Mark Engebretson Q&A

February 10, 2020
Mark Engebretson preserves a magical time in Minneapolis musical history with his documentary "Jay's Longhorn."

“Minneapolis was one of the few cities in America with a punk rock and new wave scene in 1977. It was all new and fresh. And Jay’s Longhorn was the epicenter. You knew it was the place to be, where you’d hear new and creative music, meet like-minded people in a scene that was completely underground.”

When did you get the idea of doing a documentary on Jay’s Longhorn?

I started thinking about it around 2001. But it took several years before I became serious. When I heard that the Suicide Commandos were going to do a reunion show on March 1, 2014, at First Avenue, I thought: “It’s now or never.” That date was the beginning of production. I completed the film about five years later and had the premiere on March 30, 2019, at the Parkway Theater.

You did 60 on-camera interviews for the documentary. Was it difficult to cut the film down to its running time?

Yes, it was very difficult. When I started editing, I had an outline and several storylines in mind but no transcripts. At some point, it became a bit overwhelming. Luckily for me, I met Jeff Baustert, a Chicago-based filmmaker originally from Minneapolis. Jeff became an early supporter of the film, a cheerleader, and trusted advisor. He also was instrumental in acquiring transcripts of my interviews. The transcripts jump-started the editing process, allowing me to organize and write the scenes on paper first before editing in earnest in Final Cut Pro.

If there were any justice in the world the Suburbs would have been huge and so would have Curtiss A. Is there any doubt in your mind that with the right break either could have crossed over?

In my opinion, there’s no doubt they should have made it big. The Suburbs were so unique and evolved into a powerhouse band with great original material. Curtiss A floored me the first time I heard him sing at the Longhorn — just as he did a few weeks ago at the Schooner Tavern. They were very different — musically, of course, but also in their desire to make it. The Suburbs really wanted it, while Curt was indifferent. In the extras of the Jay’s Longhorn DVD, Chan talks about the frustrations of being an extremely popular local act that couldn’t “crack the nut” nationally. Ultimately, that led to the band breaking up. (Of course, the Suburbs are back and as musicians sound better than ever and with new material.) Meanwhile, Curt didn’t want anyone telling him what to do. He simply lives and loves to play music. In the DVD extras, he talked about not wanting the responsibility of worrying, for example, about whether canceling a tour would be a financial hardship for his band.

Was this your first film project? Did it end up feeling like more work than you originally anticipated?

It definitely was more work than I expected. But it was great fun the entire time. It was a thrill to get to know the people I admired so much during that time — The Suicide Commandos, Flamingo, Curt, the Suburbs, Peter Jesperson, Marty Keller, and so many more. I felt great satisfaction in completing the project and was surprised and blown away by the positive response from the local music community. So, “the work,” was really worth it.

The film seemed as much a love letter to record store Oar Folkjokeopus and the label Twin Tone as the Longhorn. Has there ever been a time where we had a trifecta like that?

I’m getting beyond my expertise here and don’t want to sound like a 60-something stuck in nostalgia but I do think it really was special. That’s why I did the documentary. It was before First Avenue became what it is now and I thought it was important to shine a light on that brief bit of Minneapolis music history. A lot of things came together during that period and the people involved — all relative youngsters — made things happen on a shoestring with a DIY mentality. This scene took place, obviously, before the Internet and social media. And because there was no radio support, being part of a “live” scene was really the only option for someone wanting to hear — or even learn about — this kind of music. That meant you went to the Longhorn to hear the bands and to listen to the DJs spin records by bands you couldn’t hear on the radio. I think Peter Jesperson — who was the main Longhorn DJ, ran Oar Folk, and was a co-founder of Twin/Tone — is as responsible as any of the bands for making that scene really special.

I like the comparison between Jay’s Longhorn and CBGB. What intangibles did those clubs share that few other clubs ever have?

I’ve never been to CBGB, but what I observed is that the Minneapolis bands and scenesters were really influenced by what was happening in New York and CBGB and that helped shape the Minneapolis/Longhorn scene. I also think that Minneapolis was one of the few cities in America with a “Punk Rock/New Wave” scene in 1977. It was all new and fresh. And Jay’s Longhorn was the epicenter. You knew it was the place to be, where you’d hear new and creative music, meet like-minded people in a scene that was completely underground. The roster of international bands that played there in the late 1970s is stunning: Elvis Costello, Blondie, Talking Heads, The B-52s, The Police, Iggy Pop, and so many more. As the scene grew and as these touring bands became bigger and started playing larger venues in town, they still came back to Jay’s Longhorn to hang out — as evidenced by the Clash, in town for a show at the St. Paul Civic Center, stopping by the Longhorn to hear the Gang of Four and the Buzzcocks. Or Elvis Costello and the Attractions, booked at the State Theater, dropping into the Longhorn in 1978 to see Yipes! — and hang out in their dressing room. Or Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson, in town for a gig at Northrop in 1979, coming over to the Longhorn to see the local acts and to be seen.

Young people seem to lament the Triple Rock in similar ways that older generations lament the Longhorn. Did you see similarities?

Yes, but I wasn’t a regular and can’t comment with any authority. But I wouldn’t be surprised. There are and were many local establishments that mean a lot to certain people and I’m sure share similarities with Jay’s Longhorn — including Duffy’s, Goofy’s Upper Deck, The Uptown Bar, Lee’s Liquor Lounge, and of course First Avenue and 7th St. Entry. On a related note, I’m also struck by the fact that the opening of Jay’s Longhorn basically meant the end for a very popular jazz club. Prior to Jay Berine buying the Longhorn, the club was home to many fine local jazz bands and also regularly hosted national jazz acts. That might be a story worth exploring.

This may be an impossible question but do you have a favorite memory from your time performing at the Longhorn?

One night the Longhorn hosted an “All Star” jam with Minneapolis musicians. Somehow, I found myself on stage singing the Paul Revere and the Raiders song, “Just Like Me,” with Chris Osgood playing lead guitar. Such a thrill.

Would you ever do another documentary?

“Jay’s Longhorn” was a complete labor of love for me. I have been telling myself that I wouldn’t do another documentary. But as this is now winding down, I find myself beginning to re-think that. But I haven’t yet come up with an idea to pursue. So, we’ll see.

Have you heard from musicians from back in the day who have seen and loved the documentary?

I’ve been blown away by the local response and that includes not just the scenesters who loved Jay’s Longhorn, but the musicians themselves. Peter Jesperson, who has been so supportive of this project, is another key player who really loves the film and that is so gratifying to me. What I’ve also heard from many musicians is that the story rings true and brings on a flood of memories. I’m a former print journalist, so I take great pride in not only telling a good story, but in telling it accurately. I think my reporter skills helped me throughout this project.