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 form the guy playing in the corner becomes no more than a kind of coaster you set a beer on.
If you look up from your conversation and actually see the guy in the corner, I mean really see him, you might wonder why in the world he does it. Schlepping the equipment into a room that smells like seven day old tap beer, or worse, and then tuning up while people cast sidelong glances, hoping he won’t play so loud that they can’t have a decent conversation. Those first few songs, when the crowd is probably drunk and the musician is not – yet – a kind of battle ensues. The loudmouths in front who shout “Freebird,” sometimes freighted with irony and sometimes in dead earnest. The bar floozy who wobbles in close, clapping out of time and singing along with a tune only she knows. The hipsters, arms crossed in back, smirking at a working musician.
On some nights, there will be real actual fans or at least people open to the artist in front of them and a mutual spark will occur. Part way into good song, even the louder ones will begin to shut their pie holes and listen, and the room, indifferent for much of the evening, will actually give it up when the song ends, whistling and clapping. Even then though, the magic may not last and the crowd will subside back into itself, leaving the guy in the corner alone with his songs and his guitar.
A silent tick of the clock will come and the people with jobs, kids, cars that work and houses they own, will tap the bar table in front of them and say, “I’m out.” By the end of the night, the musician might be left with a few stragglers who have none of those things and end to intermittent slow claps. A few mercy drinks from the bartender, and then it’s time to coil up the cords, put the guitar in a battered case and haul the amp.
So pity the poor working musician, whose nightly task yields enough bucks to make it to the next gig. There is no health insurance, no calling in sick, no vacation days. There is only — and this is for the lucky ones — a promise of many more nights of same.
Except when those people go home from the bar, maybe one or two of them whistling or humming a song they heard, many will then stare down their own lives. Making or selling crap no one really wants, working for people whose job it is to keep them in harness, and raising kids who keen for more no matter what they are given. When 7 a.m. alarm goes off, they wake up in a house that owns them, get in a car owned by a bank, and go to a job that whose owners could send their job off-shore with the flick of a pen. Whether they know it or not, or admit it or not, they probably work for some rich jackass they never met who probably was born on third base.
Meanwhile, what of the guy in the corner, the one whose guitar bears the scars of more than 5,000 gigs. What if, instead of going to their jobs, they stopped by his cozy house inNortheast Minneapolisfor a coffee. There he is with his dog, the coffee pot is on, and if the Gods allow, a cute waitress that served both you and him drinks the night before. He is waking up slowly, noodling a few songs, re-tuning his songwriting guitar. He spends a little time on the computer lining up his next few gigs and then gets on the phone to work out a little recording he has planned. His day, his life, belongs to him, and when evening comes, he will strap on the guitar, check the mike and the battle will begin anew.
Now who is the fool, who is wasting their life?
Civilians, if they are lucky, will get to the end of the road, and will have managed their way through the job, the mortgage, the college bills and the credit cards to a crabbed retirement in a town they have grown to hate. The luckier ones will immerse themselves in golf, or watching sports, or yelling invective at the politicians on their television.
Meanwhile, the musician will warm himself by the bonfire of all he has done, all he has seen, all the glories that have floated into his ear, propelled by the thump of a kick drum and a plucked guitar.
What if that guy in the corner had handed a tape to Bob Dylan, slipped Jerry Garcia some mushrooms, taught Bruce Springsteen a riff, and played in front of 20,000 people atTexasstadium on national television? What if he had made and re-made bands that created magic, knocked the roof off bars, and jammed with some of the biggest names the business had ever conjured. What if that guy had written songs that any one would be proud to play, songs full of real people and real meaning? And consider that he might have accomplished many of childhood dreams. Gigging in New York and Los Angeles, playing a sold out solo show at the now destroyed Guthrie Theater, and playing in a tribute to Woody Guthrie at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with any number of rock and folk royalty.
