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‘We started a scene’: Minneapolis musicians remember the Longhorn Bar

by Andrea Swensson

May 15, 2015

Where does a music scene begin? How do we trace it all the way back to its beginning? The local rock community that we know and love today is so vast, so active, and so well connected that it's impossible to contain it in just one of the two Twin Cities, much less in a single venue. It's easy to take it for granted, too—there must have always been this much live, original music available, right?

The reality is that prior to 1980, the options for live music in this town were scarce. There were cover bands, sure, and there were plenty of places to go and dance to the disco music that had started dominating the scene in the mid-'70s. But to go out and see a rock band play their own music was unheard of, aside from the occasional random basement show or slapped-together event in a high school gymnasium.

A group of musicians, tastemakers, and bookers set out to change that in the mid to late 1970s. Inspired by New York's notorious East Village punk club CBGB and the underground scene that was starting to rise up like a new wave, a handful of scenesters got together to see about creating their own little scene in Minneapolis.

"There was a meeting," remembers Curtiss A, who fronted the band Thumbs Up with Bob "Slim" Dunlap. "I think we all met over at Andy Schwartz’s house over in Uptown. It was Randy Levy and Gary Marx [then with booking agency Schon Productions], and it was guys from Skogie and the Flaming Pachucos, and Prodigy [who would later become Flamingo, then the Flamin' Ohs], and the [Suicide] Commandos. During this meeting we decided, everybody go out and take a section of town and try to find places to play. And so somebody talked to the owners or the bookers over at the Longhorn."

Located on 5th and Hennepin in downtown Minneapolis, the Longhorn Bar started as a country-western club and had later been converted into a jazz club and restaurant. Around the time that the punk rock summit was held and local musicians started scouting out new spaces, the new owner of the Longhorn, Jay Berine, had a similar idea to reinvent his bar to cater to new wave and punk music. On June 1, 1977, the newly revamped Jay's Longhorn Bar opened its doors.

"Everyone will remember First Avenue and the Entry, and that’s great, but there was this place before that," notes budding filmmaker Mark Engebretson, who is currently working on a documentary about the Longhorn.

"The very first band that was booked to ever play there as that style was my husband Johnny Rey’s band, Flamingo," recalls Sharon Samels, who was one of the Longhorn's earliest regulars. "Back in those days, they were booked for one week, and they did three sets each night. Of course, that was my boyfriend so I started going there, and started to see other bands there. I believe the second band that was booked there was the Suicide Commandos, and then I believe the third week was Curtiss A. We would go every single night."

"It was a little bit like CBGB with Cheers mixed into it—you walk in and everyone knows your name," she adds, laughing.

Hugo Klaers, the drummer for the Suburbs, remembers a similar scene. "The Longhorn held 400 people, and the same 200 were there every night," he jokes. "There was no place else to go, for us. It was fifth and Hennepin, every night."

Klaers says that the Suburbs couldn't get a gig at the Longhorn when they first started out because Berine was leery of a band that only played original music. But once he took note of the wildly popular parties the Suburbs were throwing at their basement practice space over on Lake Street—some of which would draw upwards of 400 to 500 people—he decided to give them a chance at his club.

"It was just such a transition for the Suburbs, because we went from nobodies to this super popular band," Klaers remembers. "It was just crazy. The Longhorn shows were always packed, with people jumping on stage and playing, you know—it’s like we were meant for the Longhorn. As Kevin Bowe matter-of-factly said, 'You guys never even paid your dues! You were just automatically, instantly super popular. You guys just took over, and you had the Longhorn as your soapbox.'"

The Suburbs at the Longhorn (Photo by Paul Lundgren)


Before long it wasn't just local bands who were playing the Longhorn. Over the course of just three years, the bar hosted performances by Talking Heads, the B-52s, the Police, Iggy Pop, the Only Ones, Elvis Costello, and Blondie.

"Chan [Poling] and I sat in two chairs right in front of Deborah Harry," Klaers says. "I mean, I couldn’t take my eyes off of her and Clem Burke. I just can never fathom how they brought in some of the national acts. We played with the Talking Heads and Tina Weymouth’s bass broke, and [Suburbs bassist] Michael [Halliday] borrowed her his bass, and she played his bass for the rest of their show. We were in the kitchen of the Longhorn taking all these Polaroids with them, and Michael put his bass guitar in a case and said, 'I will never touch that again. Never again. Tina Weymouth played it, it’s now a souvenir.' So we were blown away that we were even getting to share the stage with these people, let alone talking to them."

Then there was the night when Bruce Springsteen was in the back of the Longhorn playing pinball while the Suburbs were up on stage. The Boss was in town supporting his then-new album, The River, and was immediately won over by the Burbs' brand of hard-driving new wave.

"After the show we were just talking to him and he’s like, how about if I come down and jam tomorrow night? And we were like, yeah, that would be so cool. So by the time we played on Saturday it was all over town that Bruce Springsteen was coming to jam with us. And we came off the stage after our set, before the encore, and there he was, and he was like, 'This is just insane. I gotta get out of here.' So this guy Kurt Nelson, who played in the reggae band Simba, we said 'Kurt, come up and play with us!' So we got back up and stage and we were like, 'We’ve got a special guest!'"

"The place just surged to the front, thinking "It's Springsteen!" And it was just little old me," Kurt Nelson recounts, laughing.

"And we go, it’s Kurt Nelson! And everybody’s like, whaaaat? So that was pretty funny," Klaers says.

"The next night, we went to Bruce’s show, and it was the night of my life," he continues, "because not only did we see a great show, but we went down into his dressing room and this guy comes in and says, 'Is there anybody from the Suburbs here?' And Chan and Bruce and Michael and I all raised our hand, and he goes, 'Come with me.' We went back in a locker room down there and Bruce comes out and there’s a case of Heineken down there, and we sat with him probably until 4:00 in the morning just talking about stuff. He told us, 'Don’t sign with a major label! Don’t sign. You guys are doing great with your label here, and you just gotta stick to your guns.' And of course we didn’t listen to him. We went out and signed with Polygram Records and that was the beginning of all the problems with us. So I learned a valuable lesson: When the Boss tells you something, you just do what he says."

The space at 5th and Hennepin that once housed the Longhorn (Photo by Steven Cohen)

After a few riotous years, the Longhorn changed hands and a new owner, Hartley Frank, converted the space into a pizza bar called Zoogies—a move that many musicians say significantly changed the vibe of the club. By that point, however, their community had grown and spread out to other venues around town, including Duffy's, Goofy's Upper Deck, and First Avenue's just-opened 7th St. Entry.

"We did something here that, whatever, it’s our own little niche, but we created something. We started a scene," says Curtiss A. "And now [Longhorn house DJ and Twin/Tone Records founder] Peter Jesperson is coming back to DJ—that is so cool to me, that we’re all still friends and we all still like each other. You know, a lot of stuff’s gone down, but even us punks can have a soft spot. This is our nostalgia. And it’s not so much mine, but I become part of someone else’s."

"It really is an opportunity for the people that heard about CBGB and heard about the new wave and the punk scene to come and see what it could have been like, what we were like," adds Sharon Samels, who organized Saturday's reunion show with her friend Greg Gehring. "Back then, the drinking age was 18 in Minnesota, so we were going there at 18, if not 17 and sneaking in. I always say, we kind of grew up together there."

The Longhorn Reunion is happening Saturday, May 16, at First Avenue, and will feature performances by the Sub-Commandos (members of the Suburbs and Suicide Commandos playing songs by both bands), Curtiss A, Hypstrz, Flamingo, and Yipes! More info here.

Photo by Steven Cohen

Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.