On Feb. 9, a slew of pivotal Twin Cities acts including the Suicide Commandos, the Hypstrz, Flamingo, Yipes!, and Curtiss A and Jerks of Fate, will congregate at the Parkway Theater to play a collective reunion concert in conjunction with the March 31 release of a new documentary about the long-shuttered but never-forgotten Jay’s Longhorn Bar.
Both the reunion concert and the film premiere have already sold out, testament to the enthusiasm around this project. Update 3/27: An encore reunion concert and a second film screening have been announced; the concert is sold out, but tickets for the April 3 encore screening are still available.
In the late ’70s, Jay’s existed as a small beacon in downtown Minneapolis for fans of the burgeoning alternative rock scene. As CBGB was to NYC, the Longhorn was to Minneapolis — and many artists played both venues.
Manning the door at Jay’s Longhorn Bar was a woman in see-through pants; inside, Bruce Springsteen and his band once played ping-pong into the early hours of the morning, a crowd of 300 cut themselves on broken beer bottles and whatever else was on the floor dancing something called “the worm,” Iggy Pop dropped his pants on a stage set two feet off the ground, and new bands seemed to form by the minute, due to the tightness of the space and the innovation on stage.
Jay’s Longhorn opened its doors at a time when First Ave, then dubbed “Uncle Sam’s,” was still promoting disco and progressive hard rock acts, and several years before punk and indie rockers took to the stage of the 7th St Entry. The venue, filled at capacity with only 200-300 fans, quickly became the epicenter for both popular local bands and soon-to-be internationally famed performers such as the Talking Heads, the B-52s, Blondie, the Police, Elvis Costello, Grace Jones, Iggy Pop, and others.
Director Mark Engebretson draws parallels between the opening of the Longhorn and a cultural shift in the Minneapolis music scene of the 1970s due in part of a group of “tastemakers,” including DJs, bar owners, and bookers, as well as the musicians themselves who championed original music.
“Now it’s unusual to see cover bands everywhere. Now, almost every club you go to, they’re original artists who might do some covers. For younger people, it’s probably hard to imagine how difficult that would be, to find a place like [the Longhorn],” Engebretson told MinnPost in 2015.
In-house DJ Peter Jesperson — who later helped found Twin/Tone Records (a label that signed many of the Longhorn bands) and eventually went on the manage the Replacements — was known for his eclectic sets.
Though the club primarily hosted punk/rock acts, Jesperson confesses in Complicated Fun, “I didn’t feel like it was my job to play punk rock all the time. It was my job to play the best records I could think of, so we played everything from Bing Crosby to the Clash. Anything that was good was acceptable in my world.”
Perhaps because of its small size (larger than the Entry, but quite a bit smaller than First Ave); perhaps because of the genuine enthusiasm the venue’s owner, Jay Bernie, had for the acts he promoted; or perhaps because a new collective of artists, writers, and musicians who viewed themselves as cultural outlaws were looking for a new space to congregate at the exact moment Jay bought the bar from its previous country-loving owners, Jay’s acted as a sort of living room for the best young rock bands of the moment.
“We’d all hang out down there even when we weren’t playing. That’s all we did; we didn’t have regular jobs. We partied with each other and hung out with people we met there,” says Robert Wilkinson of Flamingo, “The Longhorn was a smaller place so it was easy to meet people.”
The film itself, titled simply Jay’s Longhorn, will explore the venue’s legacy and features interviews with a number of its performers, many of whom are still songwriting today, including Bob Mould (Hüsker Dü), Chan Poling (the Suburbs), Curtiss A, and Lorna Doone.
Jay’s Longhorn burned brightest for three years, before a lethal combination of new venues and shifts in management lead to its demise. Today, it stands as a storage facility for Xcel Energy, the only remaining indicator of its previous life the faux stone wall at the entrance. But about five miles south, the original legends will play on; which is of course a testament to the venue’s legacy, that these acts continue to produce and perform for those holding on to that spark of something different.
Lydia Moran is a music and arts writer in Minneapolis.