Local Current Blog

Curtiss A on a life in Minnesota music: ‘I didn’t get any money, but I get to be a legend’

Curtiss A at home. (Jay Gabler/MPR)

“Before you even ask a question,” said Curtiss A, leaning forward to address my iPhone, “I’ll just make a statement that I have not prepared.”

The singer-songwriter born Curt Almsted thought I had come to his St. Paul home to ask him about aliens, which was a reasonable assumption. He has a UFO story he’s not shy about sharing, and when I arrived he was reading a vintage book on flying saucers — to check it, he explains, against recent revelations.

After Almsted completed his statement (“I don’t really believe in anything, except I believe in everything”), I explained that I was actually there to talk music. Although he’s not as widely known as some of his contemporaries, Curtiss A has had a uniquely pivotal role in the history of Minnesota music. Our conversation ranged from Prince to Gene Krupa, from Bobby Vee to Bob Mould.

“I didn’t get any money,” he says about his anti-stardom, “but I get to be a legend.” He sure does. In Bill Sullivan’s new book about touring with the Replacements, Sullivan says that in every town they’d visit, the ‘Mats would try to find the Curtiss A of that scene to hang out with.

“I’m so intimidated by Curtiss A,” admits local music expert John Kass in Complicated Fun, Cyn Collins’s oral history of Twin Cities indie rock, “because he is, in my view, the living embodiment of Minnesota rock and roll more than anyone else. To me, Curtiss A is the guy.”

Krupa, the seminal jazz drummer, comes up in a story about Almsted’s mid-century Minneapolis boyhood: the future Curtiss A was out shining shoes for money when, through the back door of a club, he watched Krupa play.

Eventually, Almsted’s family moved to the “Margo Forehead” area, as he calls it, and it was there that the young Curt started to rock ‘n’ roll. He’d grab a broom and practice his frontman moves in front of his grandma’s mirror, which still hangs in his living room today. “I’d just scream my little head off to ‘Twist and Shout’” — and he still does, he’s quick to point out. “I kill that motherf—er.”

Eventually, he learned to play for real, thanks to lessons Bobby Vee’s brother Bill Velline gave to Curt and a friend. “We’d go over there and babysit,” Almsted remembers. “He’d pay us by showing us guitar chords. When The Beatles were on Ed Sullivan, we had him teach us ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand.’”

Almsted returned to the Twin Cities just in time to hang out on the storied garage-rock scene that produced hits like the Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird” and “Liar, Liar” by the Castaways. “I love that song,” says Almsted, miming the keyboard hook and laughing.

Curtiss A emerged in bands like Wire and the Spooks, the latter of which also included Slim Dunlap, later of the Replacements. The Spooks were discovered by Peter Jesperson at the CC Club, back when that was a live music venue, and they became one of the first acts to record on Jesperson’s Twin/Tone Records.

As a baby boomer, Curtiss A was a slightly-elder statesman to up-and-coming groups like the ‘Mats and Hüsker Dü. He knew everyone: “If they were somebody here, I met ‘em at least once.” Former local Tom Arnold and his onetime love Roseanne Barr? “I know ‘em…but not anymore!”

On the Minneapolis music scene, Almsted became a go-to guy for just about anything you needed, from advice to an opener. “I fronted James Brown. I fronted Wilson Pickett, twice. I fronted Sam and f—ing Dave! To me, it’s like badges of honor.”

Oh, and he also opened for Prince. The first time Prince headlined First Avenue’s Mainroom, Curtiss A was there to warm up the crowd. “At the time, I thought, ‘That’s a good gig,’” he recalls. He didn’t know the show would go down in history, although it was already apparent that “this little mouse,” as Almsted remembers the quiet music obsessive Prince in his early days, was a talent of epic proportions.

When Purple Rain was being filmed at First Ave, Almsted was working at the nearby Shinder’s comic and magazine shop. “The day I submitted my application, a woman set herself on fire” to protest the store’s stock of pornography, he remembers. “I should have taken that as an omen. When I first got there, I was in charge of removing the animal porn.” He shrugs. “You’ve got to start at the bottom.”

Prince had made off with one of Almsted’s amps, he says, and though Prince sent $200 for it later, Almsted would rather have kept the amp. “I got even with him,” Almsted tells me. “I had free rein of [First Avenue] during the day, when Slim Dunlap was the janitor.” So Curtiss A may or may not have a PurpleRain-era Prince souvenir stashed away somewhere? “Exactly,” he says quietly, and leaves it at that.

Almsted released three solo albums on Twin/Tone in the 1980s — the first, he’s wont to clarify, “got four, not five stars in Rolling Stone.” (Wikipedia still says it was five.) He started to attract national interest; at one point, he was out in New York for “some bullshit gigs” when “this little fat guy” clapped a hand on his shoulder. It was Seymour Stein, the Sire Records co-founder who signed acts like Madonna, the Ramones, and Talking Heads.

The Replacements eventually signed to Sire, too. Why not Curtiss A? “I don’t trust anybody,” he tells me. “The vibes weren’t right. I can’t explain it, but…I’m still alive now, and I didn’t have to become Sting.” Instead, he became canonized as Minnesota’s “Dean of Scream” (or, as he prefers, the “Demon of Screamin’.”)

The iconoclastic Almsted claims credit for being the one who inspired the ‘Mats to “take the f—ing tapes and throw them in the river” in what became an infamous incident during a dispute with their label, since Curtiss A had already stolen the masters for one of his own albums. He didn’t go so far as to dump his tapes in the Mississippi, though: “I just brought them home.”

He also founded one of the local music scene’s most beloved traditions: the annual John Lennon tribute concert, which Curtiss A started spontaneously on the night Lennon died in 1980. It grew into an annual all-star blowout at First Avenue, one that continues annually to this day.

“Currently performing in town,” is how Curtiss A’s official bio concludes. He plays the senior show every first Wednesday at the Schooner Tavern, where Jesperson recently stopped by and suggested recording a live EP. Last summer at the Minnesota State Fair, Almsted turned up to play a few sets with his Hank Williams tribute band the Cold Cold Hearts.

He’s still a mentor, too. He’s been told that Soul Asylum leader Dave Pirner used to be in awe of him, but now they’re “pals.” At last year’s Prince tribute outside First Avenue, he helped Pirner with his wardrobe, says Almsted. “I gave him a purple shirt and some purple pants to wear. I went, ‘You can’t go on in that s–t you got on. Show some respect!’ He liked that.”

Now, Curtiss A is preparing his first official solo album since 1987’s A Scarlet Letter. (An interim release, Make it Big, surfaced only in what amounted to bootleg fashion because “I don’t like to pay for things.”) He’s working with producer Brynn Arens, who picked songs from dozens that Almsted’s written over the years.

Pointing a remote control across his warm and tidy living room, Curtiss A fired up the demo recording of a song that has him ominously speak-singing about some strange phenomena the government’s been keeping hushed up. “That’s what I thought you were going to ask me about,” he said, pointing at the speakers.

The new recording rocked on as Almsted walked me out. Having given a few interviews in his day, Curtiss A knew how this piece should end. “And as I left his house,” he dictated, leaning out the front door, “he said, ‘We didn’t even talk about Bigfoot!’”

This article was produced as a part of a collaboration between The Current and The Growler, a monthly craft beer lifestyle magazine covering the best stories in beer, food, and culture. Find this article online and in print in the May edition of The Growler.