Martin Keller Q&A

May 17, 2021
Martin Keller remembers his time at the center of the pop-culture universe.

“On their first U.S. tour, we spent an afternoon with U2 at their hotel and then at First Avenue where they wrote much of October during a very long soundcheck. I had more than three hours with Dylan and a few of his friends. James Brown sat with us for over an hour, with only the managers and owner of the Cabooze — where he was playing two nights — in the room. The Clash even invited Greg onstage to shoot at the St. Paul Civic Center. That never happens now and it probably didn’t happen much back then, unless it was with Joe Strummer and the boys.”

When did you and Greg decide you should turn your recollections into a book?

We looked at what had been produced nationally and locally — oral histories, select biographies, and many compiled but mostly recycled stories of other writers’ work — and felt that there was a gap in the history or storytelling especially from the period between 1977 to the early ’90s. And once we dug deeper into it, we realized several key things that really made this period distinctive unto itself. It was the rise of the punk/new wave scene not just here but around the country and in England, with a parallel happening  comedy scene that delivered powerhouses like Louie Anderson, Lizz Winstead, co-founder of The Daily Show, Joel Hodgson, creator of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and many others. Prince’s Paisley Park Kingdom, post-Purple Rain, was quickly being built, which eventually included the Chanhassen studio complex, a host of Prince-directed bands and a record label with sundry brand spinoffs. It was also the last “analog era” before the digital tsunami that revolutionized business models, recording technologies and work culture: Cassettes and vinyl became CDs, VHS morphed into DVDs and telephone and other media communication soon had competing and radical challengers in early internet email channels and website developments. Sadly, it was always the last era of the truly alternative or underground press going back to the ’50s. We also thought to that point, no one had written a memoir-styled book from that era that hopefully captured the nuances, backstories and the big cultural picture of the artists and shakers and movers we had interviewed. Add in Greg’s vast collection of photos, 150 in this book alone, some never seen before — and you had a personalized historical record that also doubled as a kind of fan keepsake.

How was it re-reading your stuff? A lot of writers would find this excruciating.

I actually didn’t review a lot of my old clips because I wanted to rely on memory and unspoken/unwritten incidents and not just rewrite what I had already written. There are only two or three pieces out of the 42 mini-chapters in Hijinx & Hearsay that are semi-complete lifts from original published copy. One was an interview with Devo because Jerry Casale in 1981 with the release of the New Traditionalists album was so prescient in his depressing cultural and political analysis of things, and how little has changed four decades later! The other was the interview with Curtiss A at a Twin/Tone Records recording session at the legendary Creation Studies on Nicollet and 25th, with Big Al Anderson from NRBQ producing. It was too funny and revealing not to include it, although I wrote a brief, new preamble about it. But you’re right, looking at really old work will bring the inevitable hard wince, but if you did it right the first time, it can also give you satisfaction many years later.

Back in your Sweet Potato days, when did you know that something special was happening here?

I think there has always been a vital popular music scene here, going back to the first classic period in the ’60s that produced national chart-topping bands such as The Gestures, The Trashman, High Spirits and many others, and later in that decade groups like Gypsy, Jokers Wild, plus indie labels like SOMA Records and some very savvy and lucky business men like the Heilicher Brothers. And on the West Bank, you had a torrid R&B and rich folk scene, including Lamont Cranston, Willie and the Bees, Koerner, Ray and Glover, Dakota Dave Hull and Sean Blackburn, Peter Ostroushko, Peter Lang — and of course Leo Kottke, not so much a West Banker, and others. If you read Andrea Swensson’s book, you can also appreciate the influential African-American groups that played during that era although many were mercilessly discriminated against when it came to playing mainstream clubs. But I think it was the Jay’s Longhorn new wave/punk scene that really sealed it, that blew it up to the next level, with emerging local bands like the Suicide Commandos, The Suburbs, Curtiss A, Flamin’ Oh’s, The Phones and others who sometimes shared stages with the Police, B52s, Blondie, Talking Heads, all of whom made their (sometimes inauspicious) debuts at that small downtown club. Mark Engebretson’s delightful documentary film, Let’s Make A Scene: Jay’s Longhorn, really does a good job of underscoring how important the Longhorn was, prior to Uncle Sam’s/First Avenue and later Duffy’s.

