Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Closing Time: Saloons, Taverns, Dives, and Watering Holes of the Twin Cities'

'Closing Time' by Bill Lindeke and Andy Sturdevant.
'Closing Time' by Bill Lindeke and Andy Sturdevant. (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Did you know that Cuzzy's has a ghost? She's named Betsy, believed to be the earthly echo of Elizabeth Maurer — a member of the family that ran Maurer's Bar before it was renamed in 1995. Bashed nearly into oblivion, with parts of the building being physically hacked away to cut down on maintenance and give cars more room to park, it's one of the Twin Cities' oldest bars in continuous operation, with a history dating to the 1880s.

Closing Time, a new book by Bill Lindeke and Andy Sturdevant, pays tribute to centuries of Betsys: those sturdy proprietors, sometimes sharing a bar's name and sometimes not, who keep the good ship Cutty Sark sailing into the lowballs of thirsty locals. You could imagine any of them having ghosts, from Louie Sirian (who stood watch over Lee's Liquor Lounge until selling it in 2015) to Matt Bristol (who was just taking ownership of the former Nib's Tavern when the jucy lucy was invented there in 1955, later to die on the very day then-President Barack Obama bit into a burger in 2015).

If you've spent any time in the Twin Cities, particularly if you enjoy an adult beverage every now and again, you honor your own ghosts and celebrate the legacies of those establishments still standing. That includes the Red Dragon (whose signature Wondrous Punch immigrated south with a former chef at the Nankin Cafe downtown, where it had been called the "Wanderer's Punch" for its tendency to keep its imbibers from walking a straight line), the CC Club (where ever since Paul Westerberg wrote a song about them, the regulars never seem to get any older), and of course Palmer's.

Among the several dozen establishments covered in Closing Time (a book that doesn't include the 400 Bar, the establishment that inspired the Semisonic song), Palmer's is probably the most significant music venue — from its heyday as a home for the '60s folk scene up through the present, when Romantica bassist Tony Zaccardi runs it with loving care. Did you know that wedge that's chopped out of the bar's second story was bashed out to make way for a short-lived pedestrian bridge crossing Cedar Avenue? In the utopian '70s, there were even dreams of a West Bank people mover a la Disney World.

That's the kind of fun fact you learn from Closing Time, which also finds its authors engaging in some gentle mythbusting. No, F. Scott Fitzgerald never drank at the Commodore bar: he did live in the hotel for a time, but the bar didn't open until 15 years after the literary lion had flown the coop. Those two bullet holes in the Richard Avedon photo at the Black Forest Inn didn't come from a Whittier shoot-out: they were blown by a regular who said he just got tired of looking at those old ladies, and who subsequently turned himself into the police. (It might be an indication of his state that he shot three times, and somehow managed to miss the wall-size photo once.)

The first bar in the book is, of course, Pig's Eye Parrant's St. Paul saloon — a bar that temporarily managed to lend its proprietor's name to the whole community despite only being open for two years. Father Lucien Galtier showed up in 1841, the same year Pig's Eye closed his caveside shop, and gave Minnesota's future capital its more respectable name. Real-life Pig's Eye, we learn, was a much creepier-looking character than the genial City Councilman Dave Thune, who posed as the one-eyed whiskey-slinger for the label of Pig's Eye beer in the '90s.

Pressed for space, Lindeke and Sturdevant skip Jay's Longhorn, but they hit Halftime Rec — the St. Paul joint famed for Irish music and for its appearance in Grumpy Old Men, albeit with false walls that made it hard to recognize unless you knew to look for the distinctive red door. They also include the Blue Nile, the Ethiopian restaurant on Franklin Avenue that became a gathering spot for African and Middle Eastern immigrants as well as a hopping venue for jazz and spoken word (Dessa and Desdamona were among the artists who honed their chops at the Blue Nile) and a cradle for Minnesota's burgeoning craft taps.

The establishments dearest to the authors' hearts aren't, for the most part, located in either downtown. They're the joints in the nearby neighborhoods that were carved out of a longstanding ban on residential watering holes, effective from 1884 to 1974. Among those zones are Northeast Minneapolis, the West Bank, and a patch of Seward known as "the Hub of Hell." Belly up at the Hexagon Bar, another still-active music venue, and imagine a bar packed with surly truck drivers boozing it up to "oom-pah" music, and you'll have a sense of the scene there in the '50s.

Paging through the book, you're bound to come across a few spots you wish you could have hit up. For me that includes the Grotto, a bar built to evoke an undersea cavern for travelers at St. Paul's Union Depot who wanted to get away from it all. (Bulldozed a hundred years ago.) There's also Moby Dick's, a Hennepin Avenue bar where you only knew you'd really been 86ed if you got thrown out the back door, not just the front. (It's now Mayo Clinic Square in downtown Minneapolis.) Then, of course, there's the perfectly-named Payne Reliever on guess what street on St. Paul's East Side (the notorious strip club is now a senior center, and you have to imagine at least some of the patrons have fond memories of Dallas the dancer with her snake Lightning).

Of course, the book includes Nye's, infamously named "the best bar in America," bar none (so to speak), by Esquire in 2006. A longtime favorite of union workers due to its unionized staff, Nye's didn't start to acquire its hipster reputation until City Pages staffers who liked to pound the ivories started talking it up as a "piano bar" in the '90s. By the Esquire era, it was beloved nationwide for the karaoke piano experience with "Sweet Lou" Snider presiding. (She showed her less-than-sweet side, we learn, if you requested "Sweet Caroline" one too many times.)

Today, the old Nye's is gone, replaced by a giant development and "a zombie version of Nye's." ("Not a lot of new memories seemed to be forming in there," write Lindeke and Sturdevant, who unfortunately weren't at zombie Nye's on Thanksgiving night 2019. I'll say no more.)

One of the authors remembers sitting at Nye's sometime between 2006 and 2016, drinking with friends and chuckling at the BEST BAR IN AMERICA banner. Then, they got thoughtful. "You know," said one person at the table, "it's funny. Maybe it's not the best bar in America. But I can't really think of one that's better."

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March 11: Cool Town: How Athens, Georgia Launched Alternative Music and Changed American Culture by Grace Elizabeth Hale (buy now)

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