A life where the best part is shooting boogie golf with an indifferent group of friends on a public course in a third-ring suburb doesn’t sound quite so great now.
What if that guy had made his way inMinneapolis, one of the coolest music towns on the planet, and recorded, jammed and showed up for the best of his cohort? Don’t even start about the number of benefits, special shows and gorgeous outdoor gigs. And let’s not get into the girls and women along the way, because you might begin to weep.
What if that guy, the one few were paying attention to the night before, is actually someone who has trouble buying a drink in any bar because there is always someone who saw that “one show” at the Union Bar with a rocking band or caught an inspired solo show at the Dakota? What if our lone loser in the corner, is actually a hero, a man who cast off the mundane blandishments of every day life and went for it, pushing his music and his career as far as it would go?
It would be easy to envy him if he got all the cash and prizes, if the fickle gaze of the music business landed on him for more than a second and the tape he played for John Hammond Sr. got him signed to a big label. But even though he shot for the moon and missed – Paul Metsa will tell you that one of the upsides of obscurity is that you never go out of style – he still ended up a star.
Anybody who knows Paul Metsa will tell you that for a folk singer, he always had the rock star thing down. He had the leather coat, the sunglasses, the skinny jeans and the stunt hair from jump. Paul mastered the art of the entrance, whether it was for a big gig or the morning walk of shame into a bar, from the very beginning.
Let me say it plain. I knew a few rockers in my days inMinneapolisas a young working reporter and have met many famous ones since, and I always loved running with Paul Metsa. Literate to a fault, the owner of dark, heh-heh repertoire of observational humor, and remarkably open to the next caper, Paul always carried a barrel of monkeys in his back pocket.
I have seen Paul at the height of his powers. I was there the night he played the Guthrie, taking his wireless guitar up to the top tier of that secularly sacred space and wailing as all heads turned. I have seen him get a notion playing solo at Nye’s Polonaise when something sort of kicked in and he leaned into song in a way that made it jump, morph and elide. I’ve seen him work a stage patter that would make Loudon Wainwright or John Prine seem quaint and watched him close a sudden date with a pretty fan in under five minutes. As our mutual friend Fast Eddie would say, that boy can talk more shit than a landlord on rent day. Who else could come up with a 30 year retrospective on time-served in theMinneapolismusic scene – “Skyway to Hell” – and sell out the Parkway Theater?
And then there’s the songs. Not to start a brawl, or disrespect Paul, but my favorite Metsa song of all time is also my favorite Christmas song, a supposed throwaway for a promo album for a shopping center. You can keep your “White Christmas,” every year when the season arrives, “Christmas at Molly’s” hops on the playlist and stays there. “Pass the malt … and the … mistletoe … It’s almost Christmas Day.” It’s Paul at his best as a writer and performer, a voice dipped in theIronRangesinging out long and strong in a simple, unadorned arrangement, pushing out words that ring truer and deeper as they go. I defy anyone to listen and decide they still hate Santa Claus and Christmas.
There are many, many others. The poetics of “Stars Under the Prairie,” the overt political jeremiad of “Ferris Wheels on the Farm,” the historical mysteries of “Jack Ruby.” His roots as the grandson of a barkeep in a brutally cold working town come through both bare-knuckled and sweet in “Virginia” (Check that guitar son), “St. Louis County Fair,” and “59 Coal Mines.”
One of Paul’s charms is that he was not only a student of music, but a true fan. Yes, he was a bit of purist about the blues, and he could be a pain in the ass during a set from a foofy folk singer, but in the main, he loved music the same whether he was at the mike or clapping on the woman or man who was doing same. I have hooted along with him when Doug Maynard wailed, Paul Westerberg screamed, or Prudence Johnson killed it. He was anything but a snob around music, an omnivore who had his own style but was capable of admiring the work and approach of others, in part because he knew what they made look so easy was actually brutally hard.
