the stool to his right close by. He motioned to Frank the Bartender and ordered a Guinness and a pack of American Spirit cigarettes.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Fading Out

The light above you is flickering fluorescent rhythms on your head

The doctor’s gray hair and deep, wrinkled eyes give you a feeling

Of hope and trust. He pulls out diagrams of your anatomy and points

To the parts that are living death,

The parts they will pry from your collapsing chest.

The doctor can tell you what it takes to live,

But his somber stare

Falls to the floor when you ask,

“What is it like to die?”

I was in the car when you called and

I told you what they ripped from me

I tried to make it easy. I said the fight is not all in your fists

It is in your will and your soul and your guts

I told you to wake up each day with faith and to be

The person you and I always wished you’d be

I said, “Try it. Nothing will take away your courage; your mind;

Your you.”

I said all that in the spaces between silences and sobs. It is not

In our nature to cry, especially not to each other.

I said all that while in a daze.

I thought later, that what I meant to say was, “It’s like a swarm of a million

Black bees, aiming their death upon the body; your city.”

Then later after they took your lung, and shortly before God

Reclaimed your body; There was the last call.

I was in a dusty, downtown apartment and you were prone

In that hospital bed they moved into the house a half a country away.

And you spoke through oxygen tubes with what was left of your mind.

You were fading out over the telephone. You

Managed to breathe softly to me, “Son.

You were wrong. There is nothing Cancer Can’t take From you.”