Mike Justen, whose advocacy and mentorship touched countless musicians and sound engineers across Minnesota, passed away last week. He was 78.
Mike, who owned the West Saint Paul guitar shop Eclipse Music with his son John Justen, started out in the music business as the owner of the legendary Scholar Coffeehouse in the late ‘60s. After that, he continued to start new ventures within the industry, including launching a record label and starting the first touring sound company in Minnesota.
“He always loved music,” said his son John. “It just sort of, from there, snowballed into a career in the music industry until he passed.”
Upon his return to the Twin Cities after serving four years in the U.S. Marine Corps, Mike became immersed in the local folk and blues scene. He was a regular at the Ten o’clock Scholar Coffeehouse, which was then owned by Red Nelson in Dinkytown. When Nelson’s party antics landed him in trouble with the city one too many times, he recruited Mike as the next shop owner around 1965. He sold the shop to Mike for one dollar.
“He was the only squeaky clean-looking enough guy that probably wouldn’t have gotten the coffeehouse shut down,” said his son, John Justen. “He just kind of learned the business from the ground up there.”
The Scholar Coffeehouse was a cornerstone of the local folk and blues scene, providing space for influential folk musicians like Spider John Koerner, Dave Ray and Tony Glover. Mike also booked famed guitarist Leo Kottke on a regular basis, giving him his first big break.
While booking for the Scholar, Mike met dozens of older African-American blues musicians whose stories of racial discrimination deeply impacted him, John said. Throughout Mike’s career, he fought for higher wages and fair treatment for musicians.
“He didn’t bear a grudge … but he had a hatred for Led Zeppelin that I cannot describe because they ripped off a lot of those blues artists early on,” John said. “That was the cardinal sin for my dad. If a band had taken advantage of those musicians, there was never mercy. He’d turn down tours with bands because of it.’’
After moving the coffeehouse to West Bank, Mike opened Oblivion Records in the same space. Aside from a record store, Oblivion served as the label for Kottke’s first album, which was recorded live at the Scholar and has become a major collector’s item. In addition to selling records from larger labels, Mike strove to distribute albums from underground folk and blues labels, John said.
Around the same time he closed the Scholar in 1969, the University of Minnesota tapped Mike to book its folk and blues festival. The lineup sold so many tickets that the concert necessitated a sound system. No sound companies existed in Minnesota at the time, so the University gave Mike funding for a sound system and he taught himself how to mix for the event.
The endeavor sparked the next big part of Justen’s career: running Eclipse Concert Systems.
Officially launched in 1977, Eclipse grew into a touring sound and lighting company that had up to 50 employees at its peak. Employees remember Mike for his high standards.
“He had this strange, old school work ethic thing, but it was not ever solely for his benefit, as much as it was for the people and the training and the educating,” John said. “It’s a super personal business, and it’s also the sort of thing where you really are teaching a lot of the time. You’re helping people understand how to make all this stuff work … I think that’s what always intrigued him about this whole industry, is that it’s constant problem solving.”
Many sound engineers went on to work for large bands and credit the start of their career to Mike.
“He was such a mentor to so many people in the industry. The Twin Cities sounded a lot better because of Mike Justen,” said Justin Burke, technical director at Northrop Auditorium.
“It kind of all starts with Mike,” said Wayne Wood, who runs his own sound company. It’s not just my career, but countless people who have worked for me since. He’s kind of the godfather of sound.”
Mike’s signature tricks of the trade included never listening to an artist’s records before mixing them live.
“It wasn’t like you were hearing a reproduction of the album,” John said. “It was whatever he thought made sense, and he had an incredible ear for that.”
In 1986, Mike added guitar sales to Eclipse, eventually morphing the business into the guitar store, Eclipse Music. Longtime customers remember Mike’s dedication to helping musicians with repair requests and affording equipment. He also had an abundance of stories from his career. He taught a teenaged Prince how to mix at concerts, stood up to the National Guard when they wanted to land a helicopter on the Scholar’s roof during anti-war protests and once drove a freight truck across a narrow barge in order to get to a concert across a river, even though the truck tilted to the side.
“He always had a story,” said longtime Eclipse Music customer Zed Winkler. “No matter what you said, he always had a story that was better than what you just told.”
Winkler said he started out as a musician, but talks with Mike inspired him to take up sound engineering.
“I’ve never met anyone that I would describe as a superhero other than Mike,” Winkler said.