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Coffeehouses

I moved to Minneapolis in late 1969 at the tender age of 19. I came because it was a guitar town and I played the guitar. Well, it was reasonably close to my home town of Fargo, too, and that was important to me at the time. It turned out to be one of the luckiest moves of my life. The West Bank (near the part of the University of Minnesota that sprawled across the Mississippi River to its west bank) seemed to draw young creative people like a magnet. Rents were cheap, as was food. There was always something to do.

The center of the whole thing, at least in my little world, was the Coffeehouse Extemporé. Unlike the coffeehouses of today, the Extemp had a performance area with a stage, sound system and couches and chairs and probably would fit upwards of a hundred people. Every month I’d get my gig there, and so did everyone else (not on the same night). There was an open stage every week and no shortage of new talent.

I met any number of people that became lifelong friends there or nearby: the late Dean Carr, Lonnie Knight, Scott Alarik, the late Steve Alarik, Pop Wagner, Bob Bovee, Bob Douglas, Mary Dushane, Peter Ostroushko, Jeff Cahill, Mike Cass, Cal Hand, Tom Lieberman, Stevie Beck, Charlie Maguire, Jerry Rau, Maureen McElderry, Adam Granger, Jay Peterson, John Koerner, the late Dave Ray, Tony Glover, Tim Sparks, Sherry Minnick, Bill Smith, Jan Marra, Papa John Kolstad, Prudence Johnson, the late Bill Hinkley, Judy Larson, and of course the late Sean Blackburn, along with many, many more. We learned to perform on that stage—how to talk to a crowd, how to work a microphone, how to pace things, all of it.

The thing is, the Extemp was more than just a coffeehouse. Downstairs it had a little restaurant area and performance space (the theater later moved upstairs) and upstairs there were several rooms to hang out in. There were chess players, talkers, hippies, beatniks, do-gooders and just plain old hangers-on. And then there were the musicians. Many of us would spend every night there, usually upstairs, showing each other the latest guitar lick we’d figured out or the latest song we’d written or learned. Everybody was broke, nobody had a pot to piss in, but we did have a real sense of community, a sense of place and of purpose. If a gig came along that could be shared, well, that was where the word got out. We all helped each other out. I should mention, too, that next door was the New Riverside Cafe, another monthly stage to play on and while less of a hangout it was no less important to the community at large. Or maybe just a different kind of hangout. They also had good cheap food (not a meat-eater’s paradise, but good nonetheless). The 400 bar was there, too, long before it became a music venue, and the legendary Viking Bar was a short block away.

Later, by the mid-1970s, the Extemporé was a stop on the national tour. People from all over would play there. We were lucky in that we got to see and hear some of the great established performers of the day up close and then hang out and play music into the night. All the locals lived nearby and some of the parties were legendary. Another group of long-time friends and acquaintances played there, too: Dave Van Ronk, Martin Carthy, Utah Phillips, Saul Broudy, Paul Geremia, Debby McClatchy, the late Jim Ringer, Mary McCaslin, The Red Clay Ramblers, Robin & Linda Williams, Tim O’Brien, Sally Rogers (the list is long and my memory is short so please let me know if I didn’t mention someone). I didn’t meet all of them there, but I surely got to know them and their music a lot better for being a part of that scene. At the same time the place never forgot its obligation to develop local talent.

I look around at the coffeehouses today (in general terms; all of this in no way applies to all of them) and I see some nice places that sort of have music as an afterthought. Some have music not as an afterthought but even at these there’s really no place to hang out, no reason to go there except to hear someone play and then leave. On any given night at the Extemp we’d sit and watch the performers for a few minutes or a few hours so we’d always learn something, even if it was what not to do. And then maybe go upstairs and talk about it over a game of chess or play some music with someone or to talk to a pretty woman.

Nowadays, and I think this is really pretty sad, there’s no place that offers anything even close to what we had. There’s no place to just hang out and share creative ideas. No place to bounce things off other people. No meeting place. As a result the acoustic music scene has become rather fragmented and extremely competitive. Now there’s nothing wrong with healthy competition, but the reason we all started doing this was for the love of the music. My lottery fantasy would be to open a music club modeled on the Coffeehouse Extempore and see what happens. I’m sure it would lose lots of money but hey, that’s why it’s a lottery fantasy. And oh—the coffee would be so much better than the swill they served at the Extemp! Now that would be perfect.

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