An Inappropriate Life

Memoir by Stan Gotlieb

What Did You Say Your Name Was?

In 1972, I returned to Minneapolis from my first trip to Mexico, and got involved in the "Peoples' Co-op" movement. All around the country, folks were getting together to buy their food in bulk and save lots of money. "Food Conspiracies" and storefront markets featuring sack-it-yourself staples dipped from the box or barrel, and weighed and priced by the customer, were doing so much business that the early stores were spawning new stores. In Minneapolis, as in Eugene, Oregon, a warehouse had sprung up to service the co-ops, and other service businesses were formed, including a hardware co-op, a co-op bookstore, and the group that I eventually slid into, the New Riverside Café.

"Da Riv" was a vegetarian restaurant on the main corner of a student (read: cheap rent, near campus) quarter just west of the University of Minnesota. Run by a "collective" of anarchists, many of whom were smoking pot, dropping acid, and grooving on the Grateful Dead, it was a kind of anything-goes scene with a good work ethic and some great cooks -- and a unique pricing arrangement. Posted above the cash register, was "Take What You Need, and Pay What You Can Afford". Because of our trust in the good intentions of our fellow citizens, we never were able to break even serving food.

Fortunately, we had a couple of other things going for us: we catered parties and we moved pianos, a dangerous and difficult line of work (for which our stated strategy was "BFMI: brute force and massive ignorance). What really saved our asses was our location: we had a big room on a busy corner, with floor-to-ceiling windows, perfectly suitable for live music, for which we charged a cover.

After a year or so of varying labors, from dish washing to fry cooking to buyer, it fell on me to be the "house booker". I was responsible for the nightly entertainment calendar, and the publicity. This was a cush job, as there was an overabundance of good, reliable, and well-liked musicians. Dates were booked at least a month in advance, and calendars distributed before the first. Cancellations were rare, but when they did occur we could easily get a substitute, and give notice of the change by writing with white shoe polish on the big corner windows.

One quiet Saturday morning, while I was at home resting from my labors and an exhausting, somewhat blurry Friday night, a scruffy-looking guy with a three-day beard, carrying a guitar case, dressed in cowboy boots, faded well-worn jeans, a plaid wool shirt and a stained, beat-up cowboy hat, came wandering into the Riv, and told the woman at the counter his name. She - a classical music afficianado - had never heard of him.

"I'm looking for a place to play tomorrow night", he said. "I need some gas money to get home".

"I believe we already have someone booked for tomorrow night", she responded. "We book our acts at least a month in advance".

A long discussion ensued, revolving around whether or not an exception could be made. She was adament, he was insistent. The line behind him started growing. She asked him to step aside for a minute. He grabbed a cup of coffee and a table.

About twenty minutes later, the line had disappeared and she picked up the phone and called me. "There's this redneck cowboy here who thinks he can just come in and get a gig for tonight. He won't take no for an answer. I don't like his looks. Will you talk to him?"

Ask him his name, I said. "Hey you", she yelled, "what did you say your name was?". "Jack Elliot", she told me. Don't let him leave, I said, I'll be down there as fast as I can. And offer him anything he wants -- on me!

[For those of you who don't know, Ramblin' Jack Elliot was a major figure in the folk revival of the 60s; a pal of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie; host of the most famous of the club hootnanies, at Gerdy's Folk City in New York; well known to all folkies through his many records. He was also a self-defined itinerant who would happily go anywhere to perform for whatever he could get, even if it meant busking on the street for food or transportation.]

Bill Hinkley and Judy Larson were on the bill for that night. Two of our most popular performers, their album with a group called "The Sorry Muthas" still listens well, and defines what came to be known in folk circles as "Minneapolis Music". Before I left for the Riv, I called them. Hold on to your hat, I told Judy, you won't believe this. Jack Elliot is at the Riv, and he wants to perform tonight!

"Do it!" she said, with no hesitation.

Well, listen, I said, howzabout if we just add him to the bill? You guys open, and then him. We'll pay you the usual percentage, and pay him out of the balance. I'll let you know the times, and so forth, but until you hear from me, just show up at the usual time. I mean, who knows? This could be some crazy just putting us on.

I rushed down to the Riv, three blocks away, and there, sipping a cup of coffee and reading "Hundred Flowers", our local underground rag, was the real Jack Elliot. What, I asked him, was he doing in Minneapolis? He had done a gig in Madison a few days earlier, decided to drive to Minneapolis to see some friends, and run out of money for gas to New York.

Well, I told him, here's the deal: you get a percentage of the gate. That should be more than enough for a comfortable trip if we get the kind of crowd you deserve. Also, you are the main act, but Bill and Judy are the openers. Ageed? Agreed, but how are you going to publicize the gig at such short notice?

Sit here and watch, I said. I grabbed a bucket of water, a rag, a squeegie, and a bottle of rub-on liquid white shoe polish. On the events window, I wrote "Ramblin' Jack Elliot, TONIGHT ONLY! Bill and Judy opening". Then I went back inside and grabbed a cuppa, sat down with Jack, and shot the shit for awhile.

Less than half an hour later, we got the first phone call, and from then on for the rest of the day the inquiries kept coming: what time? how much? should I be there early to get a seat? etc.

At 1:00, an hour before he was set to begin his D.J. shift at the hippest and most popular rock radio station, I called the program director and told him what was happening. For six hours, through the rush hour drive slot, he plugged the gig. After three hours, I called him back and told him to start announcing that there would be two shows, based on the phone traffic.

That night, we packed the house twice, even though we had doubled the price of admission (to $4.00). The music -- and the crowd -- blew the roof off the place. Elliot couldn't believe it. His percentage exceeded what he'd been paid to perform in Madison. Indeed, it would have been hard for anyone who was unfamiliar with the scene in Minneapolis to credit. With the possible exception of Eugene, Oregon or Madison, Wisconsin, there simply was nowhere else in the country with as extensive and as connected an alternative community.

Times changed, as they always will. Political differences between neighbors and co-workers, the very success of the co-op movement (too many stores, too many staff, too much money, and the resultant introduction of hierarchical management forms) and the loss of "our" radio station to a formula-radio format, served along with other external economic and social changes to break down old ties and distance various institutions from one another. Even the Riv changed, as the workers, tired of moving pianos and spending their Sundays catering parties in order to have any spending money, abandoned the pricing policy in favor of fixed prices. But for one magic night in 1973, everything came together, and we made a miracle.

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