I love that photo of Bob Dylan sprawled on the lawn at Macalester. Did Greg have all these images easily retrievable?

I got to be careful here because I love the guy. He got very lucky on that Dylan shot, and says as much in the book. But Greg’s filing system is ah…so 1930s. He has a massive valuable archive but it’s a mess, although working on the book brought some order to it, and several of his scavenger hunts often delivered photos neither of us knew he had. More than once, he’d call or email, saying, “You won’t believe what I found,” after I had asked him if he had XYZ pictures of some other bands or individuals. But it worked out. The criteria for writing about anyone in the book relied on two things: One, did we interview or interact with these people in any fashion? And two, did we have a cool Helgeson photo to go with it?!

You wrote about the biggest names in the music world. Would you get star-struck? Was access easier back then?

This is a great question and I’ll answer it in reverse. And it brings up another key differentiator that sets Hijinx & Hearsay apart from similar books. The access we had back then is unheard of now! It was – as Greg likes to point out – unheard of until about the mid- ‘80s, when things really got locked down. Publicists became fierce gatekeepers, stingy, image-conscious bands only allowed you to shoot the first 10 minutes of a concert (and no backstage stuff!) and phoners always had a time limit once the biz became more established and buttoned-up. To give you an example, we had almost three hours with Bob Marley in his suite, with no one else in the room. The first time I interviewed Prince, it was on the kitchen floor of Bobby Z’s apartment in the ’70s with the release of his first album, and later I interviewed him again in 1994 — unaccompanied — for a cover story in Minnesota Monthly out at Paisley Park. We sat in that kitchen area with only his wife, Mayte, present, just a couple hundred feet from where he was later found by the elevator on that horrible 2016 day in April. On their first U.S. tour, we spent an afternoon with U2 at their hotel and then at First Avenue where they wrote much of October during a very long soundcheck. I had more than three hours with Dylan and a few of his friends. James Brown sat with us for over an hour, with only the managers and owner of the Cabooze — where he was playing two nights — in the room. The Clash even invited Greg onstage to shoot at the St. Paul Civic Center – that never happens now and it probably didn’t happen much back then, unless it was with Joe Strummer and the boys. We were both a bit star stuck with McCartney who Greg found roaming around outside after his soundcheck in Ames, Iowa, at the university there, and “the Helg” — as we called him around the paper — managed to get a candid shot of Maca mugging for his camera, which he’s also famous for. However, I wasn’t starstruck enough to later ask the cute Beatle more than one question during the press conference inside a large room, only to get scolded by him. But, undaunted, when the presser was over, I gave him, via one of his handlers, a copy of Prince’s Black Album, figuring one of the giants behind The White Album deserved it (somehow I had two copies!). Greg also admitted he had a hard time shooting the live photo of Mick Jagger that’s in the book, with Mick onstage and playing to him in the pit.

Your book also chronicled the comedy goings-on back in the day. How much cross-pollination was there between the music and comedy crowds? Mitch Hedberg strikes me as someone who would draw both.

It’s hard to know how much cross pollination there was, and Mitch broke after I semi-retired from the biz and went into public relations work, with some freelance writing on the side. Both Louie and Lizz were/are huge Prince fans, and Lizz never missed a Replacements show. Jerry Seinfeld and Joel Hodgson were fast friends and I assume they saw a fair amount of music together. Joel liked Hüsker Dü a lot but that’s hard to imagine — given how much raw energy and power they had — rubbing off on him, since Joel was one of the most laid back, nonplussed people you could ever meet.

David Carr was in the scene back then. Did your paths cross much? 

I worked with Dave regularly at the Twin Cities Reader. We saw each other a lot, and would run into each other at rock shows and after-parties. He complemented me on a ‘Mats cover story once as only Carr could, kind of a back-handed attaboy. We once collaborated on a piece about the Longhorn on some anniversary occasion that we want to memorialize. He was doing mostly news stories back then, and the brilliant intellectual prowess and wonderful writing that made him a must-read at The New York Times was not evident. But he was using a lot during that period; he used me as a mule one time on our lunch break, which I write about in the book. It’s “funny” though, because after he started his remarkable run at the Times, I saw him back in Hopkins at the funeral for his cousin, Tim Carr, who has his own chapter in the book, at the lunch lady, church basement buffet after the service. He pulled me aside and said, “Hey Keller, did you see my Neil Young piece in ‘the paper’?” He suppressed a big grin because he was so proud of it. Unfortunately I had not. But I’ve read it three times since then, and it is effin’ awesome! Today, when getting stuck writing anything, anything, I always ask myself, “How would Carr do it?”

You famously were the first one to call Prince “His Royal Badness.” When did you know it had stuck?

I can still see that shitty computer and not-so-cheery, cramped room where I wrote that one day while finishing my weekly Martian’s Chronicles column for City Pages on the fifth-floor building at Lake and Lyndale. It was just one of those things that just happen in the moment, with no forethought or creative pushing or birthing. Bam, there it was on the page! My editor read it and said, “that’s pretty good!” And he was a tough read. I later saw it pop up in some other written pieces from around the country. But when Mark Goodman, a Veejay at MTV, was doing a live broadcast from in front of what I think was Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood for the premier of Purple Rain, he used it in his boisterous comments as Prince’s entourage pulled up in a bunch a limos. I was there off to the side, and thought, I’ll be damned, I’ve arrived.

You must have stories that didn’t make the book. What are you doing with those?

I have many more related stories – but without the requisite photos from the Helg, I know there will be no sequel. At least not in that format. Some people are lobbying me to collect past written work that is now lost to time, esp. the Dylan interview for City Pages, early Prince pieces and other work. Besides, I’ve got other things I want to write — fiction and non-fiction, including a new book coming this summer about my life-long interest in UFOs, which, if you’re paying attention, has been trending heavily the last couple years with several New York Times stories, straight-faced reporting on TV and a new 2021 Pentagon study about what it really knows about the subject that Congress has demanded. I’m not holding my breath on that on. This book is more or less, my UFO/paranormal memoir, and I think it will be fairly revelatory at several levels, from the personal to historical to the metaphysical. Dan Aykroyd, who has been into this subject for about as long as I have, just sent me a wonderful endorsement for the cover. The new book is obviously not tied to a really lovely, freewheelin’ newspaper beat like the one I had so long ago. But it does feature some well-known local people from the scene like Owen Husney, Prince’s first manager who signed him to Warner Bros. Owen had a somewhat rare, detailed and dramatic daylight sighting, then some high strangeness later. Plus, of course, Curtiss A is in it, who is vindicated by the book’s end for all the shit he took for being up front and outspoken about his experiences, and the internationally known and respected researcher Tom Tulien. Tom’s exhaustive work on the 1968 Minot Air Force base case — an “incursion” around a live ABM site, where a large object set off alarms, frightened base personnel and apparently completely incapacitated one missile silo — will curl your eyelashes. Hopefully people will be interested. It’s kind of a mind-blower.

What is one interviewing tip for getting good answers?

Find some common ground, if there is any. Lacking that, maybe look for an unexpected question and or fact or subject matter that really interests your interviewee and lay it on them. Your goal is to get beyond persona, and beyond other known details that other writers might have previously unearthed. It’s a tough question to answer, and given the time restrictions placed on most people these days, it’s an even more daunting challenge. Get lucky is my parting wisdom, because luck opens doorways and reveals rabbit holes that nothing else can or will.

Photos by Greg Helgeson