It would be a lie of omission to say that, like so many other artists and musicians, Paul didn’t make it a bit harder than it had to be. I would marvel along with the crowd when he hit the stage at the Cabooze and killed it, but I was the only one that knew we had been on a three day run with only cat naps in between visits to a guy called Mr. Microwave who made batches of a special smokable potion that could make angels turn against their better natures.
We were not angels. Far from it. I can remember one morning when we pulled ourselves out of Tony the Hat’s basement, a lair inSouth Minneapoliswhere the coke wrap was thick and many unrealized plans and dreams were worked to a nub. We went to the CC bar inSouth Minneapolis. The morning light was brutal and we ducked in, glad to be back in the womb of darkness. Some woman had brought her young child for breakfast on a bar stool and he took a look at the three of us and said, “Those are bad men, mommy.”
No, we were not bad guys, just a little moronic. Tony was a bit of a gangster, but had a heart with capacity and ferociousness of a lion. Paul and I were dilettantes who tipped over into some chronic habits, me much more so than Paul. But I will say this. If you stay up too long, drink too much, and ingest too many dry goods, you are bound to tire of the company around you. I never got tired of Paul. He brought gallows humor to the game at hand, laughing as we wobbled our way to the end of the run. He saw us for the fools we were at the time and never pretended otherwise.
And there were many times in between. I regret none of the bad pool playing and brown liquor we put away in backroom of McCready’s before it burned down. Party hopping with Paul after the bar close was and probably still is – I live inNew Jerseynow – a stone gas. Musicians, so full of articulation and vividness on stage, frequently shrink when they step off the riser. When Paul wrapped up a gig, he got more interesting, not less, because a person who read the paper, talked about ideas and engaged in the civic matters at hand. He was both a Ranger and a student of the world who had been places and done things, so he backed up for no one in an argument.
And for a supposedly slacker, Paul never let it rest, whether he was booking acts at Famous Dave’s or working his next gig. I say no to outside writing stuff because I have a day job as a reporter that keeps me plenty busy, and, as much as I love Paul, was not anxious to take on an intro to a book. But Paul didn’t drop me an e-mail and cross his fingers. He called up, did the ask in an honest and direct way. It’s hard to say no to Paul. That’s why four decades into putting his hands on a guitar, he still eats by plucking at it. Every break he got was the result of relentless industry and yes, self-promotion, which every working musician needs to get his arms around.
The book you are about to read is an epic van ride through music history that is no less vivid for the fact that it didn’t end up in rock stardom. The story, as you will see, has a bit of Prince Hal to it. The charming, good times guy who found himself under a bar table, picked himself up, dusted off, and then took over the world. Except the “took over the world” part.
Paul, ever the rock star, has yet to achieve rock stardom. He has the records – “Whistling Past the Graveyard,” “Mississippi Farewell,” “Lincoln’s Bedroom” and a bunch of others – but knowing Paul, there is not tons of loot stashed away from all those gigs he has done. So the hustle continues. The book. The digital record label he christened where you can buy his duet album with Sonny Earl, “No Money Down.” The website that hosts the words and music to “Second Avenue Sunset.” He runs like he is being chased, which he is in a way. A day job in the hands of Paul Metsa would be a scary, awkward thing.
And make no mistake, if the money is right, or just the mood, he will come and plug in. Paul is, and always will be, a working musician. And if a couple of know-nothing punks wander into his gig and wonder who the hell the guy in the corner thinks he is, they have no idea what they are talking about. This cat under the stars has lived countless lives, some of them borrowed, some of them spent, and has seen things their cramped, quotidian lives will never know.
Music, anyone will tell you, is something that will nourish your soul, while the business part will suck it out with equal force. Paul explains as much in “Whistling Past the Graveyard”: “The faith that will save you will also break your back.” All in, within the four corners of the book you are about to read and life it etches, that seems like a fair trade. That guy in the corner? This world has exacted its price, but it’s equally true that he has it by the